Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 42, December 2001



Richard J. Hand

Post-reunification Fassbinder: Reception and Creation




Thomas Elsaesser

_Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject_

Amsterdam University Press, 1996

ISBN 9053561846 (hb); 9053560599 (pb)

396 pp.


I read this book with a practical interest. I am currently embarking on a research project on Rainer Werner Fassbinder with theatre students at the University of Glamorgan in Wales. The project involves a practical investigation into Fassbinder's theatre but it is informed and infused by the cinematic oeuvre. Fassbinder is a fascinating figure in that his practical involvement with the Action/Anti-teater groups introduce the themes and performative strategies that the vast body of film explores.


One may think of another figure like Brecht, whose _Kuhle Wampe_ and movie version of _Threepenny Opera_ give a tangential insight into stage practice and theory, or Werner Herzog, dabbling in 'visionary' theatre with _Variete_, but there's no one quite like Fassbinder, with masterpieces of contemporary German theatre (_Blood on the Neck of a Cat_), German film (_The Marriage of Maria Braun_), and, in the case of _The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant_, a work that straddles both.


Although Elsaesser does not look at Fassbinder's theatre, this book has been of invaluable use. It is an extremely thorough and substantial study in which Elsaesser provides a formidable insight into the Fassbinder canon and context.


Elsaesser gives a beneficial overview to Fassbinder studies in an attempt to locate the place of 'Fassbinder' as an icon and as a body of work. Elsaesser does much to deconstruct the somewhat cliched approach to Fassbinder as a sexually complicated cult figure, a romanticised Faustian (anti-)hero whose early death was not only inevitable but necessary. As Elsaesser clarifies, far from being a creator of hermetic isolation, Fassbinder is indelibly part of his immediate entourage and the broader context of New German Cinema. As well as taking the pop image of Fassbinder to task, Elsaesser evaluates the less knee-jerk reaction of post-mortems such as Wolfram Schutte's famous obituary which saw Fassbinder as the Balzac of West Germany and prophesised the demise of New German Cinema now that its heart had died. With impressive contextualisation and intertextuality, Elsaesser highlights that if Fassbinder is to be seen as the chronicler of West Germany's *comedie humaine* he was totally uninterested in depicting visual landscape (in stark contrast to Herzog and Wim Wenders). Moreover, as for realism, Fassbinder is not an Edgar Reitz but an avowed fan of Hollywood genres. Fassbinder emerges from the literary pedigree of Frank Wedekind or Brecht more than Theodor Fontane (film version of _Effi Brest_ notwithstanding) or Thomas Mann. Nevertheless, with the sweep, ambition, and locale of his work, Fassbinder is 'the chronicler of the inner history of the Federal Republic' (22). Such meticulous study and argument is typical of the book throughout and Elsaesser manages to draw on details and figures from German history and politics as effortlessly as from German and international cinema (even if some of the parallels Elsaesser draws with Oshima, Jarman and others are fascinating but all too fleeting). Overall, Elsaesser trawls the treacherous marsh of Fassbinder's Germany (or Fassbinder *and* Germany), and through an evaluation of film and history and politics presents his thesis on Fassbinder: 'In Fassbinder's work this field of the visible, of seeing and being seen, of image and body, of spectacle and event, in short, of the politics of 'self' and 'identity' may well define differently what it means to be representative, and, with it, may have helped to redefine the cinema and its representations of history.' (43) And very persuasive is Elsaesser's argument.


One of the pressing issues when exploring Fassbinder's work is its continued relevance. This is particularly pertinent in the case of a filmmaker who was concerned with his nation's immediate political and social context as much as its historical legacy. Fassbinder is an emblem of divided Germany and this is a key point when working with students who were born after Fassbinder died and have only the sketchiest childhood memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


One part of our Fassbinder research project was to examine the film _Petra von Kant_ and then proceed to study the original play in the context of a theatre laboratory. Elsaesser says that the film presents a 'provocative masochism' (57), and it is also a deeply political work, not least in the way that the film affirms 'the importance of class as a marker of difference' (33). The principle dynamic of the complex *menage a trois* of Petra, Marlene, and Karin is evident on screen with the heightened mise en scene (the enormous Poussain mural and assorted naked mannequins) and moments of stylised tableau (the frozen, passionless stasis of the kiss between Petra and Karin which will never be interrupted by Marlene, and can only be broken by the ring of the telephone). Live theatre foregrounds the body in unique space and in unified time. We returned to the script in a close analysis freed from the wealth of cinematic technology and strategy. By placing the audience in Petra's bedroom lit only by four stark stage lights, the motivation and function of the three main characters becomes almost tangible. We looked at the script in its social context of original production and also proceeded to look at the work in the context of 2000. Much of the latter investigation involved an analysis of contemporary Germany and the fault lines of post-reunification. As Elsaesser writes: 'Fassbinder's films do have something to say about Germany after reunification, if anyone cared to look and listen.' (259) Certainly I would argue that looking at his drama practically, and watching his films, continues to be an engaging and pertinent exercise in a contemporary world context where lines of demarcation have been redrawn rather than obliterated. Furthermore, this seems an unnerving and yet totally credible message in the context of a Germany which is adding the representation of Auschwitz 'to its cultural heritage' (259), and a bloody and bureaucratic 'new' Europe which is constantly producing the very 'moments of crisis' (259) that Fassbinder would have prized.


In the light of this, the relevance and resonance of a Post-reunification _Petra von Kant_ was profound and urgent. Hannah Schygulla plays Maria Braun, the embodiment of the post-war economic miracle; in _Petra von Kant_ she is a similarly self-styled and selfish entrepreneur, but one of a more contemporary Germany. Karin works at attaining the comfort of success so that her picture can be in the newspaper and she can have gin and tonic for breakfast. Our Karin languished on Petra's bed having found a freedom in the borderless new frontier of a new Germany. Furthermore, she presents a 'go fuck yourself' audacity in the face of Petra's redundant values of Teutonic discipline which exist through an identity and status defined through proliferated and artificial divisions (the key metaphor of Cold War Germany). As for the all-important Marlene, she is the mute witness to Petra's every action, whether bullshitting her mother on the phone, ostensibly seducing Karin, or acting a drunken egomaniac at her birthday party. Marlene is the necessary complement to everything. Elsaesser says of her, and other similar characters in the films, that they 'are more like bystanders, or curiously passive props, whose passivity becomes uncanny, at times malevolent, precisely because they seem to possess the power of the look, without the motivation' (64). Elsewhere Elsaesser calls Marlene 'the puppeteer who holds the strings to the mechanism called 'Petra von Kant'' (87). We used this metaphor in performance as our Marlene fore-grounded all actions: it was her hand that made the phone ring, the door bell chime, and handed blanks sheets of paper to Petra who then read onto nothingness a commission from Karstadt or newspaper coverage of her latest collection. Such passive metatheatrical facilitation eventually suggests the malevolence that Elsaesser describes as it also showed control and power without clear motivation. When our Marlene left at the end of the play she switched on the house lights, thus denying (in a final act of cruelty and disgust) a coveted and suitably melodramatic fade to black, but, in effect, cutting the strings of the puppet.


The book proved to be superbly useful in the consolidation of a practical research project, illuminating readers who were creatively building on Fassbinder's short, simple script, and looking at it from the perspective of a performer, technician, or director.


Aside from that, Elsaesser's text is one of enormous intellectual and academic stimulation. The book is nearly four hundred pages and includes, in addition to its consummately thorough and wide-ranging analysis, a good bibliography and an extremely helpful 'Commented Filmography'.


So much impresses in this book that it is difficult to select any one facet. However, a discussion I have found particularly edifying is Elsaesser's analysis of Fassbinder as icon within his own films. Elsaesser asserts that Fassbinder's body is an icon of German film as powerful and resonant as that of Dietrich, Lorre, or Veidt. Fassbinder's appearance in his own films is, like Hitchcock's cameos, not simply cinephiliac self-referencing, but much more complex. It is indeed an interesting area, especially when we learn that Hitchcock himself became sickened of the process but still fulfilled the obligation. [1] Elsaesser draws attention to Fassbinder's use of the cameo, not least in the significance of him portraying 'unsavory' (258) and symbolic figures in numerous works, but furthermore draws a parallel with Orson Welles and similarly careful displays of constructed persona.


Elsaesser is rather self-effacing when he writes that it is simultaneously 'too late and too soon' (237) to be writing a book on Fassbinder. Too late to add anything new to the voluminous amount of criticism and yet too soon to have a perspective on the Fassbinder phenomenon. Elsaesser need not be so self-deprecating. He has in _Fassbinder's Germany_ produced what I feel to be the definitive monograph on Fassbinder, and a monumental and inspiring contribution to New German Cinema studies and to the broader range of cultural and creative studies.


University of Glamorgan

Pontypridd, Wales





1. See Daniel Spoto, _The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock_ (New York: Ballantine Press, 1983), p. 570.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Richard J. Hand, 'Post-reunification Fassbinder: Reception and Creation', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 42, December 2001 <>.




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