Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

In the Case with the Insects:
On Fassbinder’s Top 10

April 20 2016

Rainer Werner Fassbinder rarely made the same claims for his critical writings that he made for his films. By the time of his premature death in 1982, he had made over forty startling, impolite movies that confidently rejected whatever his German audiences expected of him. As an artist, he never took his provocations back. (When one of his plays was withdrawn on charges of anti-Semitism, he wrote that the German press’s horrified reaction to the production only reinforced what “moved me to write this play in the first place.”) The titles of his essays and reviews, on the other hand, tended to give the impression of an unsure writer prematurely apologizing for having published something underwhelming or slight. When he wrote about films other than his own, he promised his readers nothing more than scraps and fragments: “A Few Random Thoughts on the Films of Claude Chabrol”; “Michael Curtiz—Anarchist in Hollywood: Unorganized Thoughts on a Seemingly Paradoxical Idea”; “Hanna Schygulla—Not a Star, Just a Vulnerable Human Being Like the Rest of Us: Disorderly Thoughts About an Interesting Woman.”

The essays themselves were indeed disorderly. Most of them were loose sheaves of rants, reminiscences, and reckless judgments, but they were more confident and thoughtfully considered than their titles implied. If Fassbinder felt an affinity with a filmmaker, he could hit on candid, aphoristic observations perfectly suited to that director’s sensibility. (“Insanity represents a form of hope in Douglas Sirk’s work, I think.”) When a filmmaker repelled him, he found withering formulations for his subject’s failures of imagination. (In Claude Chabrol, he wrote, there is “no indication that the needs people consider their very own are actually only the needs they’re told to have… the disorder that occurs is irrational, not inevitable, as is actually the case in this society.”) For Fassbinder, criticism was less an opportunity to develop lucid arguments than a way of directly registering his enthusiasms and disgusts. As they accumulated, his judgments about other people’s films became a kind of roadmap to his taste. They gave hints and clues about what he valued as a director—what ways of imagining the world struck him as useful and true.

In 1980, an editor at the publishing house Rowohlt Verlag asked Fassbinder to name his ten favorite actors and films for a book modeled after an American anthology called The Book of Lists. In his notebook, Fassbinder wrote down his ten favorite films, actresses, actors, books, plays, operas, pop musicians and soccer players, then neglected to submit any of the lists. When Fassbinder’s ten favorite films finally appeared alongside the other lists in a 1989 issue of text + kritik, six years after the director’s death from an overdose at thirty-seven, they had become a monument to a sensibility frozen midway through an unpredictable course of development. Together with the rest of Fassbinder’s writings, they give a picture of his values, priorities, and philosophical commitments that clarifies the one his movies suggest.


Fassbinder was born in a Bavarian town at the end of May 1945, twenty-seven days after the region’s German troops surrendered. In postwar Munich, where he was raised by a single mother and where he would start his career in the city’s experimental “Action-Theater,” Fassbinder found a ready template for the many inhospitable living spaces he’d generate in his films. Some of the most memorably grim evocations of postwar Germany in cinema are to be found in Fassbinder’s cinema, from the 1950s Munich of The Merchant of Four Seasons, where a war veteran succumbs to joblessness and alcoholism, to the crass luxury interiors of The Marriage of Maria Braun and the horridly decorated mansion of Martha, where a sadistic husband subjects his wife to a battery of physical and emotional abuses.

Fassbinder’s sense of the world as essentially unfriendly to human occupants emerged no matter what time and place he chose to depict. In their own ways, Effi Briest’s suffocating nineteenth-century luxury accommodations, Whity’s brothels, plantation houses and Western landscapes, and the Spanish hotel lobby where a German film crew decamps in Beware of a Holy Whore were all equally hostile to their inhabitants’ desires and indifferent to their needs. Fassbinder’s interiors are invariably either cluttered or depressingly unadorned. His characters always seem somehow cramped by the frame, imprisoned in the spaces they are supposed to have designed for themselves. As a critic and moviegoer, Fassbinder singled out films that reflected his suspicion towards any environment advertised as comfortable or safe.

In Fassbinder’s ten favorite films, spaces traditionally used as sanctuaries became arenas, combat zones, and stages on which characters could size one another up. Much of the energy of Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray’s melodrama of two feuding frontierswomen, comes from the force with which Joan Crawford’s Vienna resists each new attempt to run her out of town; cruelly, in one of the film’s later set-pieces, she finds herself besieged inside the same saloon she’s spent the film struggling not to leave. The cellars, riverboats, and haylofts where the two children in The Night of the Hunter (1955) hide from the demonic preacher (Robert Mitchum) pursuing them are nothing more than provisional checkpoints, and the safe house in which they end up at the end of the film seems almost suspiciously serene in contrast to the hostile territory they’ve just passed through.

In Michael Curtiz’s Flamingo Road (1949), the small-town diner where Joan Crawford’s former carnival dancer applies for a job is less a cozy neighborhood dive than a noisy incubator in which gossip circulates freely and sinister local sheriffs can stoke whatever rumors it’s in their interest to spread. When Fassbinder responded to more obviously hellish settings—places where people could be systematically exploited and abused—they tended to be oddly ornate or luxurious: the lavish stage where a carnival barker gives up Lola Montes to be gawked at and humiliated in the 1955 Max Ophuls movie that carries her name; the secluded villa where four Italian fascists subject a group of young people to ghastly tortures in Salò (1975); the mansion in which the German family at the center of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) betray and torment one another during the Nazis’ rise to power.

Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s concise summary of The Merchant of Four Seasons—“people take turns being mean and exploitative in a musical chairs of victor and victim”—could just as well be applied to any of the films Fassbinder listed as his favorites. When the lieutenant he’s mentored challenges his authority, a severe general (Raymond Massey) orders the younger man to pick up his cigarette butts on pain of imprisonment (Raoul Walsh’s 1958 The Naked and the Dead). Each member of an old family takes his or her fleeting moment in the Reich’s favor as a chance to control or squeeze the rest, until power finally settles on the most chameleonic, flexible character of them all—a handsome, pedophilic young man who slips confidently between gender roles and sexual personae (The Damned). An Austrian spy (Marlene Dietrich) and a Russian military official (Victor McLaglen) each take turns exploiting the gaps in the other’s knowledge and foresight until the woman ends up, to use Farber and Patterson’s metaphor, the party without a chair (Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 Dishonored).

Here, as in a game of musical chairs, one round’s winner could just as easily become a loser in the next. The general who shames his protégée in The Naked and the Dead ends up humiliated in front of his senior command later in the film. Flamingo Road takes place in a political world where the loss of an election—or a falling-out with a critical mass of one’s patrons—can turn a powerful congressperson into a bum. In his own films, Fassbinder tended to spread power between his characters in similarly uneven and shifting concentrations. Powerful figures were always vulnerable, underdogs were always capable of their own tyrannies, and seemingly ruthless people were often driven to distasteful actions by circumstance and need. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1955), as in many of Fassbinder’s films, we are encouraged to admire the showgirl (Marilyn Monroe) who knows how to manipulate and seduce the wealthy men around her. In another film, she might have been a sinister femme fatale; here, she becomes the moral center of the movie’s comedy—the one who’s wisest to the rules of the game. Of the betrayals and deceptions that fill Sirk’s family melodrama Written on the Wind, Fassbinder once wrote that “everything evil, weak and confused makes you feel sympathy. Even for those who manipulate the good people.”

Fassbinder is not often compared to Renoir, but few filmmakers in the second half of the twentieth century took more to heart the French director’s maxim that “everyone has their reasons.” He knew that only so much evil could be attributed to desperation or need, and the films he made are full of outlandishly evil figures like Hark Bohm’s scheming shoelace salesman in Berlin Alexanderplatz, who takes advantage of his new business partner’s guilelessness to extort a lonely widow, or culpably weak, easily manipulated ones like Hans’s unfaithful assistant Anzell in The Merchant of Four Seasons. He was, if anything, particularly drawn to movies that could accommodate characters who seemed to embody wickedness: Mitchum’s homicidal preacher in The Night of the Hunter; Salo’s amoral libertines. More striking, however, was how often Fassbinder did specify motives and grounds for his characters’ ugly behavior. It was for failing to care about these kinds of motives that he excoriated Chabrol:

Chabrol’s eye is not that of an entomologist, as is often claimed, but that of a child who keeps a number of insects in a glass jar and observes the strange behavior of his little creatures with a mixture of amazement, horror, and pleasure . . . He doesn’t do research with them. Otherwise he could, and would have to, discover reasons for their brutal behavior, and convey these to us . . . The vast majority of them are completely colorless creatures that provide the basis for the existence of the more beautiful ones. But these are completely overlooked by the child, who doesn’t do scientific observation but only looks, allowing himself to be dazzled by the glittering, special ones; he overlooks them, and therefore can’t really understand the behavior of his favorites.

What Chabrol lacked was what Fassbinder varyingly called “tenderness” and “pity”—a feeling for the suffering of figures who weren’t saintly, “special,” or pure. It was only in Les bonnes femmes, Chabrol’s 1960 study of four girlfriends in Paris, that Fassbinder claimed that the director stuck “his hand into the glass case with the insects.” He was rebuked, in Fassbinder’s telling, when the movie flopped: “The critics and the audience despised the good women and punished Chabrol for showing them how and what they despise.” Many of the films Fassbinder included in his list of favorites—Lola Montès, Johnny Guitar, Salò—failed disastrously on their initial release. To a sensibility like Fassbinder’s, the commercial failure of these films only comfirmed the moral victory they’d gained. They had forced their audiences into close proximity with the distasteful “little creatures” from which most directors kept a complacently disgusted, pitiless distance.


What did Fassbinder’s favorite films look like? What visual textures and patterns did he gravitate towards? He liked artificial surfaces, sequins, silk, and elaborate costumings; gossamer curtains, rotating platforms; compositions in which visual planes proliferated like the walls in a hall of mirrors; spotlights, masks, vaulted ceilings, spaces too big or too small for their occupants; glitter, Technicolor, and, in the case of the close-ups of bullfrogs and rabbits that punctuate the eerie riverboat ride midway through The Night of the Hunter, crude special effects. In his favorite films, characters were always displaying themselves on stages, generating garishly colored movies in miniature: Monroe and Jane Russell’s delirious—and often stunningly homoerotic—musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Lola Montes’ well-choreographed inventory of ex-lovers, represented by acrobats who back-flip, tumble, and leap-frog onto the stage where the poor courtesan sits trapped; the Marlene Dietrich drag show Helmut Berger’s androgynous steelworks heir puts on in The Damned; the flirtatious performances Dietrich herself gives at the confetti-drenched masquerade ball early in Dishonored.

Fassbinder’s attraction to patently fake scenery and unconvincing disguises is consistent with his skepticism toward the “beautiful,” “normal” figures in Sirk or the “glittering, special ones” in Chabrol. He mistrusted what looked too perfect, innocent or unadorned. Glitter-bedecked moveable stages like the main set in Lola Montès or flimsy disguises like Dietrich’s were comparable to characters like Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—candid and honest about their own dissimulations. They only fooled who they were meant to fool: saps such as the elderly diamond-mine owner (“Piggy”) Lorelei pursues, or chauvinists like Lola’s customers. They were always ready to expose themselves as put-ons to the intelligent and aware.

Artificial sets and gaudy decorations may also have appealed to Fassbinder’s morbid interest in death and its rituals. They evoked a world where living things didn’t belong. Movies shot on location, in plain costume and open air, without makeup or human-generated clutter, suggest a degree of comfort with living things and the natural worlds they inhabit. Movies built on soundstages, out of inorganic materials decorated to stand out all the more sharply from the living bodies they enclose, seem to court death, to approach it invitingly and keep it close at hand. In some of Fassbinder’s favorite movies, the lifelessness of the décor seems to have infected the characters themselves. One thinks of the stiff, frozen posture that Martine Carol keeps up for much of her performance as Lola Montès, or the pallid catatonic state Ingrid Thulin’s matriarch enters in The Damned after a sexual encounter with her son.

During the same interview response in which he claimed to have seen The Damned “thirty times,” Fassbinder praised The Devil Probably, Robert Bresson’s grim, sullen portrait of anomie among young Parisians, as “incredibly young in spirit” for its message that “you have more opportunities to live your life if you accept death.” An acceptance of death is what links Dietrich’s nameless spy in Dishonored, who insists that she’s willing to throw her life away up to the minute she goes before the firing squad, with Monroe’s Lorelei, whose famous song in praise of diamonds was also a cheery appraisal of aging and mortality:

Time rolls on,
And youth is gone,
And you can't straighten up when you bend.

But stiff back
Or stiff knees,
You stand straight at Tiffany's!

When Fassbinder suggested that his own character Veronika Voss “accepts it [death] completely because she knows in any case that the game is played out, there won’t be any more variations,” he could have been describing Dietrich’s character in Dishonored, or the collaborationist couple that takes poison after the SS preside over their marriage at the end of The Damned. This submissive attitude fascinated him in part because he resisted it himself. The same interview about Veronika Voss, which Fassbinder gave for the West Berlin magazine tip three months before his death, includes a revealing exchange:

What are you afraid of?

Everyone’s afraid of that.
Nope, most people are afraid of dying and not of death itself; it’s the suffering leading up to death, long or brief illnesses, nope, I’m afraid of simply not being here . . . Up to now I haven’t been able to do anything about it. So I’m always trying to portray attitudes like that of Veronika Voss, to try them out for myself, to see whether they’re possible, whether I could manage to develop such an attitude, to get rid of this fear.

As a moviegoer and a critic, Fassbinder gravitated toward films that let him “try out” attitudes and perspectives he couldn’t commit to himself: extremes of renunciation and abandon; freedom from morality, convention and fear. His own movies continue to make similar demands on their viewers. We are asked to reconnoiter uncomfortably with Franz Bieberkopf’s guilty rage in Berlin Alexanderplatz, Martha’s masochistic submissiveness to her husband’s cruelty, Veronika Voss’s comfort with death, Hans’s despair in The Merchant of Four Seasons, and Effi Briest’s stoic adaptation to her fate as a social exile. Fassbinder expected his viewers to stretch their sympathies unusually far, extend their pity particularly generously, and try out attitudes that repelled and disturbed them. It was only honest of him to seek out films that required the same of him.

Max Nelson's writings on film and literature have appeared in n+1, Reverse Shot, The Threepenny Review, and Film Comment, for which he writes a column about new restoration projects. He works on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.

The series Fassbinder’s Top 10 runs from April 22–30, 2016, at Metrograph.

(NOTE: Fassbinder’s critical essays, as well as his top ten lists and all of the interviews quoted in this article, are collected in the excellent book The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing, translated by Krishna Winston and published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1992.)