Merchant of Melodrama: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Traumatised Characters

Rainer Werner Fassbinder renders his characters blisteringly pathetic and emotionally extreme in a cold, numb, and unreceptive world. His style, shifting between neo-realism and campy melodrama, offers his audience something extraordinary and liminal. These disparate elements are woven together so tightly that Fassbinder’s works become an instructional guide, or perhaps even a group therapy session on how to navigate trauma. Because of those elements, watching a Fassbinder film can be a mesmerisingly uncomfortable experience. From the whip pans and hard zooms of his early films to the stillness and languid quality of his later works, Fassbinder invites you to wrestle with a contradiction of a kitsch and colourful world that is also nihilistic and grief-stricken.

Fassbinder’s films are deeply politicised; they’re full of angst, class inequality, sexual repression and liberation, misogyny, and racism. And yet, Fassbinder recognises that these intense points of societal crisis and conflict are themselves merely details in the equally enthralling interpersonal relationships of his filmography.

Describing Fassbinder’s films as theatrical has historical currency; the filmmaker wrote stage plays throughout his career, such as his absurdist 1971 stage play Blood on the Cat’s Neck, and initially developed his storytelling skills as a playwright. Fassbinder also acted and directed in the theatre, and many of the performers and crew, such as composer and writer Peer Raben, came from relationships forged in his time as a theatre performer and playwright. As part of the New German Cinema, Fassbinder was tied to the renowned Filmverlag der Autoren – however, his relationship with that group, which included the likes of Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), was complex to the say the least. His experimental work was always uninterested in the constraints of the Filmverlag der Autoren, skirting the group’s imperative to define its own cinema as independent of Hollywood. Fassbinder did not see New German Cinema as requiring marked differentiation from Hollywood, and sought a hybridised ideological and artistic model of filmmaking that sampled the best of Eastern Europe and the West. It allowed him to be critical of the consumeristic excesses of Hollywood cinema, while reading those excesses against the overly earnest and dry examinations of the familial unit that became a sort of trope in New German Cinema. Crucially, Fassbinder recognised that simply reacting to the popularity of Hollywood with a cinema that was too heady and artsy was a waste of his talent. He deigned to create a cinema with the populism of Hollywood and the critical insight of the Filmverlag der Autoren and so he drew heavily from German directors in the United States like melodrama master Douglas Sirk (All that Heaven Allows).

Fassbinder regularly turns to characters who find themselves on the brink of despair and even death, shown in Fox and his Friends (1971), Veronika Voss (1982), and Martha (1996), where his protagonists are given opportunities to be momentarily hopeful about the world around them. Inevitably, however, that hope either runs out or betrays them, and they meet a morally bankrupt end. These relationships and character arcs offer such profound insights into the human condition and into the philosophies of prejudice that to call them pessimistic might be an error. Fassbinder certainly grappled with personal demons, and prejudices of his own but many have found value in reading against the negativity of his work and seeing its process of unpacking trauma as profound insight. In an interview attached to the DVD version of In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) director Richard Linklater, contemplating the sombre tone of the German director’s work recalls a line from Fassbinder’s film A Third Generation (1979) in which a character says “Well, as long as movies are depressing, life isn’t.” Linklater goes on to describe this line as emblematic of Fassbinder as a filmmaker. He reconciles the grim texture of Fassbinder’s films with their exhilarating and accessible quality. His work is not pessimistic because the treatment of devastation and trauma is always a call to action: Fassbinder implores you to feel politicised and to respond to what is playing out on screen.

Fassbinder’s preoccupation with the politics of trauma and grief is is one of the reasons his work remains timeless. 1950s drama The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) is an example of this ― where the titular character, Hans becomes a kind of martyr ― a sacrifice made to ensure that the world recognises the toxicity of masculinity and the insurmountable pressures of classism, which though prevalent in that time, remains relevant today. Fassbinder depicts his protagonist’s self-destruction with the full force of dramatic irony; the audience is almost berated with the friends and family of Hans acknowledging that he is depressed and misunderstood. There are so many moments where Fassbinder could have intervened in the narrative to redirect the self-harming trajectory of Hans’ short life, but each of these are deliberately avoided. We watch in frustration, either tired of Hans’ horrible disposition as he regularly mistreats his wife and daughter, or urgently hoping someone will understand him, watching him wallow drunkenly in despair to his stiff, uncaring friends at a bar.

The only character who seems even remotely sincere is Hans’ sister Anna who openly admits, despite regular admonishment from her family, that everyone Hans cares about despises him. Hans is an impossible character to redeem. He beats his wife, and doesn’t care about his child. He is fundamentally a bad person. But Fassbinder asks us to bask in the disturbing feeling that we will never know how much of Hans’ failure is his own fault, and how much is his family’s open secret of deep shame. As such, every moment that should invite sympathy feels more deserving of pity or even frustration. We can’t like Hans, he’s an awful man ― but Fassbinder wants to know if we can understand him, and maybe we can’t do that either. The Merchant of Four Seasons is an exemplar of the camp, stagier part of Fassbinder’s career, where characters often sound like they are monologuing to one another rather than talking. The strange, disjointedness of this style of dialogue recalls Fassbinder’s theatre career, but transplanting this approach into his film adds a further layer of futility and hopelessness: Hans might say something remarkable, but it seems no one can hear him. Fassbinder, amplifying the harshness of this style, repeatedly relies on hard zooms so the audience has no choice as to where their attention is focused, but also packages the thick and real trauma of his narrative in a surprisingly palatable aesthetic of bright colours and fancy camerawork.

Seven years after The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder perfects his take on the character in inescapable distress, with 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Perhaps Fassbinder’s most profound and brutal film, the story follows trans woman Elvira and her attempt to navigate an increasingly intolerant society. Ultimately, she is lead into a destructive spiral that disallows her even a moment of comfort in her identity. The resentment and disgust Elvira faces is certainly presented by Fassbinder as a damaging manifestation of West German society, and the normalcy of such attitudes is not understated. Fassbinder’s works are difficult to watch, not just because of their exaggeration of societies’ worst attributes, but also due to the desensitised lens through which we see that cruelty. Fassbinder’s interest in the melodrama genre’s hysterical peaks and valleys of emotional and sexual drama reminds us that his films are a mythological demonstration of society’s ills, though not going so far as  to escape the reality of the very debilitating and genuine existence of those ills. This brutality is ubiquitous in 13 Moons, from the men that beat Elvira in the film’s opening, to an excruciatingly long sequence at a real abattoir. It’s clear that Fassbinder’s intention is to assert the unrelentingly claustrophobic quality of an oppressed existence. This reflects his own identity too: as a queer filmmaker surrounded by suicide, death and heartbreak, Fassbinder’s success ultimately resulted in his own early end at 37 years old from cocaine overdose. As such, Elvira’s life is full of death and violence not because she lives in a melodrama, but because she lives in West Germany. If anything, her exaggerated, melodramatic presence in the film is still not enough to save her, despite the typically moralising character arcs in most melodrama. Fassbinder invites the genre’s expectations of retribution and resolution, but those expectations are met with a biting reminder of society’s transmisogyny when Elvira’s larger-than-life character is still left to die alone and unloved.  Her regular, desperate pleas for help are ignored and refused, and the film ends with her a slow, heart-wrenching suicide.

Fassbinder draws from his own life to create works of fiction that are specific enough to induce empathy and sympathy with his haunted characters, but overwhelmingly universal enough to elicit deep pity and grief amongst us, for our own suffocation by the state of the world. Fassbinder’s films examine grief and pain through a lens that resists fetishisation and invites understanding. His almost scholarly grasp on the the genre of melodrama allows him to tap into our expectations of romance, sex and intrigue, and meet them with mature and powerful meditations on trauma and politics. His films are perfectly executed works of colour, sound, and performance that implore us to think more deeply about the moral and ethical implications of the most basic and intimate relationships in our lives.

The Australian premiere of Fassbinder’s stage play, Blood on the Cat’s Neck, is showing at KxT Bakehouse in Sydney from May 22 – 1 June 2019.

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Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.

Zach Karpinellison

Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.