Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Very Fassbinder Day

From somewhere deep down came the need this week to revisit Rainer Werner Fassbinder's world. It's been a year since a friend sat me down in front of the close-to-the-bone Fox and his Friends (where Fassbinder stars as a working class gay who wins the lottery), and my thirst for the director's caustic eye had been building up ever since. 

Fassbinder himself in Fox and His Friends (1975)

Which is why I went ahead and swallowed three of his films in 24 hours.

First, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1971). This three-woman drama about possessiveness and class shows the very thin Margit Carstensen as Petra, a Bremen-based fashion designer, who falls for commoner Karin Thimm (the very stunning Hanna Schygula).

Hanna Schygula (20 years before Jean-Paul Gaultier's cone-bra dress for Madonna, anyone?) and Margit Carstensen

The entire film unfolds in Petra's room. There is no music, and the atmosphere is tense and fabulously ritualistic, like a Greek drama. Of course the Petra-Karin liaison goes tits up and Petra ends up crying very bitter, gin-fuelled tears. In Fassbinder's world, someone always gets exploited. But you can't help but feeling they deserve it a little.

Next I stumbled upon Bremer Freiheit, a play Fassbinder wrote and directed just a year before he made Petra von Kant. And there are some hints at that: Margit Castensen plays Gesche Gottfried, the 19th century serial killer from Bremen (I had no idea Fassbinder was so smitten with my city of birth).

Scene from Bremer Freiheit, a play written and directed by Fassbinder

Over a period of 15 years, the working-class Gottfried (whose maiden name was Thimm - like Karin in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), poisoned her entire family, including mother, father, her children and two husbands. As a child I remember spitting on the official Gesche Gottfried spit stone on the market square where she was finally executed, but Fassbinder flips the story around. He makes it about repression, about a woman's desire for emancipation. You end up rooting for the poor murderer.

Bremer Freiheit (1972), in German

Finally and after much female drama, someone very dear recommended me Querelle. Which, really, should be called Queerelle: Based on a novel by Jean Genet, featuring art by Andy Warhol and starring Brad Davis as a sailor being sodomized by Fassbinder's ex-lover Günther Kaufmann, this is arguably the gayest film ever. It is also bold, strange, fantastic and unpredictable, a bit like walking on deck of a rocking (queer) boat.

A scene from Querelle

Fassbinder, Brad Davis, Andy Warhol

Sadly, Fassbinder did not live to see Querelle in its final version. He died three months before its premiere, from a drug cocktail, aged 37. In a career that lasted fewer than 15 years, he completed 40 feature films, two television film series, three short films, and 24 stage plays. And there I was, worrying that watching three films in one day was excessive. There is still so much to do. 

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