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A new documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "unholy mix of genius and monster"


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At the Artforum website, Tony Pipolo reviews the new documentary Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands by Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen. Pipolo writes that even though Fassbinder’s work and persona have already been examined from nearly every angle imaginable, Thomsen’s film manages to bring a fresh and personal understanding of the conditions that created such a brilliant and cruel artist. An excerpt:

Thomsen was initially struck by the “poetic” texts of such films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Effi Briest (1974), which contradicted his childhood impression—formed by the Nazi occupation of Denmark—that German was the language of soldiers, judges, and executioners. With clips from those films and others, he illustrates how Fassbinder wove his biography and experiences into the fabric of each work, constructing an accumulated image of West German life from the 1950s to the ’70s remarkably in tune with social and political reality. This was no small part of his genius. In Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier (both 1970), considered amateur efforts to ape Hollywood’s gangster genre, the gangster and the cop are two sides of an “ailing society,” both doing a “dirty job.” Though a relentless social critic, Fassbinder was never aligned with extreme left-wing groups like Baader-Meinhof, which he believed resorted to the same fascist tactics as those they opposed. For him the relationship of society and the individual was more complex, something he explored perhaps most ambitiously in his television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, in which the protagonist Franz Biberkopf, former convict and pimp, was, in Fassbinder’s view, the kind of man drawn to Nazi ideology.

As one who believed that everyone had a second, contradictory self that demanded acknowledgment, Fassbinder used the pseudonym “Franz Walsch” in the credits of early films, fusing the first name of the charming, quasi-fascist protagonist of Alexanderplatz with the last name of Raoul Walsh, one of his favorite Hollywood directors. The notion that one’s divided personality is a product of social convention is as true of his reworking of Döblin as it is of his other literary adaptations, Effi Briest, The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977), Despair (1978), and Querelle (1982), all of which resonate autobiographically.

No title more explicitly proclaims the anguish underlying Fassbinder’s work than the oedipally tinged I Only Want You to Love Me (1978). And there is no more literal indication of how he used his movies to act out conflicts rooted in childhood than casting his mother, Lilo Pempeit, either as a stern, unforgiving parent or a passive “blind follower.” Speaking of Fassbinder’s oedipal issues in the 1978 interview, Thomsen wittily but wisely suggests that this use of his mother was the same as killing her. In the nonfiction Germany in Autumn (1978), Fassbinder castigates her mercilessly for this latter trait as typical of her generation’s responsibility for the rise of Hitler. In a 1982 recording included here, Pempeit says she was clueless as to what was happening during the war, and after it, was “incapable of raising a child.” While her son’s indictment stands, his own tendency toward bullying is on display in the next scene as he abuses the actor Armin Meier, his real lover at the time, who later committed suicide.

Image of Rainer Werner Fassbinder with his mother, Lilo Pempeit, via Artforum.