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DVD Review: “Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder (Criterion Collection)”

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00Director Rainier Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was one of the pioneers of the New German Cinema movement. He was a stylistic genius, as well as incredibly prolific. Fassbinder was only 37 when he died of a sudden heart attack, brought on by a fatal combination of cocaine and sleeping pills. Yet in a career that lasted less than 20 years, he completed 40 films, plus numerous other projects. Fassbinder was known as the enfant terrible of the NGC, which obviously contributed to his early death. He left behind some extraordinary work though, as is evident in the new Early Fassbinder DVD set.

The Eclipse Series is an imprint of the Criterion Collection, dedicated to highlighting lost, overlooked, and forgotten films. Although Fassbinder himself will never be forgotten, these early efforts have never received the amount of acclaim something like his World on a Wire (1973) has. It would be unfair to compare these films to that amazing piece of work, but they are what got him to that point. The five-DVD set devotes a disc to each movie, which span the years 1969 to 1971. In keeping with the budget concept of Eclipse, there are no extra features.

All five films are in German with English subtitles, and all but the final Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) are black and white. Although Fassbinder made three short films prior to Love is Colder than Death (1969), the latter was his first full-length feature, and occupies the first DVD of the set.

The director’s interest in the darker sides of human nature and society were already in place by the time of Love is Colder than Death. I guess the title alone is enough to tip you off to that. Basically, the movie is about a love triangle in the underworld. Fassbinder stars as Franz, who is something of a two-bit hood. Franz has pissed off his bosses, and they have ordered his “friend” Bruno (Ulli Lommel) to kill him. The triangle is completed by Franz’s prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), who sees something in Bruno. (88 minutes).

Katzelmacher (1969) followed Love is Colder than Death, but explores a much different terrain. In 1969, American post-war Baby Boomers were protesting for civil rights, and against the war in Vietnam. But in Germany, Fassbinder’s generation were faced with the horrific legacy of the Nazis. This is actually more hinted at during Katzelmacher than boldly stated, but I believe it is certainly there.

Katzelmacher was adapted from Fassbinder’s play of the same name, which was the first of his to be produced. The director again steps in front of the camera here, as Jorgos. Jorgos is a Greek immigrant laborer, who arrives in Munich looking for work. He finds himself hanging out with a group of men and women who are all around his age. The focus is on his status as an “outsider,” who is even called a “Communist” by one of the guys. One of the key themes throughout Fassbinder’s work was that of alienation, and Katzelmacher is an excellent early example of this. (89 minutes).

Fassbinder was prolific, and 1969 was one of his busiest years. The third DVD in the set is Gods of the Plague (1969), which was his third full-length film that year. Gods of the Plague dips back in to the criminal underworld, specifically that of Munich. Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) has just been released from prison, and finds himself being drawn right back in to the life. The beautiful Hanna Schygulla plays Johanna, in her second Fassbinder film. Both Johanna and Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) divert Franz’s attention somewhat. Their interludes are intriguing, but it is Gunther (Günther Kaufmann), who Franz is really after. Gunther shot Franz’s brother, and must be dealt with. (92 minutes).

With The American Soldier (1970), the signature elements of a Fassbinder film come together in a very powerful way. The soldier in question is American, but German by birth. His name is Ricky (Karl Scheydt), and he is now a hitman in Munich. He has just landed there after serving a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Fassbinder already had many of his regulars in place by this time. These include Margarethe von Trotta, Ulli Lommel, Karl Scheydt, and (often uncredited) Fassbinder himself. The thin line separating the good guys from the bad guys is another recurring theme in his work, and that is the most significant element of The American Soldier. Ricky is hired by some rogue cops to take care of a “situation,” but they get more than they bargain for. This is a very intriguing film, and in some ways marks the beginning of what Fassbinder would be best remembered for. (80 minutes).

Whity (1970) is not included in this set, but it is the thinly-veiled topic of Beware of a Holy Whore (1970). The film was to be Fassbinder’s big American Western, or at least that is what the suits were told. I have never seen it, because it was never theatrically released, but it sounds pretty wild. The title character is a mulatto butler working for a crazed Southeast family in 1878, who apparently are all trying to kill each other. One day I may buy the DVD to see how it all works out, but Beware of a Holy Whore is Fassbinder’s take on the filming of Whity.

Fassbinder’s experience with Whity, followed by Beware of a Holy Whore is where the enfant terrible reputation really began to take hold. Going from the black and white of the previous four films to color here signifies more than just having a bigger budget. Fassbinder may or may not have been jaded before, but that mood is now directed towards the film industry.

In Beware of a Holy Whore, we find Fassbinder in a hotel with plenty to drink, plenty of drugs, and plenty of time on his hands. The cast and the crew of a film are waiting for their director to show up, and killing time as best they can. It is depressing and funny all at the same time, and quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. Strangely enough, while the film seems like the end, it was really just the end of the beginning of what would prove to be a remarkable career. (104 minutes).

The “New German Cinema” tag is very much the equivalent of the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” designation for American directors. It is generational more than anything else. We celebrate the second Golden Age of Hollywood as being the ‘70s, but there were some amazing things going on in Germany as well. Outside of Werner Herzog, I believe that Fassbinder was the pinnacle of the NGE during that time.

This Early Fassbinder set offers a fascinating look at how his talent developed. These five films are also pretty great on their own terms. Another brilliant package from the people at Criterion.

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