Monday, October 5, 2020

A ‘dirty story’ told by Deceased Artiste Michael Lonsdale

With Michael Lonsdale’s death, it’s like three performers have died — the Lonsdale that appeared in mainstream, commercial films (usually international coproductions), the one that always made time to act in experimental films where the directors trusted him to develop his character (and sometimes improvise or alter his dialogue), and the Lonsdale that forged a stunning list of appearances on the French stage (performing in works by Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Stoppard, Albee, Anouilh, Handke, and his good friend Marguerite Duras).

The second of those three identities interests non-French auteurists the most, and so, since I’ve already written about the films of Marcel Hanoun that starred Lonsdale and Out 1, the mega-masterwork of improvisation by Rivette, I want to focus here on just one film, Jean Eustache’s very unusual and incredibly significant Une Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977).

The film is one of the most important pictures of the Seventies for several reasons. Among them the fact that the notion of documentary offers the “truth” of a situation, that the film offers a sleazy but entirely valid metaphor for moviegoing (or theatergoing, for that matter), and that it explores sexism in its purest state — men who view women solely as a set of genitals.

The later, hairier
I’ve discussed the film with people who were entranced by it and others who were disturbed by it, although it should be noted that nothing graphic is ever seen. It’s simply a film about a man telling a story.

In fact, the film shows two men telling the same story. Une Sale Histoire is comprised of two shorts Eustache made from the same material. The first features the great Lonsdale — as suave as he could be — telling a group of people at a party in an apartment a story about a weird “ritual” he took part in.

A group of men in a Paris cafe are aware that there is a hole in the ladies’ room door in that cafe’s basement. If one kneels on the floor in front of the door (curiously like the Muslim prayer ritual), one can see the women using the toilet — not the woman herself, just her vagina. Lonsdale’s character tells the story with an odd sort of reverence and a philosophical bent, describing how this ritualistic act of voyeurism became a habit for him that took the place of having sex.

Once he finishes his story, we see the second short film, a 16mm documentary chronicle of another man (Jean-Noël Picq) telling the same story. He is sleazier-looking than Lonsdale (with a front row of quite awful teeth), and one quickly realizes that this is the man who ultimately went through this experience.

Picq’s telling of the story goes quicker. The 16mm film is six minutes shorter because it is told more quickly (although both Picq and Lonsdale say the exact same words), contains no introduction, and the questions asked of the storyteller at the end are fired at Picq, while the actresses quizzing Lonsdale ask their queries in a slower way.

The ideal way to read this piece would be to now watch the film if you haven’t seen it already. It is currently available on YouTube, with English subtitles in the Closed Captions.

The Lonsdale version:

The Picq original:

Going back to the three themes mentioned above, it can now be revealed that Eustache’s decision to contrast “fiction” (an actor telling a story) against documentary (a real-life individual, with the bad teeth to prove it) is a brilliant one, but is not as clear-cut as it seems.

The signs of the two modes of filmmaking are there: the Lonsdale film was shot in 35mm, is most clearly an acted piece, and is more elegantly made. The Picq version is on 16mm, it has the spontaneity of a documentary (esp. in the brisk way it moves), and is more raggedly shot (one of the women listening to Picq is left out of camera range, even when she’s asking him a question).

So, Eustache’s purpose in making the Lonsdale film appears to have been to contrast the “real” telling of a story with a staged “fiction” version containing the exact same dialogue (including the same questions and answers at the end). It’s a brilliant conceit and one of the reasons Histoire is indeed a landmark of Seventies cinema.

There’s just one problem with the above description of the film — namely, that Picq’s story never happened. But before we get into that matter, let us find out what Lonsdale himself thought of the film. In the invaluable interview book Michael Lonsdale: Entretiens avec Jean Cléder (François Bourin Éditeur, Paris, 2012), he offered these thoughts. [This and the quote below are loosely translated from the French by yrs truly.]

“First, the distance came from the fact that [Eustache] invented half of things. It’s physically impossible for a man to put his head on the ground in the hall outside the toilets, especially in La Motte Piquet, where it’s very busy. In reality, it wouldn’t be very clean if one knelt on the floor to look through a hole at the genitals of women who are urinating! One would have to be pretty crazy… People asked me, ‘How could you have done that?’ And I responded, ‘Listen, this stuff exists, there are people like that! They have the right to be heard.’

“As I had never worked with Jean Eustache, who was for me one of the great filmmakers, I accepted the role. Before that, with no budget, he had already filmed with his friend the ‘dirty story,’ where Jean-Noel Picq had the lead role. But he wanted to make a “cleaner” version (if I can put it that way) in 25 minutes, with a good camera and good film.

“As for the characterization, he let me do what I wanted. He filmed three reels, in three shots, so we didn’t need to stop to load the film. I thus recounted my story calmly, without interruptions or direction.  When he asked me, ‘Do you want to see what Jean-Noel Picq did?’ I answered ‘No, certainly not!’ I noticed later that we had the same inflection on certain words, curiously….

“Because showing it meant projecting the two films, it was a novelty: the program was made up of the old version with Jean-Noel Picq, then the new version with me. For distribution, it was interesting, because each film was too short for a normal screening at a movie theater.” [pp. 48-49]

The oddly assembled but also invaluable book le dictionnaire Eustache, edited by Antoine de Baecque, (Editions Leo Scheer, 2011), includes a statement from Picq written to journalist Jean-Luc Douin.  Picq wrote to Douin in 1993 that the original short was “autobiographical because it was fictitious.” To double-down on his wonderfully Gallic wordplay he also claimed the short was “an imaginary autobiography, like all true autobiographies.” He added:

“This autobiographical fiction is perhaps about voyeurism, but it is also about the insurmountable differences between the sexes, which don’t allow … either gender to have a discourse about sex that transcends differences and reaches an agreement. Except to stammer something that is not readily understandable, as it goes down to the gutter and lowers the debate.” [pp. 298-299]

The juxtaposition between fiction and reality bleeds into the second theme of the film  the notion that Picq’s story is a metaphor for the act of moviegoing. The “ritual” described has a religious aspect to it (with the reference to praying in the Muslim style), but there is clearly also a peep-show, fetishistic element, as the voyeur sees only one body part. And the act of storytelling itself, which always encompasses embroidering a tale, is akin to seeing a performance onstage or screen. The storyteller in both versions in fact mentions his desired audience — he notes that he prefers to tell his story to women to get their reactions, since men will “understand” what he’s saying from the first.

The odd prologue to
American Boy.
The Picq short in fact prefigured Scorsese’s American Boy (made one year later, in 1978), in which Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince tells a series of stories that are immaculate — but seem too honed to be entirely true. Scorsese takes much more time to set the stage than Eustache does (one gets the impression that Prince’s storytelling session was augmented by, um…. a certain powder). But the two filmmakers allow their seedy friends to take center stage, and they and other friends assume the role of onscreen audience and interlocutors. Eustache let himself be seen as a listener in the Picq version of the material, but he is only seen briefly on camera and never asks Picq a question. Scorsese, on the other hand, is an active participant in American Boy. (The presence of both filmmakers on-camera serves to make their friends’ stories seem more “real.”)

Picq’s tale also contains unknowing “performers” (the women being “peeped,” who are being victimized without even knowing it  until the storyteller lets the last woman in on the “act”) and an "audience" (the sleazy men at the cafe). Thus, we as viewers watch an onscreen audience hearing a story from a man who declares that he ended up preferring seeing unknown women’s genitals (read: being a spectator) rather than having sex with a partner (being an active participant in a performance).

… Which leads us to the third and most overpowering theme: sexism. Une Sale Histoire would never have been made in the U.S., even during the “maverick” period of the Seventies (when a film like John Byrum’s Inserts could indeed be made but had to be shot in England). The current state of American film finds sex completely missing from mainstream films of any kind, as dealing with it bring up topics that are (that most abrasive and prevalent of phrases) “problematic.”

Jean Eustache (in a Rocky shirt!)
and Lonsdale.

Here Eustache tackles the male libido at its most base and crude. The storytellers in both short films are quite matter-of-fact about the story they tell, while the women who hear it are very receptive, to the point of asking a bunch of questions. These questions are fired off in the Picq version, which makes them seem like real subjects of curiosity. The slightly slower pace of the Lonsdale version makes the questions seem more like a part of a certain storytelling ritual.

The most important element of this exploration of sexism is indeed the fact that the storyteller states he got to the point where he preferred “peeping” to sex. (Thus foreshadowing Internet cam-culture?) He says, quite pointedly, “… the desire wasn’t to fuck her afterwards, not at all. It was only in the pleasure of seeing. Just seeing. That’s all.”

From the Picq version.

Picq’s story includes the fact that the forbidden thrill he got from the act of voyeurism was that it gave him “direct access” to the woman’s private parts — he didn’t have to go on dates, go to the movies or dinner, find common points of interest, or otherwise relate to the woman in question. He could just cut to his desired chase and see what he wanted to see.

He laments that women will now (in the late Seventies) discuss their orgasms and that the vaginas of the woman he’s involved with on a romantic or sexual level are “domesticated.” This part of the story synchs up quite nicely with Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece, The Mother and the Whore, where the male protagonist (Jean-Pierre Leaud) talks and talks until the moment where the quieter female lead (Françoise Lebrun, who conspicuously appears in the Picq film as a listener/questioner) finally delivers a monologue, which changes the whole focus of the piece and makes it more of a film about relationships (and the need to listen rather than talk), whereas up to that point it is an account of the adventures of a cool young man who never stops talking.

Picq and Eustache.

Our storyteller pines for the Victorian era at one point, saying the sexuality of the Seventies is “disillusioned.” This goes back to the theme of worship in Picq’s dirty story. He knows that what he is doing is unhealthy (and quite ugly, as he is essentially bent over, kneeling on a piss-laden floor). But he is able to justify what he did because of that same aspect of sleazy idolatry.

The film’s best dialogue in fact comes when he discusses how the world changed for him when he got addicted to his peeping ritual. He began, he says, to believe “the hole came first!” and that a defect in a door (which he acknowledges must’ve been created on purpose when the door was designed) became the center of his universe. The door, the cafe, the streets, the city — all of it existed because of that sacred hole.

And the grace note of this look inside the mind of a voyeur is when he declares that his peeping was a kind of “work” that consumed him for a period of time. The last line, delivered differently but emphatically by both Lonsdale and Picq, is “I had my dignity while doing this!”

Thursday, September 17, 2020

She was needed: Deceased Artiste Diana Rigg

It’s hard to write about Diana Rigg — Dame Diana Rigg, that is — without gushing. She was that rarest kind of individual — one who is equally loved and obsessed over by male and female fans, a cult figure who was both a sex symbol (of a very new, Sixties kind) and a fine actress.

Her work in movies and TV and on the stage spanned nearly six decades, but it is commonly agreed (except among “Game of Thrones” fans) that her roles from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies made that decade the most exhilarating part of her long, storied career.

Rigg studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had a five-year stint in the Royal Shakespeare Company. When it came to the mainstream, however, she did get cast in rather silly little items in the early Sixties.

A teleplay featuring the young Diana is available on YouTube. “The Hothouse” (which appeared as part of “Armchair Theater” in 1964) is a coy comedy about the owner of a supermarket chain whose wife (Rigg) is becoming restless. It’s a very standard sitcom set-up and of interest mostly because of Rigg’s outsized personality:

“The Avengers” continues to have a strong cult following because it was so wonderfully assembled (and yes, it’s rather sad that younger folk and dim-witted oldsters hear “Avengers” and only think Marvel movie pap). The casting was, of course, sublime (both the leads and the guest villains). And the scripting was a great balance of tales of mystery and espionage, which also functioned as spoofs of these types of stories.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the fan-favorite episode “The Winged Avenger,” which is a comic book reader’s delight (with no trace of fx and not a single explosion in sight).

Curiously, all the items discussed here can be found in their entirety on YouTube, except for the other massive fan-fave episode, “A Touch of Brimstone.” This was the episode in which the kinky side of the show’s producers (and the British national character) was openly displayed.

Steed and all his partners (Rigg, Thorson, Blackman).

Sure, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale character has worn a leather jumpsuit and “kinky boots,” but Emma Peel (whose very name derived from the demographic research phrase “male appeal” — “M. Appeal”) in this episode dressed in dominatrix garb (which Rigg reportedly designed) for the first time in mainstream culture, on ITV in the U.K. and ABC in the U.S.

The episode is solidly entertaining as an “Avengers” intrigue saga, but it truly has become a sort of touchstone for men (and certainly women as well) who like dominant women. 

Unlike the other major artifact of this mindset — Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) — “Brimstone” was produced to have commercials punctuate its kinky thrills. And so, for whatever reason (too adult? Copyright troubles with this ep but not “The Winged Avenger”?), it is not on available on YT, but “fan appreciation” videos devoted to it are up in profusion...

As could be expected, “Avengers” rarities that could previously only be found on bootleg VHS/DVDs from overseas are now readily available. Here is some Pathe News footage of the filming of the finales to the color “Avengers” episodes with Rigg (the bits where Steed and Peel would luxuriate in having defeated the villain, as they drove in an old-fashioned car):

And this oddity, an interview done for German TV that is quite clunky in its interludes for translation. Here we see the charming rapport that Rigg and Macnee had in real life. As I noted in my Deceased Artiste tribute for Macnee, he was much beloved by the women he worked with on the series. Rigg tried to keep a distance from the “Avengers” fan fervor but, when requested, she would indeed show up at events to pay tribute to Macnee:

Although she is the best remembered female Avenger, Rigg did only two seasons of the series. She fought for equal pay (and got it) on the second season, but felt that she had the leave the show or else be typecast. 

In one of those lovely show-business turnarounds that are (as always) dictated by financial remuneration (as the phrase was laid upon Sean Connery, “Never Say Never Again”), two of her three movies following her exit from “The Avengers” found her playing similar roles — as an adventuresome journalist in The Assassination Bureau (1969) and as James Bond’s first-ever movie wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (also ’69). In the latter she was the first kick-ass female match for Bond until Michelle Yeoh costarred in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997.

Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren in
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)

But this should not be a tribute simply to Rigg the Entertainer (and sex symbol) rather than a recognition of Rigg the Artist. While she didn’t immediately run back to theater after leaving “The Avengers” and did play spies again, her first film after doffing her “Emma Peelers” (yes, that was the name for her jumpsuit duds on the show) was Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968).

Hall, who did his best work in the theater (his resume is a frighteningly comprehensive list of the best modern theater and most of the classical repertoire), had already done a version of the show as a teleplay in 1959. The cast is a dream in that instance: Laughton, Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Roy Dotrice, Zoe Caldwell. But two of the younger cast members who were nobodies (except, possibly, for those keeping their eyes on the RSC ensemble) are in both that ‘59 TV version and the ’68 feature film: the recently departed Ian Holm (Deceased Artiste tribute here) and Diana Rigg. (Ian was 28 in ’59; Diana was 21.)

But that version is not available online. What we can see is the 1968 feature, which is decidedly “mod” in its approach, since Hall — who also directed most of these actors onstage and did give the sublime film of Pinter’s The Homecoming (1973) — decided to have the actors play their monologues (and even stray bits of dialogue) straight to the camera. There he seems to be influenced by Godard; in various playful bits of the play’s comic scenes, it seems like he’s also very aware of Richard Lester. (Who wasn’t, at that time?)

Rigg and Mirren

The cast, as with the first production, is sublime, but the crop of performers in the starring parts were relative “youngsters” in general and, almost to a person, went on to have long careers in acting. Rigg, Holm, David Warner (who had already starred in some features), Helen Mirren, Michael Jayston, and Judi Dench (wearing barely anything except green body paint as Titania). Rigg is Helena and delivers her lines with a playful matter-of-factness (since all the characters except the “spirits” are certainly dimwitted pawns).

It’s a fairly good length for an adaptation of the play (just a hair under two hours) and does keep to a laudably ridiculous-but-not-frantic pace throughout.

The most puzzling rarities of all, which found Rigg again playing a super-spy, are a pair of dialogue-less short films that Rigg made in 1969. Made by a German production company in Spain and Germany, they were only available on 8mm (!) for home projectors and were, until the advent of the Net, left out of Rigg’s filmography.

There are several reviews of the shorts online, but only one forum board actually provides any background info on how and why they were made. A poster to an Avengers fan board (whose post was reposted on a classic horror board) noted that the two shorts were intended to be shown at gas stations while “people remained sitting in their cars at the filling station, waiting for their fuel, having their oil or tyre pressure checked etc. So the idea was to ‘entertain’ them by showing short (4-5 min) films — which explains why there is no dialogue.”

According to the poster, this info was imparted in a German TV special about cult series, in a segment devoted to “The Avengers.” Diana was reportedly paid 10,000 DM (“whether for all or one of these films remained unclear”), and the shoot took place in 4-5 days (but, then again, one short was shot in Germany and the other in Spain, so who the hell really knows?).

The poster noted that an actor in the film revealed this info on the TV special — the epilogue being that the company funding this odd enterprise went bankrupt, thus the odd appearance of the films on 8mm. There the films are promoted as “Krimi” (crime thrillers) featuring Rigg as Emma Peel. (The 8mm company apparently didn’t want to use the title “The Avengers” in their cover copy but were okay with saying that she was playing a copyrighted character.)

The first of the two, minikillers (1969), is four-part saga that pits Diana (wandering through a lovely, tourist-laden part of Spain) against a bunch of drug-smuggling crooks who have hidden drugs, explosives, and a blinding acid in baby dolls. The film is enjoyable but obviously lacks the urbane dialogue of “The Avengers.”

minikillers has the dual-strength, straightforward kinkiness that was borrowed from the TV series — wherein Diana is first overcome (usually tied up, like a heroine from the old cliffhangers) and then is able to overpower her captors and/or ambush the crooks in their hideout.

Rigg did her own stunts, in the manner of the color season of “The Avengers” that she was on — judo flips for the villains and punches, chops, and kicks to the camera to simulate actual violence. (The color season is singled out here because one can quite clearly see in the b&w season that she was doubled by a man in a wig.) Still, any film with Rigg as a spy is worth watching....

The second short, “Diadem,” is even less plotted. It plays like a series of spy-movie cliches with the appropriate musical punctuation (made to sound very much like Laurie Johnson’s music for “The Avengers”).

Rigg then played the only prominent female role in a filmed production of Julius Caesar (1970) with an odd assortment of British thesps (John Gielgud, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee), American theater actors (Jason Robards), and American hambones (Robert Vaughn and Charlton Heston in the title role).

The cast of Julius Caesar.

Her next film after that was Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital (1971), a VERY dark comedy that is both
 very much of its time and also a timeless story of chaos in a hospital (in which the valuable and very valid medical phrase “forgotten to death” was coined). Rigg represents vitality and sexuality to the ever-grizzled George C. Scott, who is fighting both administrative apathy and impotence.

Rigg’s flair for deadpan dark comedy is on display in the delightful Theater of Blood (1973), one of those absolutely perfect Vincent Price horror vehicles. Vinnie is outraged actor “Edward Lionheart” who vows revenge on a group of critics, whom he then kills using Shakespearean  murder methods. Diana is his daughter “Edwina” who assumes various disguises (including curly hair and a mustache) to help her father kill those dastardly reviewers.

The film was mounted as a theater piece in 2005, starring the great Jim Broadbent in the Price role, and Rigg’s daughter Rachael Stirling (who is quite talented in her own right, and also looks and sounds incredibly like her mother) in her role.

Here’s the whole film. (It makes great Halloween viewing.)

We’ll end chronologically on a derivative downer, the 1973-’74 sitcom “Diana,” in which Rigg starred as a fashion coordinator for a department store. (From supermarkets in “The Hothouse” to a department store here…) The show was clearly modeled after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and the sample episode found on YT is quite dull.

Interestingly, the scripter chose to reference Mary Tyler Moore directly in the dialogue — talking about her as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” As was the case with the opening scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (where Lazenby oddly references Connery), it’s never wise to bring up other people who’ve played a similar role….

Now, to jump the chronology for the closer: There are some gorgeous performances by Rigg on YouTube in classic and modern British fare, but it seems most fitting to close out with her performance in A Little Night Music (1977), in which she has one solo song. 

Rigg in later years.

At first the singing voice sounds dissimilar from her speaking voice, but online sources point to the fact that she (unlike star Liz Taylor) did her own singing. Her musical performance is not especially rousing, but her performance of the song is quite moving.

Friday, August 21, 2020

On Fassbinder’s 75th birthday and Deceased Artiste Irm Hermann

The miracle of Rainer Werner Fassbinder was not that he wrote and directed so many films, plays, TV-movies, miniseries, and shorts, all in the span of 13 years (from 1969 to 1982). The startling fact about his work — as I’ve noted before here and on the Funhouse TV show — is that the works he produced in that period were so uniformly excellent. (There are only two or three films that don’t work and some telefilms that are simply filmed plays.)

This year is the 75th anniversary of his birth. He was one of those people who was clearly not meant to live until a ripe old age, as his feverish activity could only exist with youth, even though the messages he communicated in his films are timeless. It was interesting that five days before his 75th “birthday” (May 31) one of his earliest stars and live-in collaborators, Irm Hermann, died.

Of all the actresses he worked with, Hermann was very unique in that he made her into an actress – he did the same with his mother and his lovers, but Hermann was talented enough to have a career as a character person long after Fassbinder’s death (regularly working in movies and TV until 2018). That work is known in Germany but in other countries, we know her solely for her films with Fassbinder and other New German Cinema directors who were clearly working on the same wavelength (Schlondorff, Herzog, Ottinger, Schlingensief, etc).

Fassbinder cast her as housewives, servants, best friends, and dutiful wives, among other roles. Her prim and proper demeanor, and mannequin-like face, is an indelible part of the early iconography of RWF’s films. When she chose to have a child as a single mother and not let him adopt it, their relationship as friends (and sporadic lovers) was pretty much over, but he invited her back for small roles in two of his later films.

Despite her incredibly reserved appearance, she gave impassioned interviews. In order to tell her story one is best served quoting her own words from three of the chats she had about Fassbinder — two with authors assembling books on his life (one a very positive portrait, the other very negative) and one for a documentary about him (made by a New German Cinema enfant terrible who seemed to enjoy being a thorn in RWF’s side).

What comes out of these interviews was a pure view of Fassbinder the artist – unassailable – and the man – given to tantrums, verbal harangues, and even physical violence. What we the audience got from him are the films, which are for the most part densely layered and sublime.

As John Waters so tersely and accurately put it, “I hear he was a monster, but I never had to live with him.”

Hermann was one of the first actors to come under Fassbinder’s spell, and her description of the environment in which she lived with him reflects the heavy emotion that is an undercurrent in his films. It also reinforces the kind of cult leader-leader behavior RWF indulged in to keep his collaborators on their toes. (Having a “favorite,” keeping others in disfavor, punishing a collaborator by not allowing them to be active in the group.)

Eight Hours Are Not a Day

Hermann met RWF when he was 20 and she was 21. She was a middle-class young woman who had no artistic aspirations. She met Fassbinder through a friend who was going to drama school and found him an alluring figure, perhaps because of his contradictory shyness and audacious ambition to be a director. He asked her to be in his short film “The City Tramp” (1966).

“He was so shy, so, so shy. He said he wanted me to play this part, but he couldn’t offer me any money. I told him I didn’t know anything about acting, and he said it didn’t matter; it was only a small part.” [Katz, pp. 24-25]

“He was the first person who took me seriously. He recognized something in me which I was not yet aware of myself. He liked things about me that no one else liked — my style and my manner.  The fascination was mutual, though, a mutual flame….

“Soon after 'The City Tramp' he moved into my apartment on Ainmillerstrasse. Love gave me wings. Suddenly I could do whatever I wanted. Every door was open to me, because I wanted them to be.” [Lorenz, p. 20]

When Fassbinder befriended someone, he enchanted (and seduced) them:
“He was, how shall I say it? My dream of dreams. Oh, the way he treated me! So dearly, so kindly, so courteously, so humbly. He was so fascinating! Nothing like the Fassbinder of later times.” [Katz, p. 25]

“My girlfriend told me that [Christoph] Roser was Rainer’s fiancee. But that didn’t stop me. I’d had no experience at all with homosexuals, so I guess I didn’t hear her or want to. I was innocent. I would never believe it, and even now that he’s dead, I don’t really believe that he was homosexual. I know he did it, but not in his heart of hearts.” [Katz, p. 23]

She went further in her discussion of her initial reaction to the gay lifestyle in the Rosa von Praunheim documentary Fassbinder’s Women (2000): “At the time I was totally absorbed in the scene, but not the gay part, even though I was confronted with that while I was with him. I still couldn’t believe it. I thought people could be converted. I lived in hope. But I saw it all for myself. I hung around in front of the toilet blocks without any idea of what was going on. Rainer went inside and I waited. Sometimes it took a long time, and I couldn’t understand why he took so long. In that respect I have a very poor imagination.” [Praunheim]


She wound up living with a mutual friend, Ursula Strätz, the immaculately talented composer Peer Raben, and Fassbinder. (She had earlier lived with Raben and Fassbinder when they were a couple — she would sleep on the floor, while they slept on a mattress.) All three of his roommates had a deep love for Rainer. (Roser was out of the picture by this time.)

“Intimate, wasn’t it? He was always switching people. It was very hard for me, very hard and very new. It went against all my middle-class upbringing, the ultimate horror. But I was so bound up with him, dependent on him and at the same time protective of his needs.” [Katz, p. 31]

Unfortunately, there has yet to be a definitive biography of RWF in English. The closest we have is the 1987 Robert Katz book Love Is Colder than Death, which is mostly a carefully cultivated selection of the most negative gossip about Fassbinder and friends. At one point, he discusses the sex life between Hermann and Fassbinder (who did have girlfriends while he had boyfriends, and had sex with all of them).

Katz’s book is a combination of interviews he conducted (as with Hermann) and sleazy stories from books written by Fassbinder’s cohorts (like Kurt Raab); these books have never been translated, so the Katz book is the go-to source for those who don’t read German and who are curious about Fassbinder’s life. On the very sleazy side, he chose to mention that “copulation between [Rainer and Irm] was sometimes unnatural, if Rainer’s indiscreet confidences are to be believed: there had been vegetable and mineral phallic substitutes.” [Katz, p. 120] No source is given for this rather torrid little item.

The Merchant of Four Seasons

So, why did she stay with him? Well, besides recognizing that he was a person of immense talent, he was also fun to be around when you were in his good graces:

“… Soon we were all wrapped up in his world of perception, his ideas of reality. His world also became my own.” [Lorenz, p. 21]

“We did a lot together. It was our closest time. We went to the English garden and cafes. We listened to music, played pinball, smoked. We went to the cinema two or three times a day. It was exhausting. I wasn’t allowed to sleep or be sick. We never got bed before four. At six we were up again. We never stopped. It was our most intensive time. It was so intense that it lasted for ten years, despite rifts between us…. And he loved being loved. In those days I called myself Number One wife.” [Praunheim]

But money was hard to come by, before Fassbinder became a critical darling with The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971). Praunheim asked Hermann about a story that was first mentioned publicly in one of the memoirs we never saw in the U.S. — namely that Fassbinder was eager at one point to pimp out Irm and Ursula.

“I’m incapable of prostituting myself in any way. I can’t. I simply couldn’t do it…. Yes, he liked that idea, the little ‘Mack the Knife.’ He liked that idea. It made him feel powerful. But it didn’t actually work.” [Praunheim]

The Merchant of Four Seasons

Even during the happiest period of their lives together, Hermann suffered emotionally (and physically) from Fassbinder’s intensity:

“… he dominated me. I wasn’t left alone for a second. He dictated what we did night and day. He got jealous when I went to buy milk. ‘What took you so long?’ I’d hurry but it was always too long. He really got very jealous.”

He had turned her into an actress but could be very harsh when directing her:
“He delighted in tormenting me publicly. ‘Tell the silly cow to put her head on one side.’  During Katzelmacher he never let up. Tears used to run down my cheeks.” [Praunheim]

Katz’s book again becomes the go-to source for the “underside” of the relationship between Fassbinder and Hermann. Katz didn’t have enough sleazy content in his book as it was, so he included an essay written by Peter Berling about the notoriously dreadful shoot of Whity (1970), one of Fassbinder’s strangest films. (The shoot was depicted in his later film Beware of a Holy Whore (also 1970!)).

Berling wrote: “He slapped [Hermann] in front of us all. ‘Where’s my money?’ he wailed…. Irm burst into tears. ‘You promised to marry me’ were the words that came out of her mouth. ‘You promised to have children with me. Why don’t you marry me?’ [Katz, p. 212]

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Her biggest success with Fassbinder (which won her her first acting awards) was playing the adulterous wife of the protagonist in The Merchant of Four Seasons, the beginning of Fassbinder’s “Sirkian” period. On the set of that film, she was, in her own words “treated like filth…. [I] was continually reduced to tears in the filming.” [Katz, p. 68]

The group dynamic was always about who was in favor with RWF. “... somebody would eventually fall into disgrace…. One member of the group always had to be in disgrace to show the others how terrible it was….  He switched from one person to another, but there was always a black sheep in the flock….” [Katz, p. 51]

In the Praunheim doc, she explains, “He wanted reassurance that we loved him. He wanted that all the time. It was pathological.” [Praunheim]

Praunheim further probes how the situation changed after Fassbinder started receiving federal prizes for his films. With Merchant, the films then became successful at the box office and there was finally ready money for the films’ budgets – Hermann had earlier even served as Fassbinder’s “agent,” during the early lean times, trying to sell his two early shorts to film festivals and to get him acting and directing jobs.

“After Eight Hours Are Not a Day and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, money started to come in. I didn’t earn anything until 1972.” When Praunheim notes to her that Fassbinder won five federal film prizes for Katzelmacher (1969), she replies, “That’s right, but he made five films in 1971 with that money. And bought several Stingrays. And he supported Gunther Kaufmann, who wrecked one expensive car after another.” [Praunheim]

Fox and His Friends

Curiously enough, though, Hermann, who was one of the more mild-mannered (and clearly not overtly ambitious) of Fassbinder’s collaborators, was one of the first significant rebels in his inner circle. (Hanna Schygulla, the most independent person in his initial ensemble, was the first to break away, after the stormy shoot of Effi Briest in 1974.)

She explained the basics of the situation to Juliane Lorenz in the latter’s book of interviews, Chaos as Usual: “As time went on, I felt constricted in the parts he wrote for me. But you see, I had no choice. I had to accept them if I wanted to be with him. It was that simple. Whenever I had personal disagreements with him, I would simply be dropped from the next movie or stage play. There you are.” [Lorenz, pp. 21-22]

“When Rainer dropped his favorites because someone else took his fancy, they were flung into despair. It was the same for me too. I was in the same situation. I’d left my bourgeois life. I’d become a ‘film star.’ I’d won a film prize early. And then he wouldn't cast me. I was out. You feel suicidal then.” [Praunheim]

Effi Briest

After a number of indignities, Irm refused to be in a play directed by Fassbinder where her character was merely a sex object. This rebellion sent him around the bend: “I knew it was a test, but I said, ‘No, I won’t do that,’ and I persisted. He couldn’t conceived of my refusing him, and he tried everything. He almost beat me to death on the streets of Bochum, but I screamed and I yelled, knowing in my heart that I was finding the strength to leave him.

“Then, in the very next film, he wanted me to play a whore in a garter belt, and when I said no, he came around early the next morning holding a bottle of milk, and he hit me on the head with it. But I didn’t do the part. He tried again and again to dissuade me; then he stopped. I had defeated him with my inner strength.” [Katz, p. 82]

During Fassbinder’s staging of Women in New York (his rewrite of the Clare Booth Luce play The Women), Hermann got pregnant by her then-boyfriend. In the spring of 1977 RWF offered to marry her and adopt the child. She refused and had the child while unmarried (later marrying the boyfriend who was the baby’s father).

“...I had only to set eyes on him and I would start to cry out of love…. It was so difficult for me, but I decided — for what I believed corresponded to the truth — to have the child all alone. I never regretted it, and today I’m still thankful, very thankful.”

Irm in later years

Fassbinder was angry and hurt but checked in with her at the hospital repeatedly and finally wished her well. She wound up calling her son “Franz,” RWF’s favorite name (and his pseudonym for many years).

He also brought her back into the fold for a regular role in Berlin Alexanderplatz and a supporting role in Lili Marleen. She no longer needed him for acting work, though — for the next four decades, she appeared in over 130 roles in German movies and television.

She reflected on the relationship in later years — it was initially love on his part and was always love on hers: “Surely I dreamed about him every night. No, I did not get him. I wanted him, always, but I did not get him.” [Katz, p. 121]
Four of "Fassbinder's
 Women" today

Two of the insights she gave to Praunheim as memorials for RWF equally sum up her view of her own life: “The medium of film is a drug. It’s a drug. Everyone falls for it. Who says no to it? It’s a dream factory. And the dream factory is nicer than the outside world.

“I still feel extremely close to [Rainer]. I don’t really know how he spent his last years, but I’m sure he suffered a good deal. I’m sure he wasn’t happy. I don’t know how things are judged in the next world, but I think he’d already been through hell on Earth, despite all his fame. He was punished enough. I don’t think you have to suffer twice. He suffered enough.” [Praunheim]

And, in commemoration of the 75th birthday celebration, let’s address again the issue of Fassbinder’s prolificness and the items that can be gotten legally and “from other sources” in the U.S.

For the tally, it must be noted that RWF made:
Two early shorts
One short contribution to an anthology film (which, curiously, is the most singularly personal thing he ever made for any medium)
One TV variety special, and

Eight telefilms, two of which were two-parters
One documentary
Twenty-eight fictional feature films, and
Two miniseries shot for TV; the second of which, Berlin Alexanderplatz, is arguably his masterpiece and perhaps his most personal fictional work.

His dream of Franz Biberkopf's dream.

All made, need I add again, in a period of 13 years. (RWF died in June of 1982 at the very young age of 37.)

Of the above, all have appeared on U.S. DVD (thanks to the sterling efforts of Juliane Lorenz and the Fassbinder Foundation), except for:

The documentary (Theater in Trance, 1981)
Five of the telefilms (incl. one two-parter), and
Two of the fiction feature films (Jail Bait, 1972 — which has been legally enjoined from being distributed, and Lili Marleen, 1980)

Viewers of the Funhouse TV show will be aware that the majority of the above “MIA” titles are indeed available in some places online with English subtitles (the missing telefilms were shown at the one comprehensive festival at MoMA in German with no subtitles).

The complete, utterly missing item – this despite it being announced for DVD release by a noted arthouse label — is the two-part telefilm Bolwieser (1977), which has only ever been available in the U.S. as the feature film The Stationmaster’s Wife (and has been out of print since New Yorker Films gave up the ghost).

As a heavy-duty fan of Fassbinder’s work, I find it interesting to check the video-clip sites every few years, since you never know what might show up. In preparing this piece I went looking and found some wonderful items. Those will be presented at the bottom, though — first, let’s see, at this particular moment, which of the “missing” (read: no U.S. DVD release) are available online.

RWF’s first telefilm is a filmed version of his updated and minimalist adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s The Coffeehouse (1970). It’s only for the diehard fan, but it’s nice to know that the film is (again, at this particular moment in time) immediately available on YouTube with English subtitles.

The hands-down best of his plays filmed for television is his own Bremen Freedom (1972). It’s one of his chronicles of an “emotional slave” (a devoted wife, mother, daughter), but here the slave has something up her sleeve — namely poison she gives to each of her oppressors. Fassbinder did a beautiful job stylizing the proceedings. (This clip has no English subs.)

An equally important missing film is the 1972 Wildwechsel (aka “Jail Bait” in English). This is a beautifully crafted fiction feature by Fassbinder, but it is unable to be shown commercially because the playwright, Franz Xaver Kroetz, had it banned. Presumably as time moves on, his relatives won’t be as narrow-minded. (Another clip without subs.)

Another filmed play — in this case, Fassbinder’s rewrite of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, entitled Nora Helmer (1973). Interesting, worth watching, but not a major work. Available on YT in its entirety, with English subs.

A supremely stylized filmed play, Women in New York (1977) is RWF’s rendition of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. It’s a rather arch piece, but the visuals are so sublime, it’s worth it. Available with English subtitles here:

As noted, the complete Bolwieser is just about impossible to find. However, a French network has made available an interview Fassbinder conducted on location for the film, with some footage of RWF working with Michael Ballhaus. The clip is in German, with French subtitles available on the Closed Captions.

Fassbinder deftly sidesteps the question of influences but answers questions about how his style is a blend of Hollywood fantasy and German reality [my own loose translation of the French translation]: “My interest for the cinema was born from the fact that my mother, when she wished to be calm, or when she had visitors, would give me 1 mark 20 and send me to the movies. And this happened in West Germany, and I watched American films. There you have a German reality.

“And if I make use of this [in my films], that’s because the American cinema produces a better sense of identification through an awakening and a call to to the emotions. For me, that’s something very positive. On the other hand, there are many elements that disturb me in American films. In particular, they propagate a fake and lying ideology. I said to myself that if I could make films that are as beautiful and magnificent as the American films I love, and yet recount true stories, that would be ideal.

“And for someone to recount real stories, they must have their own sense of reality, meaning the country in which one lives. For me, that means making German films. And I try to make them as if we were in Hollywood, as if the actors with whom I work were Hollywood actors. Which does not mean that they are better. I do think that ours are better, but American actors have an aura that adds to a film. Our actors don’t have that, that kind of care for their image. But we can still proceed as if that was there.”

The one major (in terms of budget and prestige) Fassbinder film that is “MIA” in the U.S. is Lili Marleen, which has never been released on any home-entertainment format here (going back to the  days of VHS — nothing). The film can be found in its entirety on the site with a German soundtrack and a Russian one. Here is the trailer, in German:

And while Lili Marleen is the highest-profile Fassbinder film to hit the great divide in terms of release, Theater in Trance (1981) is clearly the most unique. His only documentary, it chronicles the acts that appeared at an international theater festival.

Fassbinder reads from Artaud’s The Theater and its Double on the soundtrack. The film is up on YT in its entirety with Portuguese subs, but it is a film that is often played without subtitles of any kind, as it encompasses theater acts from several different countries, all performing in their native languages.


The final half-dozen spotlighted items are either films that have indeed been on DVD in the U.S. but are now easily accessed online (at this moment, in this particular period) or have never been on U.S. video and likely will not be.

The first is one of those items — it’s in fact where one of the Irm Hermann interviews excerpted above appears. Fassbinder’s Women (2000; original German title “For me, Fassbinder was all that existed”) by Rosa von Praunheim is a work that both honors the talent of Fassbinder and also brings up the many stories about his treatment of his lovers and collaborators.

There are other serious documentaries about Fassbinder, but those can already be obtained on the various U.S. DVD releases of his films. The Rosa doc is most likely not going to be coming out legally in this country any time soon. So...

Fassbinder’s first 10 (pre-Sirk) films exist in a world unto themselves. Among these, there are films about characters who behave like they’re in a movie and then there are more theatrical works, which show RWF forging his own visual and scripting style as a filmmaker.

Katzelmacher (1969; literally “Cat fucker”) is one of the latter — it’s a cinematic rendition of his play about a bunch of layabout working-class Germans who (the women) lust after or (the men) loathe a foreign guest-worker, played by Fassbinder himself. It’s a film that is both intentionally “distant” (read:  Brechtian alienation) and is also an interesting entry in the “hanging out with nothing to do” subgenre of young adult films that are made in every culture every few years and define a generation — Fassbinder defined his generation as one that was bored and blamed their troubles on immigrants. It’s quite a creation.

While Fassbinder did only make one documentary feature, he also made a documentary short, which was a segment contributed to the anthology film Germany in Autumn (1978). Rather than show documentary footage relating to the terrorist attacks of the time or making up a fictional reflection on the events, he chose to film moments from his own life, making himself the “villain.”

We see him with his lover, Armin Meier, starting an argument; then we see him debate his mother (Liselotte Eder) and likening her to a Nazi. It’s still a rather shocking piece, because most artists would’ve chosen to make themselves the hero of a piece of nonfiction cinema (or, at the very least, a “brooding artist”), whereas Fassbinder was fine with assuming the mantle of the argumentative brute.

One needs a respite after the real-life arguing in the last entry, so I must offer Rainer Werner and Hanna rocking out in a barroom Rio Das Mortes (1970) to “Jailhouse Rock” (this should always and forever be up on YouTube):

There are two long interviews that have been included on U.S. Criterion releases — one could be handily titled “RWF in a park” and the other “RWF in his Paris apartment.” (Both are currently available on YT.) There is a veritable host of untranslated interviews (or, sadly, interviews that the poster *did* translate but only gives us one minute of, as happens here).

One can see Fassbinder with glasses and a mustache, looking like a Mandarin (here). Or one can see him talking on a very rare 21-minutetape from the Austrian Film Museum, shot in 1975 on b&w videotape.

And here is a full hour-long, German-only documentary with both film clips and interview clips never yet seen in the U.S.

But of all the lovely things to be beheld on the Net, I am rather deliriously happy to report that one clip I have very much wanted to see again since it was initially on YT (and then was pulled off, rather peremptorily), has been available of the last two years, in the middle of a compilation of rare clips about or with Fassbinder.

I speak about his appearance on a TV show shot in the Circus Krone in Munich. The show in question is “Stars in der Manege,” a “Circus of the Stars”–type TV variety show in which celebrities perform different acts. (You can see Eddie Constantine leaving with his animal act as the clip begins.) Here for one five-minute period, at 26:45 in the video below, we find Rainer Werner Fassbinder performing a magic act with Hanna Schygulla to promote Lili Marleen — set to RWF’s favorite song of this period, “Radioactivity” by Kraftwerk!

Follow the Boys
I saw this in the mid-2000s when fans started posting rare footage on YouTube and my mind exploded. Then, a few months later (after it had been quickly removed from YT), it finally occurred to me (being bereft of translation or anything written about the appearance) what they were recreating. Namely the magic act Orson Welles used to perform with Marlene Dietrich during WWII, called “The Mercury Wonder Show,” performed for U.S. soldiers in California. The act was recreated by the two in the 1944 film Follow the Boys.

There are many moments in Fassbinder’s films where one gets the impression that he was channeling von Sternberg and Hanna was his Marlene — this is pretty much the apotheosis of all that. (And he surely relished playing the part of the magician — the little dance he does while Hanna is floating in air is rather remarkable.)

And in case you’re looking for still more rarities, this compilation also contains: a German TV commentator speaking about RWF, Hanna receiving an award, a downbeat song whose lyrics are nothing but the titles of Fassbinder films, an interview with his mother (which I’m certain can be seen in some U.S.-available doc), Ingrid Caven singing on a variety show, yet another untranslated interview with RWF (sliding down in his chair), a clip from a 1992 Schlingensief film (Christoph seemed intent on both paying tribute to RWF and demolishing his legacy with shrill, weird, high-key apocalyptic farces that use RWF’s actors; a woman plays RWF here — the second time that happened on film….), Brigitte Meara singing to leather men (from the “Like a Bird on a Wire” TV special, directed by Rainer), and a view of his gravestone.

Katz, Robert, Love Is Colder than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Random House: New York, 1987
Lorenz, Juliane (editor) Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werrner Fassbinder, Applause: New York, 1997
Praunheim, Rosa von, English subtitling for Für mich gab's nur noch Fassbinder (aka Fassbinder’s Women, 2000), documentary by Rosa von Praunheim