Revisiting Rainer Werner Fassbinder, German Dionysus

A new book by Ian Penman grapples with the filmmaker’s gargantuan appetites, impossible productivity and heartbreaking melancholy

BY John Douglas Millar in Books , Reviews | 14 APR 23

Early in Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors (2023), Ian Penman warns the reader to expect neither a conventional critical study of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, nor an ordinary biography. For him, Fassbinder is a figure situated between high-modernist formal innovation, political utopianism and its gaudy dispersal into what was once called post-modernism, where a kind of sublime paranoia spored in the rotten meat of 1960s idealism, and ‘theory’ seemed to relativize everything. Penman quotes Fassbinder, but he might be speaking through him: ‘I had worked for five years under an illusion that was utopian, but utopia made us sick. It was a beautiful dream, which we talked about time and again in the hope it would come true. The news, or the knowledge if you like, that this was not the case, took us by surprise.’

Ian Penman, Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)/Native Agents

The collapse of high into low and the valorization of surface over depth, when, as Iain Sinclair described it in a 1998 piece on Penman for the London Review of Books, ‘the floating signifier began to get above itself’, are present here at the level of style, reflected, for instance, in Penman’s sometimes exhausting penchant for unpredictable lists – ‘Piranesi, Genet, Warner Brothers.’ But this is also a painfully self-interrogating book, at the centre of which is the ‘monstrous’ figure of Fassbinder, a centrifuge of absurd, gargantuan appetites, impossible productivity, heartbreaking melancholy, ever present paranoia, bleak cruelty, volcanic tantrums and rare, dissembling sweetness.

At times Penman uses Fassbinder as a kind of Dionysian object to condemn the ideologies of efficiency, hygiene and ‘wellness’ that dominate the present. Gestating since the mid 1980s, but finally written over four early-pandemic months in 2020, the questions of economy, health and confinement that animate the book are not abstractions. The spaces Penman associates with Fassbinder are all scuzzy and tight-fitting: ‘the claustrophobic flats, the leather bars, basement clubs, sealed off film sets, stifling hotel rooms, tiny editing suites, mirrors everywhere, throwing him back on himself.’ The word that comes up again and again is ‘clammy’, and this is a jittery, clammy book, sweat beading on every page.

Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972, film still. Courtesy: IMDb

Around the same time as Fassbinder began to make films, Pier Paolo Pasolini had characterized the ever-tightening enclosure and financialization of the world as neo-capitalism. Penman reads Fassbinder’s weight, his productivity and his appetites as failed, merely symbolic attempts to resist this encircling trap. The book is wracked by doubt: ‘Perhaps he does emerge as a villain in some respects?’ ‘Perhaps I really should have taken someone else as a role model.’ ‘RWF talks about taking the deliberate decision to live short but live intensely. But what if you find yourself still alive, in late middle-age?’ These are lonesome self-analyses, but Penman often frames the question in terms of cultural politics: ‘Is the Fassbinder worldview just an abyssal reflection of the capitalist one he supposedly execrates?’

Several other figures haunt the book. Walter Benjamin is one, his puffy, bespectacled face often slipping into the reflective field of these thousands of mirrors. In its numbered fragments the book pays homage to Benjamin’s One Way Street (1928) and, more significantly, to his later unfinished Arcades Project (1940), famously an attempt to write theory as quotation. Penman continues, or perhaps critically ironizes, Benjamin’s project of exploding suppressed histories in the present in the name of a radical leftist politics. He uses montage – a high-modernist textual device Benjamin took in part from Soviet cinematic theory and in part from German Romanticism – to trouble the political claims made for radical aesthetic form then and now. These aesthetic devices were meant to ‘wake’ the viewer or the reader into radical consciousness, theorized and practiced by men (it was almost always men), who were ‘barely awake themselves.’

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Irm Hermann in Fox and His Friends, 1975, film still. Courtesy: IMDb

The revolution never came. And so, we are relentlessly thrown back on the personal. ‘I remember waking at a certain point and feeling as if the four walls of books around me were like my very own Egyptian tomb; that I was in a sense, already dead,’ Penman writes. ‘Not so much a space for dreaming or reverie as one limned by regret, curdled concupiscence, and, increasingly, Niagaras of sudden unexpected tears. A librarian of my own timidity, withdrawal and discontent.’

Other artists and thinkers are held up as alternative models to Fassbinder’s gaudy excess. The filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub were ‘serious about their beliefs and how they manifest on film, as film, as a working practice.’ The formal leanness of their work and the firm political commitment they maintained are, for Penman, a model of ‘seriousness’, a subject that worries him. Did I take the world seriously enough? Did we?

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

That ‘we’ is generational. Ultimately Penman asks whether his generation was duped. Whether what they took to be radicalism was all too easily amenable to co-option by capital, and whether they knew it all along. The answer seems to be affirmative, yet there is a kernel of resistance here, at the level of style. Penman affirms his attachment to Fassbinder formally, because this is an excessive book. In its exuberant phrase making, obsessive listing, emotional explosions and crashes, bursting seams – the book has three appendices – and its linguistic pyrotechnics, it ultimately comes down on the side of willing delirium: ‘So now do I think it was all largely negative?’ he asks at one point. ‘No, not at all…I still think it was a time of great revelation.’

Main image: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Irm Hermann in Fox and His Friends, 1975, film still. Courtesy: IMDb

John Douglas Millar is a writer and the author of Brutalist Readings: Essays on Literature.