feature by Gregory Avery, 17 November 2000

Germany in Autumn

West Germany, and much of Europe, went through a highly turbulent time in the Seventies. There were hijackings, bombings, and kidnappings-for-ransom; the murder of several Israeli athletes by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics; and the abduction and murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. In West Germany, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, head of the Citroen-Benz motorworks, was kidnapped by a terrorist group, held for ransom, and then murdered. The four leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang were arrested and incarcerated at Stammheim, a special facility which was created to house both the trial proceedings and the inmates. The prisoners were each confined to an individual cell. After they were jailed in 1972, the trial would not get underway until 1975, and two more years would pass before final sentencing. Afterwards, despite ultra-maximum security measures which included hourly cell inspections, three of the convicted gang members all committed suicide on the same night. (The fourth member was hospitalized and survived.)

In the meantime, the government passed laws which prevented prisoners from consulting with their attorneys, and for trials to be held without the accused being present. The jail cells at Stammheim were bugged for surveillance, and means were taken to prevent inmates from communicating between cells. The country's telephone system was also monitored for possible subversive communications. "Second" and "third generation" revolutionary and terrorist organizations and groups sprung up after previous groups had either fled, been arrested, or killed. Posters went up proclaiming "Our youth are turning against us!," while the term "fascistoid" came into parlance.

In 1977-78, nine German filmmakers, including Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Volker Schlöndorff, and Bernhard Sinkel, collectively made a film to express their feelings and concern over the present conditions in the West German state, "Germany in Autumn." The film included coverage of the huge memorial service held for the tragic Schleyer, as well as the funeral for the three deceased Baader-Meinhof gang members in Stuttgard, which almost did not take place until the town's mayor, Manfred Rommel (son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel), intervened. ("I will not accept that there should be first and second-class cemeteries. All enmity should cease after death.") Nonetheless, "Germany in Autumn" captures footage that shows that police managed to find some way to arrest several of the mourners as they left the funeral.

Fassbinder's contribution, a jagged, disconcerting piece of filmmaking which opens the film after the main title, is extraordinary.

We see Fassbinder and Armin Meier, his companion at the time, in the apartment where they lived, on Reichenbachstrasse in Munich, where the walls have all been painted a sort of black color with some olive mixed in; the effect is to mute light and turn the place into a dark cocoon. Fassbinder telephones for information on an airline hostage situation in Mogidishu (where terrorists demanded the release of the prisoners at Stammheim, in exchange for the passengers' lives), or to confirm with a friend the news of the Baader-Meinhof members' suicide. Armin voices the opinion that, "If they don't obey the law, then the state shouldn't, either." This causes Fassbinder to kick him out of the apartment, then to call for him to come back in. After the announcement of a nationwide "search" -- with phone numbers where people can give the police anonymous tips -- Fassbinder hears sirens outside the building and promptly flushes some freshly-obtained drugs down the toilet. Armin asks if he's crazy; Fassbinder replies, what if the police came in to the place and started shooting, confusing in his head an interview he gave earlier to a journalist (where his statements against marriage could be construed as anti-Establishment) with when security forces stormed the hijacked airliner at Mogidishu (all the terrorists were killed, but the passengers all emerged unharmed), concluding with an unkind remark towards Armin. "Okay. If I'm a little s**t, I'm getting plastered!" Armin says, and walks out the door. Fassbinder, realizing he's acted rashly, slumps in regret.

The lithe, swaggering figure who appeared in Fox and His Friends four years earlier has transformed into someone who is by turns contrary, argumentative, sodden, paranoid, anguished. He picks things up, whether it be a lighter or a telephone receiver, and then sets them down heavily. He seems to take great exertion even to think, at times. In others, his hands rub across his face as if to reassure himself that he is still there.

Intercut with the scenes at the apartment is a filmed discussion between Fassbinder and Liselotte about the recent events. Liselotte shows no remorse for the terrorists, saying that a prisoner in Stammheim should be shot, publicly, for every hostage that the terrorists in Mogidishu threatened to shoot if their demands weren't met. (The pilot of the hijacked Lufthansa plane was killed, and his body was thrown out onto the runway; special police forces then stormed the plane, killing three of the four terrorists. None of the passengers were harmed.) Murderers should be put in jail and kept their so that they will not commit any more killings. But what, Rainer responds exasperatedly, if they aren't just simple murderers but people who are acting for a perfectly good cause? Many Germans were polarized over the treatment of the imprisoned Baader-Meinhof gang members: while nobody wanted to condone setting off bombs, the imprisoned terrorists, prior to their incarceration at Stammheim, were held in various locations and under conditions that were so horrid that Amnesty International lodged a formal complaint.

Liselotte tells Rainer that she isn't even sure people should talk about the incidents that have just occurred -- -who knows what could be said and then either taken out of context or used in the wrong way? She was particularly hurt by how a friend responded to her when she brought up the writer Heinrich Böll, spoke out about the way the imprisoned terrorists were being treated by authorities. Although she doesn't act distressed, she was clearly wounded by her friend's harsh response, and regretted ever saying anything. How, then, Rainer argues, can one have a democracy when people can't fully express their opinions? True, but the incidents they're talking about involve issues concerning due justice and fairness, not whether to take-down a democracy or not (a democracy provides a structure in which to resolve these issues). But there seems to be a want to quickly jump to the conclusion that Germans have once again made a hash out of having a free government, again. Fassbinder ends the sequence by showing Liselotte saying that who she would like to see leading the West German government, at that time, is someone who is an "authoritarian" who would be "good, and kind, and orderly." Someone who would inspire confidence and assurance, although, the way Fassbinder presents it -- unkindly, I'd say -- Liselotte appears to be thinking of another leader altogether. (Helmut Schmidt would be voted out of office in 1983, replaced by Helmut Kohl.)

The sequence at the Reichenbachstrasse apartment ends on a different note altogether. Fassbinder hears Armin come back in, late at night, and finds that he brought a young kid back with him, simply because the kid has nowhere to go and needs a place to sleep for the night. Fassbinder tells him to throw the kid out. Armin does so, then turns to Fassbinder and quietly asks, "Why did you have to go do that?" Fassbinder sits down and starts weeping, uncontrollably, and Armin kneels beside him and holds him, patting Fassbinder on the back with his large, workman's hands.

Between 1969 and the end of 1979, Fassbinder made thirty-four feature films. Robert Katz wrote that this averaged to about one film every 100 days. And these were no slapdash efforts, either, in which the director jumped from one project to the next, collecting his pay cheque. (For one thing, the projects were mostly state-financed, and not awash with money.) Fassbinder's film output included literary adaptations, period pieces, a foray into science-fiction, political dramas, personal stories depicting the dynamics of heterosexual and homosexual relationships, cinéma-vérité, documentaries, and hommages to gangster and the "women's picture" genres. Fassbinder also produced Kurt Raab's screenplay "Tenderness of the Wolves," based on the Düsseldorf child murders, which Raab also starred in and which gave Ulli Lommel, an actor for Fassbinder, his first chance to direct a film. While setting up production on his film,Chinese Roulette, Fassbinder arranged to share studio space and some of his cast for the film, plus cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, so that Lommel could make Adolf and Marlene, a purple fantasy in which Hitler entices the famous film star into coming back to Berlin. (When they are alone together, the Fuhrer says he'll do anything for her. "Okay," replies Dietrich, "bite the carpet.")

"Well, there are two factors here," Fassbinder explained in interview, after he had completed his fortieth film. "First, I don't work more than other people, more than someone stamping out cans in a factory, or the like. I just work all year long; I don't take as many vacations as the others in the [film] industry. That's one side of it. The other side is that I really have a drive that's hard to explain -- it makes me have to do things, and I'm actually only happy when I'm doing things...."

At such a pace, Fassbinder's personal and professional life inexorably overlapped. After the departure of Christoph Rosen, Fassbinder became smitten with Günther Kaufmann, whom he cast in the lead of Whity, a real oddball of a film which was made in Spain and can best be described as a sort-of weltschmerz spaghetti Western, with touches of Douglas Sirk's films. Kaufmann, whom Fassbinder affectionately referred to as "my Bavarian Negro," was the product of a liaison between a German woman and an African-American G.I. stationed overseas after World War II. Günther was born and raised entirely in Germany, and Fassbinder cast him as a G.I. in all three of his "postwar trilogy" films. He also gave Günther three Lamborghinis, all of which Günther crashed.

Irm Hermann, who was an actress in many of Fassbinder's films (most notably in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), became smitten with Fassbinder and set her sights on marrying him, but she was beaten to the punch on that account -- by singer Ingrid Caven, who became Frau Fassbinder in 1970, after which she, Rainer, and Günther all went on the honeymoon trip together. The marriage, though, did not last; Fassbinder would later refer to the state of matrimony as "a sadomasochistic relationship." Irm would end up marrying someone else.

El Hedi ben Salem was a strong, silent, taciturn Berber whom Fassbinder discovered and cast in a role that would make him famous, as the foreign-born worker whose tender romance with an older German woman (played, superbly, by Brigitte Mira) would become pulled apart by outside forces in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Like Günther Kaufmann, Salem already had a wife and children when Fassbinder met him, though they were in Algeria. He would end up going completely out of his head and running amuck in Munich, wielding a long knife and swearing to track down Fassbinder. He was secreted out of the country after he successfully stabbed (not fatally) two people, but Salem came to a bad end, taking his own life in a jail cell. The news was withheld from Fassbinder for years, and when he found out, he dedicated Querelle to Salem.

The sturdy, supportive Armin Meier, who was born and raised in the country, would seem to be as fine a person as anyone would want to have in a serious relationship. But Armin wound up totally out of his depth with Fassbinder's friends and, sometimes, with Fassbinder himself. He refused, for instance, to let Armin attend the premiere of Germany in Autumn. At the Reichenbachstrasse apartment, Armin sat in the big chair in the kitchen, where Fassbinder would sit and receive visitors on the weekends, and consumed the contents of four bottles of sleeping tablets. Juliane Lorenz was the only one who maintained that Armin's death was in some way accidental.

If "Maria Braun" was about a woman who did all that she did for the sake of "mein Mann," "Lola" was about a woman who, by her own admission, works from her mind rather than from her heart. When she's told that poems are often sad because "the soul knows more [about life ]than the mind," Lola replies, "With me, the mind knows more than the soul."

Lola -- or, as we learn, Marieluise -- is a little more hard-nosed, more determined, which is why Barbara Sukowa is more suited to the role than Hanna Schygulla might have been. Lola is a little more realistic, although, like Maria, she has had to "adapt," too, in the rapidly transforming German Federal Republic that is busily buying and trading goods and services. But Lola isn't after something as ultimately illusory as Maria's missing years with her husband. And Sukowa expresses a yearning that is just as affecting as Schygulla's Maria.

It shows first when the two men in her life -- the building contractor Schuckert (Mario Adorf, who had just played Oskar's unlucky uncle Alfred in The Tin Drum), and Esslin (Matthias Fuchs), an anti-rearmament activist -- tell Lola that the town's new building commissioner, von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is not the kind of guy for her. (She is told this twice to her face, in fact.) Deeply wounded at first, Lola takes this up as a challenge -- she even bets that she can walk right up to von Bohm and have him kiss her hand, just like he would with any proper woman he meets. Lola also feels excluded: the social order of the town, no matter how many people sneak out their back doors to be with her at the town's bordello (which, reflecting West Germany's booming prosperity, looks like a cross between a nightclub, a high-class brothel in the Storyville section of New Orleans, and a 'Fifties bowling alley), won't let her "play along," and she wants to be a part of them. Nobody cares what people do in their off-hours, as long as it doesn't affect appearances (this being the 'Fifties, not the 'Nineties).

The most neatly-turned, elegant touch in the film is how it shuffles things around so that von Bohm doesn't realize that the girl whom he begins seeing seriously is the one whom everyone around him already knows a whole lot about. When von Bohm finds out, after he gets over his disillusionment, he finds he can't treat her the way everybody else has, even out of spite. Rather than respond angrily at von Bohm, Lola treats him the exact opposite, realizing what this reaction of his really means. She knows what she wants, and she knows how to go about getting it (for one thing, she has a mother, Maria, and a young daughter, also named Maria, to be mindful about), but she won't destroy von Bohm's basic decency and moral uprightness.

Lola's moral center is the main difference between this and The Blue Angel. In Fassbinder's film, Esslin, a follower of Bakunin, says that he is not a "revolutionary" but a "humanist," and that seems to be the viewpoint from which Fassbinder and his co-screenwriters, Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Frölich, see the story and its characters. (Märthesheimer and Frölich co-wrote all three of the "postwar trilogy" films with Fassbinder.) Compared to his previous films, Lola takes place amid a riot of colour, in such a way that, in some scenes, the bright hues hit you and make you feel like you've been beaned. This was the second feature film where Fassbinder worked with Xaver Schwarzenberger, who took over as the director's cinematographer after the departure of Michael Ballhaus following Maria Braun. (Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger's first film, Lili Marlene, looks notably drab. Schwarzenberger also handled the cinematography on Berlin Alexanderplatz.) The production design, by Rolf Zehetbauer, and costumes, again by Barbara Baum, enable the film unfold in a rich, surreal, newly-minted "populux" landscape, replete with the silver mobile that rotates above von Bohm's office desk. (Which, if I recall directly, was believed at the time to be an aid in stimulating creativity or, at least, mental processes.) Everyone seems to be waking up from a long dream into something new and invigorating. Lola's mother, Maria (Karin Baal), works as von Bohm's housekeeper during the day and finds that her employer does not mind a bit that she brings young Maria, Lola's daughter, along. (A bit of a relief: when von Bohm, who served in the German army during the war and lived to tell of it, asks after Maria's husband, she stands still and says simply, "Stalingrad." Von Bohm reacts accordingly and respectfully.) When von Bohm tells the young girl a story, Maria replies, "That's silly." She's unimpressed.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the new television that von Bohm orders arrives. Maria doesn't know quite what to make of it, from its boxy, imposingly shape to the decorously twisted antennae that rests atop it, to the test pattern that appears when it's switched on. So far, they get only one program, on one channel, and it's on at eight in the evening. Günther Kaufmann, playing the American G.I. who becomes friendly with von Bohm (Kaufmann is always seen coming and going in the film with a different girl), tells him that back home, in Philadelphia, they have twelve channels that run programs 'round the clock. Von Bohm is quietly impressed. He's fascinated by the newness of it. (One wonders if Fassbinder saw Samuel Goldwyn's 1950 production, Our Very Own, which has the indelible scene where young Natalie Wood's face is reflected in the rounded glass of the picture tube in the brand new TV Farley Grainger delivers to her family's house.) There's no reason why Germany can't have its own twelve channels of broadcasting in time.

Lola is basically a story about transactions, with some of the romantic and yearning elements that Maria Braun had (although Lola has romantic and yearning elements of its own, just different ones). People may also have been expecting to find some of Hanna Schygulla's Maria Braun in Barbara Sukowa's Lola, but that is not what the role needed, and Sukowa, a talented actress, does not try to play it the way Schygulla would have.

And she can sing, too! Sukowa delivers an opening song, "Am Tag als der Regen Kam," with the precision and power of a laser beam, and she later sings and dances to an uninhibited rendition of "The Fishermen of Capri" that is, if not better than, comes pretty darn close to the bang-up number Rita Hayworth did near the end of Affair in Trinidad.

At the end of the picture, Lola, the outsider, is integrated into the community, Schuckert is able to go ahead with his building project, Lola ends up with some security for herself and for her daughter, and everyone ends up happy. The only thing that's sacrificed is von Bohm's integrity. But the filmmakers leave it up to us, as at the end of Maria Braun, to determine how things even out, here. As Lola attends to some last minute business, Esslin asks von Bohm, "Is everything in order?" After he says yes, little Maria asks him if he's happy. She has climbed up into a hayloft that figured earlier in the film. "Yes, yes, Marie," von Bohm answers, "I'm happy."



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