When asked in 1974, halfway through his too-brief career, whether he thought films ought to be critical rather than affirmative, Rainer Werner Fassbinder replied that ‘the best thing’ he could imagine ‘would be to create a union between something as beautiful and powerful and wonderful as the Hollywood film and a criticism of the status quo. That’s my dream, to create such a German film – beautiful and extravagant and fantastic, and nevertheless go against the grain.’ Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is in large part a book about dreams, and about interrupting them. Fassbinder belonged to a generation of left-wing artists, musicians and filmmakers whose aim was to shake their audience out of a slumber. You could, borrowing a term from Trotskyism, call these artists ‘entryists’. Though rooted in the avant-garde, they weren’t content with creating works for unshockable cognoscenti. They believed that if they could smuggle their ideas into the mainstream, the result would be an ‘explosion in the heart of the commodity’, as the late Mark Stewart put it, a disruption of the unthinking common sense of an affluent capitalist society. The sleepwalking masses would be jolted into an awareness of the true poverty of their lives, and into the political action necessary to change it.
A variety of techniques and effects were supposed to achieve this – coldness, distance and ‘alienation’, violence, the oneiric – and Fassbinder tried them all at one time or another. Many of them were already at work in popular art: the studio artifices of pop music, for example, or the impossible sets and fourth wall breaking of the Hollywood musical. The ‘Dreamers, awake!’ mode rattles through mass culture over the decades: you find it in British television and pop music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Penman says he first planned to write about Fassbinder four decades ago and finally got down to it, in a burst of activity, last year. The book is many things, but above all it is a reckoning with the idea that art might enter the commodity world and awaken its inhabitants.
Fassbinder was a staggeringly prolific filmmaker. Born in 1945 and raised in Munich by his mother, a translator, he spent time in the radical theatre circles of Germany’s intense, if politically marginal, 1968 movement, eventually founding his own ‘anti-theatre’. He took the Antiteatr’s coterie of waifs and strays with him into cinema, making three or four films a year between 1969 and his early death in 1982. Very roughly, his career can be divided into three phases: early minimalist films noirs such as The American Soldier and Why Does Herr R Run Amok? (both 1970) set among the lowlife of the Federal Republic; tawdry full-colour melodramas with smuggled-in social critique, from The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) to Fox and His Friends (1975); and a late period, when the budgets got bigger and the cocaine abuse more obvious, in which the films have lush camerawork and a stately pace, including the ‘BRD trilogy’ – The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) – and the sprawling adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, ending with a potential new direction in the wildly artificial, surrealistic Genet adaptation Querelle (1982).
Hidden behind that list is plenty that doesn’t fit, from the elegant science fiction of World on a Wire (1973) to the deliberately unwatchable Satan’s Brew (1976), or from the epically painful In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) to the working-class soap Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1973) and the TV variety show Like a Bird on a Wire (1975). It is an oeuvre so vast that Penman calls it ‘an entire town, region, conurbation, country; die Fassbinderrepublik’. Its revolving cast of actors and the alternately sickly sweet and dissonant music of Peer Raben anchor the viewer, creating consistency amid the incongruity, which is part of the appeal. Once you have seen a few of Fassbinder’s films and got a taste for them, to encounter even the strangest is, as Penman writes, ‘if not comfortable … then certainly familiar’.
Ian Penman’s career, neither brief nor prolific, has been unlike Fassbinder’s in almost every respect. He was born into a working-class family in Wiltshire in 1959 and began writing for the NME as a teenager in the late 1970s. In the decades since he has published just two books: Vital Signs, a career-spanning but skimpy anthology from 1998, and It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, a recent collection of music writing, much of it first published in the LRB. Fassbinder, after emerging out of the avant-garde, quickly became a well-known character in 1970s West Germany – ‘a tabloid figure’, as Penman puts it, an ‘amalgam of Bertolt Brecht, Joe Orton, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Sid Vicious and Orson Welles’. By 1978, when he made his contribution to Germany in Autumn, a portmanteau film about the crisis caused by the Red Army Faction’s final, suicidal actions, he was famous enough to appear simply as himself, to argue cruelly with his conservative mother and to dangle his paunch and his flaccid penis in the viewer’s face. Much of his work was made for German television, and was watched by millions.
Penman, meanwhile, is a cult. He seldom appears in public as a speaker, and there are few images of him online. I first remember encountering his writing through the bloggers of the mid-2000s; for younger figures such as Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, his was a name to conjure with. Photocopies of an essay on Bryan Ferry in a cultural studies anthology might be passed from hand to hand, but there was no body of work one could point to. Vital Signs gave only hints; it includes a piece on Fassbinder from 1987 that isn’t worth a paragraph of Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors.
By the 2000s, Penman was writing little more than the odd review in Uncut or the Wire, yet entire genres were spun out of them. (He was the first to apply Derrida’s term ‘hauntology’ to music, throwing it out almost as an afterthought; it went on to generate dozens of records and acres of writing.) Penman then started blogging himself. Where other blogs were carefully curated and fiercely ideological, the Pill Box was elliptical and deliberately disordered. Penman often recorded his responses to late-night TV, shocked at what had happened to the terrestrial stations – BBC2, Channel 4. Once, he noted in despair, Channel 4 had screened all of Berlin Alexanderplatz; now it was offering up Demi Moore in Striptease.
But productivity isn’t everything. As a music journalist for the NME at the turn of the 1980s, when the weekly had a gigantic circulation among the young, Penman was a partisan of the ‘Dreamers, awake!’ theory manifest in post-punk and the new pop that followed it. It was a time when the NME’s writers could make an argument about the urgent need to fuse Brecht with Chic in one issue, and identify a top-ten single doing something just like that in the next. Penman, who didn’t go to university, received equal amounts of praise and scorn for his regular use of high theory in reviews of sweaty gigs and seven-inch singles. Commodity art was the mode through which, it seemed, the most esoteric and powerful ideas could be conveyed. For Fassbinder, this meant the Hollywood films of the Weimar émigré Douglas Sirk; for Penman, it was Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and disco. ‘Fassbinder,’ he writes, ‘as someone who was both hedonistic and thoughtful, radical and radically in love with popular forms, seemed like some kind of post-punk ideal.’
Penman aimed, he says, to ‘retain traces of the book I might (should?) have written at the time’, just after Fassbinder’s death. ‘Circa 1982-85. Completely unbalanced and self-indulgent. Dissolute, unconventional, ablaze.’ But he wasn’t really capable of doing so – all that is ‘everything I’ve left behind’. And though anyone wanting a straight biography or analysis of Fassbinder’s work would be better off looking elsewhere, formally Penman’s book is exceptionally polite, with its aphorisms, its extended quotes from Benjamin and Barthes, its skipping hippety-hop between memoir, analysis and slogan. That the style is rather familiar is perhaps a measure of Penman’s influence. It’s a style he dismisses at one point as ‘the cult of the little and the lost, the sliver and the fragment’. Sometimes he tries to break out through provocation and deliberate flimsiness – thinking to himself ‘What would RWF do?’ – but this remains an old man’s book, and no worse for it.
There are funny things going on with time in Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors. In so far as the book has a thesis alongside its awakening dreamers, it is about the director as ‘a kind of unlikely bridge or missing link between one era and another’. That is, Fassbinder as someone who connects the postwar, broadly social democratic era – its consumer culture co-existing and sometimes overlapping with the well-meaning paternalism of intelligent public television – and the neoliberal era, in which serious art has vanished from broadcast schedules but can be found in seconds by anyone with an internet connection; where surveillance, not least self-surveillance, has become ubiquitous; and where capitalism is unopposed by anything save terrorism (I’m not sure this is quite true, but the thought suited Fassbinder and it suits Penman). The switchover between the two happens in the late 1970s, in a world Penman remembers. ‘On the one hand: rubbish piled high in the streets, decaying infrastructure, gutted buildings, bad food, a generalised lack of choices. On the other: a feeling of our young fingers on the lip of a cultural Pandora’s box. But maybe these apparent opposites were in fact interrelated, even co-dependent?’ In similar vein, he quotes the sociologist Klaus Theweleit: ‘It seems to me that something happens in New York (and in the “Western world”) in the early 1970s that resembles what went on in Berlin around 1930; a world empties out.’
So there are doubles here. The Fassbinderrepublik circa 1977 – a place where a softer old world is dying, to be replaced by something harsher, more brash and more cruel – is the twin of Germany circa 1930, as an attempt at liberal democracy dies and is replaced by fascism, a history made visible in the work of Fassbinder icons such as Brecht, Pabst, Lang and Döblin. And the late 1970s/early 1980s, in which Penman was a shadowy but vital presence – post-punk, new pop, new romanticism – is remembered similarly as a moment where a sudden societal switch led to an efflorescence of radical popular culture. Writing his book in 2022, Penman was remembering Penman in 1982 remembering the just-dead Fassbinder marking one historical moment of transition by making reference to another that took place decades earlier.
To read Penman doing this in what feels like another moment of passage into something unknown and frightening is rather eerie. He himself has an eye for the media-uncanny. The autobiography flits between his itinerant childhood (his parents bought the family’s first colour TV just in time to watch the spectacle of the Black September atrocity at the Munich Olympics), intense snapshots of his youth as a tyro journalist in London, and a long, opaque adulthood of apparent failure and disappointment. This makes for a book that is less annoying, less posturing, than the one he would probably have written in 1982. Penman now reserves particular admiration for what can seem the ‘straightest’ of Fassbinder’s films, such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), an unashamedly sincere study of love, old age and racism. Of the subtle, poised Marriage of Maria Braun, he wonders that he once found it ‘disappointing’. But ‘why wouldn’t I? I was a 19-year-old boy-man who knew nothing about life.’
‘What if you find yourself still alive, in late middle age?’ Penman asks, spurring sudden, hair-raising memories of long, wasted years of loneliness and drugs. At one point he recounts a nightmare in which all the books he has so carefully collected fall in on him: he realises he has built ‘not so much a space for dreaming or reverie as one limned by regret, curdled concupiscence and, increasingly, Niagaras of sudden unexpected tears’. Penman’s affection for ‘RWF’ hasn’t dimmed, but it’s now expressed with a very un-post-punk lightness of touch – forgiving, friendly even. A gap opens up between the bad taste of Fassbinder and the good taste of Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors.
Penman describes days and nights in long-disappeared arthouse cinemas, though he also recalls his dislike for the ‘somnolent, portentous, up itself, politically naive, and in general very Great Male Artist Working Here Ssssssshhh Everybody’ world of auteur theory. He proudly recounts either leaving or being thrown out of screenings of films ‘by Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders, Antonioni’. Fassbinder is the antithesis of these filmmakers, not just in the speed at which he worked but also because his work ‘felt far less ponderous and self-regarding. The air felt different.’ It was common for auteurs to profess admiration for the studio production line of classic Hollywood, but Fassbinder tried to live it. He loved hack cinema, and loved being a hack.
There was no logical and certainly no financial imperative to make three or four full-length films a year: Fassbinder did it because he enjoyed it, and presumably to satisfy some kind of urge. When you’re on a Fassbinder binge – Penman recounts a few here – it is often striking how good the films are, not despite but because of this overproduction. Seldom do you wish he’d slowed down, learned to ‘craft’ his films, anxiously sweated over them. Part of the fun resides in the way their spiky unfinishedness, their raw performances and non-sequiturs, run alongside the lush cinematography, extravagant outfits and great music. The countless kitsch-modernist interiors are the stars as much as the actors. Everything is fast but nothing is accidental. The actors in those mid-1970s melodramas, Penman writes, look ‘just like ordinary (tired, distracted, petty, sluggish, left behind) people: the things they wear; how they slouch; the way they smoke, drink, eat, stare into space’; they are surrounded by 1970s tat, the ‘bright, gaudy colours of the new consumer society’, creating a hallucinatory effect, ‘as if everyday life were itself drugged’.
Kitsch is crucial to Fassbinder, both in his personal taste (this man was not a minimalist) and in his more conventional modernist belief that kitsch was always there to hide something. Penman argues that Fassbinder was haunted by the 1930s, but I’m not so sure: this sounds like the projection of a reluctant member of a British generation that watched Fassbinder having seen Cabaret, listened to Kraftwerk, read Thames and Hudson paperbacks on the Bauhaus as well as John Willett and Ralph Mannheim’s punkish translations of Brecht, attended repertory screenings of Metropolis and M and put Louise Brooks posters on bedroom walls. Fassbinder’s real obsession was with the 1950s, and with West Germany’s US-bankrolled economic miracle. His films weren’t about the way a society becomes fascist, but about a recently fascist society’s use of clothes, cars and interiors, affluence and wealth, sex and power, as means to avoid thinking about its emergence out of smoking ruins – not to mention its own acquiescence (or worse) in genocide. Fassbinder’s fury at the German middle classes wasn’t just the usual disdain for comfort and hypocrisy; it was a molten hot fury that a people responsible for such horrors could be quite so smug. He often finds solace, by contrast, in American pop culture, in the Walker Brothers, Elvis and Suicide tracks that punctuate his films, or in the films of his hero, Sirk.
One of the things Penman mentions in passing – I wish he’d said more – as he goes on his late-night Fassbinder binges is the relative sympathy for working-class characters in the films, so different from the hatred towards the West German middle class. It is usually the characters played by the veteran Brigitte Mira who have the most depth, and the greatest capacity to answer back, to refuse to conform and to learn from their experiences. One of the loveliest moments in the book is Penman’s discovery of Like a Bird on a Wire, a TV show Fassbinder scripted and directed for Mira as a raconteuse and singer. It rarely ends well for Mira, of course, not in Fear Eats the Soul, where she rebels by taking a much younger Gastarbeiter as a lover, or in Mother Küsters’s Trip to Heaven (1975), where she rebels by joining the Communist Party, even if these films don’t feel as closed and bleak as some of Fassbinder’s other tragedies. There is no tragedy at all in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day – though this may be because the show was cancelled for its political subversiveness before Fassbinder could get round to crushing his characters’ hopes and dreams.
Unusually for a director from a middle-class background making films about working men, there is little idealisation when Fassbinder depicts the German proletariat. But there is something just as dubious, an obsession he shared with Pasolini: a bourgeois’s fascination with the raw, irrational energy of the lumpenproletariat, expressed through the creation of physically imposing, hopelessly ingenuous (or just stupid) rough-trade heroes such as Fox (whom he played himself) in Fox and His Friends. Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story, over many hours, of the rapist and murderer Franz Biberkopf’s failed attempts to go straight after his release from prison. There is much to admire, including an astonishing central performance from Gunther Lamprecht and the eye-poppingly bizarre final act, but the project also brought out the worst in Fassbinder, starting with the way he drastically circumscribes Döblin’s novel, which as Penman says is full of ‘the city’s babble of voices, viewpoints, headlines, myths, signals, portents, science, montage, noise … Döblin’s Berlin is already, in its own collagist way, a film itself.’
When the novel was published at the end of the 1920s, the German Communist Party press criticised Döblin for treating one of the reddest districts of Berlin as if it were inhabited not by class-conscious workers but by an amoral demi-monde. Fassbinder went further, discarding almost everything from the book except the pimps and gangsters, a circle of five or so characters who are then tortured for hours on end. Penman, who remembers recording every episode when the series was broadcast on Channel 4 in the mid-1980s, now looks at it askance. ‘There’s no getting away from the fact that Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t even attempt to find a visual equivalent of the book’s distinctive montage effect.’ Instead of trying to recreate the complex, modern city of Berlin just before the Nazi takeover, the series ‘inhabits what might be called (not without irony) Fassbinder’s comfort zone: people in bare loveless rooms, screaming, fighting, arguing, slowly losing their minds, repeating the same mistakes, time and again’. At its heart is Fassbinder’s version of the relationship between Biberkopf and the gangster Reinhold, a ruthless, hissing villain whom he secretly loves. Fassbinder was a master manipulator – of his actors, of his lovers, of his backers, of his critics – but he liked to identify with the innocent; here we see him indulging in a conscience-assuaging celebration of his own victims.
Berlin Alexanderplatz looks less and less convincing as the years pass. But a much shorter TV series made a few years earlier, all but forgotten until recently, has only increased in stature. World on a Wire is a science-fiction two-parter made for the Federal ‘Channel 1’, ARD, in 1973. Melodrama in the 1950s style – intense, colour-saturated battles between attractive men and women – was one way to explode the commodity from the inside; science fiction was another. World on a Wire is one of Fassbinder’s most straightforwardly beautiful works, with its palette of pale blue and chrome and its meticulous modernist sets, which borrowed from Mies van der Rohe and Verner Panton to create a landscape of total artificiality. The soundtrack, which alternates between Gottfried Hüngsberg’s electronic score, ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac and a hilarious blast of Elvis Presley’s ‘Trouble’ in a muscle-and-leather nightclub, fits the aesthetic perfectly. Where in melodrama men and women take on cartoonish versions of their assigned gender roles (making themselves utterly miserable in the process), World on a Wire proposes a world that is truly fake, a simulation being observed by computer scientists; but unlike in The Matrix, which it superficially resembles, there isn’t obviously a ‘real world’ outside the electronic construct.
In Penman’s view, World on a Wire is ‘the Fassbinder that now looks most future-inhabited and prophetic … it takes place in the present day, a world where cybernetics and digital tech and artificial intelligence have changed everything, especially our perception of reality.’ The screen-damaged Fassbinder – who in his youth would often spend all day and all night in the cinema – had hit on something that reached well beyond the 1970s.
The Third Generation (1979) also has an electronic soundtrack, modernist furniture and gorgeous cinematography, but where World on a Wire is an opiated drift, here the paranoia is wound up into mania. Fassbinder – determined, perhaps, to avoid acquiring a Sunday supplement audience – would follow up his more acclaimed, glossy, conventional works with something less palatable. Thus Chinese Roulette (1976) was succeeded the same year by Satan’s Brew; and The Third Generation, with its nerve-jangling noise, is a throwdown challenge to anyone who loved The Marriage of Maria Braun. The film transposes the notion of ‘simulation’ into contemporary politics. The ‘first’ generation were the 1968-ers around Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Fassbinder’s old Munich Film School friend Holger Meins, who together formed the Red Army Faction; the second generation were the middle-class youths who continued that war, kidnapping and killing family friends, the bankers and businessmen at the top of German capitalism.
But the film is populated by the bourgeois socialites who comprise the third generation. They do a little bit of anti-state violence on the side, though whether they do it of their own volition or with the state’s active encouragement is deliberately opaque. ‘The triumphant rise of the Consumer Society is interrupted by its apparent nemesis or antithesis: terrorism,’ Penman writes. ‘But is it really threatened by this danger – or ultimately strengthened?’ The hobby terrorists of The Third Generation are the German state’s ‘mirror image’, ‘ready at a moment’s notice to prop up its threatened values and unreliable economy’. Penman puts it in an equation: ‘Consumer Society + Terror State x Digital Info + Surveillance = the Future.’
Perhaps the most daring claim in Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is that Fassbinder should be understood not as another great auteur, a contemporary of Herzog and Wenders (both given short shrift by Penman), or as a ‘man of his time’, but as someone whose work had great predictive power, envisaging a society in which everyone is being watched and everyone is constantly watching themselves (the otherwise unexplained ‘thousands of mirrors’ in his title, a quote from Nabokov’s The Eye). Fassbinder’s Reichian notion that Germans had come erotically to enjoy their own submission is carried forward into the future. ‘It’s not the idea of total surveillance that is so frightening,’ Penman writes,
as the sub rosa implication that we might all desire such a thing. Lives lived as if on screen: it is part of the Third Generation theme or thesis or dream or nightmare that what distinguishes this ‘third’ generation is that, in both personal and political terms, they have been infiltrated by screen thinking and everyone now acts as if their personality is an assumed role, one that can be turned On or Off.
In World on a Wire and The Third Generation, the boundary between ‘inner and outer space’ is ‘so porous it’s now difficult to distinguish between the two realms’.
Fassbinder, then, predicted a world of ubiquitous screens. He was flamboyantly gay, proudly ugly, extremely left-wing, outrageously productive and had an astonishing eye (one of the more recent books on his work is just a compendium of stills). It’s easy to imagine Fassbinder, if he’d lived, being one of those strange boomers who have managed a seamless transition to the new media reality, a Bob Dylan or David Lynch, posting gnomic tweets, putting out brilliant TikToks and hosting a podcast where he plays Schlager music and discusses Sex-pol theory. As he scrolls down ‘a social media timeline of sexual fluidity, tantrums, locked-in lives, queer-pol, trans activism, cinematic nostalgia and seven types of ambiguous dysfunction’, Penman wonders why Fassbinder ‘isn’t hailed as king and absolute ruler of this wild and tattered kingdom’. And it’s true, you don’t see much celebration of Fassbinder on social media. There are Herzog memes, but no Fassbinder memes. Why is that?
One reason, perhaps, is that Fassbinder was ‘problematic’. ‘There is an echo in Fassbinder’s behaviour,’ Penman writes, ‘not of his beloved Biberkopf, but the far snakier Reinhold’ – that is, of the thug who recognises the weaker man’s love and uses it for his own purposes. The list of Fassbinder’s personal brutalities is long. Many of his actors had been his lovers, and he freely dramatised elements from their relationships in his films. Among those with whom he had longer-term relationships were Irm Hermann, whom he treated as a servant, beating her if she protested; there are elements of their relationship in the script of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), in which Hermann plays the proudly subordinate assistant. Another was El Hedi ben Salem, the lead actor in Fear Eats the Soul, whom Fassbinder met at a Paris bathhouse. He went off the rails when Fassbinder left him, eventually killing himself in jail in 1977. Another lover, Armin Meier, a former butcher, also killed himself after their relationship ended.
Penman worries about having taken Fassbinder as a role model when young, wondering whether it was an ‘excuse or ticket for all kinds of lazy and reprehensible and long-term harmful behaviour’. Even so, he argues that anyone entering Fassbinder’s world knew what they were letting themselves in for. He was ‘not performative, not a subtle gaslighter, not a carefully conniving narcissist and control freak’; his extremely controlling and ruthless behaviour was ‘all upfront’. ‘I suppose in 2022 we really should condemn such behaviour,’ Penman writes, ‘but what would that achieve?’
Someone looking to defend Fassbinder might emphasise what he did for the people who were his human ‘material’. The Antiteatr in Munich was in many ways a typical post-1968 commune: its ambitions for total equality were subverted by the emergence of an unquestioned leader who exploited the other communards. This, of course, was Fassbinder. When he reconstituted the commune into the Fassbinderrepublik, he brought the communards with him. Like Warhol’s ‘superstars’, Fassbinder’s troupe was an odd collection – underweight or overweight, angular, bug-eyed, awkward – but unlike their precursors in the Factory, most of them became genuinely good actors. They were capable of great range under Fassbinder’s direction: think of Gottfried John, in 1973 the sexy, likeable trade unionist in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, and in 1980 the sadist Reinhold in Berlin Alexanderplatz; or Margit Carstensen, capable of embodying both the deluded and terrified wife in Martha (1974) and the – at first – controlled and charismatic Petra von Kant. Non-professionals, such as ben Salem in Fear Eats the Soul, give performances of immense integrity. These people were much more than pawns.
More difficult for today’s audiences is the fact that everyone in his films does terrible things. With the exception of some of Brigitte Mira’s roles, there are no ‘positive’ characters, nobody with whom you might want to ‘identify’. There are great black, Moroccan, lesbian, gay and trans characters in his films – people writhing with as much difficult life as anyone else – but they are always defeated in the end; which, of course, was the point, as Fassbinder was intent on depicting a society that he didn’t like, trying to demonstrate the ways in which it made people profoundly unhappy. He was out and proud, but his depictions of middle-class gay Germans are depictions of middle-class Germans. Fox and His Friends was criticised at the time by activist groups for presenting gay men as every bit as manipulative, acquisitive and cruel as straight men and straight women – which, again, was precisely the point. In other cases, though, the identity critique as applied to Fassbinder is less obtuse. In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) is a loving depiction of a trans woman, based on Armin Meier. It is also suffocating, cruelly narcissistic (the protagonist is transitioning because she believes it will please the Fassbinder character, played by Gottfried John) and the process of gender transition is treated as nightmarish and unsatisfying.
Nonetheless there is something to celebrate in Fassbinder’s willingness to put all his contradictions and brutalities on display. He was ‘messy’. He ‘took up space’. He is a fantastic alternative to that dreary, bourgeois canon of tragic neurasthenic gays, dying quietly across the 1980s in desolate and picturesque rural retreats. One can imagine him, had he lived, turning up leather-jacketed and obese in Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness, lounging outside the cottage listening to Elvis on a tinny stereo, stuffing his mouth with sausages and his nose with coke. After a day or two he’d have got bored, or been moved on for lowering the tone, and wandered off to have obnoxious sex with lorry drivers on their way to Dover, who would then turn up in his next film.
A final answer to the question of why Fassbinder, apparently so well suited to the 21st century, isn’t recognised as such might be the current status of the ‘Dreamer, awake!’ model of filmmaking. For one thing, Fassbinder’s own dream, as expressed in the lubricious utopia of Querelle, is bleak and disconnected. ‘Awful things happen,’ as Penman writes, ‘but nothing seems truly consequential’; it is the work of ‘someone on narcotics, dreaming about the memory of desire’. As with so many post-1968 radicals, Fassbinder’s alternatives to the society he so despised failed to convince. What he ‘presumed to wake us from seems easy enough to name’, Penman says; ‘something like bourgeois torpor, false consciousness’. But ‘how we would behave once awakened, and how that awakened state might then be maintained, are far more difficult questions.’ It’s also possible that the absolute anathema Fassbinder pronounced on the fairly stable, boring but comfortable welfare state of the Federal Republic in the 1970s may seem bizarre to a wildly insecure younger generation.
‘The problem with making art to wake people up’, Penman writes, is that ‘your ideal reader/viewer is … asleep’ and ‘not the least bit interested in your kind of wake-up-you-sleepwalkers art’. Maybe, but I think the problem lies elsewhere. Penman himself was once an awakener, in an era that was full of them. A TV programme, a music paper, a pop record could change your life. Something like that must have happened to Penman: working-class RAF babies from Norfolk don’t grow up to become cultural critics unless they encounter something in popular culture to push them in a new direction. ‘Awakening’ might not be the right term for this process, which is in fact scattered and sporadic. It might be better described by another phrase from the German ’68 – the ‘long march through the institutions’, during which many minds are changed, but not in one great cataclysmic awakening bang. That’s just as well, for while entryism in art may still be worth pursuing as a political strategy, historically it depended on mass broadcast, on everyone watching more or less the same thing at the same time. It relied on the unexpected, on accident – on finding that one of the four terrestrial channels was showing Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day or Berlin Alexanderplatz, and having your world upended. That model is gone for good. Radical art today will have to come from within the world on a wire.
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