The poet wanders the world, his soul a caldron of anarchic nihilism. Thus we are introduced to a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal. Based on a 1918 play by the legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht, this 16mm work, vivid and wild, has remained largely unseen since it was first broadcast on West German television in 1970. An aghast cultural hierarchy, not least Brecht’s own aged widow, ensured the film would remain locked away until 2014, when a digitally restored version was previewed at the Berlin Film Festival. Now this restored version arrives as one of the latest additions to the Criterion Collection.
Like many great works of art, the irony of Baal’s suppression is that the film seems even more dangerous and radical today. It is an enfant terrible adaptation of Brecht, who himself began as a radically challenging voice in the Germany that emerged from World War I. Yet today, Schlöndorff’s film serves another, priceless function for its audience. It is a cinematic document capturing Rainer Werner Fassbinder early in his career, before he himself would take the world cinema scene by storm with an eclectic, passionate body of work. The words are Brecht’s, the director is Schlöndorff, yet the material is a stunning mirror image of Fassbinder himself. For he indeed was poet, artist, anarchist and provocateur. Dying at the age of 36, with over 40 films to his credit, Fassbinder’s work finds a unique, piercing resonance that grows with the passage of time.
Fassbinder’s career as a director would begin with a slew of small but stylish and gritty films full of ache and despair. His was the generation born among the ruins of World War II, later radicalized by the politics of the 1960s. If their parents had marched to the drumbeat of fascism, these new artists would seek to demolish the old order with vibrant, liberating proclamations on the screen. It would be the New German Cinema. Beginning in 1969, titles like Love is Colder Than Death, The American Soldier and God of the Plague would be early explorations of the themes that would obsess Fassbinder in his greater body of work. But in addition to directing, Fassbinder was a creature of performance as well. Himself an autodidactic film school reject, Fassbinder would always have a cheerful self-loathing stemming from his perceived ugliness. This would then fuel performances in his films that ranged from small to prominent. In Baal, Fassbinder dominates every frame.
The film begins with the poet, Baal (Fassbinder), wandering the German countryside as a voiceover describes him in almost animalistic, pagan terms. He is a composer of verse, but a monstrous entity as well. Schlöndorff films much of the movie in a hand-held format which gives it a rugged, stripped appeal. This was of course the aesthetic of independent cinema at the time, as defined by other, somewhat pricier projects like Easy Rider and Three Easy Pieces. Baal is in a sense even more experimental than those two films because the persona and words of the poet are the plot itself. Fassbinder grins, snarls and walks with swag as if he were a 20th century Arthur Rimbaud, content with drinking with his troupe in taverns, sleeping with women before dismissing them, yet regaling everyone with his baroque prose. In real life both Rimbaud and Fassbinder would prefer the company of men when it came to pursuing sexual partnership, and while both were more idealistic than Baal, their drive to live on the edge was kindred.
In this film the rebels are Spartacists without politics or ideology. They are instead immersed in pure nihilism. Brecht wrote the play just as World War I was ending, the German Revolution was about to be crushed, and a sense of oblivion would consume society. Although Brecht himself would be a committed Marxist until death, his work would always feature a sharp cynicism about human nature. Disgust for the bourgeoisie order would also channel into disgust with the very hypocrisies and corruption of people. There is a scene early in Baal where Baal attends a dinner party, one gets the impression it might be in his honor. Publishers and other elites swoon over him as he sloppily sits down and drinks, dismissing their offers to publish his poetry, ranting that he has no need for them.
The rest of the film feels like Baal working as an agent to demolish all social norms. Much of his time is spent on the road. Friends who work in the woods as lumberjacks look upon Baal with disgust, as if he serves no purpose other than to laze about. We never truly see him in the act of writing. Instead he composes out loud on a whim, or when lust provides the muse. His recurring motif is “the sky is dark,” yet he never adds stars. The film, however, is not a celebration of the bum as artist ethos. Baal is disconnected from the world in a way that makes him an ancestor to the modern hipster. Fassbinder’s walk is of the self-assured, but he is restless in his emptiness. When the film reaches a murderous crescendo it is almost pitiful, because Baal has no true reason to be aimless, unless the absurdity of modern civilization makes idealism worthless. The aesthetic of the film feels as if it wants to capture the other side of the 1960s. Amid the political radicalism in Europe that led to events like May 68, or even violent wildflowers of revolutionary terrorism such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, there was also an escape into a nihilistic form of dissent. Baal would be more at home with Jack Kerouac or today’s post-modern literari. Baal is essentially a personification of the cult of genius, or the worship of brilliance for its own sake.
Baal in this sense is quite fascinating for how it revives a Fassbinder performance which captures a cosmetic image of the filmmaker yet is still apart from the spirit of his own work. Other New German Cinema figures are present in the cast who would later become Fassbinder regulars, such as Günther Kaufmann and the luminous Hanna Schygulla. As the decade would roll on, Fassbinder and these actors, along with many other notables, would produce a body of work that defined the New German Cinema as a radical interpretation of the human condition but through the colors of classic Hollywood. Fassbinder, who identified as an anarchist, spouting quotes such as, “I don’t throw bombs, I make films,” would take the look of Hollywood melodrama and transform it into an incendiary exploration of human emotions, politics and violence. While acting in Baal, Fassbinder was already leading a radical theater troupe known as Antitheater, which embodied the spirit of the times with performances inspired by the notorious Living Theater. Ironically enough, one of Fassbinder’s early actresses was married to Horst Sohnlein, a bomb-maker for Baader-Meinhof. In Baal, one of Fassbinder’s lovers is played by none other than Margarethe von Trotta, today one of Germany’s great directors. Her recent Hannah Arendt is a work of intellectual power.
Yet the radicalism in Fassbinder’s films flows from a more human angle. After his first slew of energetic, low-budget pieces (also collected by Criterion in an excellent boxset), Fassbinder discovered the American melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s visually lush films, especially All That Heaven Allows and Written in the Wind, were red-blooded dramas about forbidden desires, family squabbles and hidden crimes. But this was mere surface. The real heart of these films was an iconoclastic critique of American moral values and the Janus face of 1950s suburbia. Sirk’s films seemed to imply that beneath the veneer of a wholesome society there lay chained desire and violent greed. Melodrama functions best as a hyper version of reality, in which our very real desires and impulses are carried to a cinematic extreme.
Having discovered Sirk, Fassbinder’s defining work would commence in earnest. The man would produce so much work, in such a small amount of time, that the breadth of it all is almost incomprehensible. Even then, some titles do glow above the others. The Sirk-influenced films are works of fierce beauty, with a subtle poetry in every frame. In The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, an actress past her prime, played by Margit Carstensen, becomes romantically obsessed with a younger actress played by Hanna Schygulla. The film is a blistering exploration of unrequited love, and unwise attachment to those we may entertain, until they become bored with unwanted attention. It is an absolutely hypnotic film, shot by master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus in textures which do homage to the technicolor patterns of Sirk melodramas, but with a darker edge. Fassbinder would achieve this look in other films, such as The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Stationmaster’s Wife. In Lola, the screen is coated in popping colors, yet the story is a piercingly sad tale of an older man falling for a cabaret dancer who can never truly be with him. It was Fassbinder’s homage to the classic The Blue Angel, but suited for 1980s, if not today.
The crowning masterpieces of this period are The Marriage of Maria Braun and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. These are two examples of Fassbinder the radical storyteller, capable of evoking socio-political ideas through stories that are also profoundly human. There is no need for the director to flag-wave or push an ideology into your face. Consider Ali, which tells the story of an older German widow named Emmi (Brigitte Mira), who falls for a younger black Moroccan named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, himself a character of truly tragic vintage). Filmed in beautiful frames, their story is indeed romantic, but the characters cannot escape the social storm that soon focuses on their pairing. Emmi’s family rejects Ali, while Ali’s own friends find her to be odd and a bore. Small cultural differences soon become large ones (even the difference in their preferred cuisines). Fassbinder wants to challenge the lingering racism in modern European society without catering to the lowest common denominator. The film has not aged because it is the perfect love story for this age of refugees, when artificial borders are made stark and laid bare by the reactionary forces terrified of The Other entering the fortress.
In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a widow played by Schygulla living amid the ruins of World War II Berlin, is forced to make harsh, cold choices to survive. She teases men for advancement and isn’t above committing murder to get away with something. Even when we may disagree with her decisions, Fassbinder makes it clear that the capitalist ethos transforms individuals into creatures of survival. Both films are filmed in silky tones which mask the personal eruptions that will consume the characters.
Fassbinder was a great storyteller who knew how to bring across ideas. If you watch closely you can catch the most subtle yet smirking reflection. In The Stationmaster’s Wife, an attractive woman cheats on her proletarian husband with a middle class man who hates unions, openly hoping the army smashes striking workers. In Ali, Fassbinder himself plays a racist, savage son of Emmi. In Fox and His Friends, one of Fassbinder’s films which was much ahead of its time by focusing on all gay characters, he plays a working class man who wins the lottery. But happiness doesn’t last when his rich lover convinces him to invest it in his own failing company. The elite will bite into the earnings of the worker whenever necessary. Still, as pure cinema it works in compelling fashion. It is a cinema of despair, but never depressing because of the energy in the storytelling.
Fassbinder is a romantic in the sense that he believes we deeply care and do fall in love, yet human nature and the environments in which we exist have ways of brutally assaulting happiness itself. He senses a pervading fascism ever-present in the milieu, hidden in nationalist slogans and on the tongue of discourse amongst men. These are indeed the riptiding undercurrents in his brilliant, 13-part TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on a novel by the great German author Alfred Döblin. It follows a slightly odd, almost mad figure as he tries to resettle in 1930s Germany just as Nazism begins its march to power. When Fassbinder died in 1982, from a life of much drug and alcohol abuse (for what genius has no demons?), he was planning a grand project, Rosa L, about the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, whose own murder by the Freikorps in 1919 extinguished radical, democratic socialism in Germany amid the ashes of World War I. Ironically, his Baal co-star, Von Trotta, would later make the only feature film about Luxemburg. In a way, Fassbinder’s cinema functions as a kind of tonic, as a body of work that understands us even today.
So now we return to Baal, which captures an image of Fassbinder before his rise to world cinema prominence. The enfant terrible is present in these frames, dismissive of tradition and daring to spit in the face of conformity. In real life he did burn the candle both ways, pushing his physical self to the extreme, engaging in love affairs that could become even more violent and dangerous than the ones he composed for screenplays. Fassbinder was many things, though passive was certainly not one of them. Restored to pristine, grainy eminence by the Criterion Collection, Baal now allows us to see the artist within someone else’s work, one in which he brings his own towering spirit to every line and incident. If he had been handsome, this restoration would revive him as some sort of Beat or proto-punk icon, but he was too cool for even that. In a time of superficial mirages, Fassbinder becomes truly dangerous. He reminds viewers that poetry is more dangerous than politics, and a film image made with honesty outlasts the passage of time.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.