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Fassbinder films capture a frantic life's desperation

In the 1970s Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a familiar presence at film festivals, invariably clad in black leather, a cigarette always in his hand, a scraggly mustache drooping over lips that seemed curled in constant ironic amusement. He traveled with a pack of friends, lovers and associates, and at Cannes, for example, you expected them all to turn up sometime after midnight at Le Petit Carlton, the little all-night bar where the party spilled out into the street.

He was sublimely uninterested in publicity, in press conferences, in interviews. He wasn't awake during the hours when all of that went on. I had dinner with him once at the Montreal festival, but he was more interested in brandy than conversation. At some festivals he would have two or three films (he made about 40 in 14 years), but until late in his career they were made on small budgets with unknown actors, so he didn't have to play the money game. Yet the screenings for his movies were always packed--critics wanted to see them even if their readers back home didn't--and there was always a feeling of heightened anticipation when the lights went down.

Fassbinder worked quick and loose, but his films weren't sloppy; his visual style was a tight observant mannerism that locked all of those strangely assorted stories into the same world view. His typical films were supercharged melodramas in which the eternal themes of love, jealousy, shame and betrayal were played out in a style that valued them at the same time it mocked them. You felt he had a certain contempt for the formulas of romance and heartbreak, but that he took the subjects very seriously indeed.

Fassbinder died in 1982, at 37. He was found on a mattress in a shabby room with a video machine, a large amount of cash, and indications he had been doing drugs and drinking. The death came as no surprise to those who had watched him steadily wall himself inside a world of cocaine. But the loss was great, because Fassbinder was still so young and productive; his tremendous energy had crashed through every barrier (his unhappy youth, his unimpressive appearance, his homosexuality, his arrogance, his messy personal life, and the fact that when he started Germany essentially had no film industry). In a flood of creativity unheard of among modern directors, he made films like he smoked cigarettes, one after another, no pause in between.

It is now 15 years since Fassbinder's death. Has his work dated? Does it seem less exciting that it did? I've been looking at some of his films again recently, and I believe Fassbinder's work has not only survived but grown in stature. At a time of timid commercial projects in the mainstream and copycat coming-of-age dramas on the fringes, he stands as a bold original artist who took universal themes and handled them in a defiantly anti-establishment way. A director so prolific needs an unusual retrospective to contain all of his work, and starting this weekend the Film Center of the Art Institute and Facets Multimedia will cooperate in their first joint tribute, a two-month screening of virtually every film he ever made. Some of them films will be playing here for the first time. Others were discovered here; Michael Kutza of the Chicago Film Festival was one of the first Americans to showcase Fassbinder's talent, at a time when the New York Festival was still focused on the French, and such key works as "Merchant of the Four Seasons" (1971) and "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1973) had their American premieres in Chicago.

It is often said that Fassbinder was influenced by the work of Douglas Sirk, the German-born director whose Hollywood melodramas ("Written on the Wind," "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life," "There's Always Tomorrow," "All that Heaven Allows") were a fixture on the Universal-International lot in the 1950s. But what does that mean?

To understand what Fassbinder got from Sirk, it might help to imagine a movie set with invisible walls separating the characters. They can see and hear one another, but some kind of force of destiny prevents them from connecting; they are choreographed by fate. The camera isolates them--or groups them--so that they are trapped in their space. Watch a Fassbinder film, and you sense that the characters are following unstated laws. They are doomed to be forever who they are: Heredity, environment, intelligence, appearance, gender and sexuality have written their scripts. When they try to break free, it is with anger. bitterness and vast melodramatic gestures.

He used the same actors over and over again, sometimes in bit parts, sometimes as leads. It was impossible to work for him, they said, and impossible not to. Only one became an international star--Hanna Schygulla, whose work in "The Marriage of Maria Braun" is possibly the best performance in a Fassbinder film (he cast her in one of his last films as the fabled "Lili Marleen"). But many were able to show an astonishing range--Irm Hermann, for example, who shares the lead in "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," as the slavish assistant of a self-destructive dress signer, and then turns up as a housewife in "The Merchant of the Four Seasons," and the unloving daughter of a lonely old lady in "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974--reviewed as this week's Great Movie on page 5 of Showcase). All of those titles are among Fassbinder's best, but consider also "Fox and His Friends" (1975), starring Fassbinder as a lower-class workingman who wins the lottery and find popular in Munich's gay circles. He is flattered to become the lover of a middle-class businessman, little suspecting that his winnings, not his charms, are the attraction. Other films of its period would have considered the gay theme daring; "Fox" accepts the homosexual milieu in an utterly matter-of-fact way, as background for the romantic melodrama that Fassbinder is more interested in.

He moved back and forth between gay and heterosexual sex in his stories, and insiders claimed they could decode some of them: The lesbian triangle in "Petra von Kant," for example, is "really" about an entanglement in Fassbinder's own life. The dowdy middle-aged lady in "Ali," who is astonished to find herself the lover of a handsome Moroccan, may have "really" been Fassbinder, too (he cast his lover of the time as the man). Who knows.

What matters is that the films came from deep within; we sense the hurt and urgency in many of them. Fassbinder borrowed or refurbished standard Hollywood plots and situations in many cases, but not to remake them--to rethink them, since so many classic heartbreak situations do play out in ordinary lives, as well as in the movies. He demonstrated this approach again in the epic 13-hour miniseries "Berlin Alexanderplatz," which Facets will show in early June.

Fassbinder directed his first feature in 1969, and was dead in 1982. Who else has created such a torrent of film, at such a high level of artistry? It's tempting to say he hurried because he knew his time was limited. Not at all. He hurried because his life was in his work, and those who knew him best wrote afterwards that he feared losing his friends and lovers if he did not always keep them around, in a flood of films and plays. If he had lived, and worked at the same rate, he would have made 80 films by now. Perhaps no one could have kept up that pace. He might have kept up the quality, however; it is sobering to think how much we lost when he died alone in that sad locked room.

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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