Sunday 22 October 2017

On Blu-ray - Peter Hourigan reviews the recently restored EIGHT HOURS DONT MAKE A DAY (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1972)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder
In the thirty-five years since Rainer Werner Fassbinder died, doubtless thousands of theses, articles, essays, scholarly analyses, documentaries and more have been spawned by his film making career of barely fifteen years.  They have talked about his social philosophy, his gender politics, his repurposing of other directors (such as Sirk), his non-conformist life style, his experimental approach to filmmaking and so on. His work is of course all of these things – but rarely has he been accused of being straight-out entertaining.  Delightful.  Warm.

But these are the first words I want to use in responding to Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: A Family Series.  Fassbinder made this five-part series for German television, and it was transmitted between October 1972 and March 1973.  With each part being about 95 minutes long, it’s the equivalent of five separate feature films, one a month. It is also arguably one of the very first examples of a cinema director making what we now call long-form television.

Marion (Hanna Schygulla), Jochen (Gottfried John)
Like much ‘long form’ storytelling, the characters and setting are more important than a well-constructed plot. In Episode 1, “Jochen and Marion”, the two eponymous characters meet, and we meet their extended family (especially Jochen’s) and their work places.  Jochen (Gottfried John) works in a factory engineering parts used to make other products. From Jochen’s extended family, and his fellow workers and their families come the people we’ll spend our time with.

One of the delights of Eight Hours is that you don’t feel you’re watching good performances. You’re spending time with interesting people. You’ll have a scene that’s dramatically is structured as an exchange between two people. But often it’s filmed with one or two other people not only in the scene, but in frame. And they are part of the scene, their listening is really listening, and you can sense that what they’re hearing sparking some response from them.

'Grandma's birthday party'
There are in particular two wonderful party scenes. The first opens the series, and is Grandma’s birthday party. And do we get to know all the family members! There’s humourless Harald who has no idea how to relate to his daughter, his wife or other people except with self-important pomposity. Aunt Klara, a rather stitched up spinster, judges everyone with no real human understanding. Jochen’s father Wolf thinks he’s head of the family, but how quietly Käthe can control things for a much realistic outcome. And out of this party, comes the crucial event when son Jochen steps out to get some extra champagne from an automat where Marion is having trouble trying to buy a bottle of pickles. And there is Grandma, whose birthday it is.

I’ll come back to Grandma.

The wedding of Jochen and Marion gives us the other great party at the end of Episode 4. While you mingle with the guests, going along with the camera from room to room, overhearing one conversation, talking with someone else, passing a couple doing nothing, it’s like any party where nothing really happens. And yet it does. You stop and realise that several difficult relationships have actually been worked out. It’s not just some new relationships that have found a way to go forward, but one that should have finished long ago is finally accepted as dead by the last denialist and now you can sense the relief as Käthe finds the strength to stand up to Harald.

And, so back to Grandma.
Luise Ullrich (front) as "Oma" (Grandma)

She is played by ‘veteran actress’ Luise Ullrich. Her career stretched back to the early 1930s and included Max Ophuls Liebelei  (1933) which is glimpsed playing in one scene – that’s another Fassbinder touch.  Of course, she has a significant place in this family’s structure, but it’s more than that.  She’s vibrant, endearing, maddening, self-absorbed but thinking only of everyone but herself, controlling but in a way that makes people do what they really wanted to do. The word No doesn’t exist for her, whether it’s coming from one of her children, or a local government official nonplussed by her approach to ‘citizen power.’

This is a Fassbinder production, and so we recognise a lot of the people which adds to our sense of feeling at home with them from the start. Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann are here as best friends. In small roles, we glimpse Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem who a few years later (1974) would be the stars of Ali Fear Eats the Soul. And lots more of his regulars crop up in major and minor parts, not always playing roles we’d expect. Gottfried John for example is usually a Fassbinder heavy, but here he’s our main male lead, the romantic lead if you want.

It’s also genuine Fassbinder in being a lot more than just an entertainment. The socio-political elements are just as intrinsic. It’s not specifically a pro-Union film, but there is a very strong pro-worker theme throughout. A major narrative element can be seen as promoting the important of worker co-operation and unity. Jochen and his colleagues make real industrial advances when they work together to take control of their working conditions from their rather faceless industrial business and its ‘coal-face’ workplace controllers.

Arrow Academy Blu-ray cover
This restoration (from a faded 16mm original) was premiered at the Berlinale early this year (2017), and has been released in by Arrow Academy  (UK)  (dual BR/DVD). It includes a feature length documentary, Fassbinder (2015) by Annekatrin Hendel, and a featurette with interesting interviews with several of the participants in the series. As well, there is an invaluable appreciation by Tony Rayns.  One important part of this appreciation is a discussion of three missing episodes.  Originally the series was planned to be eight episodes, but it was terminated after the first five. You’ll want to hear his outline of what was to happen. Some of the proposed events took me by surprise.

But even if it could have been longer, there is absolutely no sense of this being incomplete like a statue with an arm lopped off. Just, it would have been great if it could have gone on for those three extra episodes. 

And then into series 2.  (Well, I can dream!)

Editor's Note: Available via UK Amazon click here 

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