Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1969 debut feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, begins with a telling dedication to fellow directors Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, and Damiano Damiani (the latter via a relatively obscure reference to the characters in his 1966 film A Bullet for the General). Besides registering as a reverent tip of the hat to a handful of presumed inspirations, it also plays as nominal stylistic blueprint for the rebel German auteur’s initial flurry of creativity. After cutting his cinephilic teeth in local art houses and stoking his artistic muse as head of the experimental performance troupe the Antiteater (quite literally “anti-theater”), Fassbinder, all of 24 years old at the time, would conceive, shoot, and debut his first work in less than two months time in the summer of 1969.
True to its title, Love Is Colder Than Death is an austere, monochromatic effort, unforgiving in its depiction of conflicted passions—between romance and rejection, certainly, but also the pleasurable and the occupational and the lengths we go to bridge such divides. Shot in self-consciously minimalist setups, with long takes interrupted by sharp edits, the film gathers an intuitive logic as it proceeds from a lengthy, disorienting opening sequence to a series of mannered yet acute moments of interpersonal deceit. Of his professed influences, the film, in its formalist construction and jarring internal dynamism, is most reminiscent of Jean-Marie Straub’s work. And despite the references to two nouvelle vague pioneers, it’s another, the equally restless Jean-Luc Godard, whose aesthetic advances are most clearly emulated. Appropriately, the film, which coheres into a doomed love triangle between a pimp, a small-time hood, and a prostitute (played by Fassbinder and two of his consistent on-screen players, Ulli Lommel and Hanna Schygulla), is a showcase of precocious talent rather than a dramatic display of storytelling prowess, a balance which Fassbinder would spend the remainder of his career reconciling.
Released the very same year, Katzelmacher and Gods of the Plague both extended and refined Fassbinder’s appropriationist impulse. The former, an even more spartan exercise in theatrical staging and conversational unrest, is one of Fassbinder’s most notable early achievements, while the latter, an otherwise thematically transitional work, stands as one of his most conflicted studies of misplaced desire. Both an allegory of Germanic guilt and enduring intolerance and a textual and, indeed, formal transposition of an Antiteater stage play, Katzelmacher finds its characters, a ragtag assemblage of over-privileged layabouts, engaging in dialogues ranging from the insightful to the nonsensical. When a Greek immigrant (again played by Fassbinder) disrupts their unconsciously static routine, the group splinters into ideological factions whose philosophizing ultimately cannot facilitate common ground. It’s not an optimistic missive, but it’s proof that Fassbinder saw sociological issues as worthy of deconstruction as cinematic. Gods of the Plague ponders similar concerns by way of another triangle of criminals and harlots, though here his technical prowess shows greater advancement, parlaying minimalism into a more dreary dramaturgy. Starring Fassbinder’s unattainable love interest, Günther Kaufmann, Gods of the Plague would prove to have more of an effect on his personal than professional life.
After months of unreciprocated infatuation with the married Kaufmann, but believing he had the perfect role for the actor, Fassbinder began production on The American Soldier in mid 1970. When budgetary concerns and the obvious pitfalls that come with employing someone for reasons perhaps not entirely professional, the shoot was downsized, recast, and relocated. It was all for the best, however, as The American Soldier is arguably the boldest and most accomplished of Fassbinder’s early crime narratives. Another subversion of genre tropes, the film, starring new lead Karl Scheydt as Ricky, an American GI returning to Germany after a stint in Vietnam, is a darkly comic portrait of post-tour malaise. Approached by a group of corrupt cops to carry out a series of murders, Ricky mechanically proceeds to discard both victims and women alike. More so than even his previous work in this vein, The American Solider is an unapologetic play on noir atmospherics and one-dimensional characterizations. It’s nonetheless in the construction of the narrative where Fassbinder takes the biggest liberties, digressing from Ricky’s plight to outlying characters, random asides that bolster thematic heft without explicitly building plot momentum. In that sense, it’s the film’s left-field final shot—a lengthy, statically held dance of death, equal parts sexual and tragic—which betrays its central text.
By this point, the strides Fassbinder was making between films were plain to see. It was with the following year’s Beware of a Holy Whore, however, that intimations of a larger genius were on display. Considered the last film of Fassbinder’s initial phase, Beware of a Holy Whore took the art of filmmaking itself as its subject. A meta-cinematic journey into Fassbinder’s unique process and an indelible time capsule of the spiritual, professional, and social mores of the early ’70s, the film was directly inspired by the production of Whity, an ill-fated project which nearly derailed the director’s career. Seemingly both improvised and carefully outlined, the film is nearly one big aside, as the cast and crew of the film-within-the-film await the arrival of their lead actor and director in an anonymous Spanish villa, during which time they attempt to indulge every hedonistic pleasure imaginable. The appearance of Eddie Constantine (as himself) and the director (Lou Castel) do little to stabilize what appears to be a sinking ship, as the former refuses to interact and the latter careens wildly between binging on booze and tyrannically harassing his filmmaking team. There’s little traditional plot to be speak of, but in its self-aware indictment and offhand insight, you can see its influence in everything from The Last Movie to Day for Night to Through the Olive Trees.
The genre inclinations which marked Fassbinder’s early career now seemed, in light of Beware of a Holy Whore, like a quaint memory. But in the proceeding years he would do something even more unexpected: take on another beloved Hollywood genre, this time the melodrama, and reappropriate it for himself through a series (The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) of some of the most popular international films of the era. His pace would likewise continue unabated, and in many ways it’s easy to see Beware of a Holy Whore as a window into Fassbinder’s restless and self-destructive id. In 1982, after 40-plus films in only 14 years, fighting his dueling impulses between rest and creativity, Fassbinder was found dead from a mixture of sleeping pills and cocaine. It’s in these early works, then, where perhaps the purest distillation of Fassbinder the man can be found. Self-consciously controlled yet joyously intuitive, naïve yet brimming with creativity, they marked an arrival, announcing a fearless new talent and a face for the New German Cinema of the impending decade.
The five Rainer Werner Fassbinder films included in Criterion’s new Eclipse set were shot on small budgets with limited resources, but have survived in enviable visual form. The bright interiors and exteriors of Love Is Colder Than Death and Katzelmacher fare the best of the black-and-white films, while the darker, shadowy noir lighting of Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier have just a little more trouble translating their stark palettes. All four of these, however, exhibit nice contrast, show hints of grain, and are very pleasing from a visual standpoint. Beware of a Holy Whore, meanwhile, shot in color and looking very much of its era, is well represented with rich, if not sharp, pigments, while outdoor scenes are evocative, with no external elements producing lasting damage. Audio is presented, in each case, in its original, monoaural form. Dialogue is upfront and easily heard. There are few sound effects in these films, but when present they are just as easy to discern. Overall these are very clean soundtracks, and considering the lack of restoration, both the audio and video presentations are satisfactory.
As per Eclipse standards, there are no digital supplements to note. There are, however, typically informative and well-researched liner notes provided for each film by Michael Koresky.
Fueled on equal parts inspiration, naïveté, and sheer creativity, the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder evidence a filmmaker with an appropriationist’s eye who nevertheless has larger sociological concerns on his mind.