Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Commemorative Collection - Vol 1 (1969-1972)

Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Harry Baer, Karl Scheydt, Michael Konig, Gunther Kaufmann and Hans Hirschmuller
Arrow Films
RRP: 59.99
Certificate: 18
Available 05 November 2007

Cinema is not immune to the cyclical revolutions which are common in most art forms; some are more noticeable as in the rise of Punk music in the seventies, or impressionism which influenced not only in painting but also in film. It would be fair to say that, for the most part, these are driven by reactions against the social and human conditions at the time and so it was with the rise of the New German Cinema movement which reacted against the homely movies being made in the new post war Germany. Germany was not the only country to have this reaction, a desire to strip away the fluff and artifice that was so prevalent in American film and similar movements sprang up in many European countries, America would have to wait until the nineteen sixties before its own re-imagining of cinema would happen.

In Germany directors like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder reacted against both the conservatism of their political leaders and what they saw as the false optimism about the future. Here were directors who wanted to show their own vision of the world and, depending on your point of view, could either been seen as either brutally honest or nihilistic - either way they created an important body of work.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945 - 1982) worked as both director and actor in the New German Cinema and it is often felt that the movement died when Fassbinder died of a drugs overdose, aged thirty-seven. Working in almost every visual medium he created an impressive body of work in a relatively short time. He completed two very popular television series, over twenty plays and more than thirty films. For the first time Arrow films have gathered together seventeen of his best works to commemorate the twenty-fifth year after his death.

Box set one contains nine films which cover the period 1969 to 1972. All are presented with a stereo German audio track, with optional English subtitles

Love is Colder that Death (B&W, 16:9, 1969) was Fassbinder's directorial debut and he appeared in the leading role. Fassbinder plays petty thug Franz who refuses to join an organised gang, preferring to go it on his own as a petty thief. Like Bonnie and Clyde, Franz, his girlfriend (Hanna Schygulla, who would appear in nearly all his films) and compatriot Bruno (Ulli Lommel, another Fassbinder regular) take to the road heading towards their inevitable bank robbery.

Even though it was his first feature, what should have been dark and tense actually ends up as long winded and surprisingly short of action. There are some stylish shots reminiscent of Chabrol and Hitchcock, but the whole thing does not hang together. It is little wonder that during its first showing it was not well received, even to the point of being booed at the German Film Festival.

That said it shows, in form, many of the things which would inform many of his later films - especially the lack of choice of those living at the fringes of society.

Extras: Nothing. Picture quality is surprisingly good with little in the way of print damage evident.

Katzelmacher (B&W, 4:3, 1969), which literally means 'Cock Artist', is another bleak look at fringe groups. This time a bunch of thirty-something low lives, with nothing but time on their hands, hang out and have sex. This particular bleak apple cart is disturbed when a young geek man, once more played by Fassbinder, joins the group and takes up with one of the girls. The group react in a predictable way by beating the bejesus out of him. The film went on to win seven awards for Fassbinder

A new aesthetic is always difficult to achieve and Fassbinder's attempt to show the utter meaninglessness of his characters lives, by having nothing happen in large part of the film, might be good art but it hardly makes for an engaging way of spending your time. Fassbinder's story of xenophobia in the dissolute youth has much that remains relevant to today, it's just a shame that he went for art over substance.

Once more the film has a good print as well as the original theatrical trailer as an extra.

Gods of the Plague (B&W, 4:3, 1970) and the film works as a sequel to Love is Colder Than Death as we follow Franz (played this time by Harry Baer), released from prison, presumably for the crimes of the first film. He seeks out his old girlfriend, Joanna (again played by Hanna Schygulla), and plans a robbery. His dalliance with a new woman Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) leads to the inevitable conflict with Joanna and his subsequent betrayal by both women.

There's a lot that can be said for Fassbinder's film noir style and in some of the shots he pulls it off beautifully, however the bleakness at the centre of his characters, which reflect Fassbinder's own gloomy view of life, never makes for easy viewing. That said, by the third film he was refining his directorial; technique making for a more satisfying experience for the average viewer.

Extras: Original theatrical trailer.

The American Soldier (B&W, 4:3, 1970) is another expose of meaningless lives. This time Fassbinder follows Ricky (Karl Scheydt) who having returned from the Vietnam War works as a hit man. Odd thing is, he is neither American nor a soldier. Unless Fassbinder was trying to work in a critique of the Americans and their perceived sense of alienation from the rest of the world, then its presentation is too oblique to be noticeable. Little in the way of meaning happens to Ricky, he goes about his business with a lack of passion, in what is perhaps Fassbinder's strongest nod towards film noir.

The film does contain a few oddities, such as the song and the over extended death scene at the end of the film that goes on for way too long - giving the impression of some old ham actor milking his role for all its worth. There is a lack of character development. But then, as Fassbinder appears to be trying to show the meaninglessness of existence, it would ruin the premise if everyone suddenly realised the error of their ways and became friends. Reality has little character development so why should films?

Extras: None

The Niklashausen Journey (Colour, 4:3, 1970) and Fassbinder moves away from the pointlessness of human existence and shifts his attack to the hopelessness of revolution. Well, I think that that's what the film was about. The actual plot - about a leather clad monk (played by Fassbinder) who extols the local hippy peasants to revolution after one of them (played by Michael Konig) apparently seeing the virgin Mary - amounts to little except an excuse for soap box politics and nudity.

Undoubtedly, he was rallying against the same dissolute bourgeoisie that had so vexed Godard, however the method of attack and its presentation mean that Godard was, by far, more effective in getting his message across. Its attempts to be both hip and relevant, by mixing elements from contemporary culture with that of the fifteenth century, ultimately has the film falling on its face. Experimental, yes, successful no. Oddly enough the film was originally made for German television, which I can only presume means they had a more liberal view of censorship.

Extras: None.

Rio Des Mortes (Colour, 4:3, 1971), and Fassbinder tries his hand at a comedy for another made for television film. The story concerns two hapless friends Michael and Gunther, played by Michael Konig and Gunther Kaufmann, who cook up a hair brained scheme to go off to Peru to find buried treasure. The problem is they are very poor, so they do everything that they can, including selling the car to raise money. Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) discovers the scheme and vows to put an end to it.

Ah, well we could bang on about the need to escape into fantasy to protect the characters from the utter boredom of their lives, but in the end the film goes nowhere really. Maybe Germans have a certain type of humour as I for one did not find either the performances or story particularly funny. I can't help but feel that if you can't even be bothered to change the characters names from that of your actors you're not really trying.

For once the print is pretty lousy, soft with noticeable damage at the beginning.

Extras: None.

Beware of the Holy Whore (Colour, 4:3, 1971) is a film about film making. When a group of actors discover that the film they are supposedly trying to make is falling apart around their ears, they implode. Ok so Fassbinder is less interested here in the film making process than he is in the fragility of the mental health and ego's of the actors, but lets face it we all harbour a secret doubt about anyone who wants to spend the better part of their lives pretending to be someone else.

Like most Fassbinder films little actually happens in the film and, whilst that was a problem in his previous films, here it works well. Here we have no wish for the film to be made as the sport is in watching the actors fall apart. It would be impossible not to see comparisons between this and Godard's Contempt, but whereas that was pretentious, in the way it was knowingly artful, Fassbinder's take on the problem is far more amusing.

Extras: Original theatrical trailer

The Merchant of Four Seasons
(Colour, 4:3, 1972) opens with Hans (Hans Hirschmuller) trying to sell his fruit. Prior to this he had been a cop, but had left the force following a sexual scandal. Now he drinks too much and beats his wife. His position in life gains him nothing except contempt from both associates and family. When Hans suffers a heart attack, his family work out a way of remaining solvent and succeeds far better than Hans ever did. With a man taking his place in the family, and unable to work, Hans slips even deeper into despair.

Although we are back into the Fassbinder country where everything appears to be meaningless and the only certainty is despair, Fassbinder, as a director, is finally seen to be leaving behind his chequered experimental roots and utilising more mainstream film language to get his message across. This makes Merchant far more watchable and successful as a movie. Even the ending is more poignant than his previous films, many of which ended either pointlessly or oddly. Here, with nothing left to live for, Hans does the only constructive thing a man with nothing to live for can do and dies - unburdening his family from his existence.

Extras: The Women of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (58 mins 40 secs). If you're new to Fassbinder this would probably be the thing to watch before you plunge into the films. The documentary not only looks at the women who appear in his films, but also has Fassbinder himself discussing his films and the likes of Bernado Bertolucci - reaffirming his importance in the German New Wave. Love Life and Celluloid (60 mins 30 secs) was made by Fassbinder's long standing editor Juliane Lorenz. This featurette, which was made at the same time as New York's retrospective of his work, is as much about contemporary film and the exhibition as it is about Fassbinder himself.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Colour, 4:3, 1972) and Fassbinder is really starting to get into his directorial stride with a story of a fashion designer who falls in love with Karin only for things to go wrong. Well, this is Fassbinder, what did you expect a happy ending?

The film was an adaptation of Fassbinder's own stage play and although the whole thing happens in one apartment, it never has that stagey feeling.

Extras: An interview with Harry Baer (40 min 17 secs) who was one of the regulars in Fassbinder's stable of actors, discussing his relationship and work with the director. End of the commune which gives another look at Fassbinder's work.

Overall, given the amount of material, this is going to find a home in the collection of any Fassbinder fan. Never afraid to go his own way Fassbinder remains as uncompromising today as he did whilst alive.

Charles Packer

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