I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Revenge of the Wünderkind: Fassbinder

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Oct. 12, 2011
Rainer Werner Fassbinder had an unusual childhood. He grew up in a Bavarian commune, dropped out of boarding school at age 16 (after a lot of attempted escapes), and spent his youth discovering literature, art and international cinema. It’s said that, during one period, he would watch over fifteen films a day. His encyclopedic knowledge earned him quite a reputation - people called him a prodigy and a wünderkind. However, as one psychologist said “The skill of being a child prodigy is the skill of mastering something already invented. The skill of being a major creative adult requires innovation, rebelliousness, dissatisfaction with the status quo.” And there’s no doubt Fassbinder had that. Maybe the most important figure in New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a powerhouse of creativity.

His life and film-making career were prolific, short-lived and notoriously intense. In less than fifteen years, Fassbinder made over 40 films, including three shorts, twenty-four stage plays, four radio plays and a couple of television series. In the same time period, he had four male partners, two mistresses and a wife, despite being philosophically opposed to marriage. Part of the reason Fassbinder could make films so quickly - an often cheaply - were his close relationships with his actors and technicians. They were a “surrogate family”, maybe like the men and women from the commune in which he was raised. With a naturally wild personality and a mind full of ideas, Fassbinder made his films faster than Hollywood made blockbusters. He died at the age of 37 from a dose of sleeping pills and cocaine.

Fassbinder’s reputation quickly changed from wünderkind to enfant terrible. Like the films of the French New Wave, his films were harshly critical of middle-class society. Of course, Fassbinder’s films were also more than a little bit melodramatic. Fassbinder was particularly interested in Brechtian theatre, especially the “Verfremdungseffekt”, a dramatic technique that often revealed a character’s traits not usually acknowledged by society. Despite the provocative, shocking, and sometimes disturbing nature of his work, Fassbinder was unusually sensitive in his portrayal of outsiders. For example, in one of his early plays, Katzelmacher, the protagonist is an immigrant worker who is hated and envied by the rest of the cast.

The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1979) was Fassbinder’s most commercially successful film, and to many the face of New German Cinema. The film was part of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland Trilogy, taken from the official name of West Germany, a trilogy made to depict the changes taking place in West Germany after the war. After an economic collapse, the Nazi dictatorship and disastrous war, Germany was in ruins. One in every nine Germans was dead and many more were held in labour camps. Huge numbers of factories were shut down as part of war reparations and about 100 billion dollars worth of patents and scientific knowledge was taken from Germany to the US and UK. However, in the 1950s, the Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) left West Germany completely transformed. Like the other films in the trilogy, The Marriage Of Maria Braun deals with themes of change and recovery. Not only was it applauded by critics, but did well at the box office, which for Fassbinder was unsual.

The tabloids loved Fassbinder. His lifestyle was rich with material for shocking exposés, one of which led to complaining conservatives cancelling one of his television series. However, his messy personal relationships did not make the press. When Fassbinder fell in love Günther Kaufmann, a black Bavarian actor, he allegedly tried to buy his love with expensive presents and movie roles. Another of Fassbinder’s partners, El Hedi ben Salem, stabbed three people while drunk and was deported to France, where he killed himself in prison. Although their relationship ended violently, Fassbinder dedicated his final film, Querelle, to him.

Despite being openly gay, Fassbinder was accused of being homophobic. Feminists accused him of being misogynistic and sexist. Conservatives attacked him for being too left-wing and Marxists attacked him for being too right-wing. Fassbinder didn’t seem to care. With his jet black leather jacket, sunglasses and permanent scowl, he made his films the Fassbinder way.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.