Peter K. Tyson
For a gay film
it seems rather paradoxical that Fassbinder should have two wives fighting
over him. From 1970-72, he was married to his first wife Ingrid Caven (b.
who appeared in his films and theatre productions. It turns out that Fassbinder
was actually bisexual (as was Caven). His second wife, Juliane Lorenz, has
proved highly controversial. Aged 19, she began working with Fassbinder as
assistant editor on Chinesisches Roulette
(1976) and then went on to edit later works like Despair (1978), Berlin
Alexanderplatz (1980) and Querelle
(1982). Fassbinders mother, Liselotte Eder, who had also appeared in his films
under the name Lilo Pempeit, set up the Fassbinder Foundation in 1986, which
she then passed over to Lorenz before her death in 1993. Lorenz went through a
dubious wedding with Fassbinder in 1979, giving different accounts to explain
why she could not produce a valid marriage certificate.Caven is particularly scathing
towards Lorenz, accusing her of faking her
marriage and distorting Fassbinder's life story:
Peer Raben and I knew how
Juliane Lorenz [...] falsified and altered Rainer's story. She fabricated a
marriage with Rainer [...] She only resurfaced when the question arose of who
would inherit when the mother died. Then suddenly the story emerged about her
alleged marriage. She would also tell his mother that Rainer was never really
gay, that he didn't take drugs and that actually he'd got quite domesticated by
She is also disgusted by the way that Lorenz has ostracized Fassbinder's former
I and many others believe Juliane Lorenz is morally unsuited to
manage his legacy, not only because she has constructed the whole thing on a
massive lie. She has shut out almost all the people who worked most closely
with Fassbinder [...] There are countless falsifications and half truths [...]
As a result a life is being censored.
The situation got so bad that twenty-five of Fassbinder's former colleagues
(including Caven, Ulli Lommel, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Günther Kaufmann and
Ursula Strätz) published a letter demanding that Lorenz should step down from
the Fassbinder Foundation. As well, her re-issue of Berlin Alexanderplatz was
criticized for being markedly
brightened in order to make it more palatable to consumers
after Fassbinder had originally fought hard to keep its dark visual hues intact
(the atmospheric dark lighting had caused a TV scandal when the series had been
first broadcast in Germany).
only had problems with his male and female lovers but also had difficult
working relationships with many of his actresses. He had frequent disagreements
with his star Hanna Schygulla, who for certain periods refused to work with
Irm Hermann, who was a regular actress in his films and theatre productions,
complained that "he almost beat me to death"
and it took a long time before she could stand up to his abuse. Margit
Carstensen (b. 1940), another Fassbinder star, felt that he had provoked,
tormented and humiliated her during the making of Martha (1974, left).
Fassbinder certainly seems to have enjoyed bullying and dominating his lovers
and colleagues! Indeed, when he ran his own theatre, the Theater am Turm in
Frankfurt in the 1970s, this cooperative soon collapsed because of
factionalism, as complaints emerged about his whims, divisiveness and
According to Rosalind Hodgkiss, "the strongest condemnations of marriage come
in the films following this break up [from Caven]" -- Effi Briest (1974) which,
based on Fontanes novel, depicts a
stifling, loveless mismatch and Martha
(1974), his update of Effi Briest
and "an even bleaker portrait of marriage."
Lola (1981) comes a few
years later, towards the end of Fassbinder's short tragic life, and gives us an
opportunity to examine whether his attitudes to love and marriage have mellowed
since his divorce from Caven. But first, before assessing Lola in detail, it is
necessary to look at Brecht's influence on
Fassbinder. In his study of Fassbinder's work in the German theatre, David
Barnett argues against those critics who exaggerate the influence of Antonin
on Fassbinder while downplaying the importance of Brecht: "non-specialists have
championed the Artaudian Fassbinder and dismissed a Brechtian influence."
Barnett shows that Brecht had a definite influence on Fassbinder's work in the
theatre (in particular, the use of Verfremdung and the materialist view of
characters as dynamic products of social relationships and situations) and that
clear links exist between Fassbinder's work on both stage and screen. In an
earlier article "Distancing Techniques in Fassbinders Effi Briest,"
I analysed in detail the influence of Brecht, especially the idea of
Verfremdung (alienation or estrangement), on Fassbinder's style. In another
recent article, I examined the relative influence of Brecht and Sirk on
Fassbinder's style, with specific reference to Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant
In this article, I want to concentrate instead on Brecht's influence on
Fassbinder's content, especially Brecht's view of social conditioning.
As a Marxist
materialist, Brecht does not see human behaviour as independent of social
conditions. Instead, a
dialectical inter-relationship exists -- social conditions affect human
behaviour but man is changeable and can change these conditions.
In Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1938-40),
Shen Te cannot be good in a corrupt society but has to change into the ruthless
Shui Ta just in order to survive.
Fassbinder goes half-way down the same road as Brecht. He understands the
commodification of human values in capitalist society and that people are not
discrete free individuals independent of social conditions. Barnett says of
Fassbinder's adaptation Zum Beispiel
Ingolstadt (1968) of Marieluise Fleissers Pioniere in Ingolstadt:
Fassbinder enacts the demolition of the
sovereign individual, together with its psychology, in favour of social role
and the change of persona as defined by its context. [...] The approach is
dialectical and refuses to treat the individual as anything but an ensemble of
its social relations.
The main difference between
Brecht and Fassbinder is that Brecht, as a positive materialist, goes further
than Fassbinder, believing idealistically
that man can change unjust social conditions for the better and that this needs
to be portrayed.
However, Fassbinder, a negative materialist, lacks
Brecht's optimism. Although he understands the importance of social context, he does
not believe that, given the state of West German society, change for the better
is possible and his films tend to end pessimistically with failure and/or
death. Fassbinder's Effi Briest has the potential to make a difference, she has
a few moments of insight and anger, but, in the end, she proves a failure and
disappointment because, by forgiving Innstetten, she is merely accepting and
reinforcing the repressive, sterile society which has destroyed her.
Fassbinder made three films about the early history of the Federal Republic of
Germany which have become known as Die
BRD-Trilogie: Die Ehe der Maria Braun
(1978), Lola (1981) and Die Sehnsucht
der Veronika Voss (1982). Maria Braun covers 1945-54, Lola concludes in 1958 and Veronika Voss takes place in 1955. He uses female protagonists because he
finds their conflicts with society particularly stimulating and thinks they
show more clearly how society works.
Fassbinder labelled Veronika
Voss BRD 2 and Lola BRD 3
which is in line with the historical chronology. However, some critics prefer
the order in which the films were actually made and it seems more aesthetically
satisfying to have Lola at the centre
of the trilogy as a positive counterpoint to the pessimism of the other two
films. Also, finishing with Veronika Voss
fits in better with the overall despondent mood of Fassbinder's oeuvre. James
Roy Macbean argues that placing Lola second allows a truer appreciation of
Fassbinder's artistic development and the suicide of the drug addict Veronika
Voss coincides better with Fassbinder's own life story and his unexpected early death from an overdose of
sleeping pills and cocaine: "Not only does this order enable them [the viewers]
to 'respect' the chronology of Fassbinder's creative output [...] But also, by
allowing Veronika Voss to round out
the historical trilogy (instead of Lola),
this inverted order invites viewers to associate the trajectory of the historical
trilogy with the tragic trajectory of Fassbinder's own life."
Maria Braun was only the
second international commercial success in Germany's film history (after the
1930 universal success of Sternberg's Der
blaue Engel with Marlene Dietrich). It spans ten years from the last days
of the Second World War to 1954 when the West German football team beat Hungary
to win the World Cup and re-establish West German national identity. Marias is
a rags to riches tale -- in order to survive after the war she abandons
traditional female values of morality and chastity, selling herself to the Americans
(symbolising the commodification of
human relationships); her later business success mirrors the
Wirtschaftswunder. Tragically, despite her fantastic success, she remains
just a commodity. She has been traded
without her knowledge by the two men in her life. Her husband Hermann and boss
Oswald had agreed a pact that allowed Oswald to possess Maria provided that
Hermann stayed away until Oswald's death when Hermann and Maria would be left
Oswalds estate in his will. Fassbinder's ending is deliberately ambiguous.
Does Maria, unfulfilled and disillusioned, commit suicide after finding out
about the pact on Oswald's death or is the explosion merely an accident? This
relatively open ending allows the viewers some scope to make up their own
minds. Maria's death symbolises the emptiness and worthlessness of post-war
German materialism. Money and wealth cannot buy happiness!
Although Veronika Voss (above) won the Golden Bear at the
Berlin Film Festival in 1982 and is much admired by some critics
(especially for its sharp, high contrast black and white photography), I still
find it the least satisfying of the three films. Veronika, unlike Maria
Braun and Lola, is a tragic failure from the start, a relic from the Nazi past
who is out of place in the booming 1950s. She is based on Sybille Schmitz, a
former Nazi film star, who, forgotten after 1945, became a drug addict and
committed suicide in mysterious circumstances in 1955. Fassbinder offers a
bleak picture of a corrupt West Germany where those, who, unlike Maria and
Lola, do not seek material success, are left with no alternative but drugs and
Fassbinder intended Lola as a remake
of Der blaue Engel set in the
Adenauer period but, as Vincent Canby remarks, "the similarities between the
two films are nothing if not superficial."
Once more, Brecht's influence on Fassbinder's style cannot be ignored. Lola has a loose episodic structure.
Indeed, epic theatre lends itself to a dialectical approach and, like Brecht,
Fassbinder enjoys playing opposing scenes off against each other. He does not
present smooth flowing action but, instead, abrupt changes have a jarring
effect on the viewer. Fassbinder makes great use of contrast and particularly
likes to juxtapose the brothel scenes (garish candyfloss colours/ "Technicolor
with more normal scenes from everyday life (normal light/normal colours).
Fassbinder uses colour symbolism to create artificiality and distance -- von
Bohm's female admirers tend to wear similar colours (his secretary, red and
purple; Lola's mother lavender and Lola, red, the colour of blood and passion).
When von Bohm is sitting with Lola in her red sports car, Fassbinder conjures
up a wonderfully stylised scene as the screen is split between von Bohm on one
side bathed in a blue filter and Lola on the other side with a pinkish hue.
The union of von Bohm and Lola is later symbolised by the blue and red balls
floating together harmoniously in Schukert's swimming pool! This juxtaposition
of garish scenes with more normal scenes creates an artificial, stylised
overall effect although, on the whole, Lola
is not as stilted, posed or mannered as the earlier Effi Briest with its stifling
techniques create further distance. The Lola story is framed by two black and
white Adenauer photos which provide a historical context. Various framing
devices (door frames, window panes, curtains, mirrors, arches, columns, etc.)
prevent a clear view of the action and close up what we see on the screen.
These devices create a barrier between the viewer and the action, thus
preventing identification. Peculiar to Lola
is a layer of raucous vulgar humour (associated with the brothel and the
wealthy plebeian Schukert who is played with great gusto by Mario Adorf).
abundance of animal imagery also adds to the earthiness. Von Bohm is described
as a sly old fox; Schukert's aristocratic wife is a cow; the leading citizens
are referred to as crows; Schukert is a vulture, not a noble Adler (eagle)
but a Raubtier (predator), although he does progress from a Schwein (swine)
to eine ssse Sau (a sweet sow) because of his generosity at the end of the
film. The characters are mainly representative types: the banker, the corrupt
entrepreneur, the journalist, the police chief, the building commissioner, the
whore. Fassbinder creates one highly effective scene full of Brechtian power
symbolism. When Schukert visits the mayor, the mayor starts off sitting at his
desk with a backdrop of a new, modern skyscraper city. Then, as the mayor
fetches drinks, Schukert ends up sitting in the mayor's chair while the mayor
takes the visitor's seat. Not knowing how to deal with von Bohm's threat to
cancel the Lindenhof project, the mayor asks Schukert, who actually controls
the town, what he should do. With delicious humour, Schukert, in the mayor's
seat, responds: "Bin ich der Bürgermeister oder du?"
Dramatic irony is used frequently to create distance -- the audience knows the
truth about Lola when she is pretending to be demure and intellectual with von
Bohm and we can smile quietly to ourselves when Lola's mother tries to tease
out the identity of von Bohm's new lady friend.
As for the
content, Brecht demands that the emphasis should be placed on the social
relations between human beings
and Fassbinder's economic underpinning of his characters behaviour is right at
the Technicolor heart of this film. Schukert calls Lola his Privathure
(private whore); as a prostitute in the brothel, she is a commodity available
to the highest bidder and at various times Esslin, Schukert and von Bohm all
try to buy her. She is also a singer and a single parent with an illegitimate
daughter who is supported by Schukert, the daughter's father. The small town is
The elite, led by the building entrepreneur Schukert, profit from property
speculation and expect to make a fortune when planning approval is granted for
the imminent Lindenhof building project. They put on an outward show of respectability
while hypocritically frequenting the town's brothel. Von Bohm, the new building
commissioner, does not fit into the town because he is different in that he is
not corrupt. An aristocratic, old-school charmer, he intends to clean up the
town, to expose how the rich are robbing the poor and to destroy Schukert.
Lola is a tough
born survivor in the spirit of Brecht's Mutter Courage, although a lot
shrewder. She perceives the crisis created by von Bohm's honesty as an
opportunity to win what she wants. When Esslin asks her if she wants to live in
a rotten corrupt society, she replies that she doesn't mind the corruption, but
what really riles her is that the elite won't let her have a share. Lola is
able to bridge the gulf between her two diametrically opposed admirers, the
unscrupulous Schukert and the upright von Bohm. On realising that von Bohm has
actually fallen in love with her, she manipulates this love to achieve social
acceptance. Agreeing to marry Lola, von Bohm abandons his moral principles and
sells out, changing his mind in order to allow the Lindenhof project to go
ahead. Lola accomplishes what she has always wanted -- bourgeois respectability
and social acceptance. The town's elite appreciate that they can continue with
their greedy speculation and profiteering because Lola is able to control von
Bohm's moral impulses.
something good for Lola -- not her love but von Bohm's love which permits her
him in marriage (really an astute business transaction): Lola is perhaps more
directly concerned with the cost and effects
of materialism than the others in the trilogy. The presence of commodities such
as TVs and radios permeate the film, and the construction of a new building
[...] is central to the plot. "Lola herself is one of these very commodities
(has any other woman in Fassbinder's oeuvre been so wilfully objectified?), and
one that's desperate to become socially acceptable to the point where she
denigrates the institution of marriage to mere deal-breaking."
Love in the film has degenerated to a means of social control which allows
corruption to thrive -- Fassbinder calls love cynically the best, the most
effective means of social coercion.
For von Bohm, love means betraying his high-minded principles and joining the
universal corruption. However, it is not a completely negative force. His
marriage has made him happy and Maree Macmillan argues that Lola offers him
liberation from a hitherto constricted life: "The female protagonists of a
second group of texts, Mann's Professor
Unrat, Sternberg's Blue Angel and
Fassbinder's Lola, generally regarded
as sirens who lure respectable men to their destruction, can be viewed as
agents or catalysts of transformation, offering the possibility of a more fully
lived existence which promises good as well as ill".
Lola offers von Bohm a chance of personal and sexual fulfilment. As well, he is
not publicly destroyed like Professor Unrat. Nevertheless, he is unknowingly
humiliated and betrayed at the end of the film by Lola, who ends up with the
best of both worlds. After the ceremony, she cuckolds von Bohm with Schukert,
intending to become his expensive mistress. Schukert is another victor. His
power in the town has not been diminished, he has generously traded Lola in
marriage to von Bohm in order to maintain his profits but he will still be able
to enjoy her whenever he wants and he has magnanimously handed over the brothel
in trust to his daughter Marie.
describes Lola as a "surprisingly
and it is the only positive work in the trilogy. Lola does not allow herself to
be weakened by the feelings which destroy Maria and is the only one of the
three women to survive. In the course of the film, she has achieved upward
social mobility from whore and single mum to respectable bourgeois housewife.
She has proved that she can easily match the men in her life. Through her
determination and cunning, a corrupt society has been allowed to continue --
and she now gets a share!
As we have seen,
Fassbinder has a similar socio-economic starting point to Brecht with his
understanding of how social conditions influence human behaviour. But, although
they both start with a materialist approach, they end up with totally different
outcomes. Brecht remains optimistic, believes in social progress and urges us
to change the world. Fassbinder, on the other hand, wallows in melancholy and
misery. He can see what is wrong with the world but cannot offer any solutions.
Frequently his films end in failure, despair, suicide and death...
Perhaps, if we
want to be fair to their materialist approach, we should apply the same method
to Brecht and Fassbinder and look for the reason for this divergency in their
respective social contexts. Brecht experienced two major successful revolutions
(in Russia and China) and witnessed the defeat of fascism in Italy and Germany.
Therefore, he has good reasons to be cheerful and to believe in social
progress. Fassbinder, however, was not happy with life in the BRD in the 1960s
-- the Grand Coalition, the Emergency Laws, the shooting of student protesters.
His 1969 theatre production of Preparadise
Sorry Now was a gloomy reaction to the Living Theatre's utopianism: "The
pessimism, which is unremitting, is contextualised [...]; Fassbinder takes a dialectical view of
violence; its sustained presentation reflects the unlikely prospect of a change
in the social or political system in the FRG, not humanity's inability to live
more peacefully. [...] Preparadise Sorry
Now, an English neologism, directly takes issue with the more utopian hopes
of the Living Theatres Paradise Now
production, which suggested that paradise was indeed achievable in the present.
Fassbinder is keen to dismiss this reading, but not on the grounds of it never
being realizable. Rather he sees the current climate, as defined by the
dominance of dehumanizing social structures, as irreconcilable with universal
Unfortunately, the 1970s did not get any
better. Deutschland im Herbst (1978)
was a collaborative attempt by various writers and directors (including
Fassbinder, Heinrich Böll, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff) to come to
terms with urban terrorism, increased police militancy and a resurgence of
fascist tendencies in the BRD. It deals with a set of events in autumn 1977 --
the Red Army Faction kidnap and murder of the industrialist Hanns-Martin
Schleyer, a former SS officer, and the failed hijacking of a Lufthansa plane.
Shortly after the storming of the hijacked plane in Mogadishu, three RAF
leaders (Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe) were found dead in
their cells in the maximum security prison Stammheim, having committed
suicide. Before making Die BRD-Trilogie, Fassbinder filmed his segment of Deutschland im Herbst.
His contribution is very
personalised and depicts bitter arguments with his homosexual lover, the actor
Armin Meier. Amidst the booze and drugs, an atmosphere of misery is evoked.
Although he found direct action stupid
and was sceptical of armed violence, Fassbinder was still devastated by the
suicides of the three RAF leaders which did not seem plausible in such a high
security prison. Just as Franz Biberkopf in Berlin
Alexanderplatz suffers a succession of cruel hammer blows, Fassbinder's own
life took another tragic turn. In May 1978, Armin Meier's body was found in
Fassbinder's apartment, Armin having committed suicide when he learnt that his
lover intended to terminate the relationship.
Perhaps, in the
context of Fassbinder's sad personal life, amidst all the alcohol and drugs and
in an increasingly repressive West Germany, it is understandable why he was
unable to attain Brecht's clarity and optimism. Although a strong woman, Lola
is not a revolutionary.
She works within the prevailing power structures, she does not challenge the
system (von Bohn wants to challenge the system but gives in) and only seeks
acceptance within the system, however corrupt it may be. Still, Lola is as positive
as Fassbinder gets
and provides a few moments of respite from the despondency and despair.
However, more typical of the trilogy, of Fassbinder's oeuvre in general and his
own life is Veronika Voss's bleak tragedy.
Peter K. Tyson has
a PHD from the University of Alberta and has published books on German and English literature. His articles on German drama
and cinema have appeared in international journals all over the world.
C. 2012 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media
- BFG LCS: 489042340244