Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: The Utopia Channel

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: The Utopia Channel

On Film / Essays — Oct 9, 2018

There is the cruel friend from Berlin Alexanderplatz, carrying himself like a German Mick Jagger, all lankness and swagger until he breaks a smile, and then he smiles fast. There is Maria Braun, slapping a vending machine. There is Ali, across a factory floor, polishing something; there is the Merchant of Four Seasons, and there is his wife, typing with only slightly more haughtiness, and less repressed rage, than she did in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. “Not to remember the name of a traditional Hollywood bit player is possible,” the philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote. “Not to remember their faces and temperaments is unthinkable.” I could say the same for the loyal troupe of performers that director Rainer Werner Fassbinder assembled.

From its beginnings in the late-1960s Munich Antiteater collective, the Fassbinder creative family was famously dysfunctional. Its members did not age together on-screen; their leader died too soon for that. Yet seeing them in the series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, which aired on television in 1972 and 1973, brought Cavell’s words to mind, and not only because, as I write, he happens to have died last week. Fassbinder became notorious for the mad energy with which he cast himself and his other actors into role after role, sketching a shifting panorama of postwar West German life. What is so striking about the version we see in Eight Hours is how hopeful it feels. “The figures in [old photographs] seem so vulnerable, so unknowing of what we know about them, of the knowledge in store for them,” Cavell reflected. The characters in this series give me a similar sense of tenderness. Here are people striving to build a modest utopia. For once in Fassbinder, they get it. 

“When producer Peter Märthesheimer approached Fassbinder, he described the goal as the ‘occupation of a bourgeois genre.’ ”

Their good fortune turns out to have been the result of contingency: Fassbinder scripted a darker ending for the series, but the public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) ended it after five episodes, rather than the eight that he had planned. In their 1981 study WDR and the Arbeiterfilm, Richard Collins and Vincent Porter reconstruct the events that led the station to commission Fassbinder to make this flagship “worker film.” For our purposes, the key facts are these: In the mid- to late sixties, public broadcasters in West Germany began commissioning films to educate workers about their rights and about the contradictions of capitalism. In May 1971, WDR devoted an entire week of programming to what one industry rag denounced as “red parables” offering “a crash course in Marxist politics.”

Despite attracting controversy, the first worker films that WDR broadcast failed to attract mass audiences. So the channel’s drama department adopted a new policy: they would invite auteur directors to adapt popular forms to working-class themes. When producer Peter Märthesheimer approached Fassbinder, then only one year but already several features into his filmmaking career, about making a Familienserie, he described the goal as the “occupation of a bourgeois genre.” The result is eight hours that spend more time at work than the typical “family series” would, and that dramatize the connections between separate spheres, moving easily from the factory to the home, from white-collar to blue-collar work and back. 

The story takes place in Cologne—the largest city in the industrial heartland of North Rhine–Westphalia. We begin with four generations of the Epp family gathered at a kitchen table. Fassbinder and his longtime cinematographer, Dietrich Lohmann, were drawn to tables; three of the five episodes of Eight Hours start at one. In this first episode, the Epps are celebrating the birthday of the character played by Luise Ullrich, a vivacious retiree whom everyone calls Oma (Grandma), whether they are related to her or not. As so often in Fassbinder, the room feels a little tense, crossed as it is with petty male authoritarianism and female resentment. But the mood lifts when Grandma sends her grandson Jochen (Gottfried John) out to buy more champagne. At the vending machine, Jochen runs into Marion (Hanna Schygulla). They fall for each other at first sight—or, more precisely, at first banter. He forgets to buy the champagne but takes her back to the party. The next day, Marion tells her boyfriend that she is leaving him for someone else, with the cool directness that will disarm everyone she meets. “I really like him,” she shrugs. “Things like this happen.” 

The first episode is titled “Jochen and Marion,” and John and Schygulla have a chemistry that makes their pairing feel inevitable, even if Marion’s shrill colleague (Irm Hermann) and her mother (Brigitte Mira) disapprove of Marion dating “someone who gets his hands dirty at work.” Jochen spends his days at a factory “making machines that go in other machines”; Marion spends hers in the advertising department of the local newspaper. She loves to play verbal games, and he loves playing them with her. Their conversations lead them into a plainspoken Marxist materialism. Usually, Marion is Socrates. “Where does the company get its money from?” she asks Jochen at one point about his workplace. “From selling the stuff!” He laughs, as if the answer is obvious. “But where does it get the stuff it sells?” He blanks. “From you,” she persists, “because you made it!” Jochen will take this philosophy to the factory; after a nasty manager withholds a bonus that he promised, Jochen and his fellow workers begin to organize. 

The titles of the subsequent episodes arrange the members of the cast in different pairs. Grandma and Gregor (Werner Finck), a quiet widower whom she picks up in a park, headline the second one, in which they move in together and start a progressive kindergarten. Franz (Wolfgang Schenck) and Ernst (Peter Gauhe), a worker who aspires to become a foreman and the foreman who helps him study for the exam he has to pass to do so, are at the center of the third. The fourth is named for Harald (Kurt Raabe) and Monika (Renate Roland), Jochen’s unhappily married sister and her sneering husband; the fifth, for Marion’s office mate Irmgard and Rolf (Rudolf Waldemar Brem), the coworker and friend of Jochen’s she ends up with. (Fun fact: when Fassbinder met Irm Hermann in 1965, she was working as a secretary; at the beginning of their affair, when he was still cajoling her into acting, he would pick her up at her office every night to take walks in Munich’s English Garden. “He talked about the movies he wanted to make,” Hermann later recalled. “That was my first step out of a bourgeois existence.”)

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day does not lack for moments of conflict—or absurdity. Some of the early scenes in the Epp house approach slapstick, as family mem­bers jostle to use the single bathroom. The ad-placement office where Marion and Irmgard work occasions several surreal vignettes. A man whose wife has just died comes in to place an ad in search of forty hens, a cock, and a henhouse to contain them; he always wanted to raise chickens, and his nagging wife would not let him! In another, Grandma places an ad for another grandma for her son-in-law Wolf to bicker with. We see more sinister cruelties, too. One of the workers at the factory constantly hurls racial slurs at Giuseppe (Grigorios Karipidis), a migrant reminiscent of the charac­ter Fassbinder himself played in Katzelmacher (1969). 

There are hints of subversive attractions among these men, when they shower together at the factory or go dancing—and of the violent response that such attractions might inspire—but only hints. By the end, the characters have found a solution to every major problem that con­fronted them. Work arrangements have been rearranged; tensions at home have given way to new forms of cohabitation and cooperation. As in a Shakespearean comedy, all the right couples have come together. 

In addition to the priorities of the WDR drama department, Fassbinder’s successful “occupation of a bourgeois genre” reflects the lessons he drew from Douglas Sirk. Fassbinder began working on Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day a couple of years after his famous encounter with the films of the Danish-German director, who fled the Nazis with his Jewish wife and landed in Hollywood. The Technicolor melodramas that Sirk made for Universal Studios in the fifties helped inspire a watershed in Fassbinder’s career, one that took him from the jumpy, Godard-like deconstructions of Katzelmacher and Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) to his more mature work of the seventies, where melodrama serves as a vehicle for psychological insight and social criticism.

“The forms of irony or excess that cinephiles of the sixties and seventies were recognizing in Sirk become explicit in Fassbinder.”

“In Douglas Sirk’s movies, the women think,” Fassbinder wrote, in an appreciation that he published in 1971. “I haven’t seen that with any other director.” Fassbinder would elevate his own female figures—Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss—into allegories of West Germany in The BRD Trilogy (1978–82). While Jochen is ostensibly the main character, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day also dwells on women. As Marion, Schygulla already has the breathy voice and otherworldly composure of Maria Braun; she conveys entire trains of thought in a flicker of her eyes, and vast spans of emotion in a turn of her head. The camera studies Grandma’s face, flickering with schemes and delight at how clever they are. We watch the tyrannized Monika widen her eyes, then lower them, as if she could avoid meeting the gaze of her own unhappiness. 

Sirk’s influence is apparent in Fassbinder’s style as well as in his script. Mirrors and gauze and flowers fragment and obstruct our view; our heroes appear behind looming roses, yellow bells, and carnations, in rooms with patterned wallpaper and chintzy oil paintings and the occasional piece of taxidermy. The sound that saturates these spaces often conveys a yearning for America, or the frank intensity of feeling that Sirk’s America seemed to promise. In that opening birthday-party scene, Jochen has given Grandma a record that sounds like an instrumental arrangement of the Chordettes; the jukebox in the bar where he, Marion, and his coworkers drink and dance plays Janis Joplin songs. The forms of irony or excess that cinephiles of the sixties and seventies were recognizing in Sirk become explicit in Fassbinder. The credit sequences that bracket each episode—shots of Cologne waking up and of the red sun setting over factory smokestacks—feature carnival-like music that an organ grinder might play, or that Kurt Weill might have written for Bertolt Brecht. Fassbinder punctuates key plot points with screeching animals or extradiegetic trumpet blares. “Nothing is natural,” as he puts it in his Sirk essay. This means that nothing has to stay the way it is.

Fassbinder eschews the standard shot-reverse-shot editing pattern in favor of pans and zooms that capture machines moving or strangers eating obliviously behind them. Tightly framed tracking shots, or circular pans, are a recurring motif, especially for meetings and confrontations. During a wedding sequence that lasts nearly half an hour, the camera weaves through the Epp house, following guest to guest and dance to dance. This mobile camera binds people, things, and animals together. Before our eyes, it weaves a social fabric.

Not every viewer bought what Fassbinder was doing. Before Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day even began shooting, articles appeared questioning whether he could make a plausible worker film, given his middle-class background. After the series aired, despite its relative success with viewers, some critics disparaged it as a fairy tale, one that glorified individuals and the extended family while failing to show any of the actual institutions of German working-class life or labor representation. A review in Die Zeit described the aesthetic as a “stylistic mishmash.” And the director himself remained politically controversial. As Jane Shattuc recounts in her book Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture, as leftist activists became more and more radical, public broadcasting officials grew nervous about the filmmaker: “From 1976 to 1980, West German television pro­duced only two Fassbinder works after six years of at least two a year.” 

As an American in 2018, I find it impossible to watch Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day without longing for more stories like it, for us, here and now. If Fassbinder was preoccupied with how Germans’ lives had been distorted by their failure to reckon with their country’s fascist history, the United States is currently being confronted by its own failures to see the past clearly. The repressed authoritarian tendencies that Theodor Adorno and Philip K. Dick warned our parents or grandparents about are rearing their ugly heads. As right- and left-wing movements worldwide battle over new media channels, and centrist calls to revive old forms of objectivity and civility fall flat, the issues that WDR was attempting to address with the worker film feel increasingly urgent. How do we define pluralism and liberalism, and how must media be organized in order to foster these values? What are revolutionary aesthetics, and who decides? Can an artist speak to a broad audience both inventively and democratically, estrang­ing things as they are without coercing others into accepting his or her vision?

In his feature films, Fassbinder often points us toward utopia, in order to withdraw it as a possibility. This is how you lose x. These are the compromises people make between desires and the realities that thwart them. But in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, his characters model ways that people might actually coexist, clear-eyed. “Du mußt dein Leben ändern,” another genius named Rainer wrote. “You must change your life.” Maybe we can.