by Brooks Riley
‘I can sleep when I'm dead.'
That's how Rainer Werner Fassbinder justified his hell-bent, frenetic, productive/destructive dervish whirl through a short existence, trailing an oeuvre of 45 films, 21 plays and countless screenplays. He was 37 when he died.
He's been sleeping now for 33 years—a well-earned rest he wasn't quite ready for but did nothing to prevent. He died of an overdose, of life and of every substance that helped fuel his march through it. This year he would have turned 70.
Walking past the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Technical College last week, I found myself doing what I often do with the dead: I imagined his ghost, the Tatar warrior of grunge, clad in filthy Levis and an old leather vest, striding out the door, coming over to me and giving me that bear hug of his.
Was machst Du den hier? he asks, stunned to find me living in his home town of Munich.
What am I doing here? It's a good question for which I have no easy answer, other than the chain of unrelated circumstances that has brought me here, over and over again, at various times in my life. Now I've been here longer than I've been anywhere else.
Fassbinder's Munich is not my Munich. We never had that much in common, except a love of film and a breezy friendship. Now he lies in a pricey part of town, far from the bars he frequented or the studio where he made many of his films. He's been honored with his very own Platz, the Rainer-Werner-Fassbinder Platz, in a new residential area near the train station. And a technical college, of all things.
We weren't always friends. The first time I met him, when a colleague and I were the first to interview him on his first trip to New York, he was restless and impatient, fulfilling an obligation with intelligence but without enthusiasm. Fassbinder could be rude and intimidating, with a bad-boy reputation that served him well against intruders, a category that included nearly everyone outside his inner circle of cast and crew, his only friends. He had many admirers out there in the world, myself included, but none could break through that barrier he put up to all those who would befriend him or wish him well. He had no time.
In the years between 1971 and his death in 1982, he had one or two films every year at the New York Film Festival. By default I became the liaison between him and the festival. It was a strain. He didn't do small talk, didn't get into discussions, didn't greet people, didn't network. He was always in a hurry to be somewhere else. As my admiration for his films continued to grow, my interest in his person evaporated. That was fine.
Then came the volte-face. One night at the festival, Fassbinder arrived in the green room at Alice Tully Hall far too late to be introduced on stage to the audience, who had come to see him as well as his latest film. Typisch Rainer. Untypisch me, I screamed at him ‘Who do you think you are?' and ‘How can you treat your audience that way?' and ‘Grow up!'. It was intensely liberating.
‘Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse! ‘, he screamed back as he paced the green room like a wild animal, terrifying to behold. His wrath was not directed at me, but seemed to reflect a sudden crisis of conscience. The only way to end it was to tell him to sit down and to throw the New York Times at him, with Vincent Canby's glowing review of his film. He hadn't read it, of course. Now he did and when he'd finished, the tempest had subsided. For the first time ever, Rainer smiled at me.
I recently discovered a quote by one of Fassbinder's close collaborators: ‘He admired people who resisted him, who stood up to him when everybody seemed willing to go along with him.' So that explains it. I can't help but think of Bizet's Carmen, another force of nature: ‘Si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime.'
From then on, I got to know a different Fassbinder, the child lurking behind that menacing façade, the softy who could easily be hurt. Our friendship consisted of dinner two or three times a year, where we laughed liked kids over silly things. We also talked about movies–about his films, about Douglas Sirk, about Michael Curtiz. I remember a discussion about whether his film Despair should be titled Verzweiflung in the German release. For him, the German word didn't quite live up to the poetic gravitas of the English one. For me it was the ‘butterfly-Schmetterling' argument: whatever rings your bell when you hear it. I just loved Verzweiflung, a word with onomatopoetic force, a paradigm of painful pronunciation.
Pals on a perennial basis, we held an enduring affection for each other, like brother and sister. I wore his hat, he wore my scarf. I once called his scraggly beard a green forest. At first he looked stricken, then he laughed it off. On our way to the annual Goethe Haus party on Fifth Avenue, we linked arms and sang, ‘We're going down to Goethe's house, but Goethe's not at home.' Kids.
Whenever I walk down the Sendlinger Strasse now, I think of Rainer growing up there, an only child left to his own devices while both his parents worked. He spent his spare time in movie theaters, alone, learning about society through a distorted lens—all those images feeding a gathering storm that would unleash its power on an unsuspecting cinematic landscape. Fassbinder made up for a lost childhood by dragging it with him into his adult life. The cinema was his playground as well as his form of expression; the people he worked with were his playmates, an inner circle like a vortex with Fassbinder at the center. I was never a part of that circle for which I am grateful, preferring to be an outsider myself.
Although I've seen nearly all his films, I haven't seen one in a very long time. Something holds me back from revisiting them. Then again, that goes for nearly all the films I've ever loved–their moment come and gone. In the obituary in Film Comment I wrote:
Fassbinder was a street scholar of social politics, the fierce monitor of the delicate imbalances of behavior that make of one a lord of the ties that bind, of another a slave. . . . He found in postwar Germany a ripe environment for toxins deadly to the survival and flourishing of individualism. With his own compassionate brand of alienation, he transferred his victims from bathos to pathos via perversion of melodrama and a powerful, disturbing dramatic style that was not quite real, not quite surreal, not quite satire, not quite soap opera. It worked on the viewer's discomforting identification with his band of outsiders or their tormentors.
I wonder not only about the films he never got to make, I also wonder how he would have reacted to all that has come to pass since his death. This most German of the Neue Deutsche Film generation would certainly have been galvanized by German reunification, but not for the obvious reasons or the melodramatic potential of such a grand turning point. As for the digital age, I think he would have hated Twitter, texting, or any form of social media. He would have avoided e-mail altogether, using a computer only to accelerate his work. I even doubt that he would have spent much time on the internet. He would surely have welcomed the digital camera, abetting as it could his penchant for speed and prolific output. As for the AIDS epidemic just around the corner at the time, he once referred to the New York gay bar scene of the early ‘80s as Endzeit, or doomsday, but didn't live long enough to find out how prophetic that was.
The ghost outside the technical college has decamped—typisch Rainer. As I proceed down the street, it occurs to me that I forgot to wish him Happy 70th Birthday. Instead I turn around and speak softly into the charged, thin air, ‘Good night, dear boy, sleep well.'