EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY: EPISODE FIVE – IRMGARD UND ROLF.
Like Jane Fonda with 9 TO 5 (Colin Higgins, 1980), Fassbinder ostensibly researched EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY by visiting factories, talking to workers and getting advice from trade unions. He then went on to write the scripts for the eight-part series, sent them to trade unionists for feedback and incorporated the feedback into the final scripts. I’m not too clear on when Westdeutscher Rundfunk decided not to go ahead with the last three episodes. Fassbinder had been paid, the actors had signed contracts, the show was a ratings and popular success. It had also been very controversial in the press. When producer Peter Märthesheimer approached Fassbinder about the project, he described the goal as the ‘occupation of a bourgeois genre.’ Perhaps they had succeeded too well, and Mäthesheimer didn’t want to test an already volatile press on what further, ostensibly bleaker episodes might spark. The fallout of the Munich Olympics Massacre of ‘72 was still being processed in the culture as this show was being released.
The final episode takes place mainly at work. The factory is moving. The workers find out before they’re consulted. It will constitute a major disruption to their lives, adding two hours to a daily commute for some, or incurring costs by requiring them to buy transport they hadn’t previously needed. Newlyweds Jochen (Gottfried John) and Marion (Hannah Schygulla) have only just signed a five-year lease on a flat. What to do? Marion, always the voice of reason and change in this series, suggests they draw up a list of demands and present them to the bosses. The biggest demand is that workers organise their work themselves. Surprisingly, the bosses accept. They set the hours it would normally take to do the job, and if the workers do the job earlier the money saved will be split half-half between workers and bosses. This they do. Should they divide the money equally or according to pay grade? An occasion to bring up all the racist tensions at the factory. But the workers agree to that as well…. And then the ball droops. Why should the bosses get any of the money? Well because they own the means of production.
The organisation, resistance and work at the factory is interspersed with housing problems (Jochen and Marion end up exchanging flats with Jochen’s parents), a misunderstanding when Manfred (Wolfgang Zerlett), madly in love with Monika (Renate Roland) , thinks she’s involved with someone else when in fact she’s being swindled by a bourgeois speculator, something the grandmother quickly, and humorously, sets to right, and Irm’s (Irm Hermann) developing relationship with Rolf(Rudolf Waldemar Brem) . In ‘The Utopian Channel’ a lovely essay that accompanies the Criterion blu-ray, Marion Weigel writes, ‘As an American in 2018, I find it impossible to watch EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY without longing for more stories like, for us, here and now.’ I know what she means.
Fassbinder, like Sturges, Ford, Almodóvar and many other directors, seems to use the same company of actors over and over again, and part of the pleasure of watching their films is in familiarising oneself with the troupe and revelling in their skill and effectiveness as they play different roles over time. There’s no one I look forward to seeing in Fassbinder’s work more than Irm Hermann, so wonderful as the forceful presence that never speaks in THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT. Like Eve Arden she doesn’t need a big role to make her character felt.
This fourth episode has a twinned structure in that as Jochen (Gottfried John) and Marion (Hannah Schygulla) head to marriage, Harald (Kurt Raab) and Jochen’s sister Monica (Renate Roland) head to divorce. The tenderness, uncertainty and discussion of the first couple is juxtaposed with the patriarchal control, physical violence and lack of communication of the other. Luckily for Monica, she has the support of her female network, and though her mother isn’t very understanding, her grandmother, her aunt and Marion, all help devise a plan to get Harald to agree to a divorce and let her keep their daughter. It’s female solidarity in action.
The other story-lines are a bit clichéi-sh here: will Marion’s mother (Brigitte Mira) approve of Jochen, will they move in to the mother’s apartment or get their own place. Marion and Jochen fight over the wedding itself. He doesn’t want Irmgard (Irm Hermann) to be maid of honour. She’s too stuck up, certain, disapproves of Marion’s marrying a blue-collar worker who gets her hand dirty. Needless to say, and after many. Tears, Marion gets her way. Irmgard’s haughty condescension, her certainty, and the way her convictions melt with liquor and desire at the wedding itself are the episodes’ high point.
The wedding party takes up the last 30 minutes of the 95 minute episode and is a tour de force of staging, keeping up all the various relationships in play, dramatizing their alterations, and playing off social structures against individual desires and circumstances in ways that are easily legible to the viewer. Another marvellous episode, this one with a superb closing shot.
The Daily Fassbinder: EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY – EPISODE 3 – FRANZ UND ERNST.
If this were released today, it’s easy to imagine a cycle of twitter responses: ‘It’s Marxist; It’s too Marxist; It’s not Marxist enough; It’s progressive but not left wing; Does the show condescend to working people?; I love the show; I hate the show; the show is redeemable’. And in all that critical noise, where one can’t see the forest for the trees, the importance and originality of the work is lost sight of. What’s still striking about this episode is that the main narrative through line takes place at work. A big chunk of our lives takes place at work, and yet how rare to see the problems of work dramatized. Drama sometimes takes place at work but is rarely related to work itself, and when it is, it tends to be be middle-class work and up. Here the drama takes place in a factory. The foreman has died. The workforce is agreed that Franz (Wolfgang Schenck) should get it. The supervisor agrees to wait to see whether he succeeds in passing the exam necessary for the certificate before he advertises the job but lies. Soon the workforce has to deal with a new outside foreman, Ernst (Peter Gauhe), a very nice man, who luckily for all, doesn’t really want the job, and helps Franz pass the Maths exam he’s found such a hurdle in the past. Communication and co-operation turn out to be the key, at work as in the family. Another brilliant episode.
The closing credits, with the marvellously hummable theme tune and over a rather grim factory setting:
There are various subplots threaded through the second episode: Jochen (Gottfried John) and Marion (Hannah Schygulla) go to a striptease; Monika (Renate Roland) decides to put her child in kindergarten and start working against her husband’s wishes – buying an expensive hat is her first act of rebellion; Franz (Wolfgang Schenck) decides to apply for the job of foreman.
However, the main plot of the second episode revolves around Oma (Luise Ulrich) and Gregor (Werner Finck).
Oma and Gregor have fallen in love and want to move in together. She’s resolved that they won’t pay a penny more than the standard expectation, which is 20% of net income (can you imagine?). Her pension is 356 marks a month; his is 760; so 217 is her budget and she’s sticking to it. Of course they can’t find a suitable flat for that amount. Oma comes up with various ruses (run down the flat, run down the neighbourhood etc) but none of them work. She believes that learning is alright but thinking is better; and thinking resulting in action is better than that.
In their search for a flat, they see that the council is closing down a library and have no plans to use the space. All this whilst children are in the street risking death because the council doesn’t have enough kindergarten places. She gets her grandson and his work mates work to come to the space, do an overnight make-over and invites the children into the space. She gets the neighbourhood ladies on side and they’re a success. Of course, the council swoops down – criminals run free but there are enough policemen to jail pensioners and children! – but even though Gregor keeps saying ‘Well, that’s just the way things are’, Oma doesn’t accept it. They form a neighbourhood committee, get the press on side and at the end the neighbourhood has a kindergarten, they have new jobs and a flat, and the viewer has learned something about rents and squatters rights in Cologne in the early 70s.
This civic lesson is conveyed with zest, charm and energy through the madcap antics of the very endearing Oma, played with edge and intelligence and a bit of an edge by Louise Ulrich, and via the endearing earnestness with which the elderly couple’s developing relationship is depicted. Politics, drama, charm. It’s quite a combination.
Fassbinder’s work continues to surprise and delight. Yesterday I saw the first episode of EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY – JOCHEN AND MARION – in what must surely be one of the very earliest mini-series for television (5 episodes, aired 1972 through ‘73)? Each episode is as long as a feature-length film, with JOCHEN AND MARION being 107 minutes. The series is sub-titled ‘A Family Series’ and what one sees is Marxism with a pulse, dressed in warmth and with a heart. The episode begins with a birthday party for Oma (a delightful Louise Ulrich) where we’re introduced to the whole family, their various problems and the tensions between them, that are also part of the love they share and the mutual support they offer each other. The rest of the episode focuses on the developing relationship between Jochen (Jochen Epp) and Marion (Hannah Schygulla), conflicts at work in the factory, and Oma’s own search for independence.
I’ve yet to see Fassbinder depict a heterosexual relationship as tender, loving and mutually supportive as that between Jochen and Marion here. There was clearly an attempt to make it palatable for a family audience, but the film doesn’t eschew complexities. Jochen and Marion meet at an all night grocery dispenser. He picks her up and brings her to Oma’s party. She loves the family and loves him. She’s got a boyfriend but by the next day he’s gone: she knows what she wants. She’s honest as well as smart and sensitive. When Jochen sees her with a young boy, he thinks it might be hers. Would it matter if it was she asks? It’s a test. It clearly does matter but he loves her too much to let it. Luckily for him because it just turns out to be her younger brother.
It’s also quite rare to see a show take place at a factory. It’s not just the canteen. Here we do see the men actually working . It’s wonderful to see all of the Fassbinder ensemble in a working-class context here. The drama at work is that they’ve been promised a bonus if they meet a deadline that’s almost impossible. Jochen develops a mechanism so they can meet the deadline and get the bonus but then the bosses withdraw the bonus because it’s now too easy to achieve. His mates blame Jochen, and Marion helps him resolve the problem: How does the factory make money? By selling the pieces. Who makes the pieces? Jochen and his team do. They must fight back. They do, and work slowdowns make the bosses re-offer the bonus, though this time in writing.
If the show starts with a birthday party in which Jochen and Marion meet, it ends after the foreman’s funeral – he didn’t survive the tensions at work — where Jochen and Marion’s relationship is now solidified. It’s beautifully filmed, through flowers, chairs, factory machinery, always purposefully. It’s got a lovely gentle rhythm too, beautifully realised emotion, and all this is punctured with moments of comedy that border on the slapstick, get their laughs and help create the piece’s gorgeous emotional rhythms. Smart, hard-working, loving working people that won’t be stepped on. I can’t wait for the next episode.