By Jeremy Carr.
Over the span of five years, from 1979 to 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed three films dealing with the tumultuous, complex, and contentious early period of the Federal Republic of Germany (in that time, he also made three other features and a 14-part mini-series). Known as the BRD Trilogy, deriving from West Germany’s Bundesrepublik Deutschland designation, these three titles form a somewhat incidental chronicle of national history and individual resolution. Released in 1979, The Marriage of Maria Braun was followed by Lola, in 1981, and Veronika Voss, in 1982. In terms of their subject matter’s chronology, however, Lola figures last in the trio (the title card reading “BRD 3” in its opening credits was conceived during production, and only after Fassbinder imagined Veronika Voss, which was still to be made, as the middle entry). Fassbinder once said he would like to build a house with his films: “Some are the cellar, others the walls and others again are the windows. But I hope that, in the end, it will be a house.” For Kent Jones, writing a thorough essay for the Criterion Collection’s superlative packaging of the trilogy, the three films that compose the BRD Trilogy “are the rock-solid foundation . . . or, perhaps, the central staircase.” “Unlike most of the other houses going up around Fassbinder,” Jones writes, “built with flimsy modern foundations that didn’t go deep enough (for fear of hitting the rotten substratum of Nazism), Fassbinder’s was built with a sense of history.”
For Fassbinder, who wrote Marriage, Lola, and Veronika Voss with Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich, this history would primarily be told through the eyes and actions of each film’s leading female protagonist. Having long harbored and expressed an affinity for female characters, Fassbinder declared, “All sorts of things can be told better about women … What I want to say about society, I can say better with women characters.” Women are more interesting, he argued, “because on the one hand they’re oppressed and, on the other, they’re not at all oppressed, but make use of their oppression as an effective means of terror.” And so it was that in these “frame films,” to quote H-B. Moeller, Fassbinder produced “parables of historical German society,” “narrating German history through the lives of women such as Maria, Veronika, and Lola.” These were women who, like everyone else, writes Christian Braad Thomsen, “are so strongly moulded by society – against which they are in revolt – that their emancipation too largely repeats the mechanisms they wish to abolish.”
Guiding his history “through the prism of female experience,” in the words of film scholar Eric Rentschler, women became what Jeff Shannon says were Fassbinder’s “conduit to analyzing the BRD … and its effect on the German character, resulting in three of the most remarkable female characters ever committed to film.” In The Marriage of Maria Braun, to start, the women at its core, particularly its eponymous heroine, aligned the film with a debate about the so-called Trümmerfraun (“women of the rubble”), women, as Thomas Elsaesser notes, “in the reconstruction period of the late 40s and 50s, and their claims to social benefits as one-time members of the national labour force.” What began as an planned omnibus entitled The Marriages of Our Parents, produced with directors Edgar Reitz, Volker Schlöndorff, and Alexander Kluge, Marriage stars Hanna Schygulla, a prior Fassbinder mainstay who had not worked with the director since 1974’s Effi Briest, and positions its tenacious heroine in a post-war environment where, Maria observes, there are “too many girls, not enough men.” Astute, calculating, “sexual, yet not sexualized,” according to Alicia Fletcher, Maria is the part Schygulla was born to play (even if she was the second consideration after Romy Schneider). Balancing the earnest love she has for Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), who is first taken away by war, then prison, then self-imposed exile, she affirms her casual independence, touting her emancipated pragmaticism – she would rather make miracles than wait for them to happen – and shrewdly referring to herself as the “Mata Hari of the economic miracle.”
Maria’s bold combination of sentimentality and ruthlessness – traits mirroring tones frequently adopted and assembled by Fassbinder – proves frustrating to those (mainly the men) who can’t quite reconcile with this type of woman: “I am the way I am,” she unashamedly declares. Although her marriage to Hermann begins as the world crashes down around them, literally so as their wedding occurs amidst an Allied bombing in a scene of tragicomic incongruity, Maria’s subsequent ability to turn weary cynicism into strength and courage transcends the perceived limitations of her sex-based station and the deprived conditions that surround her. Fassbinder saturates Marriage with images of poverty and ravaged period detail, yet he never belabors the point, instead presenting the rubble and ruin as elements of everyday destitution, facts of life that must be endured, which is something Maria does exceedingly well. Even though she and Hermann were only able to experience “half a day and whole night” of marital bliss, and the film concludes with a fatal, rather ambiguous accident, Marriage is, nevertheless, as Thomsen contends, “unique in Fassbinder’s work – a film about a happy marriage.” “Happy” here is debatable, or at least it’s more complicated than that term suggests, but this 1979 feature was, in any event, Fassbinder’s most successful film.
Shot in late 1981, Veronika Voss, or, as its full German title translates, The Longing of Veronika Voss, became Fassbinder’s penultimate film, the last feature released in his lifetime (he shot Querelle, released in 1982, but was unable to oversee the final edit). As noted, while it placed second in the timeline of the BRD Trilogy, some, like James Roy Macbean, argue that “placing Lola second allows a truer appreciation of Fassbinder’s artistic development and the suicide of the drug addict Veronika Voss coincides better with Fassbinder’s own life story and his unexpected early death from an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine.” There’s an accurate enough authorial assessment there, but it’s easy to allocate autobiographical elements in nearly all of Fassbinder’s work (especially as they relate to self-destruction and death), and besides, Veronika Voss had real-life origins elsewhere, having been based on the unsavory life of German screen star Sybille Schmitz.
In Fassbinder’s melancholic interpretation, Veronika, first seen agonizing over the image of her younger, thriving self on screen, strikes up an unlikely relationship with sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate). While the rather humdrum journalist admits to having no significant victories nor defeats in life, and is thus a marked contrast to Veronika’s fluctuating states of elation, manic anxiousness, and depression, the two share a similar appreciation for life’s winners and losers. Living in 1955 Munich, ex-UFA star Veronika has been compromised by her work during the war and her relationship with Nazi officials; she is thus left to contend with issues not only resonant to sweeping post-war rehabilitation, but to the struggle of post-fame glory. The war, for Veronika, represents a period of dubious prosperity, but now, as others attempt to push past the pain and reassemble their broken lives, she is embroiled in a world of dogged disappointment, agony, and a circle of semi-considerate support as well as those who thrive on suspect manipulation. Märthesheimer, interviewed for Criterion, considers Veronika Voss his finest script and Fassbinder’s finest film, but Thomsen argues the picture is “pure and painfully consistent,” lacking “the entertaining qualities of the earlier films in the trilogy.” That it may not be as sporadically jovial isn’t, by any means, a fault with the picture, but Thomsen is correct when he also points to Veronika Voss’ materialization of “such great world-weariness that one is reminded of [Fassbinder’s] early avant-garde film.”
“Bleaker, sadder, and angrier than most Fassbinder films,” Tim Brayton writes, “but tinged with sympathy,” Veronika Voss won the Golden Bear for best film at the 1982 Berlin International Film Festival. Contributing to its distinctiveness, and certainly to its weary rendering, the film was photographed by Xaver Schwarzenberger in what Vincent Canby called “knife-sharp black and white.” It is, Brayton adds, “a film of pure monochrome, made up of little else than layered slashes of deepest blacks and harshest whites, where … the dominate visual scheme of the film is of imprisonment.” The picture sparkles with a dazzling, blinding radiance, evoking Veronika’s life of stark unease while also promoting a world of artificiality and fabrication. It is, as far as its depleted graphic imagery, a polar opposite to the hallucinogenic rainbow hues that color Lola.
“Fassbinder was a remarkable change-up artist,” notes Jones, “shifting register, tone, and rhythm from project to project, and the BRD Trilogy is no exception.” Surely, the visual and tonal differences between Veronika Voss and Lola, Fassbinder’s riff on Heinrich Mann’s “Professor Unrat,” the basis for Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), is a remarkably illustrative case in point. Still, though, the themes of the BRD Trilogy remain intact. Set in Coburg, a border city between West and East Germany, “a lawless frontier town,” according to Brayton, “where all the worst parts of the reconstructing West Germany are allowed to run free,” Lola’s titular protagonist, a good-natured whorehouse entertainer, is on the periphery of a society healing the wounds of the war, taking up new causes, and giving birth to a modern elite class of political influencers. The film, Thomsen argues, is a “a black comedy about a world that is so corrupt that it seems almost pointless to use the word ‘corruption.’” While attempts are made to delve deeper into the personal afflictions of its populace—the “soul is always sad,” remarks Matthias Fuchs’ Esslin, one of Lola’s suitors—and elements of the film have prompted some, like Michael Töteberg, to consider Lola “a perfect melodrama,” Fassbinder is generally preoccupied with the tense conglomeration of private and public lives. Lola a composite portrait of vice and sin, “evil depravity and corruption,” in Esslin’s words, and the desire, embodied by do-gooder Von Bohm, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s building commissioner, who likewise falls for Lola’s charms while simultaneously being appalled by Coburg’s pervasive immorality, to seek and establish order.
“Everyday fascism,” Derek Malcolm states, “was one of Fassbinder’s pet themes – the way we are influenced by more blatant aspects of the society in which we live.” From this facet of Lola’s narrative, Lola herself emerges, like Maria and Veronika, as a personified commodity, acting out with proud defiance. Her desire to make a living, whatever that living entails, progresses a dominant characteristic of the BRD Trilogy’s female trio. Lola, however, is continually reminded of her station in life and the associated sexual hypocrisy of her occupation, whereby men are permitted to indulge while their female companions are regarded as something quite less than upstanding. Exposed to the shady, secretive maneuverings of politics and business, it’s little wonder Lola feels somewhat jaded, as does her namesake film (notwithstanding its touches of ostensible humor) and most of those also featured in the story. “In spite of their treacherousness,” Najmeh Khalili Mahani writes, “…Maria and Veronika display certain traces of idealism and romanticism that is much fainter in characters that populate Lola.” And yet, as Thomsen rightly states, “Fassbinder didn’t come closer to a happy ending in any other film.”
“If ever anyone gave testimony about Germany,” comments Daniel Schmid, a friend and lover of Fassbinder’s, “it was Rainer.” Navigating paths of cultural, national amnesia and the precarious equilibrium between the private and public, all within the context of the time in which this stabilizing process was unfolding, Fassbinder ultimately posits scenarios where the present usurps the past. According to frequent Fassbinder actress Ingrid Caven, the director “had all the characteristics of a sophisticated intellectual and he used them. He was chiefly interested in the present with all its pain, all its ugliness.” His tenacious characters, certainly most of those in the BRD Trilogy, manage to carry on past assorted obstacles, refusing to accept, for as long as possible, complete defeat. There is a poignant sense of pride and persistence, of getting by, by whatever means necessary: controlled substances, sex, love, work, faith, or in performances adopted for art, entertainment, or in the course of one’s daily life. While Fassbinder imbued in the BRD Trilogy “dichotomous dynamics” similar to those that created West German history, as Mahani observes, the narratives “take shape from dialectical interrelations between assumed moralities and existing realities that consume the characters (or a nation) within paradoxical periods of history.” Such perspective, in this case, surveys the time of American occupation, vacillating German leadership, economic recovery, and public renewal (symbolized by the West German football team’s World Cup victory over Hungary, featured at the end of Marriage). Still, it was, for Fassbinder, a perspective skewed by a personal slant. The director, writes Elsaesser, “always insisted that his films were historical only to the degree that he looked at the past from the vantage point of the present; in other words, how the 1950s look to the 1970s.” Moving on, banking on life’s experiences to shape their ultimate disposition, the characters here survived the war, as Ivan Desny’s Karl Oswald comments in Marriage, and so now must survive the peace.
Posing yet never fully answering questions of allocated victimhood, emotional involvement, sadomasochistic collapse, and the tempestuous comingling of morality, amorality, and immorality, what makes Fassbinder’s characters so fascinating is, as Elsaesser observes, their intelligence: “Not in any scholarly or professional sense… rather, it is the sort of intelligence which enables the characters to stand by their own contradictions and inconsistencies, in a manner that energizes their capacity for action rather than blocking it.” This combination of factors could be all-consuming to the point of being downright destructive, and Fassbinder regularly maintained that the one who loves usually loses out – the more powerful individual in a relationship holding sway over the more dependent, the results of which are rarely positive. Yet there they are, characters like Lola, Maria, and Veronika, bending the palpable truths and fleeting deceptions of emotional unity to their will.
It is argued in I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me, a feature-length 1992 documentary included with the Criterion package, that the notion Fassbinder “made films by his gut feelings, spontaneously and instinctively” is erroneous, using Effi Briest as a contrary example of how he instead followed a “carefully planned aesthetic concept.” On the surface, it is a valid enough assertion, but it fails to appreciate the entire, insightful nature of Fassbinder’s work, which does, as in the BRD Trilogy, suggest stories, characters, and emotions (if not a style) fulfilled by substantial, revelatory intuition. “He had such an extremely sensitive intelligence and such deep feelings,” notes producer Horst Wendlandt of Fassbinder, “more heart than I have seen in any director. Everything he did he made with his heart, not his mind.” Even as he employed distancing formal devices, incorporating a sometimes-disorienting juxtaposition of tenderness and psychological detachment, and even as he appeared hell-bent on upsetting, shaking up, and throwing off track, as Schygulla recalls, Fassbinder could be just as effortlessly open and reflective. His physical and expressive presence was undeniable, and it was routinely evinced in the precision, speed, and passion of his work. “He gave us a whole new point of view,” writes Jones, “devoid of sentimentality or even grace, yet profoundly empathic.”
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, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.