Though Rainer Werner Fassbinder died at age 37, he left behind a body of work as prodigious as artists who’ve lived to twice his age. Fassbinder wrote and directed stage plays, radio plays, and teleplays; and he approached cinema like a newspaper columnist on deadline, filing quickly and then moving on to fill the next hole. While other filmmakers would spend years writing, planning, and finding financing for their films, Fassbinder banged out scripts, took whatever grant money he could get, and then bullied his friends into working with him on productions that were often shot in a few weeks and then released a few months later. During his first three years directing features, between 1969 and 1971 (after making three short films and staging roughly a dozen plays between 1965 and 1969), Fassbinder had a hand in 10 movies, and while they’re often austere, the best of these films comment astutely on genre and politics, and show a growing aesthetic confidence. Even the weakest feel fully realized—not in the least amateurish. Fassbinder was a freak in that way.
The Eclipse box set Early Fassbinder contains five of those first 10 films, and is a prime example of the series’ mission to be a “film school in a box.” With a couple of exceptions, these movies are not prime Fassbinder. They’re equally informed by avant-garde theater, French New Wave cinema, and late-1960s counterculture; and while they appear to be exactly what Fassbinder wanted them to be, they’re also very much the work of a guy in his early 20s, arrogantly demanding that the world recognize his genius rather than trying to meet his potential audience halfway. They’re essential pieces of the Fassbinder puzzle, but only fleetingly enjoyable in and of themselves.
The three most challenging films in the set take different approaches to the same material. In 1969’s Love Is Colder Than Death (Fassbinder’s first feature), a pimp named Franz (played by Fassbinder) teams up with another thug named Bruno (Ulli Lommel), whom Franz doesn’t know has been assigned by the mob to watch over him. While the two of them plan a robbery, they take turns hopping into bed with Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), a prostitute. In 1970’s Gods Of The Plague, Franz returns (now played by Harry Baer), and again pairs up with someone untrustworthy, and again sees his life complicated by Joanna (Schygulla). But where Love Is Colder Than Death is heavily abstracted, with the characters more like models in a fashion layout than people in a story, Gods Of The Plague is rich with pathos, treating these petty thieves and murderers as tragic figures. Of the two, Love is more “fun,” while Gods is more affecting—almost oppressively sad, really. But both explore their milieux in remarkable ways, with memorable moments involving popular music (a synthesizer-distorted opera in a supermarket in the former, and a children’s record in a darkened apartment in the latter) and a casualness about nudity and scatology that outpaces even the American underground cinema of the era.
Franz returns in 1970’s The American Soldier—now played by Fassbinder again—and a few other characters and settings from the earlier two films pop back up as well. The film is mostly about a Vietnam vet turned hitman named Ricky (Karl Scheydt), who lets Franz feed him assignments from a group of crooked cops. This is an exercise by Fassbinder in fusing the pop-art sensibility of Love Is Colder Than Death with the deep miserablism of Gods Of The Plague. Fassbinder toys with the imagery of noir and pulp, peppering The American Soldier with long scenes of men in hats driving through darkened city streets, and throwing in references to Batman comics and science-fiction. As with Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder doesn’t even try to make the violence realistic. His actors contort themselves into exaggerated positions whenever a cheesy-sounding gun effect goes off. But the film’s relentless nihilism has a cumulative power, as the characters find that being characters doesn’t make life any more endurable.
The remaining two films in Early Fassbinder have much more in common with his mid-1970s masterpieces. Beware Of A Holy Whore is one of the last of Fassbinder’s first wave, made in 1971 as a semi-autobiographical account of what went wrong with his 1970 pseudo-western Whity. Shot in color (the only color film in this set) by Fassbinder’s most simpatico cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Beware Of A Holy Whore is splendid to look at, even though most of the film consists of bored and/or disgruntled show-folk lounging around a Spanish estate while working on a movie. In its particulars (and thanks to some familiar Leonard Cohen songs), Beware Of A Holy Whore resembles one of the ensemble-driven Robert Altman films: the kind critic Pauline Kael once referred to as “Altman parties.” Except that Fassbinder cuts together short, rigid vignettes rather than creating a sense of a real, rare world coming into being right in front of the viewer. And while Fassbinder makes fun of himself and his profession by casting Lou Castel as a hotheaded director who both enrages and arouses his cast and crew, this isn’t some lighthearted showbiz satire. It’s a profound howl of self-loathing.
For actual satire, turn to 1969’s Katzelmacher—which isn’t exactly light-hearted, but at least has some moments of clever humor, and a righteous edge to its anger. Stylistically, Katzelmacher is kin to Love Is Colder Than Death in its use of blank white apartments where fashionable young people have passionless sex. (The look is similar to a lot of the micro-budget films being made in New York in the 1960s.) But the story, based on a Fassbinder stage play, is more cohesive and controlled than any other in this set. Fassbinder plays a Greek immigrant, Jorgos, whose arrival gives the hateful, ennui-filled residents of one apartment building somewhere to channel their bile, other than toward each other. So while the first half of the film shows the neighbors bickering and gossiping, the second half shows them spreading rumors about the horrible new Greek guy, who they’ve heard is both a Communist and a sex maniac.
At one point in Katzelmacher, a woman says of a promiscuous acquaintance, “A person like that finds her own punishment in life.” That’s what Katzelmacher is: a punishment, via art, leveled at all the ignorant, egotistical racists Fassbinder had known. Just as Jorgos gives his neighbors a purpose in life, so Katzelmacher gave Fassbinder a frame for his frustrations. Within a few years, he’d come up with ever more amazing ways to fill it.
As always, there are no features on these Eclipse Series discs save the liner notes, by Michael Koresky, who does an excellent job of explaining Fassbinder’s place in the radicalized West German cinema and theater movements of the late 1960s, and how he ultimately proved even more radical than the radicals, even as he courted self-destruction in his professional and personal lives.