Title: History: Fassbinder, Film and Sexuality Credit: Craig Young Movies Friday 5th January 2007 - 12:00pm1167951600 Article: 1539 Rights
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946-1982) was a controversial gay West German filmmaker, who lived a flamboyant lifestyle filled with emotional cruelty, kinky sex, and extravagant gift giving. Was he a self-hating gay man, or is another interpretation of his life and work possible? Fassbinder was born in West Germany shortly after the end of the Second World War, to a middle-class family in Bad Washofen. His parents divorced, and his mother raised Fassbinder, who failed to perform well at school. Ever a film-lover, he dropped out of school early and pursued acting as a career, later moving into directing and production work as West Germany dealt with the tension between the New Left and Cold War authoritarianism, amidst considerable material prosperity. As part of the revitalisation of West German culture under New Left influence, the "New German Cinema" emerged in the late sixties and early seventies, influenced by socialist politics and new social movements in its depiction of contemporary social problems. As Fassbinder was a gay man himself, it is not surprising that four of his films deal with lesbian, transgender and gay male communities. However, the depiction of LGBT protagonists in these films is not 'positive imagery,' although arguably, Fassbinder's socialist politics could have had something to do with this. In The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), the title character is a lesbian fashion designer, whose devoted secretary, Marlena, loves her deeply, although Karin, a young working-class lesbian model, comes between them. However, Karin is on the make and she uses, and then leaves Petra, to achieve her own career goals. At the end of the film, Petra loses even Marlena, who leaves her former boss and lover, emancipated from the romantic sentimentalism that previously subordinated her. Bitter Tears depicts no lesbian community or feminist awareness amongst its protagonists, but again, this may be intentional. Fassbinder might have been making the point that advanced capitalism distorts all human relationships, and contained an implicit warning against neccessarily assuming that lesbian or gay relationships were not as liable to degradation, atomisation and distortion as their counterparts. West German lesbian feminists and gay liberationists disagreed, arguing that Bitter Tears had a responsibility to depict alternatives, because of existing homophobic ideology that had not been previously overcome. Fox and His Friends (1974) is set in Frankfurt's gay male community. When I first saw it, I was mostly out to other University of Canterbury student radicals and was more involved in working alongside lesbian feminists and pro-choice activists than other gay men. It was before HIV/AIDS, and I was self-righteously critical of what I saw as the depoliticisation, ignorance and social isolation of the Christchurch 'scene queens' of the time. Much the same can be said about Fox. It involves former working-class carnival roustabout Franz Bieberkopf, who becomes involved with the scheming and shallow Eugen, who exploits Franz' lotterywinning to get his drunkard father out of a business failure, and swindles Franz out of his new apartment. Homeless and heartbroken, Franz takes a pill overdose and dies on a Frankfurt railway platform, where even his corpse is robbed. Again, this may not neccessarily be homophobic in intent. Franz' sister and his fellow working class gay bar patrons still love him, but it's not enough. Today, are gay male communities too overfocused on conspicuous material consumption, making it difficult for working class gay men to come out? Where is gay male opposition to National's proposed welfare slashbacks if it wins the next general opposition? Are there no homeless gay men? Arguably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has led to a highlighted focus on gay male responses to social policy as a prevention context, and our community is stronger for that. In A Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) was one of the most poignant of this quartet of Fassbinder films. In it, Fassbinder is usually viewed as dealing with the loss of his own suicided partner, Armin Meier. It centres on the last days in the life of Elvira/Erwin, a transgendered former freezing worker who has had to turn to sex work, in order to support her violent alcoholic partner, failed actor Christian. Christian is a violent thug, and leaves her despite her sacrifices on his behalf. It is distinctive here that it is Erwin's working class ex wife Irene and daughter Marie Ann that support her, as does Zora, a straight female fellow sex worker. Critics of Bitter Tears apparent misogyny might want to ponder the sympathetic depiction of female community in this film as a counterpart. Again, though, like Franz (and Fassbinder's own lover), Elvira decides that she cannot bear living in such a bleak, heartless exploitative world, and kills herself. Again, though, as with Franz, it is easy to identify with Elvira as the tragic victim of circumstance, for the reason that before the mid-nineties, there was no widespread international transgender rights movement, and brutal discrimination, transphobic violence, drug abuse and suicide may have been commonplace as background experiences. Indeed, contemporary New Zealand took far too long to finally acknowledge explicitly, once and for all, that transgender inhabitants of our own country are entitled to the same freedom of discrimination in employment, accomodation and service provision as their fellow straight, lesbian, gay and bisexual New Zealanders. Querelle (1982) had some commonalities and differences from its predecessors cited above. This final film was faithfully adapted from a Jean Genet novel, and contains strikingly phallic set design and lighting effects. However, it is bleak. Genet was enamoured of the romance of deviance, as a working-class thief, sometime rent boy and frequent prisoner, so Querelle, a French sailor, isn't neccessarily an attractive character. He runs drugs at the Port of Brest, he betrays Gil, one of his lovers, to the police, and deliberately loses at gaming so that he can have rough anal sex with Nono, husband to brothel owner Lysiane, who is involved with his twin brother as well as Querelle. In addition, Lieutenant Seblon, his commanding officer, has a crush on his charge. As Querelle is incapable of love and reciprocity, Lysiane and Seblon are ultimately disappointed. And yes, underclass men who have sex with men do have dysfunctional lives related to their addiction, past dysfunctional family socialisation and educational and employment marginality that do lead to such behaviour in the real world. Being gay or having same-sex desires or attractions doesn't provide magical change if one has had to endure poverty and its distorting effects on human behaviour and wholeness for survival reasons. Like Querelle himself, Fassbinder was involved with hard drugs and died of an overdose in 1982, shortly before the release of his aforementioned final film. Twenty five years later, communism is a receding memory, resurgent Central Europeanfascism threatens a romanticised view of inclusive working-class communities that was depicted in Fassbinder's work, and the tragedy and resistance associated with HIV/AIDS has strengthened and deepened gay male community politics. Gernany has been reunited, but former East Germany has been on the wrong side of that reunification. So, is Fassbinder's work still relevant? I'd argue that it is. We may not like his atomised, hyperindividual and despairing LGBT characters like Franz, Elvira, Petra and Querelle, but they exist for a reason, which is to criticise the effects of cut-throat free market capitalist excess and precisely those effects on human lives, so why should lesbian, transgender or gay lives be immune to those processes? Despite its setting, then, Fassbinder's cinematic work still carries lessons for us today. Recommended: Wallace Watson: Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Columbus: University of South Carolina Press: 1996 Craig Young - 5th January 2007    
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