What Fassbinder learned from and taught was theater as the preschool of film dialogue, which must lose its clarity in visual montage and gain incidental redundancy; what Fassbinder discovered for the New German Cinema, and developed inimitably and with a virtuosity like no other, was theater as the presence of actor-characters, as physicality in space. Part of his indisputable genius can be seen in those countless moments when he enticed actors into playing roles in which they would attain the human dignity of unforgettable characters, whether in a minor part or as stars. lt did not matter whether the actors were unknown or already well established – whether their names were Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla, Gottfried John, or Günter Lamprecht. This Pygmalion made them all come alive – admittedly sometimes only for those brief moments when his eyes lit on them and inspired them to epiphanies of his personal obsessions, obsessions with characters. They were not “made” by the camera, lighting, color, scenery, and editing. These elements just created the “aura” in which, thanks to their personal presence, they appeared on film.
Paradoxically enough, the rupture that isolated Fassbinder’s oeuvre within the New German (i.e., West German) Cinema was caused by his own ardent traditionalism. Yet it was from this traditionalism that his aesthetic richness flowed. While his Oberhausen Group comrades and older contemporaries wanted, with their ABSCHIED VON GESTERN (the German title of Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl; literally, “goodbye to yesterday”), to make a radical break with the past, with UFA and its renewal and extension in the postwar era, with German regional kitsch and “problem” movies, Fassbinder would not settle for that. The members of the Oberhausen Group did not believe that there was a German tradition they could relate to, since this tradition had compromised itself through aesthetic and political collaboration with fascism, nor did any of them in those days dream of imitating Hollywood. To be sure, Wenders would later confess his reverence for Lang, Ozu, Ford, and Nicholas Ray; Herzog for Murnau and the German Expressionist cinema; Kluge for Vertov, Eisenstein, and Godard; Thome for Hawks; and Straub for Bresson and Dreyer. Yet in the “fatherless society,” as psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich called it in his analysis of contemporary West Germany, the artists acted as though they were starting from square one. Was this a late counterpart to the movement in postwar literature, which sought to make a fresh start after the “zero hour” of 1945?
In the midst of German self-alienation as a fatherless people who had also lost their fatherland, Fassbinder offered a scandalous, wishful father relationship, hardly taken seriously or even understood by his contemporaries. His favorite saint was a director who, under the name of Detlef Sierck, had made SCHLUSSAKKORD (1936), ZU NEUEN UFERN (1937), and LA HABANERA (1937) for UFA and as Douglas Sirk had filmed in Hollywood IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955), and WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956), among others – movies, discovered by the young film buffs in puberty, to whose impassioned palette of suffering, oppression, and despair Fassbinder remained true, tried to emulate exactly this cinema about people and their confused feelings. His fascination with Sirk was a fascination also with melodrama. Of the infamous seductions of the Hollywood dream factory, it is one of the most notorious genres of false sentiment, cliches of the soul, and fuzzy perception. At least that was how the Oberhausen group saw it, as did many of the film critics who shared their view.
Fassbinder made his debut with melodramas frozen to a cynical iciness, incongruously realized as gangster movies, “bande-a-part” pictures, set in the suburbs of Munich (LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH, GODS OF THE PLAGUE, RIO DAS MORTES, THE AMERICAN SOLDIER). But with WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK? in 1970 and the pseudo-Western WHITY in 1971, he emerged as a chamber-drama melodramatist, and with PIONEERS IN INGOLSTADT and THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS he turned to social melodrama that would remain unique. The characters who appeared in those movies did not immediately become specimens to be examined under the crosshairs of social analysis. Precisely because Fassbinder set his melodramas in the petit bourgeois milieu of the working class (right up to BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ) – and thereby opened new social territory for the West German cinema, which it would lose again after his death – he left the orbit of autobiography, subjective obsessions, from which the Autorenfilm had emerged, and into which it subsequently decayed, sinking ever more deeply into an artistic Bohemia of petty relationships, and thus into the teary self-reflections of the filmmaker.
“All I know about is people,” Fassbinder once said, but he knew them well, and he fathomed them as did no one else. The “generator of feelings” that Kluge saw at work in the opera, and whose dangerous, catastrophic threat he sought to “defuse” by enlightening the audience, was regarded by Fassbinder (whose favorite opera was La Traviata), as a relay station for the human capacity to suffer and endure; as the battlefield of a war taking place daily and hourly between people and within them, in living rooms and apartments, in glances exchanged, boxed into small squares, refracted and reflected in mirrors, steeped in color and light and illuminated by them. The dialectic of “false” and “true” feelings, their shifting and warping over time, the complexity and complicity of lovers and loved ones, speaks: victims and perpetrators, the exposure of the stigmata of the soul and its wounds, the permanence of violence in love relationships – that was his narrative domain, which he could extract äs easily from a newspaper item äs from Fontane’s EFFI BRIEST or Genet’s QUERELLE.
He was aiming for a “comedie humaine” – preferably under German conditions – both historical and up-to-the-minute. When he spoke of Hollywood, he thought of material and subjects that were personally developed and collectively put across, because they dealt with collective traumas, popular myths of everyday life, the “false life” (Adorno) and those things experienced and articulated as kitsch that went with it. Admittedly, this did not take the form of naturalistic imitation, but neither was it the gesture of a Gordardian quotation. The reconstruction of moments in history – whether set in the nineteenth century as in EFFI BRIEST, the Nazi-UFA period as in LILI MARLEEN, the postwar era as in THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, or the German economic boom as in LOLA – simultaneously reflected contemporary visual and acoustic codes and Standards in photography, cinema, radio, and fashion.
Historical recollections seen through the veil of mass media’s development, cinema as a screen on which to project the modes of experience typical of a particular age: this more than any aesthetic program can be recognized as the essential underlying theme in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. In addition to this renewal of tradition, this re-inventorying of a medium, he found a place in his work to realize the potential of acting in post-UFA-period German films – not stigmatizing acting by diminishing it, as the New German Cinema generally did, but integrating into his own work actors and actresses who were better than the movies they had previously or recently appeared in. In this way he again reconnected with a broken line of tradition.
Throughout Fassbinder’s work one can almost speak of a reconciliation between the young and the old, to which the appearances and leading performances of Luise Ullrich or Werner Finck, Brigitte Mira and Karlheinz Böhm, Barbara Valentin and Adrian Hoven, among others, greatly contributed. This ideologically unprejudiced attitude reflected not only his keen personal interest in professional actors but also his need for older actors who could cut across generational lines. Because the movies also addressed an older generation, they gained an audience that extended beyond the small circle of the New German Cinema, whose fans were mostly youthful.