I’ve never seen a filmmaker expose themselves to this extent, a slab of meat, naked and poisoned on the outside and dramatizing quite extreme character traits and forms of behaviour, ones people normally prefer to hide. It’s a fascinating example of Fassbinder’s genius as a dramaturge, as it’s an episode where nothing seems to happen yet much is revealed.
A nice authoritarian ruler
It’s a piece of structured biography in which Fassbinder returns from Paris to his boyfriend Armin in Munich. It’s Autumn of ’77; an industrialist has been killed by terrorists, a plane has been hijacked and three terrorists have conveniently been killed under suspicious circumstances. Fassbinder tries to make sense of this through conversations with Armin, who doesn’t have the cultural capital to respond in a reasoned manner; with his mother, who is very cultured but is also a living embodiment of the legacy of Nazism — she thinks the solution to these problems is a nice, kind-hearted Führer; and with his ex-wife, Ingrid Caven, who is a help but who is in Paris and doesn’t know very much about what is going on.
Fassbinder’s mother and Armin, are structural opposites in terms of class and education. Interestingly. Tony Rayns claims Armin was the result of one of the Nazis’ genetic experiments to breed the perfect Aryan but who was then left to be raised on his own, becoming a functionally illiterate butcher and former rent boy. Fassbinder’s mother is the German translator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Yet their opinions do not diverge by much, though Fassbinder’s mother articulates hers much more clearly.
The Fassbinde episode begins with Fassbinder talking to a journalist about marriage, how he depicts it in his films, why he is against it, and how he hopes the representations of the institution in the films will make viewers’ question their own. The depiction of Fassbinder’s own relationship with Armin is as brutal as I’ve seen. Fassbinder treats Armin as his slave, demanding coffee, food, waking him up to dial his phone calls, kicking him out of the house when they disagree because it’s ‘his’ flat. Many of the episodes starts with Fassbinder bullying like a big powerful baby, and end with him crying, with Armin reaching out, consoling, understanding. In spite of his awful behaviour or as part of his awful behaviour, Fassbinder is also needy, jealous, desiring of Armin. As bleak and complex a depiction of a relationship as I’ve seen.
Throughout all of this, another layer in the drama, and further proof of Fassbinder’s genius for dramatizing, Fassbinder is in the midst of addiction. He’s ostensibly quit but calls his dealer for more coke. He’s paranoid. By the state of the mess on his kitchen table he’s clearly in the midst of a binge, we see both withdrawal and vomiting. How much are his rages against Armin connected to his drug dependency? He paints himself as an unreasonable bully, completely selfish, obsessed with work, keen to understand the world and completely oblivious to the needs of those around him. It’s almost as they exist only as a function of his needs rather than people in themselves. Armin and Fassbinder’s mother might reveal traces of fascist ideas, but the authoritarian Führer presented in this episode is Fassbinder himself.
How he presents himself is at least as interesting. In some sections he’s got a big fat, puffy face, further distorted by being filmed as reflection of his coke mirror. He films himself naked, stroking himself whilst he’s discussing political issues on the phone with others. If the genitalia are upfront and close-up, the moments of feeling, of break-down of need, are filmed in long-shot, in Sirkian frames-within-frames that highlight, contain and restrict. It’s an episode that palpitates with anger, and need, a mind searching whilst a body breaks apart. Nothing that comes in the rest of the film matches its force.
PS whilst much has been made of Fassbinder’s cruelty to Armin Meier, it’s worth pointing out that the credits of Germany in Autumn don’t even bother to spell his name right. The disdain for the lower-class outsider is not attributable solely, if at all, to Fassbinder.