“Every decent director has only one subject, and finally makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends, it’s a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other”
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Fassbinder, one of the key figures of the German cinema, was one of the most unique directors that came from European cinema. Slowly his influence in the cinema started to grow, being now easily one of the most influential figures of the 70’s cinema.
We can find his influence because of his themes and political views. This includes the logic of a relationship, the power and oppression in the couple, the impossibility of real love or the way a country links with its own past. Or we can find also a big visual influence made by his photography and art treatment.
This includes the way he re-framed the characters to oppress them, his constant use of mirrors, his colorful and exaggerated set decoration or his unique circling camera movements. This list is just a slice of the big impact that Rainer Werner Fassbinder leaved in world cinema forever.
1. Edward II (Derek Jarman, 1991)
There is a very common link made by critics between Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Derek Jarman as the three greatest gay directors that died too soon. But the link and political influence that Jarman took from both of them makes the connection stronger than just a sexual-orientation linking.
Edward II is one of Jarman’s last films, made just 3 years before his death. It tells the story of Edward II of England (Steven Waddington) and his love relationship with Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). The love affair is rejected by his wife, Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton), who plans the death of Gaveston, and downfall of King Edward.
Based on historical facts, it doesn’t sound at the beginning as something more than a LGBT related bio-pic, but the way Jarman films is very far from that. The scenery and most of the objects correspond to the ones of the 14th century were the actual story happened. But the clothes of the characters changes from époque customs to 90’s clothes, and the technology portrayed in the movie is closer to the one of the 20th century.
Jarman makes use of some very cryptic symbols in the merge of different time and spaces. For example, in one of the scenes where King Edward is fighting against its rivals, we can see a 14th century scenery that holds a riot between cops and LGBT protesters.
Fassbinder always made use of the past as a way of speaking of the present. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, he doesn’t have so much interest in how actually the economic miracle of the post-war Germany happened, but how this process shaped the 70’s Germany and its attitude towards the Nazis.
That’s why Fassbinder didn’t care actually about being totally accurate historically, because he was always talking about the present. Jarman takes the lesson brilliantly, showing how in the down past of England we can find the shapes that formed the present situations about power and masculinity. How much can the review of the kingdom of Edward II reveals us about the present of England?
2. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
Pedro Almodóvar has been called many times Fassbinder’s successor or the “Spanish-Fassbinder”. They surely share a lot of themes (relationship between intimacy and society, power logic on the couple) and especially a lot aesthetic elements.
Fassbinder and Almodóvar use the same kind of kitsch interior decoration and a lot of effort in fashion and characters clothes. They share their love for Douglas Sirk and the recovery of the not so appreciated melodrama genre. Hannah Schygulla, one of the most important actresses that Fassbinder collaborated with, met Almodóvar in Barcelona where he presented himself saying that he was “the new Fassbinder”
So, in All About My Mother we can find all this elements again, and the Fassbinder imprint is easy to find in all the aesthetic of the film. In this case it is more interesting to point the differences in the Almodóvar way of working that makes him a special filmmaker by its own. In All About My Mother we see Manuela, a single mother and nurse (Cecilia Roth), taking care of her son. The father’s name was Esteban, but after a sex-change operation it’s Lola (Eloy Azorín), totally unknown to Manuela’s son.
After watching a play together, the son dies in a car accident. This event makes Manuela go and find Lola to tell her about the death of her son. In this fassbinderian tragedy we can find a lot of the visual elements mentioned. The special thing about Almodóvar’s melodrama is that he takes humor as a central piece, and doesn’t take his movie too seriously.
Almodóvar mentioned once that his biggest difference with Fassbinder had to do with the difference between German and Spanish culture, that they can take the same issues, but as Spanish it is impossible not to add some jokes.
Finding the same kind of elements in a very different tone and key certainly makes Almodóvar unique by its own merits, and is in All About My Mother where he can put this kind of hope and humanity that is lacking in Fassbinder films. Fassbinder had its hope in the audience reaction in front of his characters, while Almodóvar gives the hope and tenderness to his characters.
3. Water Drops on Burning Rocks (François Ozon, 2002)
“After seeing Douglas Sirk’s films I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Water Drops on Burning Rocks was the first full-length play that Fassbinder wrote at the age of 19. He always found it incomplete and finally never took it to the stage. After his death the play was found and taken to the stage. In one of the French versions, François Ozon couldn’t stop laughing, while the audience was in silence. This pushed his desire to release a film based on private love relationships, and he found all he wanted in the Fassbinder play.
Thematically the Fassbinder imprint is everywhere, but this is normal considering that Ozon didn’t wanted to make big changes on the play. A 50 year old man Leopold (Alain Giraudeau) starts living with Franz (Malik Zidi) in a romantic relationship. But the nicest thing about the movie, is how Ozon takes influence from Fassbinder’s films that came way later the play.
Ozon imprisons all the characters in the same apartment, and we don’t leave it for a second in the whole film. The French director takes a lot of the kitsch aesthetic of Fassbinder’s melodramas, putting fake brick wallpaper on the walls. The film shows the most casual moments of the couple, but especially how Leopold puts himself as the leader of it, and start oppressing Franz in every little detail.
Ozon makes the camera circle around them with movements that resemble the ones from Chinese Roulette. He also put the characters in front of mirrors, or frames them with mirror pieces or door frames, making their oppression also a visual element, like in almost all Fassbinder’s films.
4. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
It is a tricky exercise to point all the common elements between Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Fassbinder’s classic Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Because they both came from the same root of work: Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, especially from Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. In Sirk’s film we can see how the love between a widow (Jane Wyman) and her younger gardener (Rock Hudson) gets hampered by society rules of behavior.
Fassbinder takes almost the same plot, but adds a totally new layer, making the younger lover also a Muslim and a gastarbeiter (immigrant worker). Fassbinder took Sirk’s influence as a rebel critic in 50’s Hollywood and took it further in the post-war Germany.
Haynes takes the same root of an upper-class lady from the 50’s that takes interest into a different-race gardener, an African American this time. Haynes’ film also adds a closet homosexual husband for the lady, Cathy (Julianne Moore), to take Sirk’s idea to a new layer, pushing things even further.
The common lecture of the film recognizes very easily Sirk’s influence from the first scene of the film. The use of music, colors and camera movements makes reference to a lot of Sirk’s films like Imitation of Life or Written in the Wind. But it is actually the Fassbinder re-interpretation the motor of the film, and an influence as powerful as All That Heaven Allows.
For a lot of critics it was a surprise when Fassbinder took his turn to the Hollywoodesque Melodrama, and when he tried to reveal the political power that was under this apparent frivolity. And it is even a more strange case for a movie of the 21st century. This kind of political power was revealed to Haynes thanks to Fassbinder’s way of pushing these themes further.
The hypocrisy plays an important part in all three films, but when Haynes put Cathy in front of the mirror, he’s taking as his own double-body metaphor that is so easy to find in a lot of Fassbinder’s films.
Haynes in a beautiful interview (that you can find on Youtube) called From Fassbinder to Sirk and Back explained how it’s the own affected character, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) the corrupted force in the film that is unable to remain honest, instead of taking society as the only guilty force.
Haynes pointed this as the main reason to make his Cathy a strong woman that has sympathy for the black minority, but at the same time she’s capable of taking his husband to the gay-curer doctor. We’re all guilty, and Haynes takes this Fassbinder lesson wonderfully to shape one of the best female characters of the recent cinema.
5. Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
In a Bomb Magazine interview, Gaspar Noé mentions how terrifying was the experience of watching Fassinder’s Fox and His Friends. He mentioned that watching that movie he learned that you don’t need to show blood or any kind of physical violence to express how profound can human cruelty be.
It really doesn’t look like a very-well learned lesson when you watch Irreversible. Jokes apart, Irreversible still stands as one of the most dividing movies ever, and putting the figure of Gaspar Noé between the ones who call him genius and the ones who think of him as a fraud.
Independent from the position, it is clear that one of the most important themes in his cinema is cruelty and its extremes. The reverse narrative tells us the story of the rape of Alex (Monica Belucci) and the revenge taken by his boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel). If you don’t know, the raping scene is more than 10 minutes long and it is shown in only one shot.
It is no surprise that one of the most provocative directors of our time has a profound admiration for the provocative German. Because despite of what Noé mentioned about Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder did show a lot of cruelty in its films.
Even if it is less graphic, it is not risky to say that In a Year With 13 Moons is an even more cruel movie, capable of showing the worst extreme of misery caused by this cruelty. The scene where Elvira (Volker Spengler) tells his tragic love story in a slaughterhouse, while we can see in the back how a group of cows is quartered little by little, it is a scene that makes us understand the kind of things Noé’s has had in mind at the time of making his own films.