- 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.
Vol. 9 No. 21 · 26 November 1987
SIR: Many things arrive here in Tuscany long after they are current elsewhere, but they do find their way, and sometimes, as in the case of Mark Lawson’s uncommon review of my book Love is colder than death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (LRB, 3 September), they can still make your day. Rarely does a critic who has acted in bad faith permit himself to stand so naked, so open, so defenceless to the response of the author whose work and reputation he has sought to defame. Why, there is not a publication in the world, having run the review in question, that would not allow me a generous space merely to respond to the ad hominem charges he has hurled against me from head to toe, but mostly between my legs. I suspect that Lawson is very much like the poet manqué Walter Kranz in Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, who when he is humiliated and physically beaten discovers that he has enjoyed the pain. So I won’t go as far as to give him that satisfaction. But there is an author’s job here that needs doing.
Let’s start with the bad faith part. The first sentence ought to do it. Here we find him speaking, rather like Dr Goebbels, of my ‘initial meeting’ with Fassbinder, moving it up to only weeks before his death, and reducing me to a pushy ‘investigative hack and would-be screenwriter’. Yet even as he is decking out this impugn-his-credentials opening, he knows from the book, if from no other source, that a. the initial meeting had taken place two years earlier and I had worked with Fassbinder during the writing and filming of the screenplay I had done for him; b. I have written screenplays for a number of major films; and c. at least one of my several books of investigative reporting has earned significant praise. Lawson has every right still to regard me lowly as a writer, but now we all know what kind of writer he is. I offer no comment on being called a ‘jerk’, a ‘wimp’ and a ‘slob’, since I have been all of these things at one time or another: but he won’t get his way with putting his own dirty words in the mind of one of my friends, Juliane Lorenz, and having her think of me as a ‘prick’.
Although further into his ‘review’ I am portrayed as a ‘nonagenarian hick’, at the outset he likens me – again, knowing that none of this is true – to an ‘ascetic … yuppy’. This characterisation is central to his ostensible thesis – the handle on it all meant to impress his friends. ‘A vital element in such a project,’ he writes to them of a genre he alone has detected, ‘is the contrast between subject and biographer.’ I am made to be the ascetic yuppy (‘probably jogging’), struck with awe in having met my antithesis: the ‘fluid-spilling and abuse-fluent wreck’. But Lawson makes it quite clear that he is the one who is enthralled with fluxes and with the extravagant outpouring of abuse. His own abuse of the yuppy-nonagenarian is what his piece of work is made of, and if one takes the trouble to consider the abundant references to images like spitting sausages, beer swilling in a cauldron, variously greased gherkins, spilled beans, relinquished loads, poured wine, as well the metaphor of Fassbinder’s having ‘spewed out movies like fluids … in violent, purgative bursts’, one gets the queasy feeling that down deep, somewhere under that transparent skin he wears to work, Lawson was peculiarly transfixed by Love is colder than death. Add to this the spectacle in print of the critic relishing the same juicy details, to which he brings along his own mayonnaise and baby lotion, and the sensation is heightened. The giveaway is a phrase that has somehow (unintentionally, I’ll bet) slipped in with the flush of effluvia, my ‘remarkable achievement’: the book made him feel sorry for Fassbinder.
Thus his gripe, the hydraulic pump setting his bile sloshing, must surely be that a Better Person didn’t write it (‘he deserves better’); that fate had not called on the Better Person to circle in that marvellous circle and then summon him anew to pen Rainer Werner the right way; no, instead, the magnificent labour fell to one of them – the bone-dry ascetics. And who might this Better Person be? I would not be overly surprised if it were the scatophilic critic himself. But such a biography is by now beyond the reach of the Better Person. Sadly, all too many of the primary sources, the director’s intimates to whom Love is colder than death is so indebted, have since died. Lawson will have to reconcile himself to the sorrowful reality and be content with his effusive criticism of the biography that exists. To help him along, I intend – by virtue of his claim that I possess the patent – to reveal to him ‘the secret of the one striking idea’. I refer to what Lawson calls the ‘new-fashioned hard-on’, which so caught his fancy and caused him first to wonder and later speculate as to what it might be like. The new-fashioned hard-on, Lawson, is a little squirt like you.
Pieve a Presciano, Italy