feature by Gregory Avery, 17 November 2000

Is he Fassbinder?

Fassbinder's 1979 film, The Third Generation, carried the subtitle, "A comedy in 6 parts about parlor games full of suspense, excitement and logic, cruelty and madness, like the fairytales told to children to help them bear their lives unto sleep." When asked to define the "third generation" of his film's title was, Fassbinder said, "It refers to the three generations of terrorism, a theme that unfortunately is very fashionable. The first generation was that of '68. Idealists who wanted to change the world and told themselves they could do it with words and demonstrations. The second, the Baader-Meinhof group, went from legality to armed struggle and to total criminality. The third is that of today, which simply acts without thinking, which has neither ideology nor politics, and which, without knowing it, lets itself be controlled by others like a bunch of marionettes."

At about the same time, Fassbinder received, and responded to, a questionnaire sent out as part of a school class project. Did he look forward to the future, or did he approach it with pessimism? "That's not an issue for me." Did he think suicide can be justified on principle? "Yes." Did he see the mentally ill as a burden to society? "In our society there's no one who isn't mentally ill." Did he allow himself to be influenced by other people's moods? "Depends on the moods." How did he visualize his professional and private future? "There isn't any past, there isn't any present, so there isn't any future, either." Were his scripts based on true happenings? "There aren't any true happenings. The true is the artificial."

Dieter Schidor, who had previously worked as an actor, wanted to produce a film version of Querelle de Brest, a novel by French writer Jean Genet. Genet, who had spent years in the criminal underworld, was in prison when some of his writing came to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. Along with Jean Cocteau, Sartre petitioned to have Genet released so that he could continue his work as a writer. Genet chronicled his years as a criminal, and his homosexual encounters with men in the underworld, in The Thief's Journal. He also worked as a novelist, a playwright, and a journalist (in 1968, he wrote about the general strike that brought France to a halt in May, then covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with Terry Southern). He also wrote an original screenplay, Mademoiselle, which Tony Richardson directed in 1966. Jeanne Moreau played a provincial schoolteacher whose love for a local woodcutter causes her to destroy the entire town where she lived. Moreau's appearance in the film may have had something to do with her being cast as Madame Lysiane in Schidor's production of Querelle.

"The thought of murder often evokes thoughts of the sea, and of sailors. What naturally follows thoughts of the sea and murder is the thought of love or sexuality...." There is a consummate image of Brad Davis in Querelle when Roger (Laurent Malet) hears Davis' character, the sailor Querelle, say, "Come here," turns, and sees him, standing on a dock (possibly a dock, since it appears to be made out of metal plating and rivets) that looks coppery from the corpulent setting sun behind it. Davis wears a long black peat coat, a black-and-white stripped cotton shirt, and crisp pressed white sailor's bellbottom trousers. His lean features make his head look like it's cocked, insouciantly, with chin up, eyes almost closed, head tilted back until you almost cannot make out his white French naval sailor's hat. His body seems to curve languidly from the neck down, into an inverted "j." This is the man whom Genet described as "[a] young boy, whose soul is visible in his eyes, metamorphosed into an alligator...." and which Fassbinder put more simply as, "He was a boy whose soul had changed into an alligator."

Well, not quite. Fassbinder's Querelle drops the process Genet described by which the main character had already started his transformation before the main story begins. "In my opinion, it's not a film about murder and homosexuality. It's a film about someone trying, with all the means that are possible in this society, to find his identity...."

Brad Davis, sinewy and charismatic, and still fresh from his appearance as Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express," plays the sailor whose brother, Robert, is the lover of Lysiane (played by Moreau), co-proprietor of the Feria Bar in the French port town of Brest. Querelle obtains and sells narcotics, cheats, steals, murders, betrays, and allows himself to be deflowered by Lysiane's husband, Nono (Günther Kaufmann), after losing a bet with him. Yet Querelle is thrown into a quandary when he experiences love, instead of plain sexual attraction, for Giles, who is hiding from the police after being accused of a murder Querelle committed. Querelle arranges for an escape and a disguise for Giles -- the disguise makes Giles, down to the fake mustache, look like Querelle's brother Robert. And, even though the narration tells us of the "striking resemblance between the two brothers" Querelle and Robert, Fassbinder cast actor Hanno Pöschl, who doesn't look at all like Brad Davis, to play both Robert and Giles.

Fassbinder was probably the only director at the time -- maybe the only director, period -- who had the artistry, the sense, the clout, the reputation, and the brazenness to get this film made. With production designer Rolf Zehetbauer, Querelle was filmed in a fanatically artificial style, with the quays and waterfront sections of the town of Brest created and filmed entirely on a soundstage. It is also unapologetically homosexual: phalluses jut impudently from the architecture or appear frosted on window panes, the languid staging makes everyone look like they're cruising everyone else, and the scenes and actors are bathed in shades of tangerine orange and burnished gold, giving almost everything the appearance of a tumescent California coastal sunset. (When Jean-Jacques Beineix's equally stylized The Moon in the Gutter, with Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski, came out in the U.S. a few months after Querelle, David Denby described it as "a heterosexual Querelle.") Fassbinder took the film further than any film had previously in both depicting and expressing gay sexuality without the trappings of morality, self-loathing, condescension, or reservation. This picture came out years before the emergence of ACT-UP, Queer Nation, and "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." One of the characters in the film (played by Burkhard Driest, who wrote the first draft of the film's screenplay), a local police detective, spends his off hours wearing a leather visor cap and vest, like one of the bikers in a Tom of Finland sketch, while the French sailor hats, and the close-ups of Laurent Malet's delicate, slender features, evoke the crisp, perfect, scrupulously composed conceptual photographs made by Pierre et Gilles. (Fassbinder's mother, Liselotte, can be spotted, dressed as a nun, in a scene where Moreau sings in the Feria bar; Kurt Raab turns up as well, first dressed as a Roman Catholic cardinal, then, near the end, in drag wearing a geisha wig and holding a folding fan. Fassbinder did a silent cameo in one of the police station scenes, but this does not appear to have made it into the final cut of film, although a photo of his appearance was reprinted in the magnificently-produced Querelle Filmbuch that was published to accompany the film's release.)

Brad Davis, who distinguished himself as a stage actor during the first half of the 1980s, playing Gregor Samsa in an adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis and Capt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, could have probably captured the difficult shadings of Querelle's character, but Fassbinder's approach works against the actors, distancing us through studied staging and movement and the interspersal of title cards which, in Brechtian style, interrupts any involvement we may have been having with the drama and forces us to be objective and detached. Scenes fade in and out of white, a device that Fassbinder said he used so that the audience would remain "awake" during the film. The ending of the film even suggests that there may have been no Querelle at all, that what we had been watching may have been either an individual or group fantasy all along.

Which brings us to another aspect of Fassbinder's work in this film: his contribution to Germany in Autumn, and the "postwar trilogy": the notion of forgetting. During the years that Adenauer served as West Germany's chancellor, the country rose from a physical and spiritual annihilation to a state with a flourishing economy, a respectable place as one of Europe's, and the world's, leading countries, and one where most citizens were living in comfort and could afford luxuries that would have been unthinkable prior to the "economic miracle." (On the other hand, there was the Berlin Wall, and the "Christiane F." series of reports in Der Spiegel that indicated that not all was well among the nation's youth.) Maria Braun tries to span the years that keep her apart from Hermann by embarking upon a career which starts when she negotiates a deal whereby Oswald's new textile plants will be able to produce nylon stockings for Germany's women. Lola keeps her relationship with von Bohm separate from her "secret" life as a kept woman. Veronika Voss is on the verge of being forgotten as both a movie star and as a person, with Dr. Katz's morphine injections helping all the way. Querelle appears in the town of Brest, affects everyone he comes in contact with, experiences "moments of sorrow as being those moments in which [he] himself felt the light wrinkles of forgetfulness on his terrible body...," and then disappears like a shadow when exposed to direct light. When Giles says ."..I'll never forget you," Querelle replies, "You say that now. Life happens fast. You're already forgetting me." And, at the start of the film, Lysiane, sitting at a table with Robert, casts the tarot and tells Robert that his brother is in "great danger.... He's in danger of finding himself."

Yet when Querelle's path brings him face to face with his superior officer on-board the ship Vengeur, Lt. Seblon (Franco Nero, in a brave, magisterial performance) -- who has been hopelessly yearning for Querelle from afar during the entire story -- Querelle becomes transfixed, as if by a manifestation, as if he can suddenly see that, by submitting to him, Seblon will lead him, "subdued, completely subdued," to where he will find his place and purpose in the world -- through stasis, oblivion, forgetfulness. (Querelle tells Seblon, "It must be done so that, afterwards, I can lie across your thighs like a pietá...." During a pre-production meeting, Fassbinder told Dieter Schidor, "Querelle must be a film about the Passion of our Lord.")

Querelle also ends with a coda that was not in the original script: "His birth certificate states: Born on the nineteenth of December, 1918, at ten o'clock in the morning. Mother: Gabrielle Genet. Father: unknown. Apart from his books, we know nothing about him, not even the date of his death, which to him seems near." The reference is to Jean Genet, who never knew who his real father was, and who rose from obscurity to become a famous and celebrated author.

Fassbinder wanted to premiere Querelle at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1982, where it would be appearing along with new films by Wim Wenders (Hammett) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) -- making it the first time anywhere where the Big Three of the New German Cinema movement would be showing their latest works at one event.

But Columbia Pictures, which was distributing Querelle in the U.S., demanded that Fassbinder cut the film down to two hours or less, or it would be shuttled off into limited "arthouse" engagements instead of receiving a wide release. Dieter Schidor expected Fassbinder to explode over the news. Instead, he simply shrugged and said, "Well, I guess I'll have to do my 'hat trick' next year." (As it turned out, Columbia would cut thirteen more minutes out of Querelle and shuttle it off into an "arthouse" release, anyway.) Fassbinder did go to the Cannes Festival anyway; participated in Wim Wenders' Chambre 666 project, where various film directors entered a Cannes hotel room and recorded, singly, their thoughts about film and filmmaking; and wrote an essay about how wonderful it was to attend the event when you don't have a film in competition.

Querelle was portentously advertised as being "Fassbinder's final statement." It was not, nor was it ever intended to be. Filming was all set to start in June on I Am the Happiness of This World: Harry Baer had found a club that could serve as the film's main location not far from Peer Raben's flat in Munich. Fassbinder was thinking of putting Rosel Zech into a remake of the Joan Crawford movie "Possessed." There were several literary adaptations, including one of Georges Bataille's 1957 novel, Le Bleu du Ciel (The Blue of Noon: Sample passage from the novel: "She was aroused by me, she aroused me, but all we managed to do was nauseate one another." If anybody could make a movie out of this material, it would be Fassbinder.) He had also been making notes for several years on doing a film either based on the life of, or on one of the works by, Unica Zürn, the ill-fated, early twentieth-century Swiss poet and Surrealist. And there was also still the possibility of filming the Pitigrilli novel.

Further installments in the "BRD" series of films about the German Federal Republic were planned. There was certainly material to be found there: the espionage scandal during Helmut Kohl's chancellorship, the comparative European and American responses to the outbreak of H.I.V., the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the high emotion over the reunification of Germany, the rise of the Russian Mafya, the resurrection of the Ufa studio complex, the Holocaust-denial movement and the openly neo-Nazi music of Rammstein, and the construction of a new Reichstag building which, designed by a British architect, would have a domed glass roof that would make it "open" to the public view.

Fassbinder was giving filmed interviews to Wolf Griem for a documentary Griem was making, The Wizard of Babylon, and had played the lead in Griem's cockeyed detective film, Kamikaze '89. (Fassbinder liked the leopard-spotted clothes that he wore in the film so much that he was allowed to keep them, and wore them the day Andy Warhol visited the set of Querelle. Warhol designed the poster for the premiere of "Querelle.")

Fassbinder had also been talking with Jane Fonda about her appearing in a film about Rosa Luxemburg, who formed the Spartacus League and attempted to start a worker's revolution in Germany during the early years of the twentieth century. The film star had answered one of Fassbinder's telephone calls to her by saying, "This is Jane Fonda herself." Thereafter, Fassbinder answered one of Dieter Schidor's calls to him by saying, in English, "This is Fassbinder himself."

Early on the morning on June 10, 1982, Juliane Lorenz let herself into the penthouse apartment Fassbinder was living, on Clemmenstrasse, carrying freshly-made rolls from an all-night bakery. She went into Fassbinder's room to wake him. The room had a mattress on the floor, a telephone with a private unlisted number separate from the residential line, and a T.V. and V.C.R. loaded with a tape of the movie 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing. Currency bills were scattered about the floor, not an uncommon sight in Fassbinder's residences. Juliane turned off the T.V., which was still on, and opened the curtains. Fassbinder was lying on the mattress, apparently asleep, until Juliane noticed that he was sleeping soundlessly. Fassbinder was an inveterate snorer.

After checking Fassbinder, she phoned for an ambulance and woke up Wolf Griem, who was sleeping in another part of the apartment. When the ambulance arrived, a paramedic walked into the apartment, into Fassbinder's room, and knelt by the mattress. After examining the filmmaker, he stated, "This man is dead." Adding, "Is he Fassbinder?"

Sources for this article include:

  • Fassbinder's The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing (1992)
  • Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by Robert Katz (1987)
  • "Fassbinder Film Maker" by Ronald Hayman (1984)
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Lawrence Kardish and Juliane Lorenz (1997)
  • Querelle Filmbuch, edited by Dieter Schidor and Michael McLernon (1982)
  • This is Baader-Meinhof informational website
  • "The sad days are over" comes from both the title of an early Fassbinder play, End of a Sad Time, and one of the chapter titles in Christian Braad Thomsen's book, Fassbinder (1997).

Eighteen of the director's films will be re-released, theatrically and on home video by Winstar Communications in 2002.



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