Private Lives: Ian Penman On Rainer Werner Fassbinder

With his new book shortly to be published by Fitzcarraldo, Ian Penman talks Fassbinder, 'negative dandyism' and image addiction with Jeremy Allen

All photos by Gorup de Besanez, licensed under Creative Commons

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is not an artist who fits conveniently anywhere these days, an anachronistic conundrum wrapped up in an enigma. So it makes a strange sort of sense that Ian Penman’s new book Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors comes to us when it does. Penman missed the date for the 40th anniversary of the German director’s death last June, but then he was never really aiming for it in the first place. Furthermore, Penman is somehow only now getting around to having his first book released (Fitzcarraldo Editions previously published an anthology of music writing, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, in 2019).

This unconventional Fassbinder biography adheres to no formal structure, giving the impression that thoughts are jotted down as they occur and then numbered sequentially. Penman imposed a time limit on himself in the spirit of one of Fassbinder’s hastily-produced films, which could often be wrapped up in three weeks flat: “The image I had in mind when I was writing the book was … a disco ball,” he tells me, by email. “Kitsch but illuminating. Hundreds of tiny shards of mirror reflecting back light and chaos and noise. Reflections of all kinds, from hidden sources. Light in darkness, just like the cinema.” It’s a superb read that one can blaze through, and it acts as a handy companion to any RWF binge you might care to indulge in in the future. And you’ll no doubt notice more mirrors than ever.

Having emerged as the bad boy of German theatre in the late-60s, the Bavarian fireball was knocking out four films a year by the mid-70s once he’d hit his groove. His Douglas Sirk-inspired melodramas Ali: Fear Eats The Soul and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant were memorable masterpieces that challenged the perceptions and the hypocrisies of the people paying money to see his work, and there were plenty more besides.

As well as forty feature films, he made unmissable TV dramas such as World On A Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz, then there were apparently 24 plays in amongst all that, not to mention the excesses and the extracurricular activities that would eventually fell him. Fassbinder lived fast, died young, and left a hefty body of work. Yet he’s not really part of the conversation anymore, even when so many of his films feel contemporary, perennial, prescient, perfect…

Why doesn’t he have a wider appeal these days? “That’s basically the question that kickstarted the whole idea of doing a book in the first place,” says Penman. “Why doesn’t Fassbinder have a wider appeal now? I’d noticed on social media how some figures are treated like gods – Bob Dylan, for example, or David Lynch. And on film twitter, lots of past directors are likewise worshipped. So it completely baffled me that Fassbinder didn’t really feature much when he seems like the perfect figure in so many ways for this historical moment.”

He continues: “Why do certain artists endure and become (dread word) ‘iconic’, while some are forgotten or sidelined or only grudgingly acknowledged? As well as Fassbinder, the same thing might be said of Genet, too, for example. Are they problematic in some way, for this or that political consensus?”

Originally I’d requested a video interview with Penman, but he demurred, saying: “I might like or at least be able to tolerate the awful Zoom experience more if I still smoked.” In the book, he reveals that he gave up quite recently. The following interview, then, took place via email, and the transcript of the conversation has only been partially edited with a few of the responses reordered. “I don’t know why email’s now considered a bit of a dud,” he says, “but I like it, just as I still really like CDs.”

I feel strangely jealous that you were a Fassbinder fan when he was alive. Were his films events or did you come to take them for granted given the scale of his output at the time?

Towards the end, I guess films like Querelle and Veronika Voss were cultural events of a kind, shown at prestige cinemas with the requisite press fanfare. After The Marriage of Maria Braun was a crossover hit in 1979, Fassbinder was seen as this arthouse hot ticket, with a big grown-up Hollywood career ahead of him. Or at least, that was the idea. Personally, I think he’d reached the end of something, rather than the threshold of some shiny new beginning. Would AIDS have radicalised his worldview and woken him up? Could he ever have gotten clean and sober? Revitalised himself with smaller, more daring works – made quickly for TV rather than expensively for the big screen? There are no obvious answers to such questions.

Earlier in the 70s, with his first noisy volley of films, Fassbinder felt less like a mainstream cultural property and more like one of your favourite bands putting out a constant stream of great 45s. Knowing which cinemas were likely to show him was like knowing which record shops were likely to stock certain music. In the late 70s, for instance, HMV in Oxford Street was the place to go for great German LPs; I think a pre-Nurse With Wound Steven Stapleton worked there behind the counter, and was ordering all the must-hear European imports.

It may be stretching it to cast Fassbinder as a lone punk standing against the prog rock ponderousness of Euro art house, but it did feel a bit like that at the time. Films by revered masters like Visconti or Antonioni could feel a bit glazed and set in aspic by comparison. It wasn’t really possible to take Fassbinder’s output for granted. There was little advance PR – and no social media, of course – so all these crazy films would just suddenly pop up without warning. It might be something new, or three films from five years before. You never knew what he would do next: sci-fi allegory followed by a weird ethnological western and then a sublime rendering of a classic nineteenth-century novel. You could never settle into anything like a safe or enduring sense of, ‘Ah yes, I finally get him!’ There was always so much still to be seen. For years, the thing I most wanted to see was his infamous TV soap opera Eight Hours Are Not A Day, and I only finally got to do so quite recently.

Was there a correlation with punk? The fact that he had a company all sharing each other’s space feels quite ‘Krautrock’ too: Faust, Amon Duul II, Cluster, etc…

One of the great things about all those German bands is that they felt kind of punk and hippie at the same time – the best of both worlds. Punk supposedly loathed and disavowed everything hippie but a lot of the ideas and models and distribution systems it relied on had all been set up by canny, industrious, seriously dreamy hippie types. The communal living thing was very common at that time – it made sense if you were from outside the big city and had just arrived on your own, especially if your income was a little hand to mouth. Everyone could pool their resources and enthusiasms and like-minded friends. It also combated any feelings of urban isolation, which could be acute. However, such utopian living is a difficult thing to sustain after the initial warmth, and can typically lead to amphetamine psychosis, shingles, multi-tiered sexual intrigue, and a kind of group mind or pub table Stalinism.

Two of the great London films, Performance and Withnail and I, both take place at the death of the 60s dream and the dawn of the far murkier seventies. Although set in 1968/69, they are the best evocations of late 70s London I know: speed comedowns, greasy breakfasts, Victorian pubs, lowering skies, tight suits, Borges paperbacks. I remember a friend once saying to me if you watched Performance every five years it seemed to embody a different mood each time, so it felt like such a punk film one year, and then so hippie at other times. Or, fittingly enough, both at the same time. Like a lot of smart young punks, James Fox starts out all armoured and cocky, dyed hair, bit moody, suppressed violence, and ends up polymorphously perverse and hexed and doubled and all turned around.

I imagine Fassbinder’s work felt subversive when reflecting events as they happened, such as with Germany In Autumn?

I’m not sure I would have thought at the time: ‘Oh, this is so subversive!’ It was far too naked and upfront and unabashed. It goes beyond considered, tactical subversion. Here is Fassbinder in Germany In Autumn parading around completely naked, sweaty, overweight, juggling his balls, ordering drugs and then flushing them down the toilet in a paranoid fit. This was not the kind of thing you were likely to see on the BBC at the time, even after the watershed. Germany In Autumn also shows him arguing politics at the kitchen table with his mum, and you kind of thought: Why haven’t I seen this anywhere else? This is what our lives are like! I think it may be easier to see a lot of his virtues now, in retrospect. I’m not sure these were things I could necessarily have articulated at the time. Like many other people, I just felt his magnetic pull.

What was your attraction to his films in the first place?

I don’’t think it’s just a question of how I reacted to Fassbinder, but a prevailing kind of DIY aesthetic in the late 70s. I’m thinking here of bands playing gigs in all-night cinemas and other filmmakers like Werner Herzog and John Waters and the first few issues of Semiotext(e). This ragged, seat-of-your-pants approach was preferable to stultifying perfection, and suited our post-punk sensibilities down to the ground. Besides, what else was there at the time? TV and movies back then – especially in the UK, where even Eastenders and Brookside were yet to show – didn’t tend to feature the kind of people Fassbinder routinely had in his films. A lot of early Fassbinder had not especially attractive people standing around posing, drinking, smoking too much, playing records, sleeping with one another, screaming at one another, losing their minds. Not to mention songs by the likes of Suicide and Roxy Music on the soundtrack.

His use of Roxy’s ‘Song For Europe’ in In A Year of 13 Moons is unforgettable. You talk about how relevant that film is, and there’s a remarkable performance from Volker Spengler playing the trans character Erwin/Elvira. And yet I’m not sure the outcome would please anyone. Does he fail to translate because his ‘messaging’ is too ambivalent for the time we’re in?

Even at the time, he often alienated large parts of his audience – left and right, gay and straight. His politics were considered too extreme by some people, not extreme enough by others. Which seems characteristic. It’s usually the artists who only manage to secrete a few precious fragments before an early death who baffle us. Fassbinder gave us so much to go on, and yet he’s still very hard to sum up or pin down.

I was surprisingly distraught when Volker Spengler died recently. He was my favourite. Do you have a favourite?

I’m not sure about a favourite, but… if the clichéd idea of what people picture when they hear Fassbinder’s name is Hanna Schygulla in her underwear or Brad Davis in Querelle’s maritime vest, my own cherished image might be Kurt Raab having a hysterical meltdown. Kurt is resplendently unpretty, non-macho, awkward, brooding, shifty, altogether too much. He was a fascinating guy, Kurt Raab. And brave, too. What he had to put up with in Germany because of his AIDS diagnosis was just appalling.

The first time I watched The Third Generation I had to switch it off because of the prevalence of the background noise – because of your book I revisited it and I’m really glad I did. Which makes me wonder, what have you read about RWF that’s been useful?

I was fortunate in hanging on to a few Fassbinder books I originally bought in the 1970s – useful for info about the countless films, and also Fassbinder’s fantastic interviews, which were always wildly quotable. You get a real sense of him there, thinking aloud about all kinds of things. It may sound a bit flip, but one of the reasons for doing the book was that I did want something new to read about him, and was puzzled why no one else had got round to doing it. There are a few really good things online, both old and new. And there’s a good Fassbinder chapter in a book I’m always recommending to people, The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century by Philip Mann, who is himself German. But mostly I just found it baffling how little there was. At least in English. I should say that I don’t know whether this applies to the situation in Germany – I wish I could read German, but sadly I don’t. As for The Third Generation, again, I think watching it now in the film/s own future, it gains immeasurably. The sound design is just stunning, years ahead of everybody else.

I was fascinated by your idea that Fassbinder was pursuing a “negative form of Dandyism”, and it was something I noticed with Serge Gainsbourg too, where negative impulses would impact on his appearance more and more. The more I think about it, the more I think you’re onto something there. Would you be tempted to develop the idea further?

The Gainsbourg comparison makes me think not so much of negative Dandyism (though that is definitely there), but the whole realm of image and doubles. The tragedies of Gainsbourg and Fassbinder both involve this same gradual mingling or merger of private self and public image. Gainsbourg had his dissipated alter ego “Gainsbarre” didn’t he, and Fassbinder became “RWF”. This is not a trivial, gossipy thing. It can be an awful trap. In both cases, I think it more or less killed them.

It’s also why one of the book’s quiet heroes (maybe even its patron saint) is Jean Genet. It’s quite something how time after time he escaped being pinned down or caricatured or categorised. How many different lives did he have, how many imprisoning images escape? Not coincidentally, he was another “negative dandy” in later life – but for him it was a real liberation, I think.

Did you ever see his only war film, Lili Marleen, set during the Second World War? I believe it was a failure and I wonder if it was because he was too close to the source? There’s an energy and an anger throughout his films directed at his mother’s generation and the Nazis are often the elephant in the room, aren’t they?

Fassbinder’s take might have been something like: ‘It’s too convenient to just blame the Nazis and consign things safely to the past.’ He thought Germany had a chance to really change after the war and didn’t take it. (Whether that’s still true is debatable; today’s Germany is a very different proposition, and has achieved a lot of admirable things.) You can see it in his argument with his mother in Germany In Autumn when she says quite innocently (if that’s the word) that what Germany needs is a strong leader again. He was interested in why people act against their own desires and interests, whether it’s supporting a tyrant or staying in a dead or abusive relationship. All his films about the war’s aftermath work brilliantly – it’s a great, oblique way to tackle the subject. Maybe Lili Marleen was too conventional for him to work with. Or maybe just the wrong convention – which is to say, a bit too epic. I don’t know anyone who rates it.

Fassbinder’s work has a habit of remaining relevant. World On A Wire is 50 years old and yet alludes to an exterior or perhaps interior world that seems to hint at the internet. Mother Klusters Goes To Heaven, which I watched last night, included a murder-suicide, media manipulation and terrorism – it all felt quite prophetic though I wonder if his cynicism coupled with educated guesswork made it so?

As sci-fi prophecy, World On A Wire has that kind of Philip K. Dick thing of tuning into the near future – sharp, garish, druggy, cerebral. It’s a warning from the world screen. I merely note that, like Fassbinder, Philip K. Dick also had a taste for fast drugs, remarkable productivity, and a way of turning his own violent anxiety into prophetic art. I was pleased to discover that Fassbinder was a real TV addict – a set in every room, on 24/7, while he juggled several other tasks. He may have been one of those people whose metabolism was such that when they take speed or coke it basically slows them down so they can actually concentrate and work. This is just me riffing, but did Rainer maybe have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? I think you can see more than a suggestion of it in him when he’s a kid – he was already always doing a dozen different things at once.

Did imposing a time limit on the project help with writing it?

Long time procrastinator, first time author. As someone who tends to put things off and spin down endless rabbit holes, I could foresee “research” for the book stretching endlessly into the future, and still never being quite exhaustive enough. So I adopted something like a Fassbinder ethos – a strict three month deadline. Better to produce something imperfect but vivid and hopefully bristling with ideas, rather than plotting and preening and ending up with something far more solid but ultimately a bit lifeless.

I was fascinated that the drugs only really started on the set of Chinese Roulette, and six years later he was dead. There’s a strange creeping pace to that film that’s impossible to turn away from. I interviewed Anna Karina once and she told me that that was the hardest film she ever made, mainly because she was kept awake every night with people screaming. Anyway, in the book you sort of advocate for the end justifying the means. You’re being tongue-in-cheek and you’re sort of not, aren’t you?

Chinese Roulette may be one of the most claustrophobic films ever made. You use the phrase “creeping pace”, but I think it’s stranger than that – it’s simultaneously almost static, yet has an absolute blizzard of cuts and camera movements. The American critic Andrew Sarris devoted an entire course on film making to Chinese Roulette’s editing and cinematography. It’s both utterly inert, and yet constantly in motion. And in that respect it accurately reflects Fassbinder’s narcotic turning point, and what I would call the ‘honeymoon phase’ of any drug addiction.

I’m not sure if I’m advocating for the ends justifying the means. Fassbinder somewhere talks about making the deliberate decision to live a short but far more intense life, and I would once have seen that as a kind of desperate affirmation. Just say yes to drugs! But then, young me was a bit of a Romantic idiot in many ways, without much real experience of life. What would my answer be today? Perhaps the entire book is me putting just that question to myself … and coming up with a rather chastened, sober, more reflective response.

There are moments where you put yourself into the book. I thought the observation about Fassbinder smoking like he’s in a film was acute, then you revealed you’d given up smoking. Are you reluctant to reveal things about yourself in print? Is that why you prefer to conduct interviews via email?

I think I’ve revealed way too much about myself in print, to be honest. I also suspect we’re fast approaching a state of memoir overload. A phrase I noted down the other day from an online form: PLEASE PROVIDE PERSONAL DETAILS. It’s become almost like an inescapable duty or obligation. This is one of the reasons I may be a bit grouchy about Zoom and other video apps. All of a sudden it’s automatically assumed, like a commandment: THOU SHALT.

I’m not sure if Fassbinder had a “private life” in the sense most of us would think of it. Once you start putting what is ostensibly private into the public sphere, all kinds of unintended consequences may ensue, things you have little control over. This is one of the reasons I started the book with the image of Fassbinder completely naked before the camera for Germany In Autumn. I belong to one of the first two or three generations to grow up inundated by images, many of them showing us how to live, or supposedly how not to: don’t be a wily, sharp-suited criminal or sassy bad girl like all these awful, flawed, impossibly glamorous characters on screen!

I also belong to the first generation truly hypnotised by TV. That’s why in the book I include my young seven-year-old’s memory of Auschwitz footage alongside The Man from UNCLE. It’s not meant to be flip or ironic. That whole experience now strikes me as deeply odd and forbiddingly powerful. I do think we have a major problem with what Burroughs called “image addiction”. The gradual switch from Debord’s society of the spectacle to a post-modern, post-digital realm where we have now all internalised the spectacle. It’s not something that Freud could ever have imagined, or even Lacan – who is acute on how we tragically base our whole idea of self –and idea of a whole self – on images. Fassbinder himself now looks to me like a character from a long-ago fairytale – the boy who was stolen by moving images.

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman is published by Fitzcarraldo

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