The following text is from Michael Töteberg’s presentation of a collection of Fassbinder screenplays (The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fontane Effi Briest), which were published in Germany as Fassbinders Filme, Band 3 (Fassbinder’s Films, Vol. 3) by Verlag der Autoren, Frankfurt 1990.
At the beginning of his career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working simultaneously in the media of theater and ﬁlm, created his own style out of a fusion of the two forms. One critic described the results as “bastards of form,” a mixture of Godard and Living Theatre, realistic folk play and Antonin Artaud. After spinning out ten ﬁlms within two years (1969 and 1970) in a frenzied burst of creativity, his “anti-theater” concept, which included “anti-ﬁlm,” had pretty much exhausted itself.
The Merchant of Four Seasons (Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten) introduced, in 1971, a new phase of Fassbinder’s ﬁlmmaking. If he had been seen up until then as an elitist young ﬁlmmaker whose static and stylized productions reached only intellectual audiences, he now found the courage to tell stories in a simple way that appealed to a broader audience. In an interview, he described the new movie as “a very straightforward ﬁlm, not one it would occur to anybody to call art,” and added that it was “a simple melodrama without any shenanigans.” That was a provocative statement, because for German critics, the melodrama was identical with the sentimental tearjerker, a trivial genre that met with contempt at the time. However, there was one man—alongside other Hollywood directors—whose works and person stood for the possibility of making popular movies ﬁlled with big emotions without stooping to phony kitsch and reactionary ideologies, and that was Douglas Sirk.
At the end of 1970, the Filmmuseum in the City Museum of Munich showed a small Sirk retrospective (six productions from All That Heaven Allows to Imitation of Life). Fassbinder watched all of the ﬁlms in this showcase and was deeply moved: “That really breaks you up in the movie theater. You understand something about the world and what it is doing to you.” This cinematic experience must have been a revelation for him. He described his impressions vividly in an extensive essay, and came to the conclusion: “I have seen six ﬁlms by Douglas Sirk. Among them are the ﬁnest ﬁlms in the world.” The young ﬁlmmaker went to visit the Hollywood veteran, who was now living in the Swiss canton of Ticino. And when the almost eighty-year-old director was teaching at the Munich Academy of Television and Film (HFF/M), Fassbinder took on one of the parts in an academic production that Sirk was supervising. (He played in Bourbon Street Blues, the ﬁlm adaptation of a one-act play by the well-known writer Tennessee Williams). Sirk’s work experienced a renaissance, not least of all thanks to Fassbinder’s essay, but the inﬂuence Sirk exerted on him has nevertheless been somewhat exaggerated.
Fassbinder spoke with great admiration about Sirk, but he did not copy him. He was especially impressed with Sirk’s professionalism and his attitude, by which Fassbinder meant the attitude both toward his work and toward the characters. In the ﬁlms of Sirk it should be noted, according to Fassbinder, that the director “loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do.” He now began to have a highly self-critical opinion of his previous anti-theater ﬁlm work; its attitude, he believed, was cold and arrogant. In this phase of his transformation and reorientation, he was encouraged in his considerations by the example he found in Sirk. This explains why the encounter was of such decisive importance for him: “I have found someone,” said Fassbinder, “who makes art in a way that has made me see what I have to change in my own work.” So the Sirk essay was not merely a tribute to a role model, but a piece of radical self-reﬂection, a revealing confession which sheds light on Fassbinder’s understanding of ﬁlm and life.
The direct contact with Douglas Sirk—Fassbinder gave him the screenplay of The Merchant of Four Seasons to read and requested his opinion—turned out to be productive. The melodrama pays no heed to logic or credibility; Sirk relieved him of the fear, Fassbinder once said, of being profane. For a long time he thought about doing a remake of All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder made a one-page sketch of the project, which he called Des Menschen Himmelreich (roughly, Man’s Heaven). The plot: Congressman Curt Werner dies during a centennial celebration; his widow, Carola, doesn’t know how her life should go on without him. “In her grief she loses all connection to everyday reality and has to hire a chauffeur. Ron Jackson drives her safely through the city and gently leads her back to life. Although he is considerably younger than Carola, she decides to afﬁrm her reawakening love by marrying him. This news causes a scandal. Her two children, Anna and Alfred, leave their mother because they cannot bear the disgrace. In her inner struggle, reason prevails over love and Carola breaks up with the chauffeur.” But her fate is reversed once again: the two children move out of her house; Carola is alone again, and she realizes the futility of her sacriﬁce. She returns to Ron Jackson, but it is too late. He has taken up with someone else….
A scene in Fear Eats the Soul refers directly to All That Heaven Allows. In the Sirk movie, the wealthy widow Cary Scott calls her children together to introduce them to her ﬁancé, the gardener Ron Kirby. The children are shocked—for them it is a completely impossible relationship because of the difference in age, but also in social standing. They put so much pressure on their mother that she cancels the wedding plans. Then it is Christmastime. The daughter tells her that she is getting married, the son that he is going abroad. The doorbell rings. A salesman brings the children’s present: a television set. In Fassbinder’s ﬁlm the children are also appalled when Emmi introduces her ben Salem to them: Bruno, in a rage, kicks in the television. This scene, meant as an homage, shows the difference. Such acts of violence would be unthinkable in Sirk’s movie; it is set in an upper-middle class society. By contrast, Fassbinder depicts people from the lower classes: “In my case it takes place in a raw, brutal world; the same story in Sirk’s ﬁlm is set in small-town America, where it functions better.” Taking this scene as an example, Fassbinder explains that “you can’t simply imitate; you have to transcribe,” which means to tell your own story on the basis of the ﬁlm experience.
Fassbinder goes beyond Sirk in that he exposes a social mechanism. As long as Emmi and ben Salem are faced with direct animosity, they assure themselves of their mutual solidarity and stick together. But when their people try to come to terms with the situation and they are both taken back into their respective circles (and then always betray each other), the real, previously hidden conﬂicts come to the surface. The ﬁnal scene brings only an outward concurrence between All That Heaven Allows and Fear Eats the Soul. Cary Scott is sitting at the hospital bedside when Ron opens his eyes. In the background beyond the big window we see idyllic ﬂurries of snow and a little fawn—the happy ending dictated by Hollywood conventions is laid on so thick that it lacks all credibility. Fassbinder’s commentary: “Anyone who makes such difﬁculties with love is not going to be happy later.” In Fear Eats the Soul the private story is carried over into a more general dimension. In Ron’s case, he has a simple accident, but ben Salem’s ulcer, as the doctor explains, is a typical ailment for immigrant workers and can be traced back to economic stress and social pressure. Fassbinder understands “the human body as the scene of social conﬂicts (Wilfried Wiegand).”
Fassbinder’s addressing himself to the audience led him to adopt new strategies of action in his dramaturgical considerations. For Fear Eats the Soul he chose a deliberately simple, linear narrative structure. This was new and unusual for the German cinema of the time. In answer to the charge that the ﬁlm was a naïve social drama with the look of a fairy tale, Fassbinder answered that of course he knew that relationships are much more complex than that. “But I believe that every spectator should ﬁll them up with their own reality. And they have this possibility when a story is that simple. A concrete utopia should inspire them to think about changing their everyday life.”
In his essay Fassbinder noted: “After Douglas Sirk's film, love seems to me even more to be the best, most sneaky and effective instrument of social oppression.” How a person with his needs and longings is conditioned to be a useful member of society is the subject of his films time and again.
Michael Töteberg is the author of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 2002) and has edited, in Germany, three volumes of Fassbinder's screenplays as well as Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich's scripts for Fassbinder's BRD trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola.