Sunday 15 December 2019
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What She Said! with Christine Bentley & Kate Wheeler

Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Review by Anne Brodie

Cinematheque at TIFF Bell Lightbox Until Dec 23rd

The late, great German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s contributions to film have been widely acknowledged.  The cinematic universe he creates is ordinary and extraordinary, melodramatic and mundane, operatic and obtuse, cruel and loving, contradictory and rare.  His films are treasures.  They are peopled with troubled souls in German cities navigating the aftermath of WWII, the Nazi era and grappling with the massiveness of starting over.  Sometimes it’s an ugly reality, sometimes a fantasy and always provocative.

I never try to reproduce reality in a film” he said.  The term “imitations of life” may be truer. That’s the title of a Hollywood film by an ex-pat German director who deeply imprinted on Fassbender’s style, Douglas Sirk.  Fassbinder’s stage work was often inspired by playwright and stage director Bertolt Brecht.  So, as part of the New German Cinema movement Fassbinder pushed film forward while looking back.

TIFF’s James Quandt describes Fassbinder’s point of view: “Teller of uncomfortable truths, artist of profligate style and mercurial intelligence, unsparing critic of both the powerful and the powerless, Fassbinder found his subject and inspiration in the complacency, cultural amnesia and consumerism of postwar Germany.”

Indeed Fassbinder’s films aren’t easy to watch.  The characters are weary of life, isolated and unloved, it’s a bleak and yet his colours are candy bright.  The characters exploit one another, betray, humiliate and abuse then lash out towards a hopeless conclusion. 

And yet they’re fun, colourful, stylish and entertaining.  But in the main, his view and his films focus on social, political sexual and individual doom and whiling away the time waiting for it. There’s a Waiting for Godot vibe and yet there is a sense of fun. Sleepless fun.

Fassbender was loyal to his friends, lovers and stars – the lines were suitably blurred. Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, Günther Kaufmann, Brigitte Mira and Fassbinder’s longtime lover El Hedi ben Salem, Udo Kier and many more starred in multiple Fassbinder productions.  From his theatre days he brought along Peer Raben, Harry Baer and Kurt Raab, Irm Hermann and Schygulla.  He was surrounded by friends.

It all came to an end 10 June 1982 when Fassbinder died at the age of 37 from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. But that legacy!

Unfortunately, Fassbinder’s films rarely come to light in art houses or on television, odd considering his place in the pantheon of movie masters.  A recent retrospective Fassbinder Now was staged in Frankfurt and Berlin and good news for Canadians, TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinematheque is staging a tribute series called Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Here are a few of the offerings:   

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul looks to Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows as a cleaner in her sixties begins an affair with a Moroccan immigrant half her age.

Fassbinder adapts Theodor Fontane’s 19th-century novel, Effi Briest about a teenaged bride who finds herself uncomfortable in her new role. 

Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola tells tales of women carrying on after WWII in a country that hides its past and pursues the US model of consumer society. These women are fierce and bring new blood to German life.

Fassbinder stars in his film Katzelmacher as a Greek immigrant worker in Munich dealing with racism from the German workers.

He also stars in Fox and His Friends as a carnival entertainer who enters the world of Munich’s upper-class homosexuals.

Year of 13 Moons concerns a man undergoing a sex change operation to please his lover an ambitious camp survivor who stages Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin movie dance numbers.   

Berlin Alexanderplatz is Fassbinder’s 154 part, 15 hour miniseries for West German television. The series based on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel set in Weimar Berlin details the story of the rise of the Nazi party.

Also on offer at Lightbox is a fascinating sidebar series All That Heaven Allows: Fassbinder’s Favourites is also underway with fifteen films that affected him artistically and stylistically. The Night of the Hunter,   directed by Charles Laughton, is the stunning and horrifying fable about a demonic minister chasing down two children.  Raoul Walsh’ The Revolt of Mamie Stover stars Jane Russell as a prostitute who tries to start a new life in Honolulu but finds she can’t.  In Sirk’s Written on the Wind with Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack watch their family empire die and Fassbinder’s favourite film, Luchino Visconti’s Nazi epic The Damned.

TIFF Cinematheque partners with Toronto’s Goethe-Institut to present Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and All That Heaven Allows: Fassbinder’s Favourites.

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