Mirror, mirror, off the wall

May 28, 1999

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is regarded as one of the most prominent directors of postwar European cinema. In just 13 years, he wrote, directed and produced 37 feature films for cinema and television and four TV series. He propelled the new German cinema and helped put it on the international map. Landmarks such as The Marriage of Maria Braun or his TV adaptation of Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz have earned him international status as chronicler of a pre and postwar Germany.

If Fassbinder's workaholism bordered on the obsessive, his private life was troubled and chaotic, yet it conformed, ironically, to the bourgeois stereotype of the artist. He lived fast and died young, just hours after his film adaptation of Jean Genet's Querelle was completed, having taken a lethal mixture of cocaine and sleeping pills. Apart from being an alcohol and drug addict, he was a promiscuous homosexual who engaged in abusive relationships with the actors and technicians who followed him from film to film.

Many accounts of Fassbinder have concentrated on his controversial personality and speculated on the motives behind his restless productivity, to the extent that his work has been overshadowed by an interest in his life. Christian Braad Thomsen's book represents a welcome break from this. The Danish film-maker and close friend of Fassbinder does not reveal new sensational aspects of Fassbinder's life, nor does he confine his subject to the psychoanalyst's couch. The Fassbinder who emerges from Thomsen's book is a "double man"' marked by conflict and tension and at the same time driven by the desire to double himself. At times, behind the contradictory and provocative facade, is a compassionate artist who was concerned with authenticity

and honesty in a world that has turned human beings and emotions into commodities.

But the principle of "doubling" informs Thomsen's story too much for him to pin down his subject once and for all. Just as Fassbinder's favourite visual symbol was the mirror, which at once multiplies and questions identity, Thomsen's narrative is peppered with "mirrors". These dialectical vignettes moderate between the tendency to write a complete account of Fassbinder's life and work, and the desire to deconstruct it into an ensemble of contradictory forces. Apart from Thomsen's skill as a subtle dialectician, his insight into Fassbinder's character is on a level with his narrative and critical abilities. The story of Fassbinder's (and West Germany's) life is interwoven with close, pertinent readings of each of his works, including any unfinished projects. What comes across nicely is a sense of Fassbinder working simultaneously in many genres and styles - from gangster and sci-fi movie to melodrama and literary adaptation, from radical avant-gardism to sub-Hollywood B movie to big international production. Similarly, he was occupied, if not obsessed, by so many themes at once - class, race and ethnicity, Fascism, terrorism, gender roles and sexual identity - that it would be easy to build a German cultural studies course around his films.

What is particularly good is the stress Thomsen puts on seeing the later films as reworkings of earlier ones with a different historical reference, and the way in which he presents little-known films as an anticipation or mirror image of some better-known films. As a result, Fassbinder's films assume a strangely double - or perhaps serial - character, as if they were their own "sequels" and "prequels". Overall, this readable book makes a convincing argument for keeping in view a number of the wider and conflicting contexts in which Fassbinder's work emerged.

Andreas Kramer is senior lecturer in German, Goldsmiths College, London.

Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius

Author - Christian Braad Thomsen
ISBN - 0 571 17842 1
Publisher - Faber
Price - £16.99
Pages - 358

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