Last week someone on Twitter sent me a photograph of the late German iconoclast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, decked out in the crisp white livery of FC Bayern Munich. Ach, der einzige Fassbinder! A waxy faced slob who worked harder than anyone alive; a queer and dreamy aesthete who necked Bavarian beer by the steinful and counted German league football an all-consuming passion. (All Fassbinder’s passions were all consuming: this was both his song, and his downfall.)
There was a time in my life (closing years of my teens, opening years of my twenties) when I was a complete Fassbinder nut. He had an intense and unforeseen influence on the way I saw the world. (Far more decisive, in retrospect, than any contemporaneous music.) I rushed to see each new Fassbinder film – and there were plenty to see. Some were let-downs, some were slow-burners, some sent me reeling. When Veronika Voss was released in 1982 I went to see it four times in its opening week.
One of the best things about the image of Fassbinder in his Bayern T-shirt is the look on his face: our famed debauchee and grumpy pessimist looks like a little boy who got exactly what he wanted for Christmas, looks almost embarrassed by how happy he is. One of the main characters in Veronika Voss is a sports reporter, detained at an important Bayern game during a crucial moment in the narrative (which concerns his doomed affair with a glamorous but ailing German movie star). Is there the outline of a mischievous self-portrait here? ‘On the outside I may look like just another lumpy, beer-stoked lumpenprole, but inside I am pure silver screen diva.’ (There is a lash-thin RWF cameo right at the beginning of the film: he is slumped, bear-like, in a back-row-centre cinema seat, smoking up a storm.)
Veronika Voss was the final film in the so-called BDR or Bundesrepublik Deutschland triptych; the other two panels being Lola (1981) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), never a film I was particularly taken with. Awed by the flawless technique, sure, but for all that strangely unmoved. When it came to mind this week, I had to consult an old filmography to clarify its baldly melodramatic plot. I could recall nothing concrete about it whatsoever – except for one small crucial detail. In the climactic scene, the soundtrack is provided by a radio broadcast of an excitedly jabbering football commentator. If you were German, it would have been obvious which commentary, which game, and why Fassbinder chose it.
The 1954 World Cup in Switzerland ended, on 4 July, in a shock 3-2 victory by West Germany over Hungary. The hotly contested, end-to-end game came to be known in Germany as Das Wunder von Bern (‘the Miracle of Bern’). Unbeaten in their previous 32 games, Hungary had been generally considered unassailable. (Shortly before the tournament in a warm-up game in Budapest, they dispatched England 7-1.)
Only two minutes from the end, the mighty Puskás powered in an equaliser, only to have it ruled offside by the Welsh linesman Benjamin Griffiths. The commentator sampled by Fassbinder for Maria Braun’s disastrous climax was Herbert Zimmermann, something of a cult hero in Germany for his wildly emotional, almost manic style (‘Call me crazy! Call me nuts!’). His ecstatic scream of ‘AUS! AUS! AUS! AUS!’ (‘Over! Over! Over! Over!’) at the end of the 1954 final is for German fans a rough equivalent of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s ‘They think it’s all over! It is now!’ for the English. It wasn’t just the 90 minutes that was over: the game was taken to be a symbolic portent, the first day of the rest of the nation’s life. In later years it took on the status of figural cornerstone for the subsequent economic miracle.
West Germany had been forbidden entry by Fifa to the 1950 tournament, and the 1954 final was the first time the German national anthem was aired at any global sporting event since the war (‘über alles’ still made a lot of people feel distinctly queasy). There was a feeling of a page being turned, despite a few minor controversies such as the disallowed Puskás goal, and rumours (never quite dispelled) that the German team received more-or-less unwitting chemical assistance. (They thought they’d all been popped with warm-up shots of Vitamin C, which in reality was methamphetamine. Allegedly.) On a less ethically cloudy point, the Germans also benefited from the curious new boots they walked out in that day, whose miraculous screw-in studs meant they could better adapt to the atrocious, rain-sodden conditions. The boots were provided by an obscure German firm, only trading since 1949, called Adidas.
Reviewing The Marriage of Maria Braun in 1979 I couldn’t consult Wikipedia for instant clarification on the provenance of the allegorical football game. I’m not sure it would have made much difference, finally. I still love Veronika Voss beyond reason, and still find Maria Braun an admirable but chilly work, a sumptuous technicolour fable of misalliance and fraud, public front and private loss, where Veronika Voss is a more bleakly personal meditation (in pin sharp but melancholy monochrome), as vividly clammy and sausively unreal as an interrupted dream. You think it’s all over? You wish.