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Reading/Watching Fassbinder

by Justin Vicari

Justin Vicari is the author of a fiction chapbook, "In a Garden of Eden" (Plan B Press, 2005), and the recent winner of poetry prizes from Third Coast and New Millennium Writings.

“When historical expectations were defeated by events. . .or when the artists’ values, bereft of social support, became abstract, [the] difficulty in positioning a social order that did not exist acquired primacy over the more traditional problem of wrestling with the existing society. Inevitably, the role of the artist became redefined: he had not merely to articulate the relationship of traditionally accepted values to social reality, but to express truths for mankind despairing of social order as such.”

--Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture


From his early childhood Rainer Werner Fassbinder fed omnivorously on images and words with the appetite of any child who feels lonely and neglected. From Hollywood and European films he lovingly drew a storehouse of tender and violent images, poetic shorthand for capturing emotion. These can be seen with particular nakedness in the early films: the car, the bottle of whiskey, the suddenly ringing telephone, blonde girls with big soft eyes, sunglasses, the kiss, the slap, the gun. From literature he learned to express extreme states of consciousness, and a tough critical intuition. Both films and literature taught him an open-mindedness about human behavior and its motivations, and both became more real for him than the “real” world -- closer, anyway, to the utopia Fassbinder always had in mind, his lifelong shelter from the world when he felt oppressed by it:

About twenty years ago -- I was just fourteen, or maybe fifteen already, and in the throes of an almost murderous puberty -- I had embarked on my completely unscholarly, extremely personal grand tour through world literature, guided only by my very own associations, when I encountered Alfred Doblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

At first, to be quite honest, the book didn’t turn me on at all; it didn’t knock me over or hit me over the head as some books had, though not many, I admit. . . I might easily have put the book aside. . . Strange! I would not only have missed one of the most stimulating and exciting encounters with a work of art; no -- and I think I know what I’m saying -- my life would have turned out differently. . . from the way it turned out with Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz embedded in my mind, my flesh, my body as a whole; and my soul -- go ahead and smile.

These charming words are from Fassbinder’s lovely and thought-provoking essay on Alfred Doblin. This essay is a declaration of love for literature, written by a man who chose a different medium to express his soul, and in which Fassbinder cedes the place of the life-saving encounter in his formative years not to a film but to Doblin’s novel, BerlinAlexanderplatz.

Let’s look more closely at the wording of this essay. First of all, a certain natural bias toward stimulation and excitement is invoked in the beginning of the second paragraph quoted above: “it didn’t knock me over or hit me on the head. . .” The idea that books can be dull, that they withhold themselves, is a deeply ingrained cultural judgment; its obverse is that movies are exciting, that they give themselves all at once to the viewer, to be understood instantly, in a flash. The last words, too -- “go ahead and smile” -- suggest that Fassbinder feels he will be mocked for saying that he likes a book this much. (Can the juvenile laws of the playground still haunt a grown man and successful artist? The answer to this is, of course, a resounding “yes.”) He “goes ahead” and makes the confession anyway, standing up for the more archaic art form.

A certain romantic old-fashionedness goes with the territory in Fassbinder: his characters often listen to do-wop from the 1950’s (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) or children’s songs (the novelty record that the gangster Franz loves so much in Gods of the Plague), and there is, over his films, a certain patina of the Hollywood 40’s and 50’s, a throwback to “simpler times” even as the characters get mired in their own hopeless postwar complexities. Critics have argued that this sort of dislocation is a Verfremdungseffekt (making us think, as viewers, about the song that is used, rather than just “consume” it), and Fassbinder’s stylizations do operate this way; but on a more basic level, they reveal something about Fassbinder’s own rather vulnerable nostalgia for a past era of lost feeling, something we do not always automatically associate with him: a tender heart.

Fassbinder enjoyed playing the “tough guy,” a role he almost certainly learned from watching Hollywood tough guys, Bogart, Gable, Cagney, Dean, etc. It covered up his massive personal insecurities, and it’s probably one of the reasons why he was drawn to the outgoing, assertive mediums of film and theater, though in some ways he remained innately shy. And yet, in his essay on Doblin, Fassbinder overcomes any diffidence he may feel, to gush over the experience of reading. He even goes so far as to suggest that this book actually saved his life: reading between the lines, “an almost murderous puberty” suggests that perhaps he was, at that age, beset by suicidal thoughts. In fact, later in the same essay, he restates this idea even more plainly:

And, to be quite specific, this reading helped me to admit to my tormenting fears, which were almost paralyzing me, my fear of my homosexual longings, to give in to my suppressed needs; this reading helped me avoid becoming completely and utterly sick, dishonest, desperate; it helped me avoid going under.

Without dwelling too much, yet, on the specific emotional and sexual issues addressed by his encounter with Berlin Alexanderplatz, we are left with the form of Fassbinder’s declaration of love. What does it mean when a practitioner, even a master, of one art form (in this case, film) goes out to praise an entirely different art form? I suggest that it can -- and in this case, does -- signal the creation of a brand new language.

Fassbinder’s use of the word “embedded” to describe his penetration by this novel gets at the transformative aspects of the experience of reading: it’s highly interiorized, and its potency stems from this interiorization. Films can draw us out of ourselves, by making us identify with a larger-than-life being who is “out there”; but books put us back into ourselves. Both operations are necessary to the psyche. The inquisitive artist who loves both experiences, may well ask: Can these operations somehow be combined? Can a film achieve that same interiorizing intimacy, where one seems to be alone with one’s own most private thoughts and feelings? One would have to somehow “trick” the medium of film into no longer being so “locked down” by its perfect mimicry of life; one would have to build into film a kind of extra-dimensional space where the imagination of the viewer could take over and “complete” the film’s life-likeness. For a film to be able to be “read like a book” it would have to have lines that one could read between. Indeed, what makes Fassbinder’s reading of Doblin’s novel so powerful -- and so personally essential for Fassbinder himself -- is that it is almost entirely a reading between the lines, a drawing-out of the central relationship in the novel (between two men) as a repressed homoerotic love story: “. . .when I was really at risk during puberty. . . I read it as the story of two men whose little bit of life on this earth is ruined because they don’t have the opportunity to get up the courage even to recognize, let alone admit, that they like each other in an unusual way, love each other somehow. . .more closely than is generally considered suitable for men.”

Fassbinder, on the one hand, describes his process of reading as a kind of solitary orgy: “. . .I read on, suddenly found myself reading in a way that you would hardly call reading -- more like devouring, gobbling, gulping down. . . which dangerously often wasn’t reading at all, but more life, suffering, despair, and fear.” This “devouring” is certainly more akin to our usual cultural experience of watching movies: a gluttonous pleasure that is largely passive and requires little critical thinking on our parts. But then, Fassbinder also says: “Again and again, I was forced, as any reader is, to return to my own reality, to analyze. . . reality. A criterion, by the way, by which I would measure any work of art.” Here, attention is once again mastered, disciplined; here, critical thinking is given its necessary due. These twin poles -- of losing and finding oneself -- need to be played like the notes of a scale, by an artist virtuoso enough to summon them both in a single experience of reading/watching.

In fact, Fassbinder was such a virtuoso. His adaptations of novels into films are some of the most stunning and extraordinary ever accomplished; somehow the entire tone of the novel remains intact within the body of the film. Again, he invented a new film language, partly derived from literary technique, to accomplish this. These were among the building-blocks of that language: selected passages from the books read on the soundtrack, over the scenes of the film, or printed out on title cards; quotations from other literary sources; a deliberate suppression of the actors’ emotional affect, so that their motives and emotions would remain obscure, open to interpretation; elliptical scenes that sometimes seem to begin or end in the middle, with razor-sharp cuts between the sequences, forcing concentration; discrepancies between sounds and visuals, so that we’re hearing one thing and seeing something else, something that seems very different; and, significantly, the use of fades-to-white instead of fades-to-black between sequences. Here is Fassbinder talking to an interviewer about FontaneEffi Briest, a film he adapted from a novel by Theodor Fontane:

Well, fades to black usually manipulate feelings or time, whereas fades to white wake you up, because seeing just whiteness on the screen gives you a little jolt and keeps you awake, not in the sense that you might have gone to sleep, but mentally alert. But these fades to white are used the way they are in a book, when you turn the page or when a new chapter begins, and the blank space creates a break. Simply so it won’t have the smooth progression that most movies have.

At face value, again, what seems to be expressed here is something that can be taken for granted: the differences in our culturally formed habits of reading a book and watching a movie. For a movie, one goes into a darkened theater, similar to the darkened rooms where one goes to sleep, to dream, etc. Attention is passive, always on the verge of slipping into unconsciousness, and more significantly for our purposes, uncritical. Reading, on the other hand, occurs in a brightly lit room, so the fades to white occur to simulate that extra light which is needed to read, to maintain and focus one’s attention, and to illuminate, to think critically.

But the master stroke of this passage, what can not simply be taken for granted, is, of course, that the two habits are being conflated into one: the same rapt loss-of-self in the darkness is asked to become a sharpened, heightened awareness in a flashing, intermittent light. What is really happening here is that a formerly legible text (a film in traditional film language) is being made over as a slightly illegible text, a gap or “blank space” (the words are Fassbinder’s) where a dream can live. The dream is both the formal dream of the art work (to be both a book and a film simultaneously, to be a hybridized or perhaps hermaphroditic creation), and the political/social dream of the creator (to shed light on a problem or an issue: poverty and homophobia in Berlin Alexanderplatz, the stagnation of the institution of marriage in Effi Briest). That “blank space” is now not only the excavated gap or borderless page where the artist himself creates for the future; but a place where the spectator of the film is invited to become an artist, and create a vision of the future for himself.

The creation of formal, and narratival, “gaps.” In avant-garde cinema, techniques such as surreal juxtapositions, dreamlike sequences, graphically violent imagery, written intertitles, voiceovers, fragmented elliptical narrative, or the ironic use of music, are deployed to disorient and challenge the viewer, and to create an alternative, poeticized reality. What Fassbinder did was to apply these avant-garde techniques to Hollywood-derived, narrative (even what we might call “escapist”) cinema, with two distinct results: first, films that seemed to be traditional cinematic productions were actually revealed to be fractured, self-commenting, profoundly experimental “stylizations” of traditional cinematic productions; and second, the (imitated) reality itself was thrown into question. How fully is the “boom-time” of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder reimagined by The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola as unhealthy, hysterical wallowings in compulsive behavior and rampant greed; how dreary and empty is the face of the new West Germany behind the glossy glass high-rises of In a Year with Thirteen Moons and The Third Generation: after being filmed in a critical way, “reality” itself cannot return to itself unchanged. The emotional lives of characters who behave like automatons, or indeed like characters from other, older films, can no longer be considered “normal,” but rather, somehow impaired: the life Fassbinder’s films depict is stunted, restless, unhealthy; a life where individual consciousness is no longer marked by independent subjectivity but a dehumanized objectification, and where instinctual responses -- cut off as it were, voided -- become meaningless, empty gestures.

What is inevitably missing (so far) from this process of dreaming is the reception of society at large, which we can represent by the average film audience, who clings to the unified field of power-based, codified languages. So Fassbinder coaches this prospective audience in advance -- again regarding FontaneEffi Briest, but the words could just as well be applied to all of his films:

It’s important to me that people not experience [my] film as they do other films, which appeal to the heart or the emotions; it’s an attempt to make a film that’s clearly for the mind, a film in which people don’t stop thinking, but rather actually begin to think, and just as when you read, it’s your imagination that turns the letters and sentences into a story, the same thing should happen with this film.

Surely, this is not just any audience, but an ideal audience which the director has in mind. The need for an ideal society -- a utopia -- is, in fact, presupposed by all this cultural dreaming. Fassbinder had the foresight to ask for this utopia upfront, to pursue it as an overarching goal of his entire oeuvre. Not to be pulled up short by under- or over-estimating the social construct whose language and cultural habits (of reading and watching) he intends to dissent from, Fassbinder makes his fight for utopia go hand in hand with the dreamwork itself.

Watching that is more like reading: when I say that literature had a profound influence on Fassbinder’s cinema, I certainly don’t mean to imply that Fassbinder’s usage of literary ideas and techniques makes his films stodgy and uncinematic. But just as Godard, for example, always referenced literature in his films, having his characters recite passages from Mayakovsky or Lautreamont, so literature is an illuminating presence in Fassbinder’s cinema, an element of mise-en-scene. Indeed, Fassbinder didn’t restrict his use of “literary” techniques to the films he adapted from novels; he built them into the screenplays that he wrote himself, and into his mise-en-scene. In all of Fassbinder’s films we find the same open, self-questioning structure, the same open-endedness about characterological motivation. An important technique makes use of overlapping layers of interstitial “blocks of information” -- sound and image, dialogue and action -- to produce new meanings from juxtaposition and collage. This technique is inherently cinematic, though it makes use of film as a total art form, able to combine all the others -- music, performance, writing, etc. -- into a new experience. New meanings are formed by the inter-recontextualization of the individual meanings of the separate parts: an ironic juxtaposition of sound and visuals, a layering effect, sets off sparks of friction and produces new hybrid meanings. The director’s use of music or other sound effects, long speeches spoken or written out, quotations from extrafilmic sources, all of these are diverse elements of mise-en-scene combined and recombined, within the diegetic space, in order to recontextualize what we are seeing and how we are to understand (or read) these pieces of information. (Music, for example, is highly significant in In a Year with Thirteen Moons, where it is used to express the main character Elvira’s deepest personal longings.) More pointedly, in Freudian terms, the various and separate “manifest contents” reveal, when they are skillfully combined, an unforeseen “latent content,” where they can be seen to overlap. This kind of mise-en-scene can also throw the viewer off, by crossing his senses, sending him one way in the visual field and a completely different way in the auditory one: an ambiguous latent meaning is always buried somewhere underneath.

A relatively simple example of this would be the scene in Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette where Angela, the crippled daughter, recites some lines from Rimbaud, about a trumpet that wakes up to find that it is a drum, and the famous line, “I is another”; while we hear her voice, we see a panoramic view of the green countryside around the villa; finally, we see the skull of a cow decaying, riddled with maggots, while Angela finishes her recitation: what makes this scene so evocative is that multiple contexts have been montaged to create a new, shared context, in which Rimbaud’s “I is an/other,” a crippled girl, nature, death and decay are all brought together to share the same space. I believe the figurative meaning of this montage is that when the I “awakens” to find that it is, in reality, an Other, it experiences a death of self, which is brutal and traumatic, even literally fatal, but at the same time can be entirely natural, as natural as the decaying of an animal carcass into the earth. Indeed, many of Fassbinder’s characters have this traumatic experience of “awakening” to the knowledge of who they truly are, a “journey into the light” (the subtitle of another film, Despair); this discovery that they are someone else, an “other,” or rather, this moment of becoming who they always already were without having realized it, almost invariably destroys them. T

Though it is fluently cinematic, this kind of montage of contexts also has its roots in the stream-of-consciousness style of the modernist novel, as written by James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, and again, Alfred Doblin. Talking off-handedly about Doblin’s multi-layered narrative technique, Fassbinder comes close to describing his own filmic language:

And consciousness of life in a big city, a very specific alertness to everything that living in the city means, certainly provides the source of [Doblin’s] montage technique. . . that means constant shifts in one’s attention to sounds, images, movement. And so the means used for narrating the chosen elements shift. . .

A hybridized form is the only kind of form trustworthy, and accurate, enough to tell the stories of “hybridized” lives, people who fall between the standard polarized identities (and lives that have been contaminated, irreversibly “damaged” first by fascism and then by capitalism, which, we will see, turn out to be the same to the extent that both are totalizing systems dependent on an essential dialectic of those who have power and those who do not). In this hybridization, everything in between is a charged field, populated by what can only be stated indirectly, or in the friction between two statements.

This means, in part, that all the formal elements of filmmaking must be broken down and reconstituted: the camera, the lighting, the editing, the set design, the acting, all become the knowing elements of a mechanism that wants to tell us something, that wants to signify. This is similar, of course, to elements of literary writing: what is called “style,” the author’s use of language, his vocabulary, his sequencing and pacing; and because this signification is available for use, whether superficially or profoundly, by all filmmakers, it is what we mean when we refer to a film language. But in Fassbinder’s work, even those elements that normally belong only to “content,” the realm of mimesis in which films typically strive to imitate life naturalistically, are also made over as free-ranging stylistic options: static situations, tableaux, reaction shots that are unprovoked or prolonged beyond logic; the mismatching or downplaying of affect in the acting; even the structural ways in which plots often seem to implode, at the climax, into nothing, or conversely, gather momentum at the end to whip themselves into unmotivated frenzy. In place of a naturalistic film language, Fassbinder offers a poetic one, intensely lyrical, lacking in certain syntactical segues, de-familiarizing what our expectations of “normal reality” are. And yet, his films represent nothing less than a war fought for the sake of reality itself, a crusade of sorts meant to redeem reality.

In this sense, Fassbinder’s films are “open” texts, demanding to be read on multiple levels. Indeed one “reads” a Fassbinder film precisely the way one reads a book: small, subtle details build up to define the characters and their relationships; things referred to only once, and seemingly in passing, can be of paramount importance; atmosphere often takes precedence over action; “gaps” and “silences” are used articulately, to counterpoint the flow; and the deliberate down-playing of affect in the acting allows space for the imagination -- and critical perspective -- of the viewer to seep in and decide what the characters’ true motivations are. Many things are not spelled out, again except in passing; most of Fassbinder’s characters exhibit radical contradictions, and their behavior does not, as in most movies, correspond to the naturalistic expression of a single defined emotion.

Even more, the functional events of the narrative itself are often up for grabs. Are we to believe Joanna when she claims that she and Jorgos have a future at the end of Katzelmacher? Why does Marlene leave Petra von Kant, why does she pack (among other things) a gun, and where will she go? Who is shot when the gun is fired again at the end of Chinese Roulette? Does Maria Braun blow herself up intentionally or accidentally? The films point to several possible, different and equally valid answers -- the answer I might insist upon will say more about me than about Fassbinder or his film. And this is the idea. The questions raised can be more essential, more productive, than nailing down one specific answer. Ultimately, each film leads into the next; their meanings interlock and expand upon each other; each film is a door pointing to a different door, a different film.

There is a telling moment in Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, a film about filmmaking that offers many clues to Fassbinder’s aesthetic and working methods. Fassbinder’s surrogate in that film, the director Jeff, is explaining to his cameraman (who is supposed to be Fassbinder’s camerman, Michael Ballhaus) how he would like to shoot a scene in which a murder is supposed to take place:

Mike, I want an incredibly long, slow shot -- dolly through the two rooms. Since this is a scene of two brutal murders our approach must be a complete contrast. If we make it quick and snappy, and it’s cut around afterwards, the audience will never get the feeling that a murder takes time, that it’s not so simple. The woman must know at once that she’s going to die. She just stares. . . I want to dolly into the house with Eddie, stay behind him a while and observe how the minister reacts to his appearance. . . We dolly back to a long shot, then the murder’s committed. Maybe we pan to the woman first. She’s standing in the doorway, watching. She’s speechless and retreats. Then a slow pan to Eddie. The minister has already been killed. Eddie looks for the woman, goes out of the frame. The camera stays on the minister, then pans past old oil paintings, like the guy’s ancestors maybe, and returns to the woman, frontally, with Eddie from the rear. Eddie strikes her. She collapses. Eddie goes into the garden, lights a cigarette. . . and that’s it. A murder like that’s a strange thing. It can be really sentimental, and the audience feels shattered because it thinks it knows the people up there. But not the way they tick. And that’s what we want to try to show. You have to understand what a murder really means.

Apart from the simultaneous appeal to the emotions (“It can be really sentimental”) and the intellect (“the audience. . . thinks it knows the people up there, but not the way they tick,” and Jeff significantly points to his head here), the first obvious thing about this statement of cinematic philosophy is that an “action scene” is being filmed contrary to its normal look and feel: in most action scenes, fast cutting is used to create excitement in the audience, to distort the time frame and make the audience feel as though it is “caught up” in the danger of what is happening onscreen. According to Fassbinder’s words (in Jeff’s mouth), just the opposite is what needs to happen: a slowing down, a flattening-out of time and space, in order to induce the audience to think about what is happening before its eyes. A murder, after all, already carries its own emotional freight of signification, and this received, irrational freight is what must be steadfastly avoided by the filmmaker. In this sense, we see that all the elements of mise-en-scene are here in the service of a central idea (that a murder “takes time”). But what is the point of thinking abstractly about a murder? What the film director is really leaving the door open for, is the audience’s imaginative humanity, its empathy -- but we can only come back to feelings after first “learning” or re-learning how to think (in another scene, Jeff berates the crew about their technical deficiencies: “What is this, a kindergarten? You must learn, as I had to!“ and his meaning seems to be somewhat personal as well as technical). Pointedly this pedagogical process takes place without directing the audience’s empathy toward either killer or victim. In a traveling long shot, both killer and victim become more or less the same: point of view is redistributed (I almost want to say, “anarchized”) between both protagonists. This is contrary to the way camera viewpoint and editing are often used in Hollywood movies to clearly establish who the “hero” is in a scene, and who the “villain” is. We usually “see,” via the camera, from the hero’s perspective, especially when the hero is killing the villain, thereby satisfying, for the spectator, the self-righteous blood-lust that has been aroused by our primary identification with the hero in the first place. However, in Jeff’s plan, even when we are shown the victim’s reaction, we also always still see the killer (“from the rear”) in the same shot; thereby, the audience’s identification is deflected. We are forced to become witnesses, rather than identifying with one or the other protagonist.

This, in fact, ties in to the second, less obvious point that’s limned in the above speech: the murders themselves are choreographed within a series of relayed “looks,” or stares, in which the action is paused, so to speak, so that the reactions of all three protagonists can be dwelled on. At one point, the audience is not supposed to be watching the murder, but watching the woman watching the murder. We learn how to watch the characters in a film from watching them watch each other. What the disestablishment of forced point-of-view does, in a violent scene, is to simultaneously disestablish (institutional) moral categories and moral imperatives.

I believe that Fassbinder felt it was essentially fascist to impose these sorts of categories and imperatives on an audience. What critics have sometimes pointed to as the amorality of Fassbinder’s films, their harshness and even their “cruelty,” is in fact a kind of training ground for the spectator to relearn his own humanity, or to fail to relearn it as the case may be: the project is always left open, and left up to the viewer. The lack of defined viewpoints creates, again, the kind of gap or blank space in which a dream of the future can take root. The audience’s identification, deflected from either “killer” or “victim,” ideally returns, in the end, to the audience itself: to its idea of “what murder is like.” (Later, in Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder shoots this murder-scene from the film-within-the-film exactly the way Jeff has described it, but adding a further Verfremdungseffekt: there is no sound.)

I am reminded of Adorno’s celebrated dictum that, after the concentration camps, it became barbaric to compose lyric poetry. I believe that this statement of Adorno’s (which he later softened) has often been misunderstood: like all of Adorno’s statements, it is a model of dialectical-thinking-in-action. Adorno was questioning, and attempting to recast, the relationship of lyric poetry (and, by extension, all the creative arts) to the world, following the “total break in history” which the Holocaust represented (not because it did not develop out of European history in general, but because its sheer and systematic extremity radically exceeds everything, even the worst anti-Semitism, that had come before). There can be no innocuous waxing-romantic over the moon in June; nothing can be written (“created” in the arts in general) that does not take into account, struggle with, the unaccountable reality of genocide. Poetic language must change, must become acutely, even painfully aware of this problematization of consciousness (which language stems from) before it can become, again, a worthy vessel to contain the poet’s experience of the world. For our purposes, I will be considering film, also, as an art form, a creative expression and a language that is similarly burdened by the taint of historical experience. By Adorno’s logic, then, art must not remain oblivious to historical reality, must not remain pretty and composed and “above it all”; all art must be set back, to start at the same ground zero of barbarity, in order to clear its bad conscience. If art reabsorbs some elemental barbarism (whether in its form or in its content), it may stand a chance of standing up to the horrors of reality.

This is how the German poet Paul Celan, himself a Holocaust survivor, whose poems have become synonymous with bearing witness to the horrible and destructive legacy of the camps, described his own project of the redemption of reality through his chosen medium, poetic language:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the -- not always greatly hopeful -- belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something. . .

Such realities, I think, are at stake in a poem.

And I also believe that ways of thought like these attend not only my own efforts, but those of other lyric poets in the younger generation. They are the efforts of someone who, overarced by stars that are human handiwork, and who, shelterless in this till now undreamt-of sense and thus most uncannily in the open, goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality.

Fassbinder felt a legacy of guilt and horror about the camps, a need to understand how they happened in his own homeland, in the generation of his own parents. He made films that spoke out against the stultifying, narrow-minded, prejudicial values of the “Nazi generation,” films that spoke for the nameless victims of all denomination and stripe. And he brought a unique perspective to this, as a homosexual, still potentially persecuted in contemporary German society. One can hear Fassbinder, over and over again in his films, telling the postwar Germans: “You are still Nazis.” (And of course, no one liked being told this.)

I think it’s significant that, in the speech quoted above, Celan equates the language of poetry with human “dialogue”; Fassbinder was to demonstrate, in his plays and films, how human speech, even at its most quotidian, has become a meaningless language, opaque, chronically misunderstood, bouncing around in a void, and, more pointedly, tainted with issues of power, violence and control. As quoted by Saul Friedlander, George Steiner puts this beautifully:

Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. . . Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. . . The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principle functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.

Indeed, people argue and verbally spar in Fassbinder films almost constantly: many of his characters routinely end their assertions with the challenging question, “oder?,” similar to, but more confrontational than the English phrase, “or what?” It’s suggestive of an aggressive stance: “What are you going to do about it?” Another frequent exchange between Fassbinder characters runs like this: A. says, “That’s nonsense,” to which B. responds, defending his or her own earlier assertion, “It is not nonsense.” This suggests that the meaning of any statement can be labile, questionable, literally “lying in the ear of the hearer.” (For every thesis, there’s a counter-thesis.) One speaks in the very expectation of being hopelessly misunderstood. Fassbinder’s characters have often been called “inarticulate”; in fact it goes deeper than this: they are people who are painfully aware that their language has died in their own mouths.

It’s also significant that Celan’s address stresses the fallen state of nature (“stars that are human handiwork”); nature is no longer an idealized refuge but another tainted element of man’s relentless and toxic destruction/restructuring of the world. The irony is that, despite its ruthless exploitativeness, its numbing misery, society is all that we have to cure ourselves of society itself. Fassbinder almost never apostrophizes nature -- shots of open sky are rare in his films; where they occur in In a Year with Thirteen Moons, the sky is invariably bordered, cut off, by ugly man-made buildings.

In Fassbinder, film becomes precisely the only art form with the good faith to “cure society,” to wrestle the truth from our societal lies on the very home-ground of social interaction as it were, in that film is itself a social product. Cinema, like the “holy whore,” is a pharmakon, the poison that is also a remedy. Films depict microcosms of society, and films, by their nature, simulate reality; so films can expose the barbarism of the social construct plainly, baldly, without glossing over anything. Therefore, film is the only art form where reality itself can be directly redeemed. When the language of film has been purged to essentials, stark figures enacting simple dramas of betrayal and death, lyricism will be rediscovered, reborn even, in the frisson produced by such a harrowing mirror. Dialogue (Celan’s “message” sent out to the world) becomes as stylized as poetic speech, and as “incomprehensible” (in the sense that others may choose not to decipher it, or call it “nonsense”). The mirror itself becomes charged with the same lyricism that poetry first set out to conquer: the sublime raptures and terrors of real life.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “The Cities of Humanity and the Human Soul: Some Unorganized Thoughts on Alfred Doblin’s Novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz,” The Anarchy of the Imagination (Translated by Krishna Winston, Edited by Michael Toteberg and Leo A. Lensing, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 160

Fassbinder, ibid., p. 162

Fassbinder, ibid., p. 161

Fassbinder, ibid., p. 161

Fassbinder, ibid., p. 161

A link between Effi Briest and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons: the directors narrate in the voice of the authors whose novels have been adapted. Both films operate like “novels on screen,” trying to make the viewing audience more like a reading audience and make it read between the lines as opposed to just getting “chunks of imitated reality” (Hollywood-style cinema) delivered to them. You really don’t know, at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons, if Joseph Cotton is going to marry Agnes Moorehead or not: the expression on her face in extreme close-up says so many different things all at once. It might be horrible if they married now, as a last resort. And then again, you can see that she still loves him. That ambiguous moment races decades ahead toward Fassbinder’s cinema: it’s a Fassbinder moment.

It isn’t for nothing that the German title of this film replicates the exact way an author’s name appears with a title on the spine of a book.

Fassbinder, “‘Images the moviegoer can fill with his own imagination’: A Conversation with Kraft Wetzel about Effi Briest,” ibid., p. 151

This comes from Walter Benjamin on Baudelaire: “Baudelaire’s poetic output is assigned a mission. He envisioned blank spaces which he filled in with his poems. His work cannot merely be categorized as historical, like anyone else’s, but it intended to be so and understood itself as such,” Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (Translated by Harry Zohn, London: Verso, 1976), pp. 116-117

Fassbinder, ibid., p. 150

Again, not for nothing did Fassbinder name his distribution company Filmverlag der Autoren, “Authors’ Film-Publishing.”

In Effi Briest, for instance, there are numerous scenes in which the spoken narration and the visuals conflict or combine to reinforce the essential fatalism of the story: we witness Effi’s introduction to Instetten, when she agrees to marry him, while we hear Fassbinder reading an earlier scene from the novel in which Effi’s mother proposes the arranged marriage to her for the first time; we see that the whole thing is already a fait accompli, and that Effi really had no opportunity to agree or disagree. Later, when Effi is introduced to the social circle of Kessin, the visuals show her meeting people, calling at their homes, entertaining them in hers; Fassbinder narrates the vicious, negative gossip that is subsequently spread about Effi by her judgmental new neighbors -- again, everything is a fait accompli, settled in advance, as it were. The most remarkable example of this technique of the fait accompli is the duel scene, which is embedded in a lengthy sequence during which Instetten discusses with his friend Wullersdorf his reasons for challenging Major Crampas; Wullersdorf tries to talk Instetten out of it, but as the dialogue progresses and the friend’s objections are gradually worn down by Instetten’s cold-hearted determination, Fassbinder begins to intercut, dramatically and sinisterly, fragments of the duel itself. Again, we see that the other side of the argument, Wullersdorf’s humane objections, never had a chance; the duel was always going to be fought. None of this belongs to novelistic techniques of narration, of course, only the cinema, as Fassbinder understood, can support this kind of complex and disjunctive layering of events (sonic events and visual events); but it can be said to approximate the readerly intuition of an author’s foreshadowing, and perhaps more significantly, that dense knowledge of the interpenetrating parts of a text that comes from reading and re-reading a favorite book.

Fassbinder is allied with Godard in the use of this kind of montage, in particular Godard during and after his involvement with the Dziga-Vertov group. Colin MacCabe writes: “…the Dziga-Vertov group formulated this principle in the slogan: Montage before the shooting, montage during the shooting, and montage after the shooting… Montage before shooting entails a commitment to placing before the camera material which is not unified in itself but which already invites contradictory positions from which to see it” (Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980; pp. 42-43). MacCabe goes on to analyze a scene from Godard’s 1980 film, Sauve qui Peut (La Vie), in which Godard stages dialogue in front of a background in which we also view a game of Hornuss (a Swiss team sport) and the passing of trains, “three elements which escape any simple unification in one image” (MacCabe, ibid., p. 44).

Fassbinder, “The Cities of Humanity and the Human Soul,” ibid., p. 167

Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (1958),” Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (Translated by John Feltsiner, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2001), p. 396

Quoted by Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (Translated by Thomas Weyr, New York et al: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 92-93

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