His films are irritating, off-putting, somewhat repulsive. Admirers of his work should not brush off this negative, backward contact between Fassbinder and his audience but rather depart from it. In this oeuvre, an aesthetic of irritation is essential.
Yet nowhere does Fassbinder show anything repulsive. By the standards of contemporary cinema, he is not prudish, to be sure, but he is very cautious. Apart from that, his films are of a particularly simple clarity: story and characters are immediately readable, everything immediately accessible. With him, not a trace of ambiguity. Nowhere in his films will one find the modernist tropes that make film opaque. And yet (or therefore?) people call his films aestheticising, formalistic and kitsch. And they are. His transparency is aestheticising and formalistic.
Fassbinder is a hyperrealist of narrativity. He builds his stories, relationships and characters with meticulous attention. An attention that marks the contours, that lets clarity shine as an operating principle in all corners of the fabric that makes up stories. With him, not those narrative ellipses we have become accustomed to in order to get to the so-called essential points more quickly. Instead, he draws the obvious and the banal with extreme self-awareness: this is the work of a superlative realist. And this realism turns into formalism.
Throughout this extreme and naive fidelity to the narrative material, we suddenly rediscover very clearly that it is all conventions. But Fassbinder is not a critic of triviality, but through it. He does not want to make fun of conventions but to work with them. From that thick, heavy magma on which the narrative and novelistic culture of our contemporary society thrives, he does not scoop some of the foam but stirs the heavy sediment. Whatever unretouched “trivialities” he rakes up, he plays to us in all seriousness: he does not distance himself from them but trusts them and builds on them. There is something quite indecorous about this entire operation. Fassbinder transplants strata of narrativity from “before” (the now-defunct melodrama) and “below” (contemporary trivial literature) into a modernist, avant-garde and progressive framework. This short-circuits the aesthetic belief in progress: surely one cannot reconsider the richness of ambiguity (Losey, Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman)! And yet that is exactly what Fassbinder does.
As clear as his stories and characters are, so too are the images of his films. What people do to each other, how they look at each other, touch each other, speak to each other is unsophisticated. Here, Fassbinder is kitschily materialistic: objects and gestures, phrases and interiors, light and camera, clothes and hairstyles are all elementary, very tangible and unambiguous. Almost everything in these films has the corpulence of its maker, the way he walks in front of the camera in an endearingly indolent manner in Fox and His Friends. What he manages to do with this stiff, dumb and blind materiality can be sensed in all his images, though one may have to first pick out some very strong scenes for onself as a criterion. In Fox and His Friends, for instance, I particularly liked Fox’s first visit to Eugen’s flat, where he takes possession of the room, the objects and the bed in a breathtaking way. The sensuality here is not sophisticated but plump; not ambiguous but univocal. And Fassbinder pours this brutal quality of the sensual over all characters and objects in his films. In this sense, Fassbinder is in line with WarhoI’s sensual laziness.
Even though the filming, the making of a shot as a physical event, is very important to Fassbinder, he is not at all a sequence-shot filmmaker like Renoir. This sensual materialist is not a mystic of reality but a manipulator of it. Long shots are intricate in a deliberate and well-reasoned way, after which he breaks them off very brutally with a hard Schnitt. Calm eye-level shots are juxtaposed with expressionistic bird’s-eye or worm’s-eye views. Fassbinder’s clear images are not transparent but obtrusive. They are not “natural” but manipulated. They have the patent obviousness of kitsch.
What are Fassbinder’s films about? What narrative theme does he tap into? From what reservoir of kitschy situations does he draw? The centre of Fassbinder’s system of concerns (the Cahiers du Cinéma 275 speaks of a “Fassbinderian cybernetics”) is the petty-bourgeois nuclear family. But he talks less about family than taking the familial as a method, as a frame of reference for human relations, even when they take place “outside” the family and heterosexuality. Perhaps, then, another word is needed to describe Fassbinder’s subject. The English “domestic” puts more emphasis on the home, the dwelling, the intimate and everyday. Words like “homely” and “homeliness” do not capture it well either. Perhaps “household” is still the best word, with its economic connotation. Because this work also has a lot to do with “economy”.
Fassbinder’s contemporaries repeatedly attack the family but usually fail to sustain its analysis and “flee” into a solution for which they then only manage to come up with something like the “group” (see recent examples in Alain Tanner’s Jonas and in Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t). Of course, all this is just a trick. To transplant family (or household) problems to “the group” and solve them there is a misunderstanding of both the group and the household. This “solution”, however, is not just based on miscalculation, because it is deliberate. It is first and foremost an escape from the household that one hopes to ward off through the blessings of solidarity.
Fassbinder, however, does not abandon the familial, the household. Not because he installs himself in it, but because he wants to keep pursuing it in all corners of narrativity. Whoever leaves and liquidates the family immediately loses the possibility of investigating it. What remains then is the vacuum of gratuitousness – a novel of “the group” can only be written as an adventure novel (a political adventure novel, if need be). But this relaxation of narrative logic, this holiday from lucidity, is not what Fassbinder has in mind.
Only the adventure novel offers an alternative to the domestic, that combination of routine and security, of economy and affect, of sexuality and interior, of corporeality and triviality. One does not escape the domestic – and since the family is the archetype of the domestic, one does not escape the familial. But once this premise is accepted, it is as if Fassbinder can radically reverse the roles and finds himself not pursued by the familial, but doggedly and mercilessly pursuing the familial itself. This pursuit is one of the great moving strengths in his work. We never get tired of the facets of domesticity he shows us.
The best tour around the landscape of the domestic is still provided by the melodrama. The newer, modernist analyses place themselves outside the family: they describe certain mechanisms of the familial but do not work with them. Fassbinder, on the other hand, plainly opts for the old-fashioned melodrama and, therefore, for compromising with the family and the domestic. This is important for both the filmmaker and his audience. The point is to make the stickiness and sweatiness of emotion tangible. From the standpoint outside the family, one can show a lot but never really what actually holds such a family together. The melodramatics allows one to explore the domestic bond (which consists of attraction and repulsion simultaneously) in the film matter and the matter that are the audience and the maker.
The melodramatic is a rhetorical technique that thrives on contrasts and parallelisms, on rhyme and metaphor. These “poetic” figures connect very closely to emotional life and thinking. The melodramatic therefore allows completely different paths than the logical, rational one to be treaded. Through melodrama, the domestic unfolds as more than a function and becomes an inexhaustible and elusive terrain: it does not let itself be “solved”, neutralised, or censored. Just as Fassbinder does not take the family but the domestic as the subject of his films, so does he not make melodramas but works in a melodramatic way. This, too, has important consequences. The melodrama as a genre aims to reconcile or at least reduce the tensions and contrasts. The melodrama needs the coda of compromise. But Fassbinder does not give it to us: he does not remove the contrasts but sharpens them even more. The naive clarity of his films does not lead to clear insight but to a dark impasse bathed in bright light – a contrast of light and dark, of horror and cleanliness, of mathematism and irrationality, as one of the many ways to describe Fassbinder’s effects. He uses melodrama not as ideology, but as a rhetorical tactic.
Fassbinder is not a filmmaker of small nuance, of sophisticated detail, of quiet subtlety. He is a filmmaker of the gross, the obvious, the plump. And yet this filmmaker leaves everything en suspense, floating. He does so not by maintaining a tactful reserve towards the complexities of people and the world but by boldly denying us the solution. He leads his exposition towards disillusionment, towards a rhetorical exclamation in our direction: spectator, how can it be! (Remember the last sentence of Chinese Roulette) It is clear: Fassbinder is moralising, didactic, preachy. It is no accident that he speaks to us and that his aesthetic is primarily rhetorical. But this moralist does not normalise his reality. For him, morality is not a technique for conformism but a dramatic and existential force.
Images (1) and (4) from Angst essen Seele auf ( Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
Image (2) from Faustrecht der Freiheit (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)
Image (3) from Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
This text originally appeared in Kunst & Cultuur 10, no. 10 (16 May 1977).
This translation was published by courtesy of Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman.
With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject.