Monday, March 4, 2013

Cheap, Nihilistic, and Beautiful: Some Comments on the Early Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Love is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier

Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
New German Cinema enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed seven films in 1969 and 1970; three of which I have seen over the past few weeks, they are lovely black-and-white gangster films: they are: Love is Colder than Death (a title which is never explicated in the movie), Gods of the Plague (a title which is never explicated in the movie), and The American Soldier (which is about an American who happens to be a soldier).

I call them gangster films, but they’re more like gangster pastiches, or the archetypes of gangster movies.  Men of few words drift through a sparse, late-60’s Munich (sparse both in terms of the setting and in terms of the population; there are very few people in Fassbinder’s Munich) and drink, start fights, collapse in seedy hotels, buy pornography, and have sex with women who inexplicably love them.  Then they blow it all on a heist gone wrong (and that’s not a spoiler; the heist never goes right, it just comes with the territory).

It’s interesting that these movies are made in black-and-white, because by the late ‘60’s, most filmmakers had made the transition to color.  At this point, if you were going to make a film in black-and-white, it wasn’t just a matter of economy or convention; you were doing so as a conscious artistic choice.  For Fassbinder in these early works, I think it lends them an icy depth and beauty that they might have lacked otherwise.  There’s an anecdote (which I may have related before) that goes like this, and it comes from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com: Martin Scorsese is hanging out with Lars von Trier (because that’s what glamorous directors do, they hang out with each other) and Scorsese says to von Trier (paraphrasing): “I really liked the opening sequence of Antichrist.  It was very beautiful,” and von Trier says (paraphrasing): “Well of course it was beautiful.  It was in black-and-white and slow motion.” Now, these Fassbinder films may not be in slow motion, but they’re in black-and-white, and I think that’s one of the tragedies of the sixties (cinematically speaking), that they transitioned to color—often of a poor, grimy quality—just as black-and-white was looking better than ever.  Paul Simon was wrong when he said that everything looks worse in black-and-white; it looks so much better.  And a film like Gods of the Plague looks like a Bela Tarr film where things happen.
Poster for Love is Colder than Death.
These early Fassbinders all kind of blend together (Gods of the Plague is theoretically a sequel to Love is Colder than Death, although the actor playing the main character has been changed from one film to the next, and again, they’re all full of gangster clich├ęs (think a much more deadpan take on the Seijun Suzuki gangster films of the mid-60’s)).  Fassbinder could have gone on making and re-making them for the rest of his career.  Now, he didn’t; he went on to make a variety of films in different styles: science fiction (World on a Wire), Sirkian melodrama (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), weird psychodrama (the wonderful Chinese Roulette), and epic mini-series (Berlin Alexanderplatz).  It is interesting to think that he could have become the gangster-film equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu or Hong Sang-soo, each of whom were happy to re-make the same film with minor variations, with wonderful results.  I think the best analogue for Fassbinder would be the multi-talented Takeshi Kitano, who started out with crime movies (Violent Cop, Sonatine) before venturing into gentle dramas like A Scene at the Sea or bizarre (and very Japanese) comedies like Takeshis’.  There is a place in the canon for both Ozu and Kitano, and there is also a place for all the various iterations of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Post-script: For my post on Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, click here.

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