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Daniel Schmid: The fleeting days and eternal nights of R.W. Fassbinder

Let's hope we meet again, in your heaven, or my hell. Montreal, 1983

Late on the night of June 9, 1982, the West German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a telephone call from Munich to Paris to tell his best friend he had flushed all his drugs down the toilet -- everything except for one last line of cocaine. The next morning, Fassbinder was found dead in his room, a cold cigarette between his fingers, a videotape machine still playing. The most famous, notorious and prolific modern German filmmaker was dead at thirty-six.

To those who knew him well, the death was not a surprise, Fassbinder had been on a collision course with drugs. He had long been a heavy drinker and user of drugs, but in the final two years of his life cocaine came to rule him completely, and he became reclusive and paranoid, a stranger to his friends.

Daniel Schmid was one of those friends. Schmid is a forty-two-year old Swiss filmmaker who met Fassbinder when they were both young students in Berlin. They became lovers, and remained friends until the end. It was Schmid who received what was probably Fassbinder's last telephone call on the night of his death, "I think the last line of cocaine killed him," Schmid said. "It was the final pebble that broke the sheet of glass. He could simply not believe that his heart was weaker than his head -- that his body was weaker than his will to live."

The story of Fassbinder's last months of life became clouded with controversy, as his divorced parents waged a bitter fight in West German courts over his estate. Schmid, who says sadly that Fassbinder at the end was living an existence like Howard Hughes in his penthouse or Adolf Hitler in his bunker, was a powerless bystander during his friend's disintegration.

In August of 1983 in Montreal, as Schmid and I both served on the jury of the World Film Festival, the ghost of Fassbinder seemed almost like another presence in the city, Fassbinder had attended the 1981 Montreal Film Festival, nine months before his death, and I remember him at dinner, unshaven, defensive, ignoring the food and ordering a bottle of Cognac to be placed before him. This year at Montreal, his name came up again and again in conversations among the half dozen West German directors at the festival, Schmid had spoken privately about his friend's dying, and I asked if he would break his silence and talk publicly about the life and death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He agreed.

The portrait he painted was of a magnetic young artist who was the best and the brightest of his generation, who made more than forty films in less than fifteen years, and who died alone and lonely, addicted to cocaine, tormented by the suicides of two lovers, bitterly asking in late-night telephone calls how other people could possibly be so happy, so lucky.

"At the end, he stayed all the time in his room," Schmid said. "He was naked, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The room was always kept overheated. His only contact with the world was the telephone. The room was filled with money, books and all his videotapes. There was a police guard outside. He had received death threats after his fifteen-hour television film 'Berlin Alexanderplatz,' and he always had one or two people who would do anything for him, to keep the world away. When he died there was a cigarette in his hand and he was watching a tape of 'Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing.'

"During the last two or three weeks of his life, he would call me in Paris at three in the morning, talking very slowly, I think he was very much aware in the final weeks that the drugs could actually kill him. He liked to play the passed-out one in public, but now he had really lost control. He was bleeding all the time from the nose, from cocaine, but he said he would buy one of those plastic noses like you hear the Hollywood stars have.

"He was obsessed with bank notes. At the end, when the money was coming in and he was a box-office success at last, he wouldn't get out of bed without the producer bringing him ten thousand dollars in the morning, Most of it went for drugs. All over his room, money was thrown, and people would steal from him all the time. He had become obsessed with Steven Spielberg, who had made so much money, and he would shout into the phone, 'I want to make millions! I want to be rich like Spielberg!'"

Schmid and I were talking in the conference room where the Montreal jury held its meetings. It was a quiet Sunday morning. He smoked and drank coffee and recalled all of the different sides of Fassbinder's complex personality, not just the shadow at the end. He began by opening a book.

"Look at this," he said, pointing to a photograph of Fassbinder taken when he was nineteen. "That is how he looked when I first met him. Now look at this." He took a matchbook and used it to cover first the left side of the photograph, and then the right. The result was startling. The right side of Fassbinder's face was of a happy, clear eyed, even warm young man. The left side seemed to show a more tired and bitter face.

"And he was always showing those two sides of himself," Schmid said. "When he wanted to convince you of something, he would play every role, acting like a kabuki dancer, leaping around the room. When he was unhappy, he shut himself off completely and went behind a wall.

"I met him in 1966, when we were both taking an exam for the film school in Berlin. I came from the Swiss countryside and arrived late at the exam because I missed my train. When I opened the door of the room, there were two hundred people inside, but somehow the only one I saw was this one guy, sitting back in the corner, pimples on his face, not very attractive, but he had this aura about him. I went and sat next to him.

"Of course Fassbinder failed the exam. All of his life, he failed all of his exams He didn't even have a driver's license. He was unable to be examined. All doctors, professors, policemen, were for him a focus of hate. His mother had raised him calling him ugly, monstrous, an idiot, an unwanted souvenir from his father -- who left before he was born. I think he had what the Freudians call a Monster Complex -- a feeling that he was incapable of loving, or being loved. To be tested was unbearable to him."

Schmid said that he and Fassbinder became friends in West Berlin, where Fassbinder quickly gained a reputation as an enfant terrible. He formed a radical theater group. He made movies on a shoestring. When he screened his first film, "Love is Colder than Death," it was rejected by the Berlin tastemakers because it dealt with unfashionable subjects like love, lust, unfaithfulness and jealousy. His taste for lurid melodrama clashed with the socially responsible films that were fashionable at the moment. "He was a hate object, right from the first," Schmid said. "He almost seemed to desire disapproval."

But already the publicity apparatus had discovered Fassbinder and started to create an image that became famous in the film world: The "bad boy" in his leather jacket, sneering at the world, deliberately rude on occasion, but incredibly prolific, turning out three or four films a year on invisible budgets, high-handedly ruling a repertory company of actors and technicians, friends, lovers and slaves.

Among the company members were the future star Hanna Schygulla, the future director Schmid, and the actress Ingrid Caven, who was to become Fassbinder's wife, "After they were married, he wanted her to be only his wife," Schmid said, "He gave her no roles in his movies. He introduced her not as an actress, but as 'my wife.' When I hired her to act in my film 'La Paloma,' Fassbinder was so angry he split with her. But later he wrote 'Shadow of Angels,' which was more or less about all of us, and asked me to direct it, and he played opposite her.

"The three of us made an agreement," Schmid said "There were Fassbinder, myself and Ingrid. We said we would each take turns making one film and then working on a film of the other two. Fassbinder made 'The Merchant of the Four Seasons.' Then it was my turn. No, said Fassbinder, first I will make another film. That was the day I quit. Ingrid quit, too. Rainer, of course, admired this. He admired people who resisted him, who stood up to him when everybody seemed willing to go along with him. We all remained friends up until the end. He once said that the people he would have liked to spend his life with ... couldn't take him."

In the seventies the moribund West German film industry, essentially dead since the most important filmmakers of the thirties fled Hitler, was reborn as the New German Cinema. A young generation of directors became famous around the world. Their names included Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Margarethe von Trotta -- but none more famous than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He became a familiar figure at the world's film festivals, always roughly dressed in jeans and leather jackets, always with a drink and a cigarette.

It seemed almost a paradox that he went to so many festivals, because once he was there he refused interviews, rejected praise and responded rudely to compliments. Still, he went; Schmid says it was because he could not stand to be alone. The bad boy image was in contrast with a remarkable body of work. Films poured from Fassbinder's imagination, and he made more of them in less time than any other major director in history, usually about deliberately uncommercial subjects.

Those subjects often included eerie projections of his own final years. In "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972), an alcoholic lesbian isolates herself in her room and lives on the floor with a gin bottle after being rejected by her lover. In "Merchant of the Four Seasons" (1972), a fruit peddler, insecure and cuckolded, deliberately drinks himself to death In "Fox and His Friends" (1975), a simple-minded young homosexual wins the lottery, becomes the lover of the owner of a bankrupt factory, is taken for all of his money, and finally dies alone in an underground station, In "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974), a Moroccan immigrant, desperately lonely, marries a cleaning woman twenty-five years older than he is, and then collapses of an ulcer.

Fassbinder's more recent films were more commercial, including the major box-office hit "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1979). But they also returned again and again to the subjects of dependency, addiction, loneliness and self-hatred, as in "Veronika Voss" (1982), about an aging, drug-addicted actress who becomes the captive of a woman psychiatrist, or "Querelle" (1982), starring Brad Davis as a sailor adrift in a homosexual underworld.

"He was an unhappy man who hurled himself compulsively into his work but had a low personal opinion of himself," Schmid said. "The basis for his new friendships was always the same: You are a pig and I am a pig. Let's start our relation there, both of us convinced the other will betray. The two things all his characters know are dependency and rejection. Fassbinder depended on dependency and rejection. He depended on having around him at all times people who completely fawned upon him.

"The two people he loved the most in recent years both left and both hanged themselves. The first was Salim El Hadi, the star of 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.' He couldn't take any more. He came out of the mountains of North Africa. Germany was a strange world to him, he started drinking, the tension built up, and one day he went to a place in Berlin and stabbed three people. Then he came back to Rainer and said, 'Now you don't have to be afraid anymore.' He hanged himself in jail. Fassbinder dedicated 'Querelle' to him.

"The second person was Armin Meyer, a simple person, Fassbinder came to Paris for his birthday, to spend it with Ingrid and myself, and left Armin in Munich. When Rainer was not around, nobody came to the apartment. Nobody cared about Armin. He hanged himself, and Fassbinder's mother found the body three days later."

After the death of Armin Meyer, Fassbinder made what he called his most autobiographical film, "In a Year of Thirteen Moons" (1978), about a lonely homosexual. "It was inspired by anger and guilt about Armin's death," Schmid said. Then came "The Marriage of Maria Braun," starring Hanna Schygulla, and "Despair," starring Dirk Bogarde -- and larger budgets, increasing fame, more money and more drugs.

"I ask myself, when did the turning point come?" Schmid said. "He was drinking all the time since the 1960s -- those eternal Bacardi and Coke nights. And all the other things uppers, downers, cocaine. But he was a gambler, not a suicide. Even in his last year, he didn't want to die. He wanted to see how far he could go. But they say every gambler really gambles to lose.

"I think I finally realized how dependent he was on cocaine when we took a trip from Europe to New York on the QE2, a couple of years before his death. That was an old dream, made up when we were twenty, to sail the ocean to America, Rainer took along no drugs, because he was terrified of customs. The third night, we played poker very late. He was friendly. The next morning, he had a dark look, a hateful look. Armin Meyer told me Fassbinder had become convinced that I had cocaine in my stateroom and was hiding it to torment him. Knowing that I did not use cocaine, he still believed this. And I realized that he had become a slave as well, to cocaine, to such a degree that he became paranoid even about his oldest friends."

Daniel Schmid lit a cigarette and looked out the window. He exhaled slowly, reliving old memories.

"He thought of me as the lucky one. He suspected me of being happier than he was. He thought he didn't know how to be happy. Always, every day, he was restless, switching things around, never able to sit still for a moment. In my apartment in Paris, he'd ask if we were going out. Then he'd take a couple of uppers. Then, Maybe we'll stay here a while. A couple of downers. No, we'll go out. More uppers and some cocaine. Then he would pass out. At the end, he kept cocaine by his bedside, to wake up in the night and snort it and go back to sleep. I'm still finding notes he left here and there in my apartment. One that I found the other day said, Let's hope we meet again, in your heaven, or my hell."

There was a long silence. "I met him before almost anybody," Schmid said, meditatively.

There is, I thought, a line like that in "Citizen Kane": "I knew him before the beginning ... and after the end."

"He was shy when he was young," Schmid said. "All of his life he thought he was ugly. He tested people to see if they loved him. When it was clear to me that the drugs were dangerous to his life, I tried to help him. He was almost going to go into a hospital in Paris, but then suddenly he went back to Munich. I asked him, please come with me to the clinic. But if he would not come, what could I do? You can't control another person. He was too protected by all those who would do anything for him. It had become something I couldn't handle anymore."

During the last weeks of his life, Schmid said, during those sad telephone calls at three in the morning, Fassbinder often repeated the same thing. "He would shout at me: How are you able to just sit there and look outside the window? How can you? How can you just sit on a rock and look at the sea? How can everybody else be so lucky?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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