DVD Review: Early Fassbinder

STUDIO: Eclipse/Criterion | DIRECTOR: Rainer Werner Fassbinder | CAST: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Harry Baer, Gunther Kaufmann, Karl Scheydt, Lou Castel, Eddie Constantine, Kurt Raab, Margarethe von Trotta
RELEASE DATE: 8/27/13 | PRICE: DVD $69.95
NR | 453 min. | Foreign language dramas | 1:78/1:33 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall


Like everything else he did, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “baby steps” in filmmaking are far more interesting than other filmmakers’ entire output. The five films in Early Fassbinder are highly mannered and clearly the work of a young director finding his way, but they also exhibit a savant’s eye for conflict between characters (and the commonplace nature of human cruelty in everyday behavior) and contain bravura moments that surely point the way to his later triumphs.

All five films were previously released on the Wellspring DVD label and have been out of print for a few years (15 titles were available from Wellspring — one expects the other 10 will appear as Criterion or Eclipse releases). Thus, as the Fassbinder devotee awaits the first-time release of his remaining “lost” works (three features and seven TV projects to go!), there is also the matter of the films staying in print — titles by RWF have thus far been distributed by six different U.S. DVD labels.

Fassbinder’s prolificness is central to any discussion of these films, as this box represents only half of his output in his initial “boom years” of 1969-70. The fact that he made the films so quickly and they are so accomplished on a visual and tonal level is remarkable, but he readily admitted in later interviews that his ’69-’70 films lacked the sympathetic aspect that he added to his work in 1971 after being exposed to the work of the great master of Fifties Hollywood melodramas Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind).

Love Is Colder Than Death,

R.W. Fassbinder's 1969 directorial debut, Love Is Colder Than Death

Despite the fact that there are few if any sympathetic characters in these five pictures, the films will entice fans of Fassbinder and other arthouse favorites through the combination of highly self-conscious play-acting —which, if taken in the right way, is intentionally amusing — and eye-catching tableaux vivants (Fassbinder’s ensemble of actors having worked together in an “anti-theater” troupe before the films). The first four films contain crisp B&W cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann; the fifth springs into color with the intricate, exquisite camerawork of Michael Ballhaus.

The plotlines of three of the films are very similar, as they are all homages to both the American gangster film and the film noir. His first feature, the delightfully titled Love Is Colder Than Death, is the simplest of the bunch, with a central plot borrowed from RWF’s favorite novel (Berlin Alexanderplatz). We watch as a naïve crook (Fassbinder) gets deceived by a friend (Ulli Lommel); in Gods of the Plague, his third feature, he varied the plotline slightly, as the crook (Harry Baer) is betrayed by his girlfriend (Fassbinder’s very own Dietrich, Hanna Schygulla).

Both films are good, but they seem like dry runs for the delightfully arch The American Soldier (1970). Arguably the best film in the collection, Soldier is a sublimely tongue-in-cheek evocation of the gangster picture with the perversities of the original films amplified to a glorious extent — when asked about the unnaturally intense male-female relationships in his films, RWF once jokingly (half-jokingly?) said they were all inspired by the relationship between James Cagney and his mother in White Heat.

Also included in the package is Fassbinder’s first critically lauded feature, his second film Katzelmacher (1969). A super-minimalist, laid-back parable that says a lot more about racism than higher-key, bigger-budgeted Hollywood product, the film depicts a group of bored, nasty lower-middle-class Germans who are disturbed by the appearance of a Greek “guest worker” (Fassbinder) in their midst.

When considered in light of the era in which it was made, the film is even more fascinating. Many important European filmmakers (many of them Fassbinder’s idols) were focused on the rebellion of youth culture and the average worker, but RWF felt it more important to explore the mindset of the narrow-minded twenty-somethings who stayed in their neighborhood and rebelled instead against the intrusion of the outside world.

Beware of a Holy Whore movie scene

R. W. Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

The box closes out with a film Fassbinder considered a turning point in his work, his study of a movie shoot run amok, Beware of a Holy Whore. He based the film on real events that occurred during the making of his film Whity (1970, released on DVD by Fantoma) and made sure to depict himself as a dictatorial director prone to outbursts of anger (he also cast good-looking blond Colombian actor Lou Castel in the part).

The film is quite entertaining but even newcomers to Fassbinder’s “mythology” will be able to understand that Whore is filled with personal swipes taken at his actors and technical crew — Hanna Schygulla (playing herself) being the only person to emerge unscathed.

The cast (including guest star Eddie Constantine) are uniformly excellent, whether they’re playing degrading versions of themselves or not. The other two elements that elevate the film beyond being a glorified in-joke are the characteristically graceful camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the delightful use of music.

An original score by one of Fassbinder’s seminal collaborators, Peer Raben, is augmented by two Ray Charles songs, a number by Spooky Tooth, the high camp of Elvis performing “Santa Lucia” (a Fassbinder fave) and no less than four songs from Leonard Cohen’s first LP. The most intriguing thing about this last fact is that two of the songs, “Sisters of Mercy” and “The Stranger Song,” were immortalized the same year Whore was released (the film was shot in 1970) in Altman’s perfect revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).

Early Fassbinder comes with no supplements, but as it stands it is chock-full of content.



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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”