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Family Values and Civic Duties: Fassbinder’s Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day

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By Jeremy Carr.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was particularly adept at transitioning between the cinema and television (and theater, for that matter), starting the crossover just a few films in to his prolific directorial career, with Das Kaffeehaus, a TV movie released in 1970. In 1972, already with a mind-boggling 14 titles to his credit – since 1969 – Fassbinder was then commissioned by the channel Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) to make a TV drama centered around a working-class West Germany family. The resulting miniseries, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, presented in five parts across several months (five parts out of a planned eight), is exactly as press notes accompanying the new digital restoration of the film (1) declare: “[A] true discovery, one of Fassbinder’s earliest and most tender experiments with the possibilities of melodrama.”

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (Acht Stunden sind kein Tag), subtitled “A Family Series,” is divided into episodes each given the name of two prominent characters, though these chosen individuals do not necessarily correspond to those who receive the primary focus of that segment’s attention, nor do they indicate the series’ more durable Cologne-based storylines. In any case, among those predominantly featured, all introduced in the first episode, there are: Oma, the matriarchal grandmother played with charming zest by Luise Ullrich; her benign daughter, Kathe (Anita Bucher), and her cantankerous husband, Wolf (Wolfried Lier); their amenable son, Jochen (Gottfried John), and distraught daughter, Monika (Renate Roland); Monika’s brutish husband, Harald (Kurt Raab), and their little girl, Sylvia (Andrea Schober). During the opening celebratory sequence, an appropriate occasion in which to economically bring most of the central cast together in one fell swoop, Jochen also strikes up a relationship with Marion, who sells newspaper advertisements and is played by the beaming Hanna Schygulla in her seventh Fassbinder film. Later in the installment, Oma encounters the gracious, easy-going widower, Gregor (Werner Finck), soon to be her doting partner, her “lover” as she so discreetly declares.

Eight 02Over the course of nearly eight hours (fittingly enough), Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day returns to several core themes relating to family strife, civic engagement, and blue-collar economics. With so many ages represented, all in essentially the same communal strata, the film provides a generational glimpse of diverse domestic and public relations. It is, for all intents and purposes, not unlike a standard sitcom depicting a mostly affable group in moments of levity and decency, but also in situations of great drama and conflict; the suppressed acrimony at times erupts in alarming verbal and physical violence. With so many dynamics at play – sexual, familial, and social, those distinct and those entwined – a television series is perhaps the only format suitable for such saturation, and Fassbinder makes the most of the allotted time.

Scattered throughout, there is an all-star line-up of familiar Fassbinder faces, including, among those not already mentioned, Hans Hirschmüller, Irm Hermann, Margit Carstensen, and Ulli Lommel. But two characters, and in turn two performances, stand out. The first is Gottfried John’s Jochen, who carries the most material weight and likely has the most screen time, and whose narrative seems to intersect with more peripheral plotlines. A proletarian toolmaker, Jochen introduces a boozy crew of factory workers caught in the midst of technological and bureaucratic flux. Jochen embodies a worker’s life – before, during, and after the job – and his story steers the socioeconomic assessment of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, the title of which implies an essential refrain, that of appropriately assigning importance to 9-to-5 drudgery versus the life lived away from work. At the same time, Jochen and his colleagues routinely dispute wage distribution and industry conditions, seeking to critique and simultaneously improve their mode of production. There is room for internal discord as all of this plays out, with some infighting amidst the team, but primarily, these men stake a claim for compelling solidarity and deserved labor appreciation, from their bosses and from those like Marion’s coworker, Irmgard (Hermann), who initially belittles Jochen as “just a worker,” but soon comes around and begins dating one of his friends.

What drives Jochen and his workmates isn’t just fiscal ambition (though the coveted position of foreman is a recurring point of contention), but a reaction against authoritative abuse and needlessly impeding rules and regulations. In this regard, his kindred spirit is the second key character of the series, and by far the most entertaining and endearing, Oma. Ullrich’s gregarious granny is vibrant, hilarious, and kind. With Gregor in tow, she wrangles with exorbitant rent – a struggle emblematic of the film’s middle-class endeavor to just get by in demanding world – and whereas the diffident Gregor accepts what he sees as the inevitable or the impossible to amend, and is comfortable with the way things are, she refuses to lie down. There’s a building sitting vacant and young children rampant on the streets? Why not turn the facility into a kindergarten, city ordinances be damned? In differing ways, to differing degrees, the others in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day confront the same general concerns, but Oma perseveres in a fashion they can only aspire to. She is savvy and sassy, sure, but she is pure. At times carrying any given episode as if it were her own mini-movie, Ullrich is outstanding, and with Finck’s contrasting, complimentary Gregor, the two of them frequently laughing at their own hijinks and remarks, her Oma deserves and receives the loyal veneration of all involved. Even grouchy Wolf, constantly at odds with his mother-in-law, ends up missing the amusing elder (a short-lived digression poses a rented grandma substitute). And like her grandson, Oma is keen to see things change, to be the catalyst for improvement and righteousness.

Oma is an inspiring figure, exemplifying at least part of Fassbinder’s intent with the film. “We wanted to encourage people,” he said. And according to Juliane Maria Lorenz, president of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, with this sprawling story, Fassbinder

sought to challenge ‘what people usually expect workers to be.’ He didn’t want to portray their daily lives as gray and dismal, as would have been the more conventional approach. Instead, he wanted viewers to identify with his characters and see the possibilities they created for themselves by acting in solidarity with a group.

Skillfully presenting multiple scenarios, Fassbinder’s consequential teleplay establishes each unique storyline, and each respective character, with the same perception of earnest intimacy and the same sympathetic fascination, from their solitary interests to their collaborative interactions. To further foster and visually realize this family portrait, Fassbinder enlisted regular cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, whose 16mm imagery blends full, pliable colors and supple textures into a cohesive palette no matter the venue or tone. Compositions are judicious and vivid, and rapid zooms, long takes, and a pleasing variability of camera placement all serve to enliven the richly adorned interiors and otherwise prosaic backdrops.

Eight 03Shooting on Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day took 105 days, and the first episode was broadcast Sunday, Oct. 29, 1972, with subsequent episodes spread out through March of 1973. This staggered circulation was unusual for the time (and would likely be unbearable in our current binge-watching climate), and critics largely derided the production, skeptical of its unrealistically optimistic representation of industrial life; on the other hand, analogous to today’s spectator divide, audiences were pleased. Nevertheless, the series was abruptly discontinued by the head of WDR Television. This apparently had to do with confounding political resistance, the root of which Fassbinder suggests when discussing the three unexecuted parts, dealing with “trade union activity” and “an encouragement to take up concrete political work. More so than the previous episodes.” (Things also go south for Jochen and Marion, he says, and Monika may have committed suicide.) Certainly, there remain political overtones to the film – “When the revolution began in ‘68, it set us free from conventional ideas and chains,” stated Hermann. “And of course Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day was a contribution to that” – but these issues are mounted with a palatable virtue that feels natural and unaffected. Those like Jochen and his contemporaries aren’t out to make grandiose partisan statements; they’re simply trying to secure what is rightfully theirs and to make the most of the opportunities presented.

Offered with tremendous heart and affirming surprisingly conservative notions of domestic validation, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day reveals a rare, softer, subtler side to the iconoclastic German auteur. The enduring slice-of-life depiction of a specific period and place banks on banal settings and everyday occurrences to lend the entire picture a universal appeal. This is a familiar world, a world made up of dinner tables and living rooms, grocery lists and in-laws, workplace banter and American pop music, marriages and divorces, and sharing bathrooms and dealing with irascible children (exposed to the sexual candor of Marion and Jochen, her younger brother provides wry comic relief). There are instances of disappointment and of great victory, instances of activism and bourgeois bemoaning; there are proverbial disputes and divisions between the old and young, the rich and poor, and between the races, and there is a timeless reflection on passions hidden, thwarted, misplaced, and expressed. Quarreling couples and bickering relatives yield to minor dilemmas, like Jochen doomed to a night of nothing but cabbage rolls, and understated ruminations on the transitory nature of existence: “You can’t imagine what one forgets,” laments Gregor when asked about his long-ago wedding night. But most significantly in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, there is Fassbinder’s unwavering empathy, a soft spot for household stability as evident as the affinity for eccentric and marginal figures seen elsewhere in his work. There is no derision, but only understanding and identification. “We all know the moments when we’re ‘in the same boat’ with a couple of others,” he stated, “and suddenly we feel everybody is in it together and something can happen that’s good for everyone and no one is alone. [Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is] also about that.”

In terms of length, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day comes in second only to Fassbinder’s mammoth masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 15-hour epic released in 1980. Perhaps owing to that length, as well as its technically incomplete state, the series lapsed into a span of unavailability, until last year, that is, when a restored print premiered at 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. And now, with funding provided by the Museum of Modern Art and the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, in addition to other sources for which we should all be grateful, this unearthed classic is charting a theatrical course in America (beginning at New York’s Film Forum on 14 March), advancing one of Fassbinder’s finest achievements in the process.

Endnote

1) All remaining quotes are from the press notes.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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