Rainer Werner Fassbinder, German film director

Deconstructing a giant of the screen

For a gay, Hegelian, terrorist-sympathising dialectician, Fassbinder was a rather conservative moviemaker


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A hard man to keep up with, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Born in Bavaria just as the Second World War was ending, he directed more than 40 films and 15 plays. He wrote the scripts for many of them, as well as designing the sets — starring in more than a few along the way. 

Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors, Ian Penman (Fitzcarraldo, £12.99)

Did I mention Fassbinder’s 14-part TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz — an epic that would take you a full waking day to watch? Not bad for a guy who died of a coke overdose a few days past his 37th birthday. Had he lived, Fassbinder would be about to turn 78. 

Assuming he’d gone on working at the same rate, he’d be directing his 50th play and his 135th movie around now. As Ian Penman says, he was “insanely profligate … [a] monster of productivity”. He ought to know. Penman, a rock critic who made his name planting post-structuralist pensées into the pages of the NME, has never been profligate. Here he is, 45 years a journalist, and this is his first book. (There have been a couple of essay collections down the years.) 

Even that’s stretching it. I suppose all books are no more than collocations of sentences — but Penman, mainlining the Brechtian artifice he loves in Fassbinder’s work, makes that fact plainer than most. At one point he compares the book to a TV cop’s “wall of clues and photos, linked together by differently coloured bits of wool or string”. Nice try, mate, but you’re nicked. Thousands of Mirrors is bursting with clues, but there are no strings attached.

Rather than offering up a structured argument, the book consists of 450 numbered intuitions and aperçus. Some of the intuitions are eye-opening: “Pop art as anti-dream: sharp objects, glossy celebrities, consumer surfaces.” Some of the aperçus are inspired: “History returns to us in déjà vu flashes, clips and ripples, leftover dream garble.” Too many of them are like this: “Cocaine is architectural, manic: add this bit, now add this bit, and let’s also add this other one … numberless additions, with no end in sight.” 

Now what does that remind me of? When, in one of his many footnotes, Penman says that he loves footnotes because of Derrida’s use of them in Dissemination, you give thanks he hasn’t had Fassbinder laid out like Derrida’s Glas — in two columns, the one commenting on, reflecting on, refracting through, dancing around the other.

Still, for all its off-the-wall structure the book proceeds in broadly chronological fashion through the Fassbinder Gesamtwerk. Yet Penman’s emphasis on the shape of his text can’t help but make Fassbinder seem a more forbiddingly formal artist than he is. For a gay, Hegelian, terrorist-sympathising, leftist revolutionary dialectician, Fassbinder was a rather conservative moviemaker. As he told the movie critic Thomas Elsaesser, he wanted to make “German Hollywood films”.

Not for Fassbinder any Godardian gimmickry with narrative. His stories start and end exactly when and where they should. Not for Fassbinder any self-conscious, Antonioni-style framing. His set-ups are classical in their clarity. True, there’s something Brechtian in the way his movies seem so self-consciously staged, so sealed off from the real world. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice, though; it was down to budget. Fassbinder never had the money to ground his films in what the average picture tries to convince us is the real world. 

Penman wants Fassbinder to be a wilder and crazier guy than he actually was

It helped that what Fassbinder loved about Hollywood was garish melodrama. If Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s story of a widow distressing her family and friends by falling for a young Arab labourer sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a remake of Douglas Sirk’s joyously absurd tearjerker All That Heaven Allows. Absent the gay ambience, all the bars and clubs and sweat rooms where Fassbinder’s characters get together to discuss the size of their Schwänze, Fox and His Friends tale of a rube who wins DM500,000 on the lottery only to be ripped off by his ritzy new lover might be a Bette Davis flick. 

Fassbinder loved spinning yarns. The closest Penman gets to storytelling is when he muses on how the young Fassbinder might have been affected by his parents separating. On the one hand, he says, Fassbinder could have “thrive[d] and blossom[ed]”. On the other hand, he could have “wilt[ed] and fade[d]”. Such ruminations, Penman believes, are “all complicated, in his case, by what lies all around: the blasted, icy terrain of post-war Germany”. 

Well, yes, they are, but isn’t teasing out the implications of such complications the task of criticism? It’s not as if Penman didn’t have a handle on Fassbinder the man. One of the best pieces he ever wrote was a review of Robert Katz’s biography Love is Colder Than Death (“unlikely as this now sounds,” Penman laughs, “for Tatler”) in which he limned Fassbinder’s life in a few curt paragraphs. 

I suspect Penman, a one-time smackhead still “mourning the end of the sixties dream”, steers clear of the life because he wants Fassbinder to be a wilder and crazier guy than he actually was. To be sure, Fasbinder was the scabrous, coke-snorting, bed-hopping, booze-hound, bum-bandit brigand Penman adores. Yet he also “led a normal, normal life. We got up, we ate, we went to work, we came home, we went to restaurants”. 

That’s Fassbinder’s second wife, Julianne Lorenz, talking. Yes, she went on, her late husband could be “very honest with people and it hurt them”. The popular image of him as a “monster” is a bunch of Blödsinn, though — which sounds about right. Art, Flaubert said, “needs white, calm hands”. Nobody as foetid as the Fassbinder of legend could have done a tenth of what he did.

“How,” asks Penman, “do you inscribe a form of self-portrait into your work without seeming to do so?” Once again, he ought to know. Some of the best sections in this book are autobiographical. The Performance meets Minder picture Penman paints of the late 70s post-punk London he fetched up in, after quitting his ”small-town grammar school”, is dreary and eerier and seedier than a bowl of muesli. 

Forget today’s spanked-up stucco and crystalline gleam. London back then was “dilapidated, scummy and dangerous … a place of greyness, grime, make-do, decline”. All this and “the half-light and tatty comfort of repertory cinemas”. Bliss was there in that scorn to be alive.

Except, of course, that the revolution never was televised. At one point in the book, Penman talks about “the recurring modernist idea or fantasy or project of waking everyone from the ahistorical dream inside which they slumber”. 

Hand on heart, I’m not sure Thousands of Mirrors is any kind of aesthetic reveille, let alone a Fassbinder-style call-to-action. Simply for demonstrating that Ian Penman is back at his desk, it is to be loudly applauded. Here’s to that book on Billie Holiday he’s been promising us these past few decades.

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