Helluva Book

Mark Lawson

  • Love is colder than death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Robert Katz and Peter Berling
    Cape, 256 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 224 02174 5

Of the initial meeting between Robert Katz, investigative hack and would-be screenwriter, and the late film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the former now records that the latter ‘seemed terribly annoyed’. To be honest, admits Katz, Fassbinder was in something of a bate throughout their brief acquaintance: his abiding image of the director is of someone ‘irascible, whining’. As this sloppy, pompous and tawdrily wart-popping biography plods on, the writer’s assessment of the director’s temperament begins to seem increasingly suspect. Irascible and whining, was he? Well, wouldn’t you whine a little with this guy on your case? Before we dismiss Fassbinder as a career grump, I think we need to know something: what was he like when this jerk wasn’t there?

Love is colder than death is a classic slob biography – to be compared with Bob Woodward’s Wired, about the grossed-out comic John Belushi, and almost any book about Elvis Presley – and Mr Katz is a first-rank slob biographer. A vital element in such a project is the contrast between subject and biographer: the dull, ascetic and probably jogging yuppy sees in the fluid-spilling and abuse-fluent wreck his own antithesis and is fascinated by it. ‘He’d do what with the gherkins? ... sure, sure ... and you say one part mayonnaise to two parts baby lotion,’ you imagine the coroner-Boswell saying, as another member of the inner circle spills the half-baked beans of the latest monster maudit myth. So here is Fassbinder, chartering planes whose only passenger is cocaine to movie sets where sausages spit and beer swills in cauldrons to sustain the great director until the unit’s ‘second breakfast break’ of Sachertorte. And here is Katz, with the smug good sense to live to spin a book from it. Three pages in, the author writes: ‘I couldn’t keep pace with the group, with the sleepless, orgiastic abuses of the body.’ Wimp, you think, so clearly has his pale sensibility imposed itself on a book meant to be about someone else.

Two authors are credited: ‘by Robert Katz’ is coupled with, in smaller type, ‘and Peter Berling’. The latter is a German film producer, who, says Katz, ‘cannot be called a Fassbinder person’. This formula is used throughout the book (sometimes reduced to FPs) to designate a groupie. Berling, however, is said to possess impressive ‘credentials as a Fassbinder watcher’. It is, apparently, him we must blame for the book’s incessant drip of uncalled-for information. Katz notes of Berling: ‘An inveterate archivist by nature, he has a file on the Fassbinder years that ranges from taxi receipts and restaurant menus (including what everyone ate) dating back to 1965 to diaries and memoirs bristling with both insight and minutiae.’ The nature of the arrangement remains unclear but Berling seems – in a formula which recalls Lawrence Schiller’s involvement with Norman Mailer on The Executioner’s Song – to have been the man with the brass facts, willing to relinquish his load (Katz, typically, prefers the word ‘lode’) to a writer. But the top-billed author expresses a willingness to be blamed for the completed volume and the reviewer should surely observe that request.

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