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