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Monday, 21 August 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Brisbane - The Merchant of Power and Productivity comes to GOMA. Ben Cho writes.


 
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Billed as the “first major retrospective” of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work in Australia, the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane is, in late 2017 and mid-2018, hosting a two-part showcase of the iconic German filmmaker’s work. While you’re not going to get the full Fassbinder experience from GOMA there’s a hell of a lot to celebrate coming to the big screen including the latest 4K restoration job of Eight Hours Don't Make a Day.

Fassbinder (r) as actor and director, Fox and his Friends
So much of Fassbinder’s brief-yet-legendary career is extraordinary by today’s standards and it is difficult to think of a filmmaker under 40 who built up a filmography quite like RWF’s. Everyone knows the rather jaw-dropping nature of his productivity which has few parallels today - maybe Takashi Miike rivals Fassbinder for work-ethic (and Fassbinder fans should check out the very Querelle-ish Miike film, Big Bang Love) but very few directors working the international auteur scene are pumping out 2, 3 or 4 films per year the way Fassbinder was back in the seventies.

Eight Hours Don't Make a Day
But behind the numbers in the filmography is another story of the financial numbers which probably tells you a lot about the genius Fassbinder had with the business of film as much as the art. While many might like to see Fassbinder as an “anarchist” he sure did have a shrewd way of working the German state funding system with the vast majority of his films relying on some form of public financing to get completed. When you consider the constant exploration of the dynamics of power between the keepers and the kept in his work, it is worth remembering that Fassbinder himself was also somewhat of an economic prisoner of the state to ensure his rebellious content could flourish. He wasn’t shy however in assessing the situation: “The established culture business needs outsiders like me.”

Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the work itself so it’s hardly worth offering much more than a cursory glance at the news headlines with stories of terrorism, sex scandals, racial tensions and a growing war between the alt-right and the regressive PC left. That’s evidence enough that Fassbinder’s legacy and the films’ themes and subject matter are as vital today as they were when released. Combative, vulgar, sentimental, sadistic, vicious - Fassbinder’s films are hardly stress-free viewing but as a package you won’t find a better way to excavate the dark soul of humanity struggling to break free of societal and sexual structures.  

What is somewhat interesting to consider is, in the climate we have today around political-correctness and sensitivity around LGBT rights and gender issues, how would a controversial figure like Fassbinder, a bisexual who was accused of being a misogynist and physically abusive, be treated if he was making films in the present? Would many of the regressive politically-correct left accept the portrayal of the women of Fassbinder’s world without a degree of hysteria and condemnation, and look for conflations between Fassbinder’s personal issues and his fictional characters? How would state funding agencies react to a pitch like Fassbinder’s Jailbait? Fassbinder once declared in an interview all his movies were “about incest”; how would such contentious statements be taken today?

Anyway back to GOMA and how “major” this retrospective is. While most of the film and TV work is there, GOMA have also included films in which Fassbinder starred or scripted so Volker Schlondorff’s Baal, Francois Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze ‘89, Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves, the Straub/Huillet short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp and a bunch of Fassbinder-related docos are screening. It’s also worth mentioning a couple of screenings of work that don’t always get much attention: the only doco Fassbinder made Theatre in Trance and the TV-ish staging of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House titled Nora Helmer.

What’s missing? I couldn’t see a screening session for the controversial Wildwechsel (aka Jailbait) Fassbinder directed in 1972 about the sexual relationship between a 14-year-old and a 19-year-old; Bremen Freedom, the Margit Cartensen-starring film about an abused housewife who poisons her husband; Fassbinder’s contribution to the omnibus feature Germany in Autumn; the 44-minute faux variety-show film Like a Bird on a Wire; the TV staging of Women in New York; and the 1970 short film The Coffeehouse. In other words, it’s a pretty major retrospective all things considered.  


The only other major point to make about GOMA’s screenings is that they are free of charge to the public. Eight hours certainly make up the workingman’s day but given there’s a plethora of screenings on weekends and at nights during the week, there’s little excuse not to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the master.

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