The French term “enfant terrible” gets tossed around a lot when talking about controversial, boundary pushing, sometimes off putting artists, but few have earned such a title as rigorously as prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder. By all accounts hell to work with and loved almost as much as he was loathed, the Bavarian born bisexual filmmaker and actor (who popped up quite a bit in films that weren’t his own) had no parallel when it came to shoving the cinematic envelope over the edge and no personal regrets in doing so.
A true original in every sense, Fassbinder produced 44 films across a career that didn’t even last twenty years. He started in the mid 1960s and didn’t stop producing films until late in 1982 when then 37 year old Fassbinder died of a drug overdose. While most of his films could adequately be categorized in one way or another as a form of melodrama – with Douglas Sirk being his greatest, most acknowledged influence – there wasn’t a genre, format, or milieu that Fassbinder didn’t want to take a crack at. He would often say in interviews that he had a fixation on expressing feelings rather than stories, and few filmmakers were as able to produce guttural responses in viewers and critics as Fassbinder was.
Such a storied career makes it a no brainer that TIFF would honour the gifted, too-soon-departed director with a retrospective: Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, running from Friday, October 28 to Friday, December 23. Unspooling a total of 36 works by Fassbinder (including shorts and miniseries), the retrospective is as comprehensive as one could reasonably expect. With such a varied career, it’s near impossible to choose only five films across the programme to point to as must see masterpieces.
With that in mind, here are five stand outs from the first half of TIFF’s retrospective that are worth catching for the first time or revisiting on the big screen. Come back on November 24 when we look at the second half of TIFF’s look back at one of the godfathers of New German Cinema. (Note: this look is divided up not by Fassbinder’s career in chronological order, but by when the films are being screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox this season.)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
The best overall film Fassbinder ever produced (although given his career, this title is up for considerable debate), 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of the greatest relationship dramas ever constructed. An unabashed Sirkian melodrama that loosely reworks the fellow German dramatist’s All That Heaven Allows, it’s a wrenching, perpetually relevant look at a German ex-Nazi sexagenarian (Brigitte Mira) who falls madly in love with a twentysomething Moroccan man (El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers) and the prejudices they face within each other’s social circles and communities. Shot in only fifteen days (which considering the film’s quality is shocking, but by Fassbinder standards is a long shoot) and one of the films that was named to TIFF’s list of the 100 most essential films of all time, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul crafts a delicate, detailed relationship as real as anything humans witness on a day to day basis. It’s a film nearly devoid of emotional artifice no matter its dramatic trappings. It’s painfully real and the story sadly never seems to age.
Screens: Friday, October 28 at 6:30 pm
For one of his best films, 1974’s Effi Briest, the usually rushed Fassbinder dragged out the shooting to a total of 58 days scattered across two years. A true passion project for the filmmaker, Effi Briest shows Fassbinder’s knack for literary adaption with his take on Theodor Fontane’s 19th century novel about a young woman (Hanna Schygulla) forced into a loveless relationship with an older, loutish, unfaithful army man. Not only is Effi Briest one of Fassbinder’s most opulent looking films, but also one of his saddest and most emotionally draining. The usually button pushing auteur doesn’t really need to do much to garner an audience reaction since the source material has provided mostly everything he needs. It’s also the best collaboration between Fassbinder and frequent star Schygulla, who delivers a truly affecting turn in the title role. Many of Fassbinder’s films have sometimes quite rightfully been the subject of feminist criticism, but this one is assuredly his most feminist film.
Screens: Thursday, November 3 at 6:45 pm
Beware of a Holy Whore
One of the best films ever made about the filmmaking process and the most on-point satire Fassbinder ever created, 1971’s Beware a Holy Whore finds actor Lou Castel as a very Fassbinder-like auteur who rules over a troubled production with an iron fist, while the cast of the film-within-the-film torture each other mentally and physically simply as a means to pass the time. Cheekily casting himself in a bit of a heroic role instead of as the so obvious directorial surrogate of a main character, this is Fassbinder with the gloves off. Quite often when Fassbinder seeks to provoke, like many prolific artists his jabs come across as the work of someone trying too hard to get noticed. In Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder comes out of a period in his career where he was focusing on expressionism and instead decides to get personal and literal. The resulting film is sometimes tough to take, but this is one of the filmmaker’s most openly passionate and overtly funny efforts.
Screens: Saturday, November 5 at 4:15 pm
The Marriage of Maria Braun
More of a success for leading lady Hanna Schygulla than Fassbinder, 1978’s The Marriage of Maria Braun remains for many Fassbinder’s most accessible and potentially likable effort. Perhaps more universally acclaimed than most of the director’s other efforts, it casts Schygulla (who picked up Best Actress honours in Berlin for her efforts) as a woman living in post-World War II Germany trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps following the disappearance of her husband during the war. Fassbinder’s talents for creating his own style of fully realized melodrama shines through here, but not as brightly as Schygulla. Deferring quite often to his leading performer (who returned to work with him following a lengthy falling out), it’s the most egoless of Fassbinder’s efforts, and while it might be overrated in his overall filmography, this would be a great place to start for those unfamiliar with his work.
Screens: Tuesday, November 8 at 6:30 pm and Wednesday, November 7 at 6:30 pm
One of the last films in Fassbinder’s career, the 1981 effort Lola is also his most eye-catching. Part of a trilogy alongside The Marriage of Maria Braun and 1982’s Veronika Voss (which screens on November 25th as part of the retrospective), Lola is a classical sort of story about love, lust, and corporate malfeasance. Shot using a gorgeous Technicolor styled palate that recalls 1950s and early 60s American kitsch, it’s about a bureaucrat in West Germany (veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl) who unwittingly falls in love with a paid escort, bringing out in him the corruption that he has tried so hard to keep at bay. A fascinating satire and skillfully mounted drama, Lola works because its post-World War II setting has a lot more in common with early 80s politics than I think most people at the time realized. Alongside Fear Eats the Soul, this is the film of Fassbinder’s most in need of a critical reappraisal. It’s also his best looking film on the whole from a stylistic standpoint.
Screens: Friday, November 11 at 6:30 pm
Extra credit: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Part of me really wanted to forego placing The Marriage of Maria Braun on this list in favour of Fassbinder’s remarkable work on this German television series, which was released in the United States as an almost 15 and a half hour feature. But whereas The Marriage of Maria Braun is easily accessible, I realize that trying to catch the entirety of Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s tale of a an ex-con trying to go straight (played brilliantly by Günter Lamprecht, giving one of the best performances in any Fassbinder work) is a massive time commitment and a lot to ask of someone. It’s fairly accessible, but slow, not really picking up a huge head of steam until the final two hours. Then again, that really describes most television miniseries. And yet, every moment of the work here is enthralling and poignantly captured. And don’t worry: you don’t have to sit through the whole thing in a single sitting, or even a single weekend. Episodes 1-3 screen on Saturday, November 12 at 4:00 pm, parts 4-7 on Sunday the 13th at 1:00 pm, 8-11 on Saturday the 19th at 1:00 pm, and the remainder (including the film’s wrenchingly moving epilogue) on Sunday the 20th at 1:00 pm. It’s at least worth catching the first part to get a taste of what’s in store, and to catch a glimpse at one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements.
For a full list of films playing during the retrospective and tickets, check out the TIFF website.