Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the Dishonest Direction of Life

The compulsion for truth, one might say, drives many to madness. Society’s thirst for justice, its significant valuation of objects of authenticity, true love, one’s real family — these tropes endlessly pepper the canon of cinema with accompanying melodramatic performances of the human condition in urgent, desperate malfunction. The work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder distinguishably ranks amongst his peers as beautiful, capable depictions of the conditions for and unraveling of emotional implosion. His work concomitantly disassembles the human ontological structure and the societal structures generally assumed to provide the cohesion necessary for fortifying our being in order to undertake honest living. Two of Fassbinder’s particularly dense and complex movies, Welt am Draht [English: World on a Wire] (1973) and In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden [English: In a Year with 13 Moons] (1978), exemplify how he integrates anti-familist themes through reversals of identities, often by mirroring his own personal history onto characters and frequently through transposition of traditional societal archetypes, as a means to underscore how truth victimizes the self. Moreover, he hopes to reveal to his viewers the absurdity and fallibility of identity given the precariousness inherent in truth judgments, something he accomplishes through attentive aesthetic construction, visual metaphor, and reliance on moral and metaphysical philosophy.

Film still, Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1973
Welt am Draht (1973)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Courtesy internet

Much of this directorial quest stems from his upbringing, which significantly affected his desires as a filmmaker, his childhood history undeniably present in his anti-familist stories. Notoriously, the director’s father became a distant mirage after his parents’ divorce in his fifth year; likewise, his mother’s subsequent unavailability, selfishly attendant instead to her own concerns, further pushed him into the world reliant solely on his own cognizance. These absences throughout his adolescence assuredly influenced his purview: multiple actors, whom together amassed what was often referred to as his “surrogate family,” have remarked on the director’s evident psychosexual-identity crises that resulted from paternal abandonment and maternal withdrawal [1]. Known for his continual reliance on this cadre of actors, film theorists such as Thomas Elsaesser claim Fassbinder leaned, sometimes caustically, on this group as a way to not only reenact, but also rebuild, and perhaps repair, the unsound formative parts of his psyche. To this effect, as a director — as the father-leader of the group — filmmaking afforded him the opportunity to reverse his own identity: from wandering boy to omnipresent man. Film researcher Jessica Haunschild outlines this phenomenon nicely, describing how his films depict a “desperate loneliness … [that seem] to reflect his own lonely childhood. There is no protective father-figure in his movies” [2]. This makes perfect sense since accepting this fact leads one to posit that the father figure actually stands behind the camera, out of view, almost as a silently screaming concept on the margin of consciousness, in reprise of his own history. Nevertheless, as he assented to in a 1980 interview, the self, the presence of Fassbinder, still remained “clearly at the center” of what viewers’ saw on screen [3]. And, of course, Fassbinder frequently appeared in his movies, sometimes, as in Katzelmacher (1969), as a key figure to the narrative. Film creation for him, then, is also a phenomenological form of self-parenting, a step beyond reversing one’s identity and, in simultaneous contrast, embodying multiple forms of self — parent and child — at once.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget that as recent as ten years ago homosexuality did not hold such fashionable ubiquity as it today does. And despite the fact that some European cultures, Germany in particular, were more quickly culturally tolerant of and brazen with their gayness, films like Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo [English: Taxi to the John] (1981) and Fassbinder’s Jahr captured the homo- and queerphobia ever present at the time. In fact, not only swayed by his own sexuality but also to present the “exotic side” of society, Fassbinder, a white man who identified as a minority, admittedly chose marginal peoples, of such taboo like transvestitism, for many of his films’ themes in order to depict them as ultimately capable of identifying their own truths, instead of having to suffer from the false, pejorative identifications of others [4].

The socially insignificant and the typically unseen actually play a much more important role for Fassbinder than just thematics, and interestingly enough his sole science-fiction work, Welt, demonstrates how he continually brings the oft-overlooked into view. Welt tells the story of the Simulacron 1 machine, a supercomputer that allows its users to construct, enter, and experience alternate worlds that seemingly exist on digital circuitry. The machine thus incites examination of ontology and identity for those who, in real human life, use and, in (real?) digital life, are birthed of it. Welt‘s protagonist, Fred Stiller, at the film’s midpoint, discovers his digital unrealness and spends the final half of the movie trying to exit the multiple layers of the Simulacron and “go up” to reach the summit of “true life”.

Film still from Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbindr 1973, Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection
Film still from Welt am Draht.
Courtesy: The Criterion Collection

In order to set up this later subjective consternation, Welt is constructed as a world of mirrors and their myriad indications. Quickly, it becomes apparent that almost every scene in the film contains at least one object that displays a reflection, often now glaring out from the margins of otherwise plain sight — not just quotidian mirrors, but pristine glass surfaces, intricate work-desk tchotchkes, high-polish chromed furniture, chic lucite sculptures, shiny marble, and even faintly still waters. Banal objects become outstanding monuments. Everything is meant to be recognized. Such fine detail to mise en scène, coupled with an obsessive attention for cinematographic structuring through precisely calculated angles of framing, according blocking of actors, and multiple-point lighting, all craft a kaleidoscopic aesthetic, the conditions for multiplicative imagery. Early dialogue also reinforces this optical geometry. “You are nothing more,” belts out the Simulacron’s first victim of murderous termination shortly before his death, “than the image others have made of you.” Or, perhaps, we are nothing but a concatenation of multiple reflections. In a much later scene when viewers are led to question characters’ benevolence since it’s never really clear who is real and therefore honest, and in an irregularly geometric room whose walls are made simply of mirror panes, Fassbinder shoots from a high, downward angle outside and above the walls and creates an infinite progression of reflections that represents the interminable possibilities we must face in making judgmental impressions of one’s identity. Identity, Fassbinder visually suggests, is bidirectionally prismatic. Accordingly, Welt confronts viewers with the question of who controls identity: are identities programmed for us, like a computer, by external command, the ideas of others; or, do we program identity ourselves? Or is it an inescapable combination of the two?

Film still from Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1973
Welt am Draht (1973)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In his essay “World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors,” critic Ed Halter looks these questions in the eye, noting the film’s confrontation with “the relationship of illusion to identity” [5]. After pointing out the film’s reliance on both visual reflectivity and metaphysical philosophy, Halter states that Fassbinder achieved more than just a slick production with its flashy aesthetic, rather he used the film as a meditation on a facet of his own identity, that of a filmmaker. Like a computer which synthesizes alternate worlds, the director, too, creates a “virtual reality.”

Notably, Fassbinder does not appear in Welt, and interpolating this fact with Halter’s claim and the notion of director-as-father might explain a bizarre, outwardly incongruous scene in the film. After Stiller reveals to an associate the ontological unrealness of the digital world that they both inhabit, this confidant, now aware of his own existential nullity, kills himself, although, implicitly, this is merely termination by the Simulacron. Stiller runs away from the scene after being spotted by onlookers, who had been alerted by stories in the press that he is a “murderer,” a term which they scream at him, in chase, as a beautifully choreographic backwards tracking shot that acts as metaphor for fleeing from one’s identity. Action cuts to a close-up of the confident drowning, trapped in a car, under dirty water, a lone, inexplicable goldfish floating across the frame. An elliptical cut now presents Stiller hunched over in a shopping mall, a lone, barefoot, mud-stained boy inexplicably standing strangely beside him. “Are you sick?” the boy asks. Stiller answers no and begins to stand up as the camera pulls back, revealing what appears to be an abstract crucifix, a cruciform in reverse, negative space contained by the frame of a clothing display.

Welt am Draht crucifixion

In an archetypical twist, Fassbinder reverses Christ’s crucifixion: Stiller, the elder male of this scene, as analogue for the Father, hung from an invisible cross, and the boy as analogue for the Son, instead the heavenly voice of concern from the wing. Stiller uprights himself and stumbles away, leaving the boy, who attentively follows in desperation, and the two utter no other words to each other. Stiller, as father, is gone and the boy is left alone, looking dazed and damaged, in an unhomely hall of commerce. This boy’s real father is naturally Fassbinder, as film director, especially since this scene’s significance is almost entirely non-diegetic, bearing no effect in the overall plot; however, this scene importantly supports not only Haunschild’s aforementioned claim — despite emotionally desiring other digital entities, Stiller thoroughly disregards and abandons this clearly distraught child — but also Halter’s assertion that Welt is about Fassbinder’s identity. And this out-of-place character is also Fassbinder himself, that abandoned kid who found refuge in commercial movie theaters, and so here the director self-parents once more, that is to say he reprises his neglectful unparenting for and against himself [6]. Inasmuch as this boy that we see is created by Fassbinder’s craft, this boy’s identity — an unseeable obverse image the director nevertheless sees fitting within this film’s narrative — was crafted by the negative space Fassbinder’s emotionally absent parents carved into his life.

This reversal of crucifixion is rich with symbolism, particularly given the fact Welt‘s narrative so heavy relies on modern philosophy. Fassbinder’s transposition of father and son directly challenges the theological narrative of familial hierarchy, a significant jab to the deeply Christian history of his homeland. And, it nods to the West German resistance against patriarchal Nazi ideology then still a heavy topic in public discourse, a topic of which the director was constantly aware [7]. But, religion, a philosophical practice concerned with the “superhuman,” also incites much of the world’s confrontation over the truth [8]. Despite the fact that Fassbinder believes that “[t]he true is the artificial,” his work seems to advocate for the individual’s right to their own truth, regardless of whether that artifice exists in a virtual reality or reality of the first order, or whether it even exists outside of concept at all [9].

In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978
Volker Spengler in an exceptional performance as Elvira Weisshaupt
In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978

A similarly interesting transposition of and exploration through identities takes place in Jahr, what is resoundingly called “one of his most personal films” [10]. Mirrors, the marginalized, and the depiction of Fassbinder himself all help create an interesting virtual reality obverse to Welt. In fact, Jahr, a drama, was originally intended to include direct visual references to Welt, however this ultimately did not coalesce into the final scenic design [11]. Nevertheless, the similarities are plenty. Whereas Welt could be seen as the last few days of a man’s digital life, Jahr tells the story of the last five days of a transgendered female, Elvira, before she commits suicide, after having tried to recreate herself for the affections of the world around her. Film writer Richard Roud describes it as a “parable of the weak being exploited by the strong,” but this implication, snappingly meant to implicate the abusers in her life, can be kaleidoscopically construed in reverse, too [12].

The second scene of the movie depicts Elvira returning home after a failed night cruising for sex to find her lover, Christoph, who himself has just returned after having days before fled their flimsy relationship. The two begin to quarrel and Christoph becomes violent, tension from action and dialogue heightened by a fixed camera that pans nearly 180º back and forth as the two repeatedly march cacophonously between rooms. As the argument reaches a crescendo, Christoph grabs and forcefully drags Elvira by her hair into their bedroom and stands her, unwillingly, in front of a mirror hanging aslant from the wall. A cut-in brings the action close to the mirror, which depicts Christoph mostly in Elvira’s shadow, a scant amount of fill-light barely illuminating his profile. Fassbinder heavily employs this use of half-shadows throughout the film, building upon and in concert with the theme of mirrored, or duplex identities. He achieves this several ways: plainly, by using two-point low-key lighting with ample backfill and diminutive shot scales; extremely, through monochromatic close-ups; and craftily, by utilizing costume and contrastive-colored mise-en-scène to create a visual metaphor for shadowing, demonstrated here by a nun’s constrictive veiling. Since the film’s story is concerned with transgenderism, these visual motifs are key: Elvira, who was once a man, has become the obverse female, and by bringing her new gender into public light she paradoxically pushes herself into the shadows as both her life’s outsiders scorn her as a freak and her associates similarly humiliate and degrade her. Fassbinder even multiplies this in scenes where his obsessive eye and hand compose frames in which Elvira is presented as herself, her obverse, and her shadow — one object plus two reflections — all at once. And knowing the fact that Fassbinder directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited Jahr redoubles the sense of gravitas each scene seems to carry, an operatic serial of visual poetry about self-inflicted death after one’s own attempt at rebirth, a succinct verse of his own life.

In his preliminary story for Jahr, Fassbinder describes Elvira’s understanding of Welt am Draht as analogue for her own plane of existence, a world “where apparently genuine living beings are used to try out various reactions” [13]. This suggests Elvira, in an obverse reading of Roud’s assertion, constantly depicted as the victim of physical abuse, has all along been manipulating her abusers as well. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, in his review for the film’s American premiere, agrees, categorizing Elvira as a “monster” craving “salvation.”

Yet, Fassbinder strives to create a constant sense of sympathy for this otherwise monster. He does this by pairing monologues with long takes and tracking shots, camerawork, similar to the frenetic panning that initiated narrative tension, which captures sadness’s kinesis. For instance, in one scene Elvira returns to the convent orphanage where she lived during childhood, to investigate the roots of her psychological strife. She meets and pleads with Sister Gudrun to tell her the truth of her past. Gudrun acquiesces. Gudrun begins a gloomy monologue that retells Elvira’s childhood abandonment, strikingly similar to elements of the director’s own past, as she mournfully paces to and fro in the convent’s courtyard. A tracking shot of Gudrun’s rhythmic pacing is crosscut with Elvira’s synchronous, slow emotional crumbling as she hears her past, the nun traversing horizontally and Elvira ultimately losing her vertical poise. The kinetic contrast is powerful and provocative of compassion.

Lilo Pempeit, In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978
Lilo Pempeit
In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden (1978)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

This scene is incredibly more intoxicating, however, when its shadows are drawn back; Sister Gudrun was played by Lilo Pempeit, the stage name of Fassbinder’s real mother [14]. Like Stiller and the strange disheveled boy in Welt, the juxtaposition of Elvira, a transgendered minority, and Gudrun, equally represents the director’s real life parent-child relationship. But in contrast to Welt‘s veiled cruciform imagery, which attempts to veil cultural archetypes, this scene, with its explicit use of religion, exploits visible mise en scène to trigger critique of the social institution, namely, a suggestion that neither gods nor parents can often spare us from our own self-crucifixions. Still, the fact that Fassbinder’s real mother must perform an emotional undoing of her symbolic son subjects her, if nowhere else but at least on the set, to public humiliation as she must confront her own abandonment of her son. This transposes the repeated humiliation Elvira often receives onto his real mother, whose recitation of dialogue acknowledges real truth as well as diegetically explains Elvira’s predicament, and forces her character to discomfit Fassbinder’s analogue by creatively manipulating its actor.

Reading Jahr for its synthesis of authorial truth and fiction, Fassbinder’s endorsement of artifice as truth makes sense. Unsurprisingly, German philosophy strengthens his assertions. Writing over one-hundred years earlier, Germany’s quintessentially biting moralist, Friedrich Nietzsche, qualified truth as the “sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” essentially false “illusions” [15]. Nietzsche eschews the idea that empirical facts equate truth, going so far as to separate its mode even from the notion of honesty, and instead qualifies truth as a way man self-deceptively idealizes his perceptions in order to abate the fearful possibility of living alone in the world. Nietzsche’s ontology was heavily influenced by his immediate philosophical forebear, Arthur Schopenhauer, a thinker he frequently references. Fassbinder visually references Schopenhauer during Gudrun’s monologue, as she holds one of his books in her hands while she describes the “system of rewarded lies” in which Elvira lived as an orphan. Schopenhauer notably asserts that if a man lies, to respond in belief will encourage further untruths, which would eventually spiral the liar into a personal collapse toward conventional truth — systematic lying begetting personal reward, or, for Schopenhauer, a mode of artistry [16]. Like an image repeating itself around the heart of a kaleidoscope, Fassbinder repeatedly inverts conceptually sinuous narrative motifs to reverse viewers’ beliefs in social institutions, linguistic conventions, and the act of association itself. In contemporary philosopher Andrew J. Mitchell’s essay “The Subject of Film,” in which he analyzes the director’s oeuvre, he describes how the “operative logic” of the filmmaking process and its system of referents leads to the “masochistic logic” Fassbinder’s characters embrace, noting Jahr as an “extreme” case [17]. Even logic, as a philosophical institution, is doubtful.

In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden, Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978
In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Munden (1978)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

A later scene stitches together a more explicit sequence of metaphors through the poetic empiricism of montage. After Gudrun’s monologue and with her friend Rote Zora, Elvira returns home to rest, eventually passing out in her bed. Zora begins to watch television, which seems to sentiently, repeatedly change its own channel and form a patchwork of audibly disparate television clips into a mash-up monologue. The clips — news reports of the contemporaneous Chilean political crisis between Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet; a couple’s pre-coital arguing and post-coital pillow talk; and, Fassbinder speaking during a television interview — juxtapose manipulative governmental patriarchy, amorous interpersonal negotiation and rejection, and the director’s thoughts on family, fear, futility, and film itself. Zora, just having lulled Elvira to sleep by telling her, as if a child’s mother, a fictitious bedtime story, watches silently. Between digital Fassbinder on the screen and analogue Fassbinder lying in bed Zora sits, her comportment slowly deteriorating into an expression of resignation and disbelief, again in very low-key shadow-heavy light. “In my private life,” we hear Fassbinder finally say, “everything could change this evening. I hope it may.” Action cuts to the next day and proceeds toward Elvira’s eventual suicide, the montage left in Zora’s lap, unexplained, an unsolved puzzle, a cryptogram outside the possibility for a diegetic truth.

Before Elvira meets her own end, she encounters a man about to hang himself in a darkened, abandoned office building. The man, who, in his own monologue, waxes philosophically about truth and life, after Elvira inquires of his motivation to die, responds, “I don’t want to let things go on being real because I perceive them,” a direct nod to Schopenhauer [18]. Moments later, on Elvira’s suggestion that his time has come, the anonymous man soon lifelessly dangles from a rope wrapped around his own neck while she, observing, sips a glass of red wine, smokes a cigarette, and again falls asleep. Nonetheless, this man’s dialogue comes across as some of the most cogent and deep in the movie, bordering on paternal advice, and like Stiller’s willful ignorance, he does not attempt to prohibit her from the harm of experiencing his suicide. Again, for Elvira, whose father was as absent as Fassbinder’s, this surrogate figure disappears, a glowing inevitability for all those she encounters, a phenomenon she continually stokes throughout the rest of the film. Though Elvira intimates hopes for improved life, her actions and intentions truly skew otherwise. Her own truths, to herself, seem mysteriously obscured by shadows.

The worlds of Welt and Jahr revolve on the axis of their director; this is clear. Stiller, whose nagging truth was his existential nullity, dies by the hand of his creator’s daughter — another familial perversion — in order to become in fact human; Elvira, whose perception of others’ truths was quite unclear, dies at her own hand after accepting the error of cultivating manipulative, untrue relationships with the family in her world. In both films, the institution of family manipulates its adherents, consciously and conceptually. Do we abandon, then, its use? Fassbinder sidesteps an answer to instead warrant for individuality, and he does this by using his history for artistry. “Indeed,” Nietzsche asserts, “it is only by means of the … web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake” [19]. Fassbinder’s dreamworld web, then, inspires him, and his viewers, to arise into their own dreamt-up identities, or, if nothing else, admonishes the belief that to know the truth can be more dangerous than fiction.

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[1] Elsaesser, Thomas. Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject. Amsterdam University Press, 1996. Kurt Raab quoted on pp. 301-302.
[2] Haunschild, Jessica. The Perception of Foreign Films by American College Students: Two Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Ibidem-Verlag, 1997. p. 19.
[3] Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes. Michael Töteberg and Leo Lensing, editors. Krishna Winston, translation. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Ernst Burkel quoted on p. 41.
[4] Fassbinder p. 19.
[5] Halter, Ed. “World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors.” The Criterion Collection.
[6] Elsaesser p. 301.
[7] Ibid pp. 178-181.
[8] New Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2012.
[9] Fassbinder p. 198.
[10] Elsaesser p. 197.
[11] Elsaesser p. 205; Fassbinder pp. 192-193.
[12] Elsaesser quoted on p. 198.
[13] Fassbinder p. 194.
[14] Elsaesser p. 301.
[15] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Daniel Breazeale, translation. Humanity Books, 1999 p. 84.
[16] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. E. F. J. Payne, translation. Dover, 1969. pp. 244-250.
[17] Mitchell, Andrew J. “The Subject of Film.” Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. James Phillips, editor. Stanford University Press, 2008. p. 131.
[18] Ibid 131-132.
[19] Nietzsche p. 89.

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