Wunderkind

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder




Wunderkind by Juliane Maria Lorenz

on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unlikely career in television.

August 18th, 2011 reset - +

Photograph: Juliane Lorenz and RWF during the filming of BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1979) / © Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation (RWFF)

JULIANE MARIA LORENZ IS A HIGHLY ACCLAIMED film editor who lived and worked with the legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder from 1976 until his death in 1982 (and, thereafter, with directors like Werner Schroeter, Oskar Roehler and Christoph Schlingensief). She now serves as the president and CEO of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation in Berlin, and has produced major retrospectives of Fassbinder's work in Germany (1992), the US (1997/1998), and France (2005).


In this exclusive memoir written for the
 Los Angeles Review of Books, Lorenz shares her thoughts on Fassbinder's work in television, including his epic science fiction adaptation World on a Wire. The latter film was recently restored under Lorenz's supervision and premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and showed for a week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past April. Its West Coast premiere is this weekend at LACMA.

Translator: Joe O'Donnell

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I first met Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1976, when I worked as an assistant editor on his film Chinese Roulette. I had, at that time, seen exactly one of his two dozen or so films. Growing up in the little spa town of Bad Wörishofen in southwestern Germany, I had no opportunity at all to see new European cinema or U.S. classics, and certainly no New German Cinema. The first Fassbinder film I saw was Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973), around the age of 16, when it was shown late one night on German TV. I was not even aware then that it was a Fassbinder film, but I remember the enormous impact it had on me in the midst of a painful and complicated adolescence. By the time I saw my second Fassbinder film, three years later, I was already involved in the making of one. From that time on I became an "addict."

Indeed, at that time it was surprisingly difficult to see Fassbinder films in Germany. Although by the mid seventies Fassbinder's films had already found an audience in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, the established German film community did not hold a very high opinion of his work. Only a few people were convinced that this scriptwriter, director, and producer, who had already made some 25 films, was or would become an important filmmaker whose work would ultimately have a deep impact on his country's cinematic tradition and was in fact already providing a key to understanding the development of 20th-century German history. Also important is the fact that although Fassbinder was putting out two to three films a year — in 1970 he actually made seven — there were as yet no systematic efforts to organize retrospectives of his work. This was because there was, and still is, no established tradition of German film retrospectives, except in the case of nonprofit organizations such as the Arsenal in Berlin, founded by the Friends of German Kinemathek led by Erika and Ulrich Gregor. In Germany there was and still is no real understanding that important films are a reflection and testimony of their time and that outstanding productions (over recent years we have had, for example, Run Lola RunGoodbye Lenin, and The Lives of Others) are not just made to be seen in cinemas immediately after they have been produced and first distributed. 

In any case, I cannot have been the only German to encounter Fassbinder first on television; TV, in fact, played an important role in the development of his career as a filmmaker. 

His 1971 film The Merchant of Four Seasons — Rainer's first melodrama, inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk, written in a few days and shot in only ten — was one of the first German TV productions made for both movie theaters and television. Produced in collaboration with the West German TV broadcaster ZDF and its new experimental film department, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, the funding for The Merchant of Four Seasons was provided on the condition that the film would not be premiered in German theaters before it had first been broadcast on TV. Rainer needed the money, which amounted to 55,000 Deutschmarks ($37,000), and so was forced to accept. However, these circumstances did not make him any less inventive. As it turned out, the film was screened at the Venice Film Festival and then shown on German TV at 10:30 in the evening a few weeks later before starting in German cinemas the next day. It proved a great success for Rainer as a writer-director and producer and for his leading actress Irm Hermann, with the film winning the best director, best producer, and best actress German film awards in 1972. [Later Fassbinder films financed by television include Martha (1974), Fear of Fear (1975), I Only Want You To Love Me (1976), The Stationmaster's Wife (1977), and his 15 1/2 hour miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).]

Up to this point, Rainer had been thought of as a potential genius who burned the candle at both ends and would probably have to slacken at some point. The high quality broadsheets had already begun to take his work seriously, but now even the tabloids started to write about the rise of a German Wunderkind, albeit one who had yet to prove he was a real genius. From then on, the weight of expectations on Rainer was considerable.

Fassbinder's next major TV project came the following year. Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), a major broadcaster based in Cologne and run at the time by ambitious programming directors and producers such as Günther Rohrbach and Peter Märthesheimer, contacted him to do a mini-series, a so-called Arbeiterserie (working-class series). Rohrbach, Märthesheimer, and those around them had started to focus on the calls for freedom and social development permeating the stories and themes associated with the '68 generation. As Peter Märthesheimer once told me, they were excited not only by the challenge of integrating these themes into their programming but also by the chance to bring them into West German households. In Fassbinder they had discovered the most productive, interesting, headline-grabbing young film and theater maker of the time. Here was someone who could get people into cinemas and in front of the TV set in prime time. The stage was set for an artistic collaboration between Rainer Werner Fassbinder, New German Cinema's Wunderkind, and the German TV establishment in the form of the broadcaster WDR.

The collaboration was a natural one for Rainer, who was very interested in TV and did not care whether his projects ultimately resulted in a movie for the cinema or a "TV play." He always refused to distinguish between "high and low," between entertaining music and so-called serious music. For him the goal was to appeal to people´s intelligence, awareness, and sensibility, and he took any possibility he was offered to realize his vision very seriously. He did not underestimate the opportunity he was now being given. The reputation enjoyed by WDR, which was watched by 20 million households and around 40 million individual viewers, was comparable to that of American television's HBO today. Everybody working for these broadcasters felt a kind of personal duty to create good programs. 

Fassbinder's series Eight Hours Don't Make A Day (1972-1973) attracted huge interest, which continued unabated until the fifth (and as it turned out final) episode had been broadcast. An audience of around six million in West Germany, plus an unknown number in the East, watched the entire series. Suddenly Rainer was a star in the television world. People were astonished that this "renegade" they had read about in the tabloids was able to tell stories to "normal people" about themselves.

My family did not yet have a TV set at the time, but I can still remember my friends discussing the series and all the questions it raised. I also remember controversial discussions around questions like: How can one show working-class people being happy and funny instead of complaining about their hard work and bad conditions? Fassbinder had invented some rather oddball characters for Eight Hours Don't Make A Day, such as the old couple, Grandma and Grandpa, who still had sex, came up with inventive schemes, and generally behaved more like young kids than old people. After dinner every day they drank a little schnapps and discussed the world and the problems of their grandchildren very openly. 

The series also dared to portray unalienated workers who showed initiative, who thought about how to communicate with their bosses and foremen, who actually tried to increase the amount of time they worked and to produce more quickly so that the owner of their factory could make more money, and who offered suggestions as to how they could also benefit from this increased productivity. Moreover, the factory boss — played by Klaus Löwitsch, a rising Fassbinder star who would soon play the lead in World on a Wire (1973) — actually accepted a number of his workers' ideas and saw the economic benefits they offered. These were revolutionary ideas at a time when Germans were still somewhat influenced by the notion that people need a leader who tells them what to do. Although this mindset had had such horrendous consequences only some 25 years prior, there were still people in leading positions who would have thought such a new approach to the exchange of ideas between working people and their "leaders" quite revolutionary. 

Although Rainer was commissioned to write more, the series came to an abrupt end after the fifth episode. Certainly the audience was ready for more. However, politics intervened: Members of the very powerful German trade unions complained that there were no scenes in the series dealing with their issues and wanted the stories changed. Why, they wanted to know, was Fassbinder not including their stories as working-class representatives? From the outset, Rainer and Peter Märthesheimer's idea had been to tell stories of working class people who wanted to solve their problems for themselves. Nevertheless, in the new scripts Rainer included the issues trade unionists had wanted to see focused on. But when Günter Rohrbach read the three new episodes he found the stories too artificial, and as a result they were never filmed. 

Fassbinder hardly stopped to take a breath. He had already written and prepared his upcoming production of Effi Briest (1974) based on the famous German novel by Theodor Fontane. One of Rainer's great capacities was to refocus quickly on a new theme he was keen to explore. In Rainer's view, the pre-Weimar period in Germany had been the source of the National Socialist movement that took root at the end of the 1920s. Now he wanted to look at the development of a German nationalism cultivated in an imperial system and its expression in the form of the old German bourgeoisie, whose clash with the Weimar Republic, which threatened their privileges, ended in the disaster of the Third Reich. This interest would culminate later in his celebrated "BRD Trilogy" of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982).

In 1972 and 1973, Rainer was also directing two theater productions in Bochum (Ferenc Molnàr's Liliom and Heinrich Mann's Bibi) and reading a great deal, especially new American crime fiction and rare American science fiction from the sixties that had just been published in German translations. It was in this context that he came across Simulacron 3 by Daniel F. Galouye, a young journalist from Louisiana who wrote sci-fi novels in his spare time. It seems Rainer read the book in a single night, or that's what I remember being told by his co-scriptwriter Fritz Mueller-Scherz. Though Rainer was not particularly interested in science fiction, he was inspired by groundbreaking work in the genre by directors like François Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky, who had recently adapted Fahrenheit 451 (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Solaris (1972), respectively. 

In the wake of the immense success of the series Eight Hours Don't Make A Day, WDR was certainly interested in producing more Fassbinder films. When Rainer realized that a 90- or even 120-minute version of Simulacron 3 would be problematic, he asked if he could make a TV double feature, and immediately got the green light for what was to become World on a Wire. As I have already mentioned, at the time West German TV programmers and producers were very keen on finding new material and providing their viewers with high quality films made by interesting directors. (From today's perspective this attitude seems almost unbelievable.)

In the time we spent together — I worked with him from 1976 until his death in 1982 — I don't think Rainer ever spoke to me about World on a Wire. He didn't even mention the film while we were shooting Berlin Alexanderplatz at Bavaria Studios in Munich in 1979/1980. Every Friday at around 5 p.m., after I had shown the first cut of the scenes shot the previous day, we had a kind of "side show," a private retrospective of some of Rainer's films. It was a kind of Fassbinder film therapy for all of us. Our special film club was organized by one of Rainer's assistants and presented in the studio's huge screening room A. We all liked the film club very much and it gave the studio's technical crew and the film crew, especially Rainer's new DP Xaver Schwarzenberger, a chance to see his early works and gain an understanding of his artistic development. It is important to know that at this time Fassbinder's films were still considered somewhat weird by a lot of people in the mainstream German film world. So the film club provided an opportunity to expose crew members who were not from the "inner Fassbinder circle" and might have shared this mainstream opinion of Rainer's early work. It was a kind of "seduction," and Rainer was happy when he saw that nearly everybody on the team, and sometimes even people from the studio administration, came to the screenings.

Though he never spoke of it, I can well imagine why Rainer was attracted to Galouye's story. As he wrote in his initial notes on the project:

 

We are dealing with 3 worlds. World I, the overarching world, is the only real world. In order to better cope with its planning problems, it has created a simulation of itself [...] This simulation must replicate conditions in World I as closely as possible in order to make reliable predictions. [...] World I programmed World II with intelligence, civilisational knowledge, and cultural and technological skills. These are in turn used by the inhabitants of World II to create a simulation that meets their own needs. Since they now have a system that is dependent on them, they learn a few things about dependencies and also realize that they themselves exist in someone else's name. The "simulated units" of World II became "identity units" for which World I no longer has any use.

 

Later, when I asked Rainer how he felt about the group of artistic collaborators that had formed around him when he was starting out, he spoke about his sense of personal failure for not making its members more independent of him. He also mentioned his regret that most of them had been unable to embrace his kind of "factory idea," which he considered the only viable way of working together: not to insist on being friends but to cultivate a degree of professionalism and independence that would ultimately enable people to go their own artistic ways. Some did, such as Fritz Mueller-Scherz, Ulli Lommel, and, always in her particularly self-determined way, Hanna Schygulla. But many did not. I think Rainer felt that he was often misunderstood when he gave interviews about his early career and interviewers cited accusations made against him by friends and actors from this time. Most of these disgruntled former colleagues argued that he had somehow used them in the pursuit of his own artistic vision. Many of them felt abandoned and misused — one might even say "misprogrammed" — and now they felt that their public image was dominated by the Fassbinder label. I remember that, although he was saddened by these accusations, he also emphasized his idea of the importance of individual freedom — something he was desperately fighting for in his private life. 

When I met Rainer in 1976, only a few of his early artistic collaborators were still working with him: the film composer Peer Raben, his leading actors Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen, and Harry Baer, his closest assistant and collaborator in matters of production management. Rainer himself had continued to develop and find new challenges and artistic collaborators, first and foremost his main DP Michael Ballhaus, his costume designer Barbara Baum, and his producer Peter Märthesheimer, who later became his scriptwriter and collaborator on the BRD trilogy. In a way, Rainer was happy to have met people early in their careers who now had their own artistic lives and were not simply "simulated units." 

Michael later took the role of artistic supervisor for World on a Wire's restoration, and when he and Fritz saw the film again after 38 years they were both astonished at how modern and unique it still was. Fritz had very precise recollections of his scriptwriting collaboration with Rainer, which mostly took place in Paris on weekends while he and Rainer were working at the Bochum Theater, where Fritz was Rainer's assistant and co-directed Heinrich Mann's play Bibi. Michael, for his part, recalled the 44 days of shooting from January to March 1971 while we were digitally restoring the film. At times even he expressed astonishment at his camera work on a project that used almost no special effects. And he adored the "secret flair" that the film still retains. It is worth noting here that Michael has worked on over 120 films, including a large number of high-quality U.S. projects with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, Volker Schlöndorff, and Wolfgang Petersen, and yet he remained impressed by the inventive new angles he and Rainer developed together in World on a Wire. The 360-degree camera movements that he would perfect in Rainer's next film, Martha, for instance, he first used in World on a Wire:

Rainer often likened his film oeuvre to a house he was building. He said of his films: "Some of them are windows and others are doors, and others might be only a smaller part of a house ..." In the end he hoped that each of his films would become a vital supporting pillar in what he envisioned as a large, comfortable, artistic, and modern house. And although he never referred to World on a Wire as a fundamental work within this oeuvre, I think that today it is clear that the film is as important as his major box-office hits, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun or Berlin Alexanderplatz. For Rainer, his artistic work was his only way of expressing and transforming the time he was born into and of reflecting on his own world. His films are a testimony of his time: from 1945, when he was born, until 1982, when he died. Although World on a Wire was a film Rainer himself underestimated, it is now clear, 38 years after it was produced, that it is a window in his "house of films" that looks out beyond that time and into our present. 

Berlin, July 30, 2011

 

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