If the 1960s marked a period of nearly limitless expansion in world cinema, the 1970s was, to a degree, an era of retrenchment. The most significant artistic movement of the early 1970s was Das Neue Kino, the New German Cinema that flourished under the auspices of Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and others. These directors all came to the cinema as the result of the Ober-hausen Manifesto, published in spring 1962, which declared that the old German cinema was dead and that only a decisive break with the past would bring about a new vision of film. Behind all this activity was the figure of filmmaker and producer Alexander Kluge, who was the first to successfully persuade the German government to fund the young German Film Board, a state-run subsidy that successfully bankrolled nineteen feature films, as well as to start film schools in Berlin and Munich and create a national film archive. Straub and Huillet, discussed earlier, can be seen as the founding figures of Das Neue Kino, leading us to Fassbinder, the most incandescent and prolific figure of the New German Cinema.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Born in 1946 in Bavaria, Fassbinder worked at a variety of odd jobs while absorbing as many films as he possibly could, particularly the 1950s Technicolor melodramas of European émigré Douglas Sirk. Dropping out of high school, he applied to the prestigious Berlin Film School but was turned down. Unperturbed, Fassbinder began making short films, as well as doing work in the theater with the Munich Action Theater group, where he had the opportunity to observe Jean-Marie Straub. Straub filmed one of his condensed theater pieces as a twenty-three-minute production, Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp, 1968), which consisted of only twelve shots. Fassbinder was impressed with the speed with which Straub worked, the simplicity maker of his camera setups, and the bold originality of his vision. The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp tells (in a typically fragmented way) the story of James (Jimmy Powell), a young African American soldier living in Munich who falls in love with Lilith (Lilith Ungerer), a prostitute who wants to escape her sordid life. The film is one of the classics of the New German Cinema, and like Straub and Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, it had an electrifying effect on young filmmakers.
Straub proved that one could make films cheaply and effectively with a minimum of financing, sets, or other physical properties. Fassbinder used his experience as an actor in the film to launch his own career, shooting in much the same manner: quickly, cheaply, and with a high degree of theatricality. His 1969 feature debut Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death), a downbeat crime drama with a typically pessimistic worldview, was shot on a shoestring budget of 95,000 marks, roughly equivalent to the spare production costs of Breathless or The 400 Blows. But where Godard and Truffaut seemed to be drunk with the plastic and kinetic possibilities of cinema, Fassbinder staged his scenes in long, flat takes, with the characters speaking in an equally disengaged fashion, and editing reduced to a minimum. Katzelmacher (1969) was shot in a mere nine days, telling the tale of a Greek immigrant who falls in with a group of slackers in Munich. Fassbinder began to churn out feature films with astonishing rapidity, often making three or more a year. Typically using a stock company of actors, he soon assumed an almost mythic status among its members.
As Fassbinder’s films began to form a clear identity, he became a favorite at international cinema festivals, reveling in the attention he was receiving even when his work was met with boos. Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore, 1971) is a backstage look at the mechanics of his filmmaking style, as the cast and crew of a movie wait around on location in a Spanish hotel for the arrival of their star and director so that shooting can begin. Eddie Constantine, so memorable as private eye Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville, plays himself as the star everyone is waiting for, while Lou Castel plays the director, Jeff, who is clearly modeled on Fassbinder himself, right down to Fassbinder’s signature leather jacket.
In 1972 Fassbinder scored one of his key early international successes with the fatalistic Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons), which centers on the hapless Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), once a member of the French Foreign Legion and now a door-to-door greengrocer. When his wife tries to leave him, he has a minor heart attack and becomes increasingly despondent about the failure of his life to amount to anything. Hans finally goes to a bar and drinks himself to death, suffering a fatal heart attack as the other patrons watch with detachment.
In the next few years, Fassbinder created a series of polished, Sirk-influ-enced films such as Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), about the love life of a fashion designer; the five-part television series Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight Hours Are Not a Day, 1972), a family drama centering on the workplace; and a riff on Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows, Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), in which a white sixty-year-old German cleaning woman, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), falls in love with a young black immigrant, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). (Director Todd Haynes also paid homage to Sirk’s film in Far From Heaven , with Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert.)
Success as a filmmaker did little to temper Fassbinder’s view of life. Although he kept up the rapid pace of production, causing one critic to jokingly observe that Fassbinder and his colleagues made whole films on their lunch breaks, Fassbinder now began a downward personal spiral, drinking heavily and abusing drugs. His later work, such as the television movie Ich will doch nur, daß ihr mich liebt (I Only Want You to Love Me, 1976), Satansbraten (Satan’s Brew, 1976), and the aptly titled English-language feature Despair—Eine Reise ins Licht (Despair, 1978), starring Dirk Bogarde, continued the militantly gay director’s preoccupation with lost love, romantic betrayal, dissatisfaction with one’s life, and the seeming impossibility of happiness in the modern world.
Kluge, who started as an assistant to Fritz Lang in 1958 when Lang returned to Germany to make his last two films, also directed the political allegory Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos (Artists under the Big Top: Perplexed, 1968), the equally activist Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, 1973), and the twelve-part investigative tract Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotion, 1983), which examines how emotion operates in human relations. Like Fassbinder, Kluge is an intensely political filmmaker, and Fassbinder even dedicated one of his later films, Lola (1981), to him. He is also responsible for coordinating the production of the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978), which incorporated the talents of Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Edgar Reitz, and other Neue Kino directors in a meditation on the political, social, and artistic climate of Germany in the late 1970s.
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