Originally published in The Berlin Film Journal (August 20th, 2015)
Upon entering the Fassbinder – JETZT exhibition (May 6th – August 23rd, 2015) at Martin-Gropius-Bau, you are confronted with nine Fassbinders. A 3×3 grid of screens play interviews with the prolific director over the course of his most productive years: 1969-1978. Clad predominantly in his signature leather jacket, the nine faces of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) are always accompanied by a trail of smoke drifting up from an off-frame cigarette. While one screen plays, the rest are paused. Thus eight screens act as photographs, petrifying the director in motion, in mid-sentence. Curation at its least effective is often, like this, an elaborate petrification. A body of work – or the material remnants of a body who worked – are removed from time and re-rendered, fossilized, in a way that voids them of their dynamism and potency. This article will move beyond a traditional “review” of the Fassbinder – JETZT exhibition and into curatorial annotation: a criticism and re-imagining of the exhibit.
Year Zero was the first year of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life. Born in Bad Wörishofen 23 days after the Second World War officially ended in Germany, Fassbinder’s relationship to the devastation left over from the Fascist regime had a profound influence on his life and oeuvre. Fassbinder – JETZT all but ignores the director’s complex relationship with history. Like many German thinkers in the post-war period (when did the post-war period end?), Fassbinder was plagued by the problem of the representation of an arguably un-representable recent past. In Thomas Elsaesser’s book Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, Fassbinder is described as preoccupied by the question of “how to represent fascism, without appearing to re-enact its horrors or yield once more to its fascination” (131). After the war came the simultaneous reassembly of the economy and the patriarchy. This resulted in the reinstatement of former Nazi party members, such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger (Chancellor of West Germany from 1966 to 1969), into positions of power. Fassbinder, as Elsaesser notes, “was not interested in historical films, but in films about history from the perspective of the present” (105). With the ghosts of the recent Fascist past back in government, and, as a result, the persecution of left-wing groups, Fassbinder’s films pivot upon this complex entanglement of a Fascist past and a present that was not different enough.
Half of an enormous room in Fassbinder-JETZT is dedicated to showcasing the director’s old things. His leather jacket, bicycle, VCR player, pinball machine, sofa, and Triumph typewriter are all on display. Visitors to the exhibition can sit on his old sofa and watch a silent (and seemingly randomly assembled) montage of stills and outtakes from his films. Fassbinder, who often took on the simultaneous roles of director, actor, cinematographer, producer and writer of his films, was an auteur. His films spill over with his presence – whether he was on or off camera. A glimpse at the director’s material possessions, however, does not do justice to how personal, how private his works are. You can learn far more about Fassbinder the man, the lover, the director, the genius from watching, for example, his self-proclaimed “most personal” film In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978) – in which he does not even cameo – than from his pinball machine. What would Fassbinder, a man wary of the remnants – and ideological relics – of Germany’s past, have thought of this arrangement of his everyday objects on plinths? In Fassbinder’s Germany, Thomas Elsaesser muses upon the danger of “artifacts turned memorabilia…visual records turned coffeetable books,” thus made “valid as clichés and icons” (105). Something similar has occurred in this section of Fassbinder – JETZT.
A large room in the exhibition holds a selection of iconic costumes designed by Fassbinder’s long-time collaborator Barbara Baum. Among them, Maria Braun’s (played by Hannah Schygulla) character evolution from rubble-wandering war bride to high-powered businesswoman in Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979) is demonstrated through her costumes. Schygulla’s silver Metropolis-esque dress and head wrap from Lili Marleen (1981), is the centerpiece of a group of other outfits without any indication of why – because it is an impressive, glimmering dress? Because it is a Fassbinderian icon of Fascism? This curatorial decision is not evident. On a screen in a corner of the room, clips from the various films that showcase the costumes in the exhibit are played on a loop, without context or notes about their significance. Here we see – but are not given insight into the significance of – the enormous red and black swastika that hangs behind Schygulla and her silver gown in Lili Marleen. Fassbinder frequently used his characters’ costumes to reference times other than those which they inhabited. For example, a film set in the 1970s might feature costumes that visually reference clothes from the 1940s in an effort to highlight the similarities in the political and ideological climate of both eras. Fassbinder was also fond of poking holes in filmic time with props. In Die Ehe der Maria Braun, set primarily right after the war, Fassbinder zooms in on a cigarette pack from the 1970s. Time, for Fassbinder, neither heals nor erases history. The past is always an image made in the collective imaginary of the present. The costume room in Fassbinder –JETZT does not seek to elucidate the complexities and gravity of Fassbinder and Baum’s costume and prop choices.
Another room in Fassbinder – JETZT is dedicated to one of Fassbinder’s favoured formal techniques: the 360 degree tracking shot. Scenes from Rio das Mortes (1970), World on a Wire (1973), Martha (1973), Chinese Roulette (1976), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1979/80), and Querelle (1982) play on a loop on a hanging screen. One person at a time can stand underneath a sound umbrella in order to properly hear the film audio. The accompanying text notes: “Fassbinder often escalates [the tracking shots] to such an extent that members of the audience begin to feel dizzy and refer back to the reality of their own bodies.” The text does not acknowledge the debt owed to Bertolt Brecht for this effect. The influence of Brecht’s (theatre) theory of Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) on Fassbinder’s films is profound. Brecht’s project was, put blasphemously simply, to curate critical distance by constantly reminding the audience that they are watching a play. Brecht sought to dislodge viewers from the safety of voyeurism, to force them to “refer back to the reality of their own bodies.” Fassbinder was also heavily influenced by the theories of Antonin Artaud – a man whose ideas about theatre, at first glance, seem to be in direct conflict with Brecht’s. Artaud believed the political and revolutionary potential of theatre could only be achieved through what he called a “theatre of cruelty.” The audience should, Artaud theorized, be attacked – emotionally, intellectually and occasionally physically – by a performance that came at them from all sides. This, he believed, was the only way the audience could leave the theatre with the capacity and will to enact change in the structures of society. The room in Fassbinder – JETZT dedicated to the 360 degree tracking shot held the potential to walk – as Fassbinder’s films do – the precarious line between Brecht and Artaud’s respective audience-performance theories. In order to most powerfully force viewers of the exhibit to ground themselves, to, in the Brechtian tradition, remember their own bodies as separate from the performance, the performance should be highly visceral. Instead of a single hanging screen and a small sound umbrella, the form of the media should mimic the movement of Fassbinder’s tracking shots. Taking reference from Artaud, the audience should be at the center of multiple screens, entrenched, assaulted, while Fassbinder’s cameras dance “vicious circles” around them (Elsaesser, 62).
The statement by the entrance to the “JETZT” section of the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibit proclaims that Fassbinder’s “work has not lost any of its relevance. This is demonstrated by the works of international contemporary artists.” This bland statement implies that Fassbinder’s “relevance” must be proven, and can only be such through the works of contemporary artists. Among other works, in these rooms Runa Islam reenacts Martha’s (1974) 720 degree tracking shot, Ming Wong reenacts a scene from Fassbinder’s Der bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972) and Rirkrit Tiravanija wrote the title of Fassbinder’s film Angst Essen Seele Auf (1974) on newspapers. Certainly, Fassbinder’s statement: “everything is imitation” echoes through the rooms of this section of the exhibit. Fassbinder himself did not shy away from intertextually referencing his many influences. Traces of Brecht, Artaud, Douglas Sirk and Jean-Luc Godard – among many others – are rampant in Fassbinder’s works. The only artist clearly influenced by Fassbinder in Fassbinder – JETZT – in his staging and spectacularizing of the everyday and nuanced critiques of capitalism – whose works move beyond imitation and into the referential are those of Canadian artist Jeff Wall. Otherwise the works selected for “JETZT” serve only to pale in comparison with Fassbinder’s works. In his unparalleled and prolific oeuvre, Fassbinder sought to render desire, pain, masochistic ecstasy, and desolation visual. Over and over again, Fassbinder staged unravelings – of capitalism, of lust, of love and lust as structured within capitalism. Pitifully few of the works in the “JETZT” section of “Fassbinder JETZT” succeed or even attempt such a sharp and devastating look through (and back at) their own mediums. In one of the interviews at the beginning of Fassbinder – JETZT, Fassbinder muses about being plagued by a fear of death. This statement hangs fatalistically (the director died at 37, with more films to his name than years to his life) in the same way that Nicolas Poussin’s painting Midas and Bacchus hangs over the mise-en-scène of Der bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant. Just as Fassbinder in motion, on celluloid, is paused after this statement, Fassbinder – JETZT stages the petrification, the calcification, the wringing dry of the artist and his works.