head 1997 Sundance Film Festival Buzz
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1997 Sundance Film Festival Buzz
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

by Karen Jaehne

Rainer Werner Fassbinder upheld the great German tradition of Decadence. In his time he was the best. And since we like our decadence in the Teutonic tradition, Fassbinder succeeded abroad in a way that he never quite achieved at home.

He was such a bad boy that his application to the Berlin Film School was rejected. He went ahead and made films anyway, so that we had to watch him learn his craft. It was a painful process, and the dim quality of the films often got confused with the politics. For example, in 1970, "The American Soldier" was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and, despite its political naiveté and bad acting, it managed to offend the President of the Festival Jury, George Stevens, Jr. (who should have had enough sense to let things be). The Americans demanded Fassbinder's film be withdrawn from the festival; German filmmakers got outraged and said, "Who's running this joint anyway?" and were promptly told that Berlin was still an occupied city....etc., etc. Not a good day for foreign policy.

Anyway, it was Fassbinder's wont to tell stories about whores and pimps and the demimonde he imagined in Munich. He liked to pretend that the social conditions he portrayed were widespread in Germany - guess again. His films were down-and-dirty, grim and gritty melodramas, and they captured the imagination of the kind of Americans who wrote for the "Village Voice" in the early 1970s. Here was a gay, politicized, German filmmaker prompting an almost unimaginable thing: us feeling sorry for Germans! That took some kind of talent.

I find Fassbinder's early films annoying, phoney and badly made. But he was smart, and he learned how to make extraordinary and daring movies. I remember a cheery, beery night in a pub in Berlin when his producer bragged that the only way he could get Rainer to make the big movies was to let him take about a 20th of each budget and shoot some little thing that was obsessing Rainer. "I'll probably get back to Munich on Monday and find out he made a new film over the weekend," complained the producer.

But when he focused all of his talent on something like "The Marriage of Maria Braun," "Lili Marlene," or "Veronika Voss," he was superb. He knew how to use light and was unafraid of emotional heroines and tragedy.

His triumph was to win the Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival in 1982 for "Veronika Voss." To accept his award, he got out of his customary grubby leather pants and jacket. He even washed his hair and trimmed his fu-manchu moustache. He donned a white tuxedo and got his star to wear a glam gold lame dress. The two of them marched on the stage like they were about to revive the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The audience - who knew Fassbinder too well - held its breath as he said thank you. Would Fassbinder take the opportunity to tell everybody what hypocrites he thought they were? No. He was as gracious as Goebbels courting German aristocracy.

The last time I saw Rainer was later that night. We were squeezed into the bar of the old Hilton Hotel. I knew him from doing some translations for him and from the Berlin scene, and I scooted over to sit beside him. I told him I liked "Veronika Voss" and was glad to see him back in his leather gear. He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

He snorted some cocaine off the backside of his hand and knocked it back with Chivas Regal. I said something like, "Look at you. You got all this talent, and you're going to hell. You work too hard on top of it. This is gonna ruin your health."

He eyed me over his refilled scotch glass and said, "Ach, you Americans and your health, health, health. You're so healthy. You think the world is going to be fixed by jogging. I can't stand it."

We laughed and drank some more. He died less than 4 months later, and I was sad. He'd always been such a pain in the ass that I didn't really know how much I liked him until he up and died on us. I'm sure he had no intention of doing that. If I just could have got him into jogging...

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