On the occasion of a comprehensive retrospective the TIFF Bell Lightbox (October 28 - December 23), the need to summarize the thirty plus films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder seems not just daunting, but reductive. How to simplify someone who both evolved and contradicted himself? While typically turning out three films per year between 1966 and his death in 1982, the year 1974 seems like one of the German director’s most unified, at least in terms of one preoccupation: marriage. This particular year seems as possibly a mid-way between Fassbinder’s working out-the-kinks genre exercises (The American Soldier, Love Is Colder Than Death) and the later, lavish international co-productions based on esteemed literary works (Despair, Querelle). The diversity upon which the holy union is depicted can be detected if just judging by each of the three’s own source material; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a remake of a Douglas Sirk film, Martha taking inspiration from a short pulp story, and, yes, another canonical piece of fiction tackled in Effi Briest. One can only epitomize Fassbinder but seeing his variations, be it inspiration, period setting or even leading lady.
In what could just as conveniently be labeled a “trilogy” as much as his famed BRD trio; these three films display marriages that range from genuine love to cruelty to an almost complete absence of any affection. They articulate the confrontational qualities that lead to his enfant terrible reputation, but also the cool-as-ice formalism that made him seem the immediate heir to Jean-Luc Godard or Straub-Huillet. The pains of coupling are a gateway into the man himself.
Looking at Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), the story of a wealthy woman who falls in love with a younger, working class man, and the subsequent pressure she faces from conservative 1950s America to repress her feelings, it’s hard not to see the film as a representation of the point in time where the audiences for Hollywood films were predominantly interested in the exploits of the rich. While the two successive films of the 1974 three certainly play within a similar bourgeois milieu, in comparison, Fassbinder’s remake Ali: Fear Eats the Soul relocates the story to working-class Germany. If to understand this difference, just look at one of the film’s recurring images of a dreary apartment building’s staircase, which serves as a hangout space for a group of middle-aged cleaning ladies. Perhaps the film became Fassbinder’s best-known work due to “relatability” still possibly being one of the key appeals of the art film.
Likewise, our Jane Wyman stand-in is reconfigured into the plump 60-year old Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a remnant of Germany’s past and an outsider in its burgeoning new realm. This is evidenced upon the film’s beginning, her entering a tavern blasting Arabic music on a rainy night, only to immediately find herself the subject of piercing stares from its patrons, no matter their skin color. Amongst them though, Moroccan immigrant Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, easily the most masculine-looking of the Fassbinder stock players), finds himself in her orbit, and dances with her on a dare. Eventually they form an unlikely couple that blooms into marriage; itself more a hasty decision for the sake of Ali’s legal residency in her apartment, yet they’re ostracized by all those that surround them, be it co-workers, family members or strangers. Most of these staredowns are captured in a number of tableaux compositions that already signal the perceived melodramatic form being reconfigured. A number of these shots will be punctuated with a sudden movement, like Emmi’s shocking reveal to her family interrupted by the son gracelessly kicking in the screen of her television (perhaps another nod to an iconic image from All That Heaven Allows). The film, like much of Fassbinder’s work, keeps seeming to border on classical in form and genre, yet pushes the length of every shot and the stillness of every actor until it seems to reach a Brechtian breaking point.
Yet the endpoint of what seems to interest Fassbinder about the couple’s unconventionality and subsequent struggles doesn’t seem an excuse for the liberal sermonizing of a plea for progress in Germany. This becomes apparent when the opportunity for them to be free of strain seems to emerge late in the story. Upon returning from vacation, their marriage seems subject to less racism, yet another tension emerges. The two start taking each other for granted under the face of less oppression. Their eventual reconciliation is interrupted when Ali is stricken with an ulcer. The final image is of them together, Emmi at her husband’s hospital bedside with his future very uncertain. Able to get away without a happy ending, unlike his hero Sirk, Fassbinder at least still seems to believe, as the Hollywood system endlessly suggested, that love exists.
Martha is by far the cruelest of these three films, and the one with the closest resemblance to an all-out horror picture (the film was inspired by Cornell Woolrich, himself the pulp author whose work served as basis for a number of genre pictures including the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur production The Leopard Man). So cruel, in fact, the film almost initially seems like a practical joke on Fassbinder’s part. The titular Martha (Margit Carstensen) is a 30-year old woman still close to her wealthy parents; that is, if one defines “close” as huffing valium with her mother. Opening with her on vacation in Rome with her father, her bourgeois bliss is soon interrupted by his sudden heart attack on the Spanish Steps. Though the shock to her is articulated for the audience more by the quick jolt of a Bressonian like insert of her purse being stolen; of course the materialist more distracted by her loss of an object than the fallen patriarch.
Made while on break from shooting Effi Briest and so jittery it initially seems like just an exercise in hovering the camera around around even more bourgeois spaces, it almost comes as a surprise that the film will eventually reveal itself as another story of a couple, the man coming into Effi's orbit being civil engineer Helmut (Karlheinz Bohm). Yet something is apparent in how their meeting outside Rome’s German embassy is presented as far more than simply two star-crossed lovers locking eyes. Rather, in the film’s grandest formal gesture, their chance encounter is accompanied by a justifiably ostentatious 720 degree spin of the camera. From this moment on, the film ties itself strictly around these two, rather than cutting back to the peering society that loomed throughout Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Fassbinder is interested in a traditional romance, as established upon a second chance encounter back in Germany where Helmut takes to insulting Christensen’s gaunt look; telling her she’s bone-thin rather than beautiful, to which doesn’t seem to dispel any kind of attraction between the two. Subsequently proposing to her, to which she accepts immediately after motion-sickness-induced vomiting, the stage is appropriately set for this union from hell. Him seizing on her insecurity and fragility, the film’s stakes are revealed to oscillate around Martha’s body and psyche as essentially Helmut’s canvas.
Similarly, Cristensen’s performance gradually takes on a cowering physicality in comparison to the frozen-beauty qualities of Fassbinder’s other leading ladies. As the film progresses and Helmut’s cruelty amps up, having her unwillingly removed from her librarian job, murdering her cat and sexually forcing himself on her, the two bodies take on more friction. As such, the blocking begins to consist of repeated images of Martha and Helmut facing the opposite of each other: Fassbinder pushes his cringe-inducing tale of cruelty into the abstract.
If the narrative goes about depicting the gradual loss of Martha’s body, then of course it naturally climaxes with her being paralyzed for life. The counter to this markedly grim end result to all of her suffering; Helmut is nonetheless at her side, wheeling her out from the hospital, doomed to be his item for the rest of her life, yet also in the arms of her loving caretaker. The gesture itself in symmetry with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s own hospital-bound ending, it can easily be taken as Helmut’s most romantic act; as equally a genuine statement as dark joke from Fassbinder.
Effi Briest comes as one of Fassbinder’s most personal works, not in the strict terms of autobiography, but rather presence. The film is narrated by Fassbinder himself, who chose to cast his own mother as the eponymous heroine’s matriarch. Nevertheless, the film takes his distancing effects to an extreme. If abuse and xenophobia gave the past two films a charge, a far colder, greater tragedy takes place here.
Ostensibly a costume drama and the largest production the director had embarked on that point in his career (it could be labelled the white elephant, so to speak), there’s still a certain modesty to Effi Briest. The film takes place in a series of rooms rather than amidst crowds of costumed extras. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a limited scope; beginning with Effi (Hannah Schygulla) in an infantilized state on a swingset, we see our porcelain doll go from girlhood at 17 to womanhood (and ultimately death). The struggle over this period is Effi’s lack of agency, a chief example being her husband, Instetten (Wolfgang Schenk), a politician pretty much chosen by her wealthy parents for the sake of status.
Yet leaving most of the particulars of their marriage, including their child, off-screen, even within the space of a leisurely two and a half hour runtime, her life of unhappiness is presented as an exercise in ellipsis. Essentially sexless, Effi Briest has an atmosphere near as suffocating as Martha, even without the emotional and physical violence. If the past two film’s conclusions at least gave gestures of reconciliation, in both case lovers bound, even if by the cruelest of circumstances, the color-drained Effi Briest seems somewhat closer to Kenji Mizoguchi or Carl Th. Dreyer’s austere tales of oppressed women, perhaps with even less promise of the transcendental climax. After all, she takes up another lover, Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel), yet he doesn’t come as much of a romantic contrast to her husband. Their scenes together, a beachside dalliance or night-time carriage ride, are prone to the same lack of passion as her time with Instetten. To continue the Dreyer comparison, Effi is somewhat of a Gertrud, endlessly disappointed by all attempts at love, and only served by the film’s end with sickness and banishment.
Fading in and out with title cards containing text from Fontane’s original novel and Fassbinder’s narration filling in the gaps, the film’s procession of fragments of time are, to quote a popular phrase of Jonathan Rosenbaum, like beads on a string. Articulating what ultimately seems in retrospect an avoidable tragedy, there’s undeniably the feeling that Fassbinder’s desire in making the film was to show the societal sins of the past still lingering in the present. Thus making it a compliment, or greater articulation of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Martha’s real-time turmoil. With the three films taken together, they showcase not simply the versatility of the great director’s craft, but the pained empathy that so defined him.