When audience members left the theater after watching The Third Generation, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 film about the West German Red Army Faction terrorist group shown at Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節) earlier this month, they were overheard by a staff member grumbling about how terrible the flick was.
Fassbinder’s films are known as being something of an acquired taste. After a decade-long absence from the big screen in Taiwan, his works return with a retrospective at Spot comprised of 25 feature-length works, out of an oeuvre of 43 films the director made before he died from a drug overdose in 1982, aged 37. Excepting the 15.5-hour long Berlin Alexanderplatz, all of his best-known and highly regarded films are included in the lineup.
“We wanted to do Fassbinder three years ago,” said Wang Pai-chang (王派彰), the festival’s curator. “But it was impossible to get our hands on copies of his films because every place in the world was holding retrospectives to mark the 20th anniversary [of his death].”
Known to prefer Hollywood genre flicks over highbrow European cinema, Fassbinder first caught international attention with films modeled on American melodrama through which he made critical and often provocative statements about contemporary social ills.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) is an account of the vicious hostility and public revulsion an elderly white cleaning lady’s marriage to a much younger black Moroccan “guest worker” elicits. Martha (1973) examines a marriage in which the wealthy husband tries to re-educate the wife in accordance with his bourgeois ideas and interests; she eventually learns to take pleasure in her own oppression.
WHAT: Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective
WHEN AND WHERE: Until Aug. 14 at Spot — Taipei Film House (光點—台北之家), 18, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市中山北路二段18號); Aug. 6 to Aug. 14 at Kaohsiung Municipal Film Archive (高雄市電影圖書館), 10 Hesi Rd, Yencheng Dist, Kaohsiung City (高雄市鹽埕區河西路10號)
ADMISSION: Tickets in Taipei are NT$170 for Spot members and NT$200 for non-members, available through NTCH ticket outlets or online at www.artsticket.com.tw; Kaohsiung screenings are free
ON THE NET: www.twfilm.org/fassbinder
The director’s trademark subject is fascism, which in Satan’s Brew (1976) is caricatured through the film’s protagonist, a former “poet of the revolution,” who resorts to brutal sadomasochism when he suffers writer’s block.
Openly gay, Fassbinder made several films that deal with homosexuality and relations based on violence, exploitation and control. In Fox and His Friends (1974), the unsophisticated working-class Franz, a character based on Fassbinder’s then-lover, Armin Mier, and played by the director himself, falls in love with a son of an upper-class family and is eventually left destitute and destroyed.
Classified as Fassbinder’s bleakest and most personal work, In a Year With 13 Moons (1978) follows the tragic life of Elvira, a prostitute and transsexual formerly known as Erwin who finds death is the only escape from life’s travails. It is said that Fassbinder made the film to exorcise his pain after Mier committed suicide on the director’s birthday in 1978.
Fassbinder’s characters are often desperate for love but condemned to become victims of the powerful and corrupt. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), a tale of the lesbian love-triangle between fashion designer Petra von Kant, a young model and her maid, each exploits the love of the others. The film, which takes place solely in Petra’s room and bears no reference to the outside world, is a fine example of Fassbinder’s adept storytelling skills.
Never before shown in Taiwan, Querelle (1982) is the enfant terrible of New German Cinema’s last film, and arguably his most (in)famous. Based on Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest, the stylized film brims with archetypal gay imagery in its portrait of an enclosed, decadent realm inhabited by sailors, leather-clad men, criminals, prostitutes and murderers. Fassbinder dedicated the film to one of his former lovers El Hedi ben Salem, who played Ali in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and hung himself in jail in 1982 while serving time for killing three people.