Heartbreak House:
Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy

Sep 30, 2003

People say that drugs killed Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but after taking another look at his films and his writings, I have a different idea. He once said, famously, that he was trying to construct a house with his films, which is hard work. Many filmmakers have left their own houses half-finished. But, with the possible exceptions of Yasujiro Ozu and John Ford, Fassbinder was the only one who left a beautiful, livable dwelling into which others might enter and be inspired to build their own. Had he lived, he would surely have made modifications and built many extensions, but the fact that he left us with a finished product is fairly astonishing given the short time he had to complete it. Not every part of the house is equally interesting—think of Satan’s Brew (Satansbraten, 1976) as the plumbing, and Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette, 1976) as the wiring. The three films that comprise the famous BRD trilogy, as it came to be known, are the rock-solid foundation…or, perhaps, the central staircase.

Unlike most of the other houses going up around him, built with flimsy modern foundations that didn’t go deep enough (for fear of hitting the rotten substratum of Nazism), Fassbinder’s house was built with a sense of history. “He wore himself out constructing a place to house his dreams,” wrote French critic Serge Daney in his Libération review of Veronika Voss (1982). “But Fassbinder’s task as a director consisted of recreating one by one, ex nihilo, all the real things, too real, outside of which a dream cannot become incarnate and stays nothing more than a piece of retro fabulation.” Fassbinder understood that as a German in the seventies, one had to do real historical work: to recreate not just the images but the mental framework of the past, to not merely acknowledge historical amnesia, but make an effort to understand how and why it manifested itself. “When I see the fuss being made over Holocaust,” Fassbinder once said of the traumatized German reaction to the American TV miniseries, “I wonder why they have to make such a fuss; have they really repressed and forgotten all of that? They can’t have forgotten it; they must have had it on their minds when they were creating their new state. If a thing of so much significance could be forgotten or repressed, then something must be pretty wrong with this democracy and this ‘German model.’” He knew that all roads led back to the gray, amoral confusion of the fifties and the years of the Wirtschaftswunder—Germany’s postwar economic miracle.

Fassbinder understood that he had to build his house quickly if it was going to have any meaning, which means that he did something almost impossible: he acted at the speed of his emotions and his thoughts. He wanted and got a direct correlation between living and fictionmaking. This is almost impossible in film, where there’s a lot of atrophy-inducing waiting time because of the effort, the money, the needed manpower, the tactical and strategic difficulties, the endurance tests, and the care required to get a presentable image. It’s no wonder he resorted to cocaine and an assortment of other drugs. Indeed, it would have been shocking if he hadn’t.

Fassbinder’s nonstop work ethic also allowed him to break through the God’s-eye view that comes all too often with the territory of modern cinema. He’s always right there with his characters, in time, space, and spirit. “Should you sit around waiting until something’s become a tradition,” he once said, “or shouldn’t you rather roll up your sleeves and get to work developing one?” Too much time spent listening to the music of your own voice gives rise to a temptation to round everything off into a definitive statement; it gives you a sense of false confidence that you’re delivering the last word on human affairs. By building his house, Fassbinder was essentially trying to create a whole body of German films that would stand politically and spiritually against the flood of hypocritical, unfelt cinema that had come before and that was sure to come after. He tried to bypass hazy generalities and windy formulations through sheer speed and determination, and largely succeeded. “There’s a sense of process in Fassbinder, a feeling of the movie as it’s being made,” said critic Manny Farber, an early champion. That sense of process, of the movie and the man behind it thinking and reacting as he went along, was there right to the end, even in the fancier and more vaunted later works such as Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Despair (Despair—Eine Reise ins Licht, 1977).

Fassbinder casts a long shadow. His admirers have followed his example of throwing the moral underpinning out from under their narratives. But with rare exceptions (Olivier Assayas and André Téchiné come to mind), they all lack something Fassbinder had in abundance, which more than counterbalanced the endless discomfort and bitching of his characters: a tender eye. There was a fullness to his vision and the way he simply looked at people that hadn’t been seen since the silent era. “If someone sits on a couch in a Fassbinder movie, it’s the first time it’s been sat on that way in movies, it seems to me, in a long time,” said Farber in a 1977 interview. “It’s a big person on a small couch who’s uncomfortable. A woman standing in a door in a Fassbinder—it’s a great vision. Always a feeling of savagery, someone who’s uncomfortable and doesn’t like it. In ecstatic lighting, like Fra Angelico. Hieratic.” The plasticity of Fassbinder’s images is almost unparalleled—in the sound era, only Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard at their very best have a similar force and beauty. But Fassbinder was something else, too: an inventor. He gave us a whole new point of view, devoid of sentimentality or even grace, yet profoundly empathic. In Fassbinder, a magical world of purely human wonders is parceled out to us in the form of tales, tales in which desperation, treachery, scheming, hypocrisy, and ignorance play no small part, where desire plays a major supporting role but the will to power is sadly dominant. Contrary to the opinion of some—and it’s an opinion I myself used to hold—Fassbinder didn’t make cruel films. His dramatically blunt tales speak, with tremendous urgency, for the Maria Brauns and the Veronika Vosses and the Lolas of this world. In one sense, the films are blunt instruments, but what’s most important is that they give the lives of ordinary souls the care and attention they deserve. Fassbinder protected his characters from the infectious diseases of idealization and sentimentality. His space is far from transcendental: there is no beyond, nor any ultimate reality. There is nothing but human relations, given an awesome intensity, elevation, and richness. No one enjoys a state of grace, but everyone is ennobled.

*****

“All sorts of things can be told better about women,” Fassbinder said in reference to the BRD trilogy he concocted with writers Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich. “Men usually behave the way society expects them to.” Like many Fassbinder films, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola describe the unconscious, collective enactment of an essentially negative action, namely the suppression of historical memory, through melodramatic heroines whose fates are intertwined with the imperatives of their awful historical moments.

How did the Wirtschaftswunder, or postwar German economic miracle, come into being? Free-market boosters like to believe that it began with the installation of Ludwig Erhard, the federal economics minister of postwar Germany. In June 1948, when the country was at its lowest moral and economic ebb, Erhard went on the air to make two momentous announcements. The almost worthless reichsmark would hitherto be replaced by the deutschemark, forty of which would be distributed to every German, followed by twenty more, followed by debt conversions at the rate of ten to one. Erhard also took the unprecedented step of dropping wage and price controls introduced by the Nazis, first on consumer goods and six months later on food, a move that even the Allies hadn’t considered. It’s likely that Germany’s recovery would have gone forward no matter what measures had been taken, since the country had nowhere to go but up. In other words, a reconstruction boom.

Fassbinder was wholly uninterested in the reasons behind the miracle and more interested in the less fashionable topic of how the “miracle” narrative came to be in the first place, and the level of amnesia required to make it stick. Each film in the trilogy (which only became a trilogy the moment that the “BRD 3” title was placed at the opening credits of Lola in 1981) has an unmade shadow project behind it. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1979) more or less began life as a projected omnibus film cooked up by Fassbinder entitled The Marriages of Our Parents (Die Ehen unserer Eltern), whose other segments were to have been directed by Edgar Reitz, Volker Schlöndorff, and Alexander Kluge. Fassbinder had had the story of Maria Braun in his head for some time, and he was hard at work on the adaptation of his most massive project, Berlin Alexanderplatz, when he turned to TV producer Märthesheimer and his partner, Fröhlich.

Romy Schneider was originally tagged to play Maria Braun, but, according to Robert Katz’s unbelievably provocative Fassbinder biography, Love Is Colder Than Death, a bitchfest of disgruntled lovers and old cronies, the deal was off when Fassbinder referred to Schneider in the press as a “stupid cow.” He decided to replace her with his former leading light, Hanna Schygulla, excommunicated since Effi Briest (Fontane Effi Briest, 1974). Fassbinder’s biggest moneymaker and Schygulla’s greatest triumph was shot between January and March of 1978 in Coburg and Berlin, as Fassbinder was writing Alexanderplatz. If you want to know about the drugs he was taking, about the sorry condition of his hotel room in Coburg, and about the tirades he visited on cast and crew, read Katz’s sensationalistic book. Meanwhile, the fleet, breathlessly inventive film offers sufficient evidence of control, insight, and discipline—not to mention genius.

It was with Despair, a high-pedigree, English-language Vladimir Nabokov adaptation (starring Dirk Bogarde, written by Tom Stoppard) that Fassbinder rolled into Cannes that May, but it was an answer print of Maria Braun, shown at a private screening, that caused the sensation. Buyers from all over the world were falling all over themselves to secure the movie for their territories. In the conservative, stadium-seated, multiplexed present, the success of a film as uncompromising as Maria Braun seems astonishing, despite its many moments featuring Schygulla in states of spectacular undress.

Lola,
ostensibly the third part of the trilogy but chronologically the second, was shadowed by Dirk Bogarde’s desire to make another film with the director he considered so chaotically brilliant. His idea was to film Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat, which provided the basis for Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930). Fassbinder’s producers offered a settlement to the Mann estate as a precautionary measure (and perhaps to buy the added commercial cachet of a Blue Angel remake). Märthesheimer and Fröhlich turned the tables on Mann’s hero by letting their hero, von Bohm, now a building commissioner, humiliate himself, first by making a public spectacle of his hatred of the amoral pimp and building magnate Schuckert, then by withdrawing into a state of nostalgic denial.

Fassbinder and his cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger, watched Technicolor films from the fifties to get the look they wanted—where Maria Braun is dark and luxuriously shadowed (like a late-forties Warner Brothers picture in glowing color), Lola has an aggressively bright palette of hot pinks and lurid reds mixed with light greens and pale blues, married to a relentless, impulsive physicality. Former East German star Armin Mueller-Stahl claimed that he and his costars were constantly going into the “red zone” with their performances throughout the lightning-fast shoot, which took place in the spring of 1981.

Veronika Voss (BRD 2), Fassbinder’s penultimate film, was based on the real-life tragedy that befell German star Sybille Schmitz. Schmitz, who was a formidable presence during the Nazi era, is probably best known to American audiences for her performance in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). According to Michael Töteberg, a young Fassbinder had read the newspaper stories about Schmitz’s 1955 suicide in Munich and the sensational trial that followed. He and his writers changed the names and employed another vintage Hollywood scenario, that of the reporter who becomes fascinated and then consumed with the life of the person he’s investigating—think of Citizen Kane (1941). Fassbinder decided to shoot the film in late 1981, as he was preparing Kokain, a vastly more complex undertaking. The Longing of Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss) went into production as an interim project, with the amazing Rosel Zech in her second Fassbinder film. BRD 2 would be Fassbinder’s first film in black and white since Effi Briest; it would also be his last great work, and the final chapter in one of his most sustained achievements, historically, politically, and aesthetically.

*****

What story was Fassbinder telling with these three films, each so similar and yet so vastly different? From a purely chronological point of view, he was recording a gradual process of disintegration, from amnesia to equivocation to suppression, masked beneath a veneer of renewal, regeneration, and forward motion. We start with postwar mobilization (Maria Braun’s decision to basically prostitute herself—to business and businessman—to a noble end), move on to mid-fifties consolidation (Veronika’s doctor eliminates not just a Nazi-era star but also, by implication, the embarrassing past she represents), and end with late-fifties rationalization (von Bohm’s marriage to Lola and subsequent retreat to the comfort of an imagined, pre-Nazi past, thus allowing her pimp and patron, Schuckert, to build to his heart’s content and ignore every code on the books).

Fassbinder is also telling the specific stories of his three titular heroines. Maria Braun and Lola are of necessity hard-nosed women, working twenty-four hours a day to construct futures for themselves from nothing, using their sexuality as a weapon, or at the very least as a bartering tool. The odd woman out is Veronika Voss, a star from a reviled firmament on whom Dr. Katz can feel free to practice blackmail with impunity. If circumstances have forced Maria Braun and Lola into sadly diminished and contradictory goals, Veronika is a relic of a now-unwanted past. Unlike Maria and Lola, she is paralyzed with fear and confusion, reduced to pleading for recognition of her bygone stardom—all but interchangeable with her humanity.

Each of the three films is keyed to the actress playing its eponymous antiheroine. Maria Braun is powered by Schygulla’s languid, mesmerizing persona and bathed in it. Although she was often compared to Marlene Dietrich, Schygulla never suggested glamour so much as incandescence. She’s a far more earthbound presence, her baby fat and druggy eyes telling a story of lethargy and daily drudgery. She gives any movie in which she appears a hypnotic undertow, and her Maria is a fabulous martyr, a gorgeous workhorse trying to reverse the momentum of history in slow-motion desperation. By contrast, in Lola, Barbara Sukowa’s cathouse diva is a hurricane of movement, laughter, and split-second timing, nicely offset by teenage poutiness and hurt pride. Mueller-Stahl, as von Bohm, and Mario Adorf, (familiar to American audiences as the father in Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum [Die Blechtrommel, 1979]), as Schuckert, make spectacular foils. Unusually for a Fassbinder film, this trio keeps upping the ante with every encounter, pushing the movie into a behavioral free-for-all, an acting Olympics, and they set a breathless pace for the tart, air-filled movie around them. Where Klaus Löwitsch and Ivan Desny are nothing more (or less) than stolid male types between whom Schygulla can langorously pivot and carom, Hilmar Thate’s inquisitive sportswriter walks through the same sunken gloom as Veronika (it’s hard to say why he’s pursuing the mystery of Veronika’s life and betraying his acquiescent girlfriend in the process—within the gray expanse of the action, it seems like he’s taking the most appealing dead end available). Zech’s Veronika, far from being an alluring sex bomb, is a deer trembling in the glare of oncoming headlights. While you remember Schygulla’s and Sukowa’s spectacular bodies (often clad in black lingerie), it’s Zech’s death-mask face and raw emotionalism that stay with you. This is not to say that hers is less of a performance. Her Veronika is quite an intricate piece of work, the unfortunate heroine of a real-life horror movie.

Fassbinder was a remarkable change-up artist, shifting register, tone, and rhythm from project to project, and the BRD trilogy is no exception. Maria Braun is a shoestring fall-and-rise epic, its self-made woman narrative borrowed from films like Mildred Pierce (1945). The tone is amazingly acute, at once depressed and alert, and the pace feels driven by Maria’s own compulsion. Lola is a completely different cinematic animal, a war of fantasies and projections waged between the ebullient Schuckert and the clipped, proper von Bohm, with Lola wedging herself between them as power broker. It may be the most mobile of Fassbinder’s late films, shot in aggressively bright pastel shades and moving at a fairly breathless clip, accumulating bits of sharp, vivid detail like a high-velocity fan collecting flotsam from the air. Veronika Voss is something else again, a druglike immersion experience disguised as a Citizen Kane-like investigative inquiry, tonally very close to Fassbinder’s earlier In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, 1978). The narrative of Robert’s investigation never gains much momentum, as the sense of skin-crawling anxiety stretches out to infinity in scene after scene. Every image hurts in this hypertactile, overstuffed world, shot in bric-a-brac stuffed interiors in the most piercing black and white, closer to an X-ray than to high Hollywood.

Fassbinder was a genius with rhythm, and in each of these films he builds to set pieces of tremendous power and gravity. There are terrific small-scale events, like the battle between Maria’s lover and the newly returned Hermann in a darkened bedroom, Lola and von Bohm making sweet harmony in a country church, or Veronika’s midaction breakdown on a film set (the director is modeled on Max Ophüls––he’s trying to get a good take of a dolly-in). But the most memorable moments are musical. One of the finest scenes of the seventies is Maria’s slow walk into the American army canteen in her best dress. “Will you dance with me, Mr. Bill? My man is dead,” says Maria in English, and the opening chords of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” hit, as she and Bill (George Byrd) break into a sad slow dance. Lola’s showstopper comes with von Bohm’s realization that his supposedly chaste beloved is the most coveted item in the local brothel, prompting Sukowa to push her nightly rendition of “The Fishermen of Capri” way over the top, with a rollicking performance of wildly aggressive energy. The “climax” of Veronika Voss is her farewell party, crosscut into crystalline shards by Fassbinder, ending with Veronika’s funereal rendition of Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.”

This was a director who knew how to give his endings the force of a blow to the solar plexus. Fassbinder made only minimal changes to Märthesheimer and Fröhlich’s screenplays, but in each case he revised the endings, and turned them into refrains. Von Bohm returns to the pastoral paradise where he “deflowered” Lola, accompanied by her young daughter, who unwittingly recreates her mother’s provocative pose in the hayloft, a harbinger of future sellouts. Veronika dies of withdrawal in a locked room, once again suffering to the strains of Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” after which Robert takes a somber taxi ride back to the 1860 Munich Stadium. Most memorably of all, Maria Braun scurries back and forth in her luxurious new house, past her taciturn, immobile husband, as Herbert Zimmermann’s ecstatic commentary on the 1954 world soccer championship blares over the radio: a gas stove, a lit cigarette, and a second explosion that feels like a deliverance from a future of ruinous illusions.

Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, Lola, Robert, von Bohm, Schuckert, Hermann . . . characters at once real and allegorical, trying to make their way through a misbegotten postwar Germany. Fassbinder dedicated his final energies to bringing these lost, gray years back to life, perhaps because they offered the clearest and least obstructed view of humanity at its most vulnerable.

Kent Jones is Film Comment's editor-at-large, and a frequent contributor to the magazine, as well as to many other publications around the world. He is also the coauthor of Martin Scorsese's documentary Il Mio Viaggio in Italia.