Thursday, July 17, 2008
by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Edited, Translated, and with an Introduction by Denis Calandra
How does one negotiate modes of power without then becoming an abuser of them? Does wielding power, even self-actualizing power such as Geesche’s in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play, “Bremen Freedom,” necessitate a hierarchy of the abused and the abuser? Over the course of his career, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder investigated roles of power through a wide variety of situations, while always maintaining a skeptical, critical focus, but one not without its very real sympathies.
Power obsessed Fassbinder, but what exactly is it? Power does not exist outside of a situation in which roles must be assumed. That is, if there are no roles or hierarchy present, then power simply can’t materialize. Roles of power are, in fact, introduced because there has been an assumption of position. A situation must be systematic for power to exist, therefore power is itself intrinsically functional. Power serves its purpose, even when that purpose is rooted in absurdity. Whatever that purpose is, though, it is one linked with punishment. “In its function,” Michel Foucault writes, “the power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating.” Okay. So, to educate people in the means of freedom, for instance through theatre, is also to educate people in modes of punishment, that is, it further indoctrinates people into hierarchies of power. Shit, it’s just inevitable.
Before Fassbinder established himself at the forefront of the German New Wave of the 60s & 70s, he helped create and run the antiteater, one of the many politically aware theatre companies exploring the possibilities of live performance in the 1960s. The aims of Fassbinder and the antiteater were lofty: “We are aware of the city of Frankfurt’s social and political traditions, we are familiar with the TAT and the Volksbahne (people’s theatre) organizations…we intend to mobilize that knowledge and our aspirations towards producing a people’s theatre in the broadest sense of the term at the TAT.” Such idealism! But Fassbinder must have, even at that earlier juncture, been skeptical of his, or anyone’s, ability to institute a complete overhaul of society. He titled his play about the Ian Brady murders “Pre-Paradise Sorry Now”- a critical reference to the Living Theatre’s play, “Paradise Now.”
In a filmed interview in the early eighties, a weary-looking Fassbinder comments that the antiteater attempted to demolish the old societal roles, but were unable to break free of those roles and found themselves slipping into conventional positions of power. One could easily imagine the title character of “the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” is actually discussing the antiteater and not her her failed relationship when she says “We wanted to be fully conscious, always to decide for ourselves anew, always…free.” Well, look what happened to that marriage. Look what happened to the antiteater. Read any of the gossip-laden reports of the constant power-struggles within the Fassbinder camp. And despite the antiteater’s supposed aspiration to establish new modes of power, Fassbinder soon settled into a conventional position as its “head.” This wasn't necessarily a bad thing though. He went on to use many of the antiteater’s actors intermittently throughout his entire career.
Three of the plays compiled by Denis Calandra for this collection would eventually be used as the basis for films by Fassbinder: the aforementioned “Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” as well as “Katzelmacher,” and “Bremen Freedom.” As Fassbinder’s career developed, it became clear that his work pivots around two separate urges- a disposition towards artificiality and art’s potential as instruction as represented by Bertolt Brecht, as well as a concern with the fundamental hierarchies of relationships through the melodrama, symbolized by Douglas Sirk. Keep in mind, this is a gross generalization, but even though both poles do exist throughout Fassbinder’s career, the Brechtian influence does dominate the earlier work, just as the Sirkian influence dominates the later half.
These six plays, written by Fassbinder for the antiteater, excite me more than most of the early films he was making roughly during the same time period, many using the same methods as these plays. Even the more naturalistic plays in this anthology, such as those mentioned above which Fassbinder would adapt into film, betray a Brechtian artificiality. In both “Bitter Tears” and “Bremen Freedom,” an Isbenian female protagonist endures a condensed battery of abuse. One moment, Geesche’s brute of a husband, Miltenberger, is drunkenly shouting “Don’t be absurd, woman. You have to learn who is master in this house. Who has a right to his little pleasures,” while the next he is gripping his abdomen in pain, crying out “Help me. I’m on fire. Geesche! Geesche!” and dying. The roots of Fassbinder’s melodrama are within this Brechtian artificiality.
The most impressive plays in the collection, though, are those that hinge most explicitly on their very artifice – “Pre-Paradise Sorry Now” and “Blood on a Cat’s Neck” impressed in a way his early film work doesn’t. Too often, Fassbinder’s early films feel uncertain of their own potential, as if Fassbinder doesn’t know how to fully translate the modes of the theatre into those of cinema. “Blood on a Cat’s Neck” explores power through basic relationships and linguistics. The play opens with the characters performing various short monologues, approaching power and punishment from a variety of angles. The Lover (though, mind you, each character’s role shifts constantly throughout the play) says “Submission is beautiful. People can learn to enjoy it…for women, happiness is submission.” Who dominates and who submits is in constant flux, as the actors change roles and exchange power continuously while Phoebe Zeitgeist, an extraterrestrial observer, stands off to the side, reciting fragments from each conversation as if they were maxims. Conversation is reduced to propaganda, as context is demolished. People themselves shift in their roles, but the fixity of these phrases, such as “A STRICT UPBRINGING IS THE BEST INTRODUCTION TO LIFE,” and “YOU WILL FEEL PITY FOR YOURSELF,” render them inhuman and cold.
“Pre-Paradise Sorry Now” was my favorite play in the collection. Its title, as I mentioned above, is a critique of the Living Theatre. Fassbinder favorably compares to an American filmmaker like Paul Morrissey (another of my favorites), in that they both work from the inside of the radical movement of the time, but exert a critical judgment that refuses to idealize said movement. But while Morrissey’s movies such as “Trash” or “Flesh” are nihilistic and refuse to even consider social change, Fassbinder’s movies and plays feel more like the work of a thwarted idealist. Paradise is not a possibility, no, but Fassbinder is raging against this denial. He wishes it was a possibility, but Fassbinder's too astute to believe it could be. The portrayal of the child murders, Ian and Myra Brady, criticizes idealists who are willing to sacrifice integrity for some vaunted “cause.” Myra speaks about murdering a child: “It must happen. This great thing must be carried forth. Those who are sacrified will be as a tidal wave. And they will be grateful.” This narrative of the Bradys is inter-cut with short, three person scenes which the director may place in any order. These short scenes are given almost mathematical headings, “H+I-M” or “K+M-I.” The actors, signified by a letter, are reduced to simple equations in a fundamental hierarchy of power. The hierarchy is founded on punishment. The first two characters, whether they are whores or roommates or lovers, indicate their superiority in this hierarchy through punishment of the third character. Even on its basic level, society orders itself around punishment.
Ian Brady tells Myra, in “Pre-Paradise Sorry Now,” that “submission is the correct path for the masses. To submit, fully conscious- that is their happiness, that and nothing else.” In these early plays, which already outline the fundamental ideology of Fassbinder, theatre acts as a means through which to explicate roles of power. The act of theatre, with the entitled actors and mute audience, is itself an instance of a hierarchy. Even private relationships, such as that between the migrant worker, Jorgos, and Marie in “Katzelmacher,” is itself propelled into the public sphere, into a larger societal presence, in this case represented by petty, twenty-something workers wandering around a small, German town. Geesche in “Bremen Freedom” has achieved “Freedom, dear, plain and simple,” but she has only been able to gain personal and financial liberty through the abuse of power – she had to murder the males who threatened to dominate her by feeding them poisoned sugar cubes. She even extends this violence onto other women, like her friend Luisa, because Geesche “…wanted to save (her) from the kind of life (she’s) having.” But even death isn’t an escape from this hierarchies, as the Rich Jew in “Garbage, the City, and Death,” is able to kill prostitute Roma B. and frame the murder on her working-class husband.
Punishment, suffering, “Despair- call it by its proper name…,” is a form of education, but exactly what is it teaching, other than itself?