Fassbinder’s intense need “to do something in order to feel alive” could not have been fulfilled had he not been endowed with the strategic ability to coordinate his Balzacian creative energy with the division of labor which is part of the process of film and television production. In other words, the continuity of his narrative film oeuvre basically required the framework of a movie industry, which had ceased to exist with the collapse of West German film production. The Autorenflim was not only the genius-cult postulate of a generation which no longer wanted anything to do with the West German way of movie making (preferring to go to the street rather than stay in the studios), but also the product of an artificially induced movie shortage.
Television, as a substitute producer that has no need to take account of the film producer’s business calculations, released the New German Cinema from the dictates of the market; working in cooperation with it, the West German Film Promotion Board established a culturally defined (i.e., not market-oriented) safety zone where the phenomenon of the internationally recognized and much admired New German Cinema could flourish. On the one hand, this model of promoting movie production was responsible for the dazzling diversity of German film talent, yet it eventually caused an artificial boom. In the course of a surreptitious but increasingly obvious competition in commercialization between public and private television companies and a regionalization of film promotion (owing to its federal character, West Germany did not have a centralized cultural authority), the sponsorship system, which still functioned in Fassbinder’s time, became largely counterproductive. A maze of red tape led to collective and individual delays in production, making continuity of work practically impossible.
This also led to a dissipation of what might be called the infrastructural surplus value that Fassbinder’s steady mode of production had generated for the German cinema – that is, a professionalization in all areas of film and television production. Through his team-based method of production, he not only discovered actors for the German cinema and brought them close to stardom – for example, Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa, Günter Lamprecht and Klaus Löwitsch – he also helped to develop the talents of cinematographers like Michael Ballhaus and Xaver Schwarzenberger, editors like Juliane Lorenz, costume designers like Barbara Baum, and musicians like Peer Raben.
One sees the aim, in all the activities of Fassbinder – who, faced with the decision whether to shoot on location or in the studio, decided not on ideological but practical grounds – of singlehandedly developing a film-industry method of production from which everyone would benefit through the increased professionalization it would bring about. But since the New German Cinema, its authors, producers, and critics, were neither willing nor possibly even able to recognize Fassbinder’s all-out programmatic traditionalism as a possible model for national film production, his singlehanded effort ultimately remained without significant consequences.
Only this friction – the nature of public cinema – would have allowed vigor, robustness, and accessibility to develop through experience, just as national and individual talents can develop only in a competitive environment. In contrast to Alexander Kluge’s programmatic solution – when in danger and distress, it is death to take the middle way – Fassbinder’s lonely search for means of production was directed at the center of a possible future. In his case, the “middle way” was the “impure cinema,” which continuously meanders through the gamut of possibilities offered by genres as well as the modes of production and reception, and in the course of its “zigzagging through the institutions” becomes professionalized, ingenious, crafty, knowledgable, and imaginative – only this “impure,” even unscrupulous Fassbinder cinema could be the way of the future; and his hard-earned solidity allowed true solidarity only with those whose singular artistic sensibility needed everyone’s protection.
For Fassbinder’s genius was not just his art, but – to an equal degree – the path he took. This path is still open to those who may not have his genius, but who can become artists all the same. They will have to stand and be tested, as he did, come hell or high water. This is not just a question of courage and boldness, but of dignity. Anyone who can imagine himself only as failing in the process lacks the imagination to fall in love with success: even at
the price of failure.
(First published in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Laurence Kardish, in collaboration with Juliane Lorenz. The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1997.)