05 October 2007

Jetzt geh ich ins Kino!

Fassbinder and Schygulla on the Alexanderplatz set

Among the happiest experiences in my movie-going life was the discovery, when I was in college, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work. The Bavarian auteur crammed 43 movies into his short life, and just after his death I saw 18 of them, not quite back-to-back, profiting not only from the commercial release of several of his blockbusters (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Querelle, Lola, Veronika Voss) but also from a retrospective we programmed at the Brown Film Society. Far from mourning the Meister, I was giddy, drunk with cinema. The pictures were like a bottomless box of assorted chocolates: I might not like one, but there was always another bonbon.

Some movies were brilliant; most were disturbing. Several of Fassbinder’s experiments with pacing and plot were frankly excruciating — Effi Briest bored me senseless, and (as I discovered when I saw it again here in Paris, a few years ago) it still does. At times I pitied his actors, whom he abused without evident remorse. (As he freely admitted, in the self-portrait, Beware of a Holy Whore.) Yet he also seemed to adore them, especially the actresses, and under his spell I adored them, too: the frosty Ingrid Caven, the inscrutable Irm Herrmann, the not-quite cuddly Brigitte Mira, and above all the seductive Hanna Schygulla. They pop up again and again, in film after film, in roles great and small, building up expectations and shifting, then destroying them. You can’t pin them down: Hausfrau one minute and carnivore the next, a Fassbinder actress never plays to type. Just as Fassbinder continually offers conflicting glimpses of his own sensibility in each picture.

(The exception, curiously, was Jeanne Moreau, without question the greatest actress Fassbinder worked with — but in only one picture that added nothing to her already established, many-faceted appeal. I’d never seen Moreau before Querelle, but I didn’t “get” her until I saw her other pictures.)

Fassbinder’s movies challenged my aesthetics, not only in their sometimes glacial pacing but also in their inventive camera work, their utter lack of sentimentality, their dizzying contrasts between riotous color schemes in one picture and stark black and white in another. He challenged my thinking — perhaps most especially in those cases where the fog of my naiveté prevented my understanding precisely what was going on. Fassbinder was a kinky guy, and I was very green. Fassbinder critiqued political philosophies I’d never heard of; adapted authors I’d never read; reflected ethnic, national and economic tensions beyond my comprehension. But then, Schygulla once told Susan Sontag that Fassbinder “was looking for something beyond comprehension.” Maybe I was the ideal audience. I’m not sure there’s a single picture in his oeuvre that depicts a world I’d ever seen before.

He warned us, again and again, that he was self-destructive: sometimes he acted in his own films, and you could see the damage he did to his body. He was puffy, decaying. He seemed to crank out so many movies (and plays, too) because he knew he didn’t have much time. And he was right. He died at the age of 37, in 1982.

But there’s an asterisk to that tally: one of those films is actually a television miniseries, Berlin Alexanderplatz, 14 episodes first broadcast in 1980. Though the series was screened in Manhattan moviehouses and turned up on New York television at least once, I was never able to see it. Until now.

The Grand Rex, a landmark Art Deco picture palace that opened in 1932, is screening the entire series in a two-day marathon this weekend. And I’m going. Sometime around Sunday evening, my German should be substantially improved. Wish me luck.