Cinema captures the sound of speech close up and makes us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle (that the voice, that writing, be as fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal's muzzle), to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.
--Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Karl-Heinz Bohm in Fox and His Friends (1975)
I was bewitched--I’m deliberately using Wittgenstein’s word, bezaubert--by the first Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie I ever saw, in 1977. It was Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. The cinematography was as colorfully saturated as Douglas Sirk’s; the actors traipsed the ugly side of beautiful; but it was not what I saw but what I heard; it was the sound of German that knocked me out, a tongue I had rarely heard before but which suddenly seemed intimately, atavistically familiar: syllables I could not translate but which I understood.
Brigitte Mira and Gottfried John in Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975)
German is a language often disdained as harsh, and harsh it is, like Germans themselves, rough even in the refinements of Hochdeutsch, which, from my first classes at Columbia University, I spoke with an almost flawless accent despite my halting grammar. It was in my palate, if not my blood. My paternal grandparents emigrated to Ohio from Lithuania in 1910, speaking Yiddish. They had been interlopers in Prussia. Learning German was a semi-conscious grail, an ancestral frustrated fate.
German is for contraltos, and for melancholics, for people dominated by bodies in search of speech. (It is curious, by the way, that Hans Castorp, tubercular hero of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain, should reveal his love to Madame Chauchat by praising her very skeleton and muscles and veins-- her innards--in French, when she has expressly asked him to do so, “like a German, profoundly.” German, to me, epitomizes Barthes’ all-too-human muzzle. Only Arabic, which I will never learn, seems to me as deeply summoned from the body’s chasms.)
Irm Hermann and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Fox and His Friends (1975)
The old New Yorker Cinema, on Broadway on the Upper West Side, screened just about every film Fassbinder made between 1969 and 1977. After Mutter Kusters were shown Effi Briest, the wonderfully twisted Chinese Roulette, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Katzelmacher, Jailbait, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Satan’s Brew, A Merchant of Four Seasons, Beware of a Holy Whore, and Fox and His Friends. I just watched Fox again on YouTube and found it more poignant than ever, having now the ambivalent benefit of forty years’ experience, during which I learned first-hand how to exploit/be exploited. Fox, played by Fassbinder himself, is a good-hearted simpleton who wins the Lotto on a hunch, and is inveigled into blowing it all on his unloving lover’s business, apartment, furniture and apparel. A few years later, I would see In A Year with Thirteen Moons, the tormented story of Elvira, a gay man who undergoes sex-change surgery to land his straight lover, who promptly abandons him. It is a tale about the burnt offerings we make for love, wagering all, always irrevocably, on whatever we cannot have. On the subject of being fucked over, Fassbinder is the Old Master; about suffering he was never wrong.
In a Year with Thirteen Moons (1978)
Fassbinder’s characters manipulate and destroy each other, not with fastidious irony--the British way--or with the upbeat hypocrisy of Americans, but in the long bombastic sentences of the Muttersprache, as intricately circuited as they are staccato, a language which follows every kiss with a slap. Germans have never killed anybody with kindness. Tactlessly, they say what they mean and mean what they say, with deeds, from breakups to mass murder, to prove their point.
Having said that, Germans are also extraordinarily clear in declarations of love, uttered sparingly, perhaps but a few times in a lifetime, but with what the Austrian novelist Peter Handke called the moment of true feeling. Ich liebe Dich is reserved for the real thing, and you can trust it. There are weaker variants: Ich hab’ Dich gerne, ich hab’ Dich lieb. I have heard all three, but with the first, I heard the mermaids singing, knowing with jubilant disbelief I had reached solid land. The jiltings were equally firm, the sentence their winding sheet.
Hanna Schygulla and George Byrd in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
It is true, as Mark Twain observed with great merriment, that in German the verb in a dependent clause must come at the very end of a preposterously sinuous sequence of modifiers that can go on for pages. Then again, in a main clause, the verb must be the second word, a punch unsoftened by the folderol of adverbs. The genius of German is for combining serpentine indirection with a single, sledgehammer blow. I have learned much about the endless possibilities of English from the detours and ultimate directness of German. I borrow its whiplash inversions; I mimic its final crack.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Peter Chatel in Fox and His Friends (1975)
Fassbinder’s ear is for the love-slap, his early films, especially, a theatre of cruelty. His voices cut to the heart, and to the heart of the matter. They cut, they come. Occasionally, as in Mutter Kusters, there is grace at the end; unlikely kindness, the impossible boon of reconciliation; or the simple friendliness of a stranger. More often, there is suicide, slow or sudden. Fassbinder himself died in 1982 of an overdose at 37, having made over forty films in fifteen years. I think improbably of the great English architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who died of overwork at forty, having reinvented the Gothic, and designed, among many other monumental buildings, the Houses of Parliament.
Fassbinder was an architect, not only of films, but of a strangely cohesive, almost eternally bonded band of actors, intimates who virtually all recount the seductions and punishments of the director’s ineluctable will while mourning him still. Fassbinder made each actor feel herself to be the only person in the room, perhaps the only person in his richly populated life, which included male and female lovers, and even, at one point, a marriage, to the actress Ingrid Caven.
Fassbinder, polymorphous and polyamorous, was never polyglot. Only in German, a language of incandescent order and shock, could post-war Germany be bodied forth. And, only post-war Germany, with its plangent need for expiation, could have produced such a sort of Caravaggio for its time, a film director who incited ordinary mortals to pose, enact, and displace an unspeakable past onto the present-day smaller stage of near and dear: in a vocalise as sad as it is strident.
Brigitte Mira and El Hedi Ben Salem in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)