The Single Antidote to Thoughts of Suicide: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s American friends
by J. Hoberman
Moving Image Source
My thanks for inviting me to participate in this event as well as facilitating that participation by having this part of the program in a foreign language, English. I hope I won’t offend you if I begin by observing that for an American of my generation, born shortly after World War II, the sound of conversational German emanating from the screen was uncanny and even menacing, a vehicle for barked Gestapo torturers or sneering East German spies. As late as 1976, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris would cite "a commercial jinx against German-language films in the New York area, at least partly for reasons that are too painfully obvious to mention."
"Jinx," which connotes "bad luck," is too coy a word to account for this provincialism, as is the reference to the New York area. The German language was stigmatized by powerful negative associations particularly but not exclusively among Jews and political leftists. German silent cinema was enshrined but the entirety of German talkies was reduced to a single letter M, which also happened to be a movie about the worst sort of human monster, a serial child killer. M opened up on the void and there was nothing like it…until Fassbinder. He dispelled the jinx.
I’m talking from the perspective of a civilian filmgoer rather than a professional movie critic. I did not review any of the movies I’ll be citing. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote about Fassbinder was an obituary for a no-longer extant journal, American Film. But I did follow Fassbinder’s American career from the cheap seats. I saw The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Fox and His Friends more or less in that order in the mid-’70s when I was in my mid-twenties. What I remember impressing me was their strange affect. The language was part of it but, more generally, it was unclear whether the movies were funny or sad. They were certainly not bittersweet. There was a lugubrious quality that was also disconcertingly, irresistibly comic.
Not understanding the language or appreciating the context can sharpen other forms of attention. I was struck by Thomas Elsaesser’s comment [in the preceding presentation] that Fassbinder seldom included the German landscape because one of the things that initially impressed me about his films was their emptied-out, blandly paranoid urban settings. I thought these were a humorous invention until I spent a few days in Frankfurt in 1979. Then I discovered that these stylizations were actually a form of documentary truth. [silence]
Now, Fassbinder was not entirely unique. Between 1967-71, which is to say at the height of the ’60s, the New York Film Festival showed nine German-language features, three by Werner Herzog, two each by Alexander Kluge and Jean-Marie Straub, one by Volker Schlöndorff and one by Fassbinder. I did see most of these. Kluge appeared to be a more pedantic Godard, Straub seemed a lighter Bresson. Herzog was too freakish to be anything other than himself—definitely strange but not necessarily German—which is to say that the dwarfs were more striking than the language they spoke. In terms of the so-called New German Cinema, Fassbinder was something of a late addition, although Susan Sontag would later maintain that New York Film Festival director Richard Roud turned down her suggestion to show Fassbinder’s first feature Love is Colder Than Death.
Fassbinder made his debut two years later at the 1971 New York Film Festival with Recruits in Ingolstadt. Response was dismissive, even hostile. The lone exception was the New York Times lead critic Vincent Canby, whose review linked Fassbinder’s direction to "the methods and the manner of early Brecht" (a good and very fashionable German whose name was strategically dropped in the NYFF blurb). Canby deemed Recruits to be "an oddly unfocused satire but one that has many lovely moments….The movie fails, but it’s a failure of concept, not of intelligence, nor of style and performance." In sort, he recognized something.
To Read the Entire Presentation