Tag Archives: Rainer Werner Fassbinder




The epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz is a two-hour work, one of the greatest endings to any audio-visual work I’ve ever seen, and done in a very different vein to the rest of the series. Franz has been arrested for the murder of Mieze, has gone into a catatonic stupor, is tied up and force-fed in an Insane Asylum, and is drifting in and out of consciousness. This is the motivation for the narrative to go in a more experimental and poetic vein. Is Franz in purgatory? There are two angels watching over him as he walks over the ruins of his past, trying to make sense of the life he’s led, his attempts at being ‘decent’, the circumstances that prevented him from being so. The dream logic of the episode permits an intersection of theatre/film/ television; a narrative that can flit omnisciently from past to future, with extraordinary imagery that brings to mind the Holocaust: people as animals in an abattoir, bodies piled up, the infamous striped uniform. It also underlines the moral and ethical dimension of the work: Franz’s murder of Ida, a source of original sin the series constantly returns to, is given another spin. Ida, all broken up, confronts him by her very presence. It wasn’t my fault he says. I didn’t mean to do it. I served my time. He doesn’t seem to get that she’s dead, that doing four years at Tegel doesn’t compensate for a life, certainly not to her. The moral and ethical dimension of the series is sharpened, clarified and offered as a punctuation point to the work. All the different strands of the narrative – the characters, the betrayals, the bible readings, the Whore of Babylon, are brought back; set to an incredible range of music; opera, electronic, pop songs by Elvis, Janis Joplin, Dean Martin – and poeticised for power, clarity, and further reverbarations of meaning.  It’s really extraordinary.

The Epilogue also brings to the fore the queer dimension of the work. Reinhold is in jail, hiding from the law. He’s stolen a purse under a false identity. What safer place – from the law, from the gangs and from Biberkopf – than jail? But he’s fallen in love with a man in prison, and at least in Fassbinder’s accounting, his previous womanising is clearly the result of a repressed homosexuality that love has now brought to light. But that love also brings the fear of its loss. So here we get an intersection of the personal, political, social and sexual. It’s an indication of the kind of work that was being done in the pre-AIDS era that make one speculate on how it might have developed had AIDS, its decimations and the resulting re-marginalisation of queers not happened. Fassbinder’s work makes the New Queer Cinema films that appeared subsequently seem so partial, inward-looking, narrow in focus and in scope; works of mourning and militancy but with a clear separation from the dominant culture, its narratives and its history. This epilogue brings together queer desire as a driving force into the history of a person but also a city and a nation; brings bible and myth into its understanding. Queers are central to the culture. There is no separation. And because of that, there is also no absolution. It’s extraordinarily ambitious, formally daring, in-your-face poetic work such as I’ve rarely seen. I’ll have to see it again, read on it, and think about it some more. It’s a work that makes one want to.

José Arroyo




The beginning of Episode Thirteen is extraordinary: a sad song playing on a victrola; the beautiful caged parakeet fluttering in its cage; Fassbinder in voice-over relaying the destruction of Mieze’s body; and then the image of Franz Biberkopf, next to the Victrola, ‘wearing’ Mieze: her cloche hat, her lipstick, smeared. He’s mourning the loss of Mieze without yet realising the extent of it. She hasn’t just left him as he thinks. And the whole episode will be about Franz finally understanding what the audience already knows: that the woman he loves has been murdered by the man he loves.

When Franz grabs the beautiful innocent parakeet from its cage and kills it with his bare fist — beauty and innocence are no protection against the evils of this world – he gets closer to Reinhold than he realises: not just a narrative structural opposition but a signal that the worst aspects of their character sometimes intersect. The ending, where he finally understands, is a clichéd moment, very theatrical – Franz’s laughter, which seems to go on forever, turns to messy inescapable grief within the shot – beautifully performed in close-up by Günther Laprecht – and very effective. A beautiful and powerful ending to a great episode.

José Arroyo



Each man kills the thing he loves. Reinhold’s tried once before, by throwing Biberkopf out of the car. But all that Biberkopf lost then is an arm, enough to extinguish most men. But here is that damned Biberkopf, if not quite a Phoenix risen from the ashes, a happy parakeet, prancing around town, with a new girl; a girl who’s happy to wash him, wash for him, keep him. They’re madly in love with each other. It’s driving Reinhold mad.

One of the achievements of this episode is to dramatize such a radical and complex view of love. Biberkop’s a pimp, but one who wants no one other than Mieze, which Mieze finds abnormal. For her part, Mieze is a prostitute, one who occasionally falls in love with her clients, but who ultimately chooses Biberkopf. The accent here is on feeling rather than sexual acts; and what Biberkopf and Mieze feel for each other is shown as pure, spiritual, even though one of Biberkop’s jealous rages resulted in Mieze almost ending up like Ida.


Mieze wants to know all about Biberkopf, and insists on meeting his friends, even though he wants to keep them away from her, suspecting their roughness and immorality might somehow contaminate her. His eventual consent is the beginning of this tragedy. That’s where she meets Meck, who will sell them both out, and that’s where Reinhold sees them, is affronted by their happiness and decides to destroy it.

The last half-hour takes place in the countryside. Mieze agrees to let Meck drive her to Bad Freinwalde, where she hopes he will tell her more about Biberkopf. Instead, he delivers her to Reinhold. Mysteriously, the same waitress who served Biberkop and Mieze, serves, and witnesses, now.

The last half hour is staged as a dance of death, with Fassbinder himself bursting into the scene via voiceover reading passages of Ecclesiastes: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant; and a time to pluck up the planted.’

Mieze resists, Reinhold insists, the push and pull takes place in a woods that seems to get darker as the story advances; the dynamic becomes more dangerous; he shows her his tattoos (one is anvil); she’s seen many before; he’s never forced himself on a woman, says Reinhold, before doing so; does she know who she’s dealing with? Reinhold eventually admits that he’s the one who pushed Biberkopf out of the car; at which point, there’s no turning back; and beautiful, loving Mieze, so pure in loving feeling in spite of her many sins of the body, inevitably ends up a corpse in a misty woods. It’s a tour de force of acting and staging.

José Arroyo




Biberkopf goes to see Reinhold, who’s suspicious. What does he want from a man who’s caused him to lose his arm? It seems Biberkopf wants nothing but Reinhold’s friendship. He loves the man. And that love – non-sexual, rather mysterious, and more than a little bit masochistic – is one of the fascinating things about the series. Reinhold is resentful of Biberkop’s good nature, his physical strength, his social ease – all a skinny stutterer might aspire to: throwing him out of the car was pure impulsive malevolence. Biberkopf’s view is that resentment won’t make his arm grow back so why deny himself a friend? Reinhold wants all Biberkopf is and possesses, and that includes Mieze; and if he can’t get it, he’s happy to destroy it.

In ‘The Anti-Television Film’, the first essay in the pamphlet that accompanies the Criterion box set, Tom Tykwer writes that BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, ‘enraged the national spirit and occasioned assaults by the yellow press and (in the wake of this) protests from ‘millions of television viewers’ who felt themselves ‘robbed of their subscription fees’ (Bild newspaper).


‘The public protests against the work, which everyone who was in the vicinity of Germany at the time remembers. – and many remember the outrage even better than the film itself – was directed against the television stations, the filmmakers, the ensemble, and naturally, above all, against the director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Although the film’s alleged unacceptability in technical matters (it was accused of considerable flaws in image and sound quality) was thrust into the center of attention, these problems, it appeared, were hardly worthy of such a storm of indignation. The pain caused by the film somehow went deeper, and with each further episode, broadcast one week after the other, it seemed like a dirty thorn was boring itself deeper and deeper into the wound of this republic’.


According to Tykwer, the ‘night shots, which were obviously composed for the big screen and a sensitive film emulsion, were watered down into a faint, flat, grey-black blur on most of the German Telefunken TV sets available at the time’. They are fascinatingly dark, even in the restored version, and the work being shot on 16 mm, which makes the focus soft, and brings a faded quality to the image, adds a historic  quality to the image, like photographs turned yellow with age.


But it’s important also to remember that what undoubtedly enraged German viewers forty years ago, is something most likely to enrage viewers today: That crime is presented as a viable option not only to survive physically but to preserve one’s dignity; that Biberkopf is a pimp; that the film creates a view of love that encompasses loving more than one person at a time, and whilst selling sex for money; that Biberkopf loses control and almost kills Mieze, just as he did Ida, and she nonetheless, with all her bruises still fresh, pronounces her love for him. These are not conventional views of relationships, friendships, feelings, motivations for actions, or ways of conveying them.

Mieze’s Scream

Mieze’s scream, when she believes Biberkopf doesn’t love her and is out to sell her to Reinhold, is theatrical in its performance, staging and  duration – I’ve seen camp imitations of that moment by friends – yet remains a startling and effective scene in the film. Indeed, it’s a startling episode in what remains a radical conjunction of the intervention of film and television into public discourse.

José Arroyo






Fassbinder sub-titled BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ: ‘A Film in 13 Parts With an Epilogue’, and I’m now beginning to realise that this is not just some aggrandising claim for the series. Certainly, as his work in EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY or WORLD ON A WIRE demonstrate, Fassbinder embraced the medium of television, worked easily in it, and knew how to use its forms. I finally clued in to how BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ is different – and I’m a real dummy; it took me a while; this is the tenth episode – when the title of the episode appeared almost exactly halfway through rather than, as is usual, near the beginning. For a while I thought my attention had lapsed and I’d missed it. And then it struck me that the consistency of structure from episode to episode that one expects of TV series was missing here. Episodes began differently, sometimes ended abruptly. There are a series of settings that get revisited (Max’s bar, the newsagents in the tube, Franz’s flat, etc.) but each episode can go in wildly varying directions. What is consistent is that there is a linear narrative, sometimes accompanied by almost incantatory flashbacks, such as the murder of Ida, and that that is accompanied with an underlaying of synchronic elements (songs, passages from the bible, the politics of the day, news headlines) to contextualise this particular story at a very specific historical moment: to evoke ‘the structure of feeling’ of a specific historical moment in the telling of this story.

This is a tragic and moving episode whose affect comes from an undercutting of expectations: Mieze wants to give him a baby but can’t so arranges for Eva to do so; Franz is obsessed with how the loss of his arm is the loss of his manhood but the only thing that seems to be working for him is his dick; he’s found love but is asked to give up his friend Willy, politics, and alcohol, i.e give up what has so far made life bearable; Mieze is in love with him and willing to ‘work’ for him; his tragedy is he’s now her pimp but he loves her so much he can’t bear for her to be with anyone else. The episode ends with Franz weeping as Mieze goes off with her John, ‘cause a girl’s gotta work.

Jose Arroyo


Berlin Alexanderplatz was not a ratings success and the ninth episode vividly conveys why that is so. Biberkop’s murderous attack on his wife is shown at the beginning and the middle of the episode. In the beginning during a fainting fit as Eva is trying to rationalise why becoming Mieze’s pimp is best for everyone. In the middle, as Fassbinder in voice-over reads the parable of a father’s sacrifice of his son to fulfil the will of God.

The parable of the sacrifice

This is also the episode where Bieberkopf goes to confront Reinhold. Reinhold through him out of the car, tried to kill him, caused the loss of right arm; he’s the reason Bieberkopf is once more a pimp after all his attempts at leading a decent life. Why did Reinhold do it? He really ought to kill him. After all, he’s less than a man now, chicken feed. What’s the use of cripples? Better to do away with them altogether, they both agree. But of course they are both crippled in different ways, and this is the episode that shows how they’re tied together through a bond that is equal parts love and resentment.

The episode also has an extended discussion of the state and of capital, of how workers are exploited and of which system might benefit workers most. Bieberkop goes to a political meeting for lack of anything better to but during the speeches he drifts away into dreams of sex. Besides, he’s no longer a worker, he’s a pimp. Morover, The German Reich is a Republic and anyone who doesn’t believe it will get a bullet through the neck.

One can understand why viewers might nor rush to their TV sets. But it is great.

José Arroyo





Biberkopf had a lot to learn about life. He thinks a man who’s lost an arm, particularly a right arm is done for. But he’s got to make a living and he’s vowed to go straight. His business dealings are all in disarray. He’s in discussions with Willy (Fritz Schediwy) about fencing low profile stolen goods that don’t seem to lead to much.  It’s the  women in his life who seem to be there for him, even though he’s served four years in Tegel for the involuntary slaughter of his wife Ida (Barbara Valentin). Mrs. Bast (Brigitte Mira), the landlady, who witnessed the murder, tries to cheer him up, brings him coffee and offers suggestions as to how he can earn a living with his one arm.

Fran meets Mieze

Eva (Hanna Schygulla)  is going out with Herbert (Roger Fritz) in love with Franz and screwing Johns out of their money with Herbert’s help. Franz was Eva’s pimp once, but he doesn’t want to live off women any more. Yet forces conspire. Eva still desires him. And she arranges to find him a nice girl. She introduces Franz to Mieze, known about town as Sonia but really named Emilie, and they quickly fall in love. Fassbinder shows the sequences where they meet with great tenderness. But the scene by the lake where we are shown the progression of their feelings is filmed in long shot, at a distance. Love is always a problem for Fassbinder and for Döblin. Franz discovers a love letter to Mieze from another man. Is their affair over, or will it go in a new direction? Mieze is in love with him so why can’t she do nice things for him, Eval tells Biberkopf. By the end of the episode Franz and Mieze are in love and he’s basically become her pimp, forces outside his control once more drawing him into a life he’s vowed to leave.

Mieze in love

Another brilliant episode with as complex a view of human relationships as I’ve seen. Biberkofp is like the canary imprisoned by forces outside his control.

José Arroyo



Biberkopf has survived being thrown out of a running car but has lost an arm. How will Pum’s gang react? Will Biberkopf squeal and let everyone know Reinhold did it? What happened to Scilly? Will Biberkopf overcome his loss? How will he make a living? These are some of the questions overhanging this episode.

Biberkopf’s  had bad luck losing an arm but he’s caused bad luck by killing Ida, however unwittingly. He’s lost an arm but he’s no eunuch. What is a man and how to continue to be one in spite of the loss of his arm is a running theme. He considers all kinds of thing but rejects them because they won’t make his arm grow back. Besides, his bad luck is the world’s way of giving someone else a break. The important thing is to be free.

Free Man or No Man At All

What caught my eye in this episode is how Reinhold and Scilly are filmed behind bars and in shadows before eventually coming to light in the end.

The appearance of Udo Kier as a queer billiards player.

Biberkopf decides to go out

The voice-over narration read by Fassbinder about Biberkopf’s need to face the outside world.

The extraordinary red-light-district/ Whore of Baby long sequence (see above). What  could be shown on German television in 1980 remains startling.

The tour de force of acting that is the sequence of Biberkop talking to his beer, filmed mainly in long take. Lamprecht is extraordinary:

José Arroyo








The opening scene startles with its use of blue, a colour that pierces the amber/brown colour scheme of the whole series and announces something important. Reinhold wants to offload Trude, his new girlfriend, onto Franz. But Franz refuses. He’s happy with Scilly. Besides which, ‘even broads are human beings and have feelings’. Reinhold will have to learn how to end his own love affairs, which by the end, he does, brutally. But not before betraying Franz.

Cursed be the man

Franz gets lured into a robbery. He’s so nice, easy-going and trusting that he doesn’t have a clue until he’s in the middle of it.  By then, it’s too late, and his attempts at resistance annoy Reinhold to the point that Reinhold throws him out of the getaway car, and Biberkopf gets run over. ‘Cursed be the man who trusted in man, saith Jeremiah, For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall inhabit the parched places, in a salt land, not inhabited. The heart is deceitful and wicked. Who can know it?’

The Fassbinder Stock Company

What caught my eye in this episode was the preponderance of the Fassbinder stock company (Karl Scheydt, Irm Hermann, Lilot Pompey, Ivan Desnay, Volker Spengler, Gunther Kaufmann) and the way lights are reflected in the actors eyes.

There is no cause for despair

Fassbinders’ narrational voice-over, all seemingly taken from Döblin’s novel, are very allegorical and poetic, and read by Fassbinder with a real world-wearyness even though the last line in the episode is , ‘There is no cause for despair’

Lights reflected

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Meck (Franz Buchrieser) introduces Biberkopf (Günther Lamprecht) to Pums (Ivan Desny) and there’s the fateful meeting with Reinhold (Gottfried John), stuttering, thin, avoiding alcohol, obsessed with women, and visiting the Salvation Army to try and save himself from what he knows is a compulsion.

The women

This episode has two axes, the unfolding relationship with Reinhold, and then the inter-related trade in women he subtly seduces Biberkopf into. As the episode begins Eva (Hanna Schygulla), his old flame, whom he used to pimp, has been paying his room for him whilst he’s been away. It’s the same room where he stuck down Ida (Barbara Valentin) , where he lived with Lina (Elizabeth Tissenaar), where Reinhold will send him Fränze (Helen Vita) and Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), and where he will offload Fränze onto the newsagent (Klaus Höhne). He no longer wants to be a pimp but he seems to have no trouble trading in women, and gaining some advantage from him, that whilst not monetary, is still material (shoes, furs, services), and where doing a friend a favour begins to thin the line between using women, increasingly oblivious to their feelings, and living off their earnings. Cilly accuses Franz of being a pimp and worse than Reinhold, which he insists he’s not.

First fateful meeting with Reinhold


What I found particularly compelling in this episode was the rhyming of the initial meeting with Reinhold to the later meeting just before they go into the Salvation Army, here Fassbinder as narrator, intones: ‘There is a reaper whose name is Death, with power from Almighty God. He now whets the knife all the better to slice. He’ll soon shear his path, then we’ll feel his wrath.’ The viewer knows something about Reinhold that Biberkopf can’t yet even begin to intuit,  and the discrepancy between who Reinhold is and who Reinhold takes him to be, will develop into tragedy

Fassbinder’s narrational interjection

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Biberkopf (Günther Lamprecht) is drinking himself into a stupor in a new boarding house. He walks around the streets in an alcoholic delirium mistaking a delivery man for a pastor.  In his easy way he makes friends with the caretakers, the Greniers, who tell him all about the other tenants, their jobs and their plights. Baumann (Gerhard Swerenz), another neighbour, and via the wonderful parable of Job, dramatized via a card game, tells Biberkopf that the angels and the devil all want to help Biberkpof, each for their own reasons, but nothing will change until he helps himself. Eva arrives to help him out, tells him she still loves him and will always look out for him, but he doesn’t want to be a pimp and tells her he needs to find his own way out of his plight, which by the end of the episode, he does.


What caught my eye in this episode is the way Fassbinder dramatises:


  1. Visually the bottles and the sick
  2. He creates a whole world just through having Frau Grenier describe the other people in the building in some detail.


The limp-dick episode

3. The ‘limp-dick episode’ that plays out over the solicitor reading out his views on venereal disease resulting from male heterosexual adulterous sex.

4. The parable of job playing cards is brilliantly enacted.

The abbatoir

5.The parable of the slaughterhouse, poetically read by Fassbinder himself, with vintage pictures, is wonderful

The shepherd

6.The parable of the shepherd killing the sheep is a moment of dreamlike theatricality, very effective.

7. The dramatization of the Grenier’s dealings with the gangs, their double-crossings and their arrest. A major chapter in the Döblin novel, here told through others, almost as background, and wonderfully effective as social context and also as a critique of what seems respectable but is not.

8. The narrative tying to gether of seemingly loose ends begun with the poetic voice-over read by Fassbinder (see above). The encounter with with the news-seller where we get the beginning of the diatribe against marriage, and then the reunion with Meck (Franz Buchrieser), a step up towards criminality and a way of finding out what happened to Lina (Elizabeth Trissenaar), and a pessimistic and unsentimental view on relationships.

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Franz Biberkopf (Günther Lamprecht) is trying to turn legit and the world won’t let him. He’s had to quit a job selling a Nazi paper because he has to wear the swastika and it’s turned former friends against him. His girlfriend Lina ( Elizabeth Trissenaar)is too religious to let him sell the sex-education booklets. There are ¾ of a million people in Berlin. How are they to live? Lina’s ‘uncle’ Otto (Marquard Bohm) advises them to join him selling shoe-laces door-to-door door-to-door. Franz meets a vulnerable widow. He looks like her husband. They have sex and she gives him money. Franz makes the mistake of telling Otto and sharing the money with him. But Otto betrays him and uses the knowledge Franz unwittingly provided to rob the widow. Betrayed by the people he trusted most, Otto runs away. His girlfriend goes in search of him in the dosshouse he’s staying in  but he doesn’t want to be found. There are some lessons he’d rather not have learned.

What caught my eye in this episode was

  1. The whole brown and amber of the film, even more pronounced in this episode.
  2. The way so many shots include a background separator –store-fronts, internal doors and windows, mirrors, that frames faces or cast shadows.
  3. The way Fassbinder adopts Döblin by including bible passages, songs into the narration itself.
  4. The way intertitles re-direct narration (see below).
  5. the beautiful passage where he goes buy flowers for the widow (see below).



Flowers for death

José Arroyo

Episode Two of Berlin Alexanderplatz: How Is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die

What caught my eye in the extraordinary second episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz is as follows:

The credit sequence. It’s most unusual in that the opening credits acknowledge the contributions of the main pillars of Fassbinder’s team, and this includes not just actors but also camera crew, sound people, production managers, editors etc. The end credits to each episode convey credits more conventionally (see above).

The denunciation of marriage as an institution, which is repeated twice (see above).

The heartfelt anger over Paragraph 175, first expressed by the newsagent then read in a beautifully expressive way by Gunther Lamprecht as the story of a man whose life was ruined because he met his sunshine, the boy who gave his life meaning and made it all worthwhile. Further proof, if needed, that who makes movies matters (see above).

The standoff with the communists in the tube, with the extraordinary shot where they all remain still, a tableau, as the camera circles around them 360 degrees, and Fassbinder in voice-over, speaks poetically, alliteratively in a way that comments on the action and reproduces some of what Döblin in the novel does with sounds, found poems, bits of the bible, songs etc (see above).

José Arroyo


Berlin Alexanderplatz (Phil Jutzi, Germany, 1931)


Tegel to Alexanderplatz

In preparation for Fassbinder’s sprawling  15-hour television adaptation of BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, I’ve been reading Alfred Döblin’s magnificent novel and looking at other adaptations. The 1931 version directed by Phil Jutzi is included in the Criterion box-set of the TV series. Jutzi joined the Communist Party in 1928 and, conveniently, the Nazi Party in 1933, and the ideological tensions and opportunism are evident in the film. I saw it last night and enjoyed it, though at 92 minutes it necessarily cuts out much of the novel’s plot and complexity.

It does capture some of the montage-y aspects of the novel, though you’d expect the film to be more inventive in this regard and it’s not. For Berlinophiles such as myself however, watching all that documentary footage in the film of Alexanderplatz as it was between the wars is a real pleasure. There is also a ‘People-on-Sunday’-ish interlude that well evokes the simple pleasures working people take even in very challenging economic times.

No government can forbid it…

The film has several songs, of which my favourite goes something like ‘Love comes, love goes, no government can forbid it.’ There’s a Weimar feel in the film’s attitudes to love and sex, and a depiction of a picaresque and dark Berliner humour. I also thought Heinrich George made for a very appealing if uncomplicated Franz Biberkopf. Döblin worked on the adaptation so he presumably sanctioned and had a hand in what was done to his novel. A not particularly good film of a great novel, though not without its pleasures.

The End

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THE THIRD GENERATION/ Die Dritte Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1979)

Fassbinder, after THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, once again handling the camera as well as directing,  and in a more Godardian mode: a searching intelligence trying to make sense of the world he lives in and unafraid to use whatever is within his reach to try to understand, dramatize, critique and convey.

The film has a collage-y dimension: the use of graffiti from men’s rooms, a class that begins by asking the significance of the revolution of 1848, a phrase from Schopenhauer used as code (“the world as will and imagination”), readings from Bakunin, discussions of Bresson and Tarkovsky. Fassbinder in intellectual mode and with a very precise setting — the place and dates of shooting: Nov. 1978 to Jan 22, 1979. The narrative nonetheless still clearly conveyed, the collage-y aspect in tension with the precision of the setting and a relatively linear narrative, with aspects clearly meant to irritate: there are overlapping sounds that become difficult to distinguish; the burnt-in text passing too quickly to fully comprehend.

At the beginning, the film promises: “A comedy in six parts about social games full of suspense, excitement and logic, cruelty and madness, like the fairy tales told to children to help them bear their lives unto death”. The plot revolves around a rich industrialist, P.J. Lurz (Eddie Constantine) who works in computers and surveillance, but his stocks are down as there is currently no demand for the services he provides. To fix that he’s funding a terrorist cell made up of ordinary middle-class people — a secretary (Hannah Schygulla, record shop assistant(Harry Baer), pianist (Udo Kier), housewife (Margit Carstensen) and teacher (Bulle Ogier – to kidnap rich industrialists, increase fear and thus increase demands for his products. What we see is a divided nation, a police state where truth is mediated through images. It’s a society of spectacle where, taking of from and reversing Godard’s famous dictum, ‘Film lies 25 times a second’, the extra second to take into account films on tv running a second faster. This is the film that begins with a computer screen and ends with an action and a television screen’s mediation of that action. within the same frame.

Manufactured Terrorism

According to Thomas Elsaesser, ‘after the first generation of idealists and the second of pragmatists comes the third generation of opportunists’. Here that third generation is a disorganised idealist bunch, alarmingly quick to submit unquestionably to the rules set hierarchically by the group, in all aspects of their lives, including sexually. Volker Spengler is the double agent, in Lurz’s pocket financially, and the one who betrays the groups in a Shrove Tuesaday that turns into a bloody carnival as cameras record a relatively open-ended ending. It’s a film I’ll need to think about some more.

Lies 25 frames a second

Ian Penman, worth quoting at length (from THOUSANDS OF MIRRORS):

“140. The triumphant rise of the Consumer Society is interrupted by its apparent nemesis or antithesis: terrorism. But is it really threatened by this danger – or ultimately strengthened? Isn’t terror in fact its mirror-image doppelgänger or twin? Ready at a moment’s notice to prop up its threatened values and unreliable economy. This is why Fassbinder’s The Third Generation is such a eky text: Consumer Society + Terror State x Digital Info +Surveillance = The Future. “

José Arroyo

Thinking Aloud About Film: Water Drops On Burning Rocks (François Ozon, France, 2000)

Today’s Fassbinder is a podcast on François Ozon’s adaptation of Fassbinder’s play, WATER DROPS LIKE BURNING ROCKS (France, 2000). This is the second of Ozon’s adaptations of a Fassbinder work, the other being  PETER VON KANT, which José thought dreadful. We discuss the play, which remained unproduced in Fassbinder’s lifetime; how the theatrical is rendered cinematic in Ozon’s fine adaptation; how it is amazing that a 19 year-old Fassbinder can imagine and do such a fine job of dramatizing this roundelay of relationships (homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, transexual) in 1964 Munich: lucid, clear-eyed, aware of interpersonal dynamics, of sexual power plays. We discuss the extent to which the play brings in elements we know of Fassbinder’s own biography; we relate it to Fassbinder’s other films (FOX AND HIS FRIENDS)…. and much more:

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546


There are different productions of the play available to see, interesting to compare to Ozon’s film, and they can be accessed here:

A different production :
José Arroyo

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN/ Die Ehe der Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1979)

The personal is always related to the social in Fassbinder’s work. With THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, the personal and the social are also interlinked to the historical. The film has been read as an allegory for the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutchsland) during the period of the ‘Economic Miracle’ – Maria Braun with her fine clothes and furs but dead inside – and is considered to be the first of what’s been called the ‘BDR’ trilogy, alongside LOLA (1981) and VERONIKA VOSS (1982).

It’s true that the film begins with a picture of Hitler crashing down, ends on a scene of the BDR’s victory over Hungary in the 1954 FIFA World Championships, where we hear the Federal Republic of Germany declared ‘Champion of the world’ over the radio, and then the final images, negatives of all the BDR chancellors to the time the film was made with the exception of Willy Brandt, who had exiled himself from Germany during the Nazi regime, and shown as negatives except for the last one where we see the transformation of the negative into the positive, giving the impression of devils made flesh. There’s no question that the film is making a commentary on history and the nation.

Germany in Ruins

That said it’s important the film also be considered as about Maria Braun. It’s a woman’s film and a melodrama, not unlike MILDRED PIERCE in some ways. A woman with responsibilities, living through hard times that make for difficult moral and ethical decisions but who ends up a successful business-woman. As books like Marta Heller’s A WOMAN IN BERLIN and Miriam Gebhardt’s CRIMES UNSPOKEN: THE RAPE OF GERMAN WOMEN AT THE END OF SECOND WORLD WAR, the period between the end of the War in 1945 and the end of the occupation in 1955, resulted in an unprecedented period of sexual violence.

Maria’s material success

Maria has few choices, she dabbles in the black market, she becomes a ‘hostess’, she navigates the world sexually: lucid, clear-eyed, intelligent and unsentimental about what she’s got to do to keep what’s left of her house fed, clothed, warm. Her mother prays for her soul but end up sewing her the type of dress she needs for her new ‘business’. The way she jumps on a cigarette, a sweet of a sip of alcohol whenever Maria brings something home vividly expresses the basic privations of the period. Yet as Maria says, ‘My mother loves me, supports me and cries with me over my pain but she leaves all the thinking up to me, thus leaving me no time to dream’.

The Mata-Hari of the Economic Miracle

The film is a melodrama in that you do side with the powerless, it’s ‘excessive’ and it’s designed to make an audience cry. The most important thing in her life is her marriage. But she only gets to enjoy it for one afternoon and one night after which her husband is sent to the Eastern Front. We see her with his picture on her back going day after day to the rail station to see if anyone’s seen him. She’s later told he’s died but he hasn’t. He returns to find her in the middle of coitus with a black man she’s now pregnant with. In the ensuing fight between the men she kills the American GI, Bill, who she’d been fond of. At the military hearing, when her husband hears her say she was fond of Bill but loves her husband, he decides to take the rap for her. She loses her baby. When the husband’s jailed, she vows she’ll learn to work and make enough money to build the house he would have built for them. She seduces an industrialist who falls in love with her and does exactly as she promised. Only to find in the end that it was all for nought. Except for her husband and her family, she’s put aside all feelings, feelings don’t keep you warm or fed. But it all blows up in her face.

Defiance Amidst the Ruins

If the film is about Maria, it’s also about marriage: THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Maria fervently believes in it. There’s that wonderful screwball scene at the beginning when in the middle of a bombing they chase after the document and make sure it’s stamped. An institutional approval of their love. The certainty of her feelings for her husband, of her wish for a married life, is one of the films that make the film so romantic. Her husband feels the same way. Hearing of her love for him is what makes him take the rap for her. But this marriage, bounded between two explosions, what has it amounted to? One afternoon and one night of married life. After which, she’s cut of her feelings and sold her body. He’s suffered prison and ends up pimping her out. There illusions are romantic, the reality as with Fassbinder is something else again. It’s a film that begins with marriage but also with deadly explosions.

Marriage as Romantic Prison

A great film, I think, with a mysterious and charismatic performance by Hannah Schygulla. It’s the film that made her into an international star, and it was also West Germany’s biggest box office success internationally to that point.

José Arroyo

DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany/ France, 1978)

Fassbinder’s first English-language film is a tony affair. It’s based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Tom Stoppard gets sole credit for the screenplay, the first instance I can think of where Fassbinder himself did not collaborate extensively on the script for one of his films. At 6 million DM ($2.6 million) it was his biggest budget to that point and you can see all the production values on the screen.
It’s all Art Deco gorgeousness, designed by Rolf Zehebetbauer, beautifully lit by Michael Balhauss, with a fluid, precise and imaginative mise-en-scène from Fassbinder, often filmed through windows, glass cages, onto mirrors to dramatize the disassociation of the protagonist, his splits of consciousness and finally his psychic disintegration. It’s sublime work with what must be one of Dirk Bogarde’s greatest performances: to watch him acting changing responses timed through the movement of a zoom, where when the zoom ends he creates a change in signification just through the co-ordination of his expression to the rhythm of the camera move is simply awesome . Yet the whole is here less than its parts and this is a curiously inert film, one that doesn’t ‘play’, hard to follow, with little narrative tension.

boxed in despair – mise-en-scéne

I had to see it twice just to figure out what the hell was going on. And I don’t think the problem was me. There was a three-hour cut by Reginald Beck. Then Julia Lorenz and Fassbinder edited did a two and a half hour cut that all the collaborators now remember as magnificent, then Lorenz and Fassbinder cut it to under two hours to fulfil their contractual obligations. Now it doesn’t quite make sense.

first dissasociation

Film within film doppelganger

It’s a film full of discordances. Some seem deliberate: the ironic playfulness of the acting is a productive counterpoint to the progressive grimness in the narrative. The casting of Klaus Löwitsch as Hermann’s doppelganger adds an element of narcissistic desire and self-delusion to Hermann’s madness. But discordances in the film’s sound, so much clearly dubbed, with actors from different countries (Andréa Ferréol, Volker Spengler, Bogarde, Löwitsch) all speaking in English with varying accents and sound levels that seem oddly mixed, that just adds an element of strangeness and distance that feels alienating.

Doppelganger mis-recognition

There are several intersecting aspects to the story: the state of Herman Herman’s business and the coming of the Nazi; Hermann’s disengagement from his life, his descent into madness with his doublings, doppelgangers, fracturings; a murder story that goes awry; and finally a protagonist finding light and relief from despair in his own madness. The German subtitle is a JOUNEY INTO LIGHT and Hermann is supposed to find some light and release – from the obligations to his wife, his chocolate factory, his exile – as he descends into madness: I’m an actor, he says at the end, a bit like Gloria Swanson SUNSET BOULEVARD. The Film is dedicated to Antonin Artaud, Vincent Van Gogh and Unica Zürn.

Desire and doppelganger

It’s a curious experience. It’s a film that doesn’t work, that doesn’t ‘play’, and yet it has so many beautiful elements that I enjoyed my second viewing even more than the first. The rationale for the second viewing had been utilitarian: how to make sense of the film. But the result was a sensuous enjoyment of the pleasures the film had to offer in décor, mise-en-scène and performances. It’s not ‘good’ but it really is quite extraordinary in some ways.

Broken beginnings, shattered endings

Intimations of the camps.

José Arroyo

IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS/ in einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1978)

Watching IN A YEAR OF THIREEN MOONS has proven an overwhelming experience, one that’s resulted in trouble keeping within the terms of the exercise  I’ve set for myself, which is to see a Fassbinder film in the evening, and then take no more than half an hour to write about it the morning after, with maybe another hour or so gathering or making the clips and images necessary to illustrate whatever I’ve written. The film is so beautiful and harsh, with a structure that seems episodic and free-floating but that inexorably constructs the pathway to the tragic, with such an extraordinary performance from Voken Spengler as Erwin/ Elvira Weishaupt, the soft-spoken gentle giant who’s given up everything for love only to find himself without it, that my first impulse is to see it again and get a better grip on what I’ve seen. But that will have to wait, otherwise this Fassbinder journey will never end.

The film begins precisely on July 24, 1978. Men are cruising in a park by the river in Frankfurt. Titles tell us that ‘Every seventh year is a moon year. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression in these years. To a lesser degree this is also true of years with 13 moons. When a moon year also has 13 moons, inescapable personal tragedies may occur.’ Needless to say 1978 is a year when that dangerous constellation occurs. And Erwin/ Elvira is its victim. They’ve gone cruising to buy themselves sex, something they find less humiliating dressed as a man than as a woman. They find someone who also finds them attractive but, as they begin to fumble with each other, the trick discovers that Erwin/ Elvira has breasts and lacks a penis. He’s outraged, begins to attack Erwin/Elvira and furthermore calls for all his mates nearby to join him. Thus the tables are turned on that trope of vulnerable gay men attacked by a braying mob of sadistic heterosexuals with fragile masculinities; here they are the attackers and Elvira is their victim. Another extraordinary opening scene from Fassbinder.

Goethe/ abbatoir

Elvira is so gentle, kind and loving, so needy for love, that she’s everybody’s victim. As Erwin, she was a happily married man who loved his wife and daughter. Then he fell in love with Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, who made his fortune organizing whorehouses around techniques he’d learned in the concentration camp, now making an even bigger fortune in property development. Anton told Erwin that he’s heterosexual but would return his love if only Erwin were a woman. Erwin took this careless statement as a mission, went to Casablanca and had the full operation, gave up his whole life — family, work, sexual identity, gender – for love…and then never saw Anton again…. until an incident in the narrative results in Elvira’s searching and finding him.

Tombstones/ A Time to Love

Erwin’s tale is told episodically. He goes to the orphanage he grew up in and a nun there tells him that when he arrived as a baby everyone loved him. Then a couple decided to adopt him but they needed the biological mother’s permission to proceed. She wouldn’t give it because she was married at the time, the father was not her husband, and in fact since the child was born in wedlock the father would have to give permission, something that would reveal the adultery. The nuns feeling guilt and sadness over the child’s fate, started keeping a distance and the child experienced this as a withdrawal of love that he learned to live with. Later, in the extraordinary abattoir scene that for me culminates in the verses from Goethe — ‘..and though a man be silenced by his pain, a God gave me the power to express how much I suffer —  Elvira tells of how she wanted to be a goldsmith but could only find an apprenticeship as a butcher in an abattoir, how as Erwin he married and loved a woman he met there, now a teacher with ‘a life that is worth so much more than my own’.

Fairy Tales and Family Cannibalism

Fassbinder made IN THE YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS after the suicide of his lover Armin Meier. He wrote, directed, edited and was the dop on this project, an attempt to understand Armin, his life, his suicide, the place of love, need and desire in all of this, the price people pay for non-conforming, and perhaps his own guilt around how his own actions might have contributed to Armin’s fate. The story is told episodically: there is documentary footage of Fassbinder himself speaking, fairy tales, poetry, absurdist takes inspired by Martin and Lewis, all of which magically add up to a seamless narrative. Erwin/Elvira’s life ends on August 28th.

On suicide

The film leaves me with a desire to see it again immediately but also with several questions. Why hasn’t Queer Studies made more of this and indeed more of Fassbinder’s entire output. It seems that in the valorisation of New Queer Cinema and the development of  Queer Theory that arose almost simultaneously there’s a real erasure of post-Stonewall pre-AIDS gay cultures, of which I would rank Fassbinder’s work as the most significant.

It was so hard to conform

The other last question arises with the certitude that this is a great work but one which it would be very difficult to show. Can we screen films that offend or disgust? Should we block things because they make uncomfortable viewing. My view is of course not, we can and must, but ….I can imagine classes walking out en masse at the abattoir scene and perhaps losing them in toto. So the question becomes not only of what to make of IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS, how to understand it, but also under which conditions, how can one contextualise it so that it can be screened at all, a fundamental preamble to any further discussion.

José Arroyo





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.

Armin consoles.

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.

José Arroyo