by Jack Granath
Chaos as Usual contains thirty-eight interviews with people close to the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Approaching such a book, I expected to come out on the far end juggling thirty-eight rival sketches, thirty-eight contradictions, thirty-eight possible Fassbinders. Instead, the book presents a remarkably consistent account of this famously enigmatic man.
From “pater familias” to “ruthless despot,” Fassbinder turns up on page after page in the familiar auteur garb of autocrat. The book swarms with lively anecdotes of Fassbinder tormenting his actors, throwing tantrums, seizing control of certain projects, sabotaging others--everything you expect from a man who had The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant lurking inside him. Limitations of the interview format sometimes conceal the larger significance of these colorful stories, but several of the speakers tease their way toward it, digging beneath the gossip to make connections between this psychology and the work it produced. Actor Ingrid Caven, for instance, explains that Fassbinder “was like an open wound, a fact he tried to hide, to camouflage. But it was why he instantly sensed people's weaknesses in their gestures and their voices. That weakness was his great strength, and it became a powerplay he thoroughly enjoyed.” Actor Gottfried John makes another subtle observation, rooting out the contradiction between Fassbinder's need for absolute control and the revolutionary intention of his work: “I remember being utterly amazed that a group who was working on a project about moral courage, about resistance against meaningless orders, would uncritically follow the orders of their master, as he was already called in those days.” These insights (and many others like them) play an important role in the book, echoing through later interviews, making patterns out of the gossip-spatter.
The same mechanics apply to another subject that surfaces in nearly every interview, the speed at which Fassbinder worked. Ten films in a year and a half, films made in a week, a film re-edited overnight, fifty-four setups a day. The actor who breaks with Fassbinder, saying, “I need a rest. . . . I've picked up sinusitis and an ulcer, I simply have to take a cure”; another who travels with him, tearing “across the countryside at 130 mph,” covering “in three and a half days what I had managed myself [on a previous trip] in two months”; the producer who offers Fassbinder “a million marks to do nothing for a year” (and is refused).
Even minor pauses in the working process caused him depressions which, in turn, accelerated his working mania.
He was panting for the next scene that was already spilling out of his head.
One has to understand that he was literally rushing through his life.
We didn't need any speed in those days. All we needed was a dose of Fassbinder.
I admit that these anecdotes and soundbites are the most memorable and compelling part of the book for me, but they also introduce the main problem in assessing Fassbinder's work, the fact that, as colleague after colleague attests, Fassbinder “wasn't interested in perfection.” As one interviewer poses the question, “How did he reconcile his enormous ambition to the blunders he made?” Were these blunders (spotlights creeping into the frame, underlighting in Berlin Alexanderplatz, blown lines thrown in thanks to his one-take method) extraneous to the work or an important part of it? Again, those comments that burrow beneath the level of anecdote suggest intriguing links between the psychology and the work. Actor and director Margarethe von Trotta, comparing Fassbinder with Pasolini, muses on people who “derive special spiritual and creative power from their excesses.” Actor Elisabeth Trissenaar shapes a similar sentiment from Fassbinder's impatience during rehearsal: “[H]e lived for that extreme concentration that culminates in a single, brilliant moment.” I realize that these fragments don't end in a solution, but they seem to stumble toward one, to point the way.
Perhaps the answer is as simple as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus puts it, that “Fassbinder needed a certain tension born of spontaneity,” but another frequent observation complicates this view. Most of those who worked with him comment on the “borders,” the “boundaries” that Fassbinder pushed them across. They remark on “the reverence with which he laid bare the actor's soul,” on his “refreshingly blunt way of steering a person toward his own highest capacities,” on his “amazing antennae.” The films themselves often seem secondary, process elevated above artifact, the intersection of lives above the shadows recorded on film. Editor Juliane Lorenz puts it well:
[H]e had a special talent for forcing others to live up to their creative potential. He felt responsible for them. He turned those people into actors, production managers, and so on. Nobody starts out as a star or an actor, an editor, whatever. You need somebody who believes in you, and that really means love.
Whether or not shooting a scene seventy times to get even with someone amounts to “love,” Chaos as Usual conveys the enormous passion that Fassbinder brought to his work. More conventional approaches may fill the gaps that an interview leaves behind, but they will have a hard time matching the adrenaline of this book, the spirit of Fassbinder mixed up in it somehow, alive and on the go.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997