Fassbinder, and Fassbinder/Peer Raben

Uploaded 1 March 2001

Fassbinder and auteurism

Fassbinder’s own indelible presence largely operated within a tightly knit, even claustrophobic, group of regular colleagues. Hanna Schygulla for one is remembered as Fassbinder’s frequent female lead to the point of eclipsing her work with other leading directors. But she was not alone, either among his casts or the rest of his troupe (e.g. Juliane Lorenz as editor of the later films, or Peer Raben in charge of music). In this sense, Fassbinder surrounded himself with a constellation of satellite non-directing auteurs of his own creation – the solipsistic aspect of auteurism. He was indeed “the Balzac of West Germany” by virtue of being “its most perspicacious and passionate chronicler.” [1] But the weave of his dramatic tapestry featured not recurring characters, like Balzac, but recurring actors.

Fassbinder took the tension between screen and biographical personae to new lengths, the most memorable example being his segment of Germany in Autumn (Germany 1978), the film made by some of the cream of West German directors. With his own nudity early on he exhibits his (personal, offscreen) vulnerability, while positioning the viewer as reluctant voyeur. He berates his real-life lover, Armin Meier, and corners his mother[2] into apparent support for fascism, both dialogues intermixing inextricably the personal and the political.

A superficial phenomenon links Fassbinder to auteurs like Hitchcock, and that is his cameos within his own films. But here too there are differences. His roles are generally more substantial than Hitchcock’s teasing appearances which seem to exercise the very detective work his plots call for. The roles played by Fassbinder frequently exhibit an exquisite degree of self-laceration: the spiv black marketeer in The Marriage of Maria Braun (Germany 1978), the most unbearable of Emmi’s children in Fear Eats the Soul (Germany 1973), the confrontation between screen and autobiographical personae in his contribution to Germany in Autumn. But the further distinctive touch about Fassbinder’s authorial handling of this device is that he, the director, stands out less than a Hitchcock, because the rest of his cast in turn is known to be interacting with him both on and off screen. In Lili Marleen (Germany 1980), for example, he plays the role of Resistance leader Günter Weisenborn. For Fassbinder, hounded by claims of antisemitism, [3]  this must have been a piquant reversal of his demonized role, in taking a part in which he persuades the singer of the title song to help inmates of Polish concentration camps. If Hitchcock’s appearances are more akin to a painter’s signature in the corner of a canvas, Fassbinder’s are like a sideshow in the ongoing review provided by the Fassbinder circus.

A positive avenue to linking Fassbinder with auteurism could come via Naremore’s plea for the concept’s ongoing relevance. He finds it far from anachronistic, salvaging its meaningfulness through linking “author criticism … with cultural studies and contemporary theory in productive ways, contributing a good deal to our understanding of media history and sociology.” [4] A most fertile source for this approach is the New German Cinema in general, not confined to Fassbinder.

Fassbinder in the context of post-war German filmmaking and culture

The constant obsession of the New German Cinema with the issue of German identity, an identity which in the 1970s still had to contend with a divided nation within a rump of pre-War Germany, meant this movement was pleading for a kind of culturally postcolonial status well before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Wim Wenders of course continually wrangled with issues of American vis-à-vis W. German identities. But in his return to German soil after a long absence, the transfiguring of Berlin in Wings of Desire (Germany-France 1987), there are prominent traces of homage to European creativity, both critical and directorial. The film opens with a hand, as if it were an extension of Wenders’ camera, writing words on paper, surely a concretization of Alexandre Astruc’s ‘caméra-stylo’ which so inspired the Cahiers du cinema group. Much later in the film, as the camera tracks a figure crossing a road, a graffiti glimpsed fleetingly on a wall proclaims: “Waiting for Godard”. For West German filmmakers of the 1970s there was of course a whole preceding generation they could not use as a tradition to build on, a further absence alongside that of a German Godard. This rootlessness led Werner Herzog to return to the heyday of German cinema in the 1920s. This is most apparent in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, a reworking of Murnau’s Nosferatu (Germany 1922).

Fassbinder’s reaction to the missing generation of artistic fathers was to intersperse his own films with iridescent references to others’, both as homage and as multifaceted evocation of a splintered history. But he also, tirelessly, thematized the quest for identity. The whole narrative arc of The Marriage of Maria Braun begins with scenes of those returning from the front and those still missing – with Maria turning up the radio volume (whose transmission of Beethoven’s Ninth is thereby interrupted) in the hope of hearing her husband’s name among a list read out. It is completed with the false national identity at the end through victory on the soccer field, hailed as if a sublimation of the battle field. From the missing soldiers of the Reich to the missing Reich about to be re – armed, the void in identity remains.

The blurring of boundaries between high and mass art was historically integral to the New German Cinema inasmuch as those boundaries had been constantly contested by film as an art in Germany, battling against the cultural canon. To defuse dismissive criticism, German films had frequently sought legitimation through integration of the realm of high art. Whereas it might be argued that in the French tradition the European art film intrinsically belonged to this realm, the combination was more of a paradox in Germany, even when high art references seemingly grew organically out of the subject matter. Alexander Kluge’s The Patriot (Germany 1979) has a scene where the history teacher Gaby Teichert, ever seeking a positive alternative version of Germany’s compromised past, literally carves up a dusty history book. The Brechtian touch fails to conceal the literary model, the early scene in Faust I – in which Faust, frustrated by the limits of earthly aspirations to knowledge, rants within his study.

The Faust motif permeates Wenders’ Wings of Desire more thoroughly. At one level it can be read as inverting the baleful consequences of a political understanding of the Faustian pact in twentieth century German history. With Wenders the hybris of transcending mortal knowledge is reversed, as the angel Damiel feels deprived of the basic pleasures of earthly existence, and longs to experience the aroma of coffee, the spectrum of colour, and the love of trapeze artiste Marion. The path of fulfilment does not lead to a restless striving for transcendence, but to incarnation and the joyous acceptance of temporality. That the cosmology of this fallen angel is realized in Berlin, whose division is prophetically refigured as temporary by soaring camera work and fairytale transits through the Wall, extends the reworking of the Faust legend to German history.

Wenders celebrates here the fusion of high and mass art which other films of his had viewed more ambivalently, the result of U.S. popular culture being overlayered on the culture of occupied W. Germany. In the vertical road movie that is Wings of Desire, the lovers’ meeting comes in the lowest geographical point of the film, the Berlin underground scene, where their union is heralded by the Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds song “From her to eternity” (as an inversion of the true arc of the angel, from eternity to her). Altogether, Wenders differs from most of his compatriots in not further blurring boundaries in his musical choices. The use of classical music was a device chosen by many directors of the 70s in particular. In citing Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner, or Schubert, these films both factored in the historical reception of these composers (often either appropriated by propaganda or else banned during the Nazi years), and assaulted the hegemony of German music among the German arts by assigning it with all its historical inflections to the soundtrack of films.

This situation of film within the German history of the arts locates Fassbinder differently to many other auteurs. But as well as his own claims staked in practice for the status of German film, and his socially based, largely contemporary themes (in this differing from much of Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman, for example), Fassbinder did take on American genres, above all that of melodrama. With his ‘Federal Republic Trilogy’ (The Marriage of Maria BraunLola [Germany 1982] and Veronika Voss [Germany 1982]), he elaborated a kind of historical melodrama. Just as auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, in a string of movies, or Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man [1995] or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]) lend their distinctive imprint to an established genre, Fassbinder, in Effi Briest (Germany 1974), at once observed a tendency to literary films in West German output of the 1970s, and exhausted it with a single definitive statement. (Well, not quite: Martha [Germany 1973] is the sadistic anticipation of the story in some of its motifs.)

Alongside other Fassbinder films, Effi Briest (based on Theodor Fontane’s 1895 novel) is remarkably conservative on the surface. It forsakes colour for black and white, a patina of historical veracity that with less successful stylists can easily seem superimposed. Beyond that, the unimpassioned voiceover renders perfectly the polite and ultimately stifling exteriors of the novel, and the script (right down to intertitles) is basically faithful to passages from the novel. But despite these apparent restraints, Fassbinder’s rendition is totally filmic, employing many of his trademarks (closed frames, further frames within frames, cross hatching to produce the effect of prison bars, virtuosic use of mirrors, a mise-en-scène that almost totally ignores the sky) [5]  as an ongoing commentary on the narrative. Here then is an auteur seemingly submitting to the literary text at hand, who in fact creates precisely what eluded many of the German films of the 70s in this vein, and many literary adaptations altogether, namely a sense of conviction and inner coherence in the new artform.

Fassbinder’s use of sound and music

This aspect is highlighted in this brief overview because it is the least treated in the Fassbinder literature and yet is crucial to understanding Fassbinder’s depiction of history. In relation to music, the director’s name will often be used in the following remarks as shorthand for what is of course a cooperative venture with Peer Raben. Raben not only contributed his own original compositions to the majority of Fassbinder’s films, but also moderated the choice of preexisting music used. (Though at least in four of the pre-1976 films, according to Hans Günter Pflaum’s interviews, Fassbinder mostly came to his films with fairly fixed ideas on this score. The placing of Raben’s original music within a film was a far more collaborative venture, with decisions coming only at the mixing stage.) [6]

Raben’s musical choices perfectly complement Fassbinder’s narratives, with his parodic twists to light entertainment (in places, an outright indulgence in conscious schmaltz), or else mock-dramatic music. In the opening sequence of The Marriage of Maria Braun, [7]  nothing less than an inversion of the primacy of the visual and the soundtrack is achieved. Sounds of course can be just as deceptive as images. But one way out of the suspect capacity of audio-visual media to “represent the forces at work in the historical process”[8]  is the soundtrack, at least its evocation of cultural memory. The most probing student query I can ever recall fielding was whether the Beethoven excerpt at the beginning of The Marriage of Maria Braun was perhaps a recording by Wilhelm Furtwängler (the conductor whose career was deemed to typify issues of art and morality under the Nazis).

The prominence of sound throughout this film (e.g. the staccato effects of jackhammers and typewriters, reminiscent of the anti-aircraft fire from the opening sequence), in particular the viewer/listener’s bombardment in the first and last sequences, creates an acoustic framing effect similar to that of his many visual devices. About halfway through this film there is a scene in which Maria and Oswald (characteristically framed visually) are conversing in the background with a piano prominent in the foreground, while a Mozart piano concerto on the soundtrack functions seemingly as high art mood music. But Fassbinder confounds the standard conventions of such music – our expectation that it’s audible to us but not to the onscreen characters – by having Oswald sit down at the piano and play a couple of phrases (with notably tinnier piano tone). These synchronise perfectly with the non-diegetic Mozart (and without any hint of its source being a recordplayer in the same rooms), the gesture of a highly creative auteur.

Via Raben’s constant variations of each successive entry of the title-song in Lili Marleen, the film becomes a one-song musical in which performances momentarily halt not just the immediate dramatic action but, according to the film’s conceit, the world-stage of conflict, as soldiers from both sides listen in thrall to its regular evening broadcast. Fassbinder’s styling of Hanna Schygulla on the Marlene Dietrich of The Blue Angel (Germany 1930) is never stronger than here. But the allusions extend to the soundtrack too in his private archaeology of film history and film as history. Alongside the performance of Lili Marleen‘s title song for troops on the Polish front, another singer whips up the audience with “Veronika, der Lenz ist da” (“Veronica, the spring is here”), a signature tune of the Comedian Harmonists, as featured in Joseph Vilsmaier’s film about their rise and fall in Weimar Republic Germany, The Comedian Harmonists (Germany 1998).

In other words we hear a song whose reception, like that of “Lili Marleen” in Fassbinder’s film, fluctuates according to the lavishing or withdrawal of political favour. The entertainment function is submerged beneath ideological debate, and the song cannot ultimately be “just a song” any more, as Willie pleads for her own. A further reference to exiled German artists (like the disbanded Comedian Harmonists) comes with the acoustic torture scene, where Robert Mendelsson is confined to a cell with a constantly unresolved section of the song repeated indefinitely as if the needle were perpetually stuck in the groove. The model was surely Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (US 1961), in which the lyrics “It was an itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini” are meant to soften up a man being interrogated before the accusing question (in German) implying he’s an American spy. Or still further back, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) has another scene with a needle stuck in a groove.

Wilder and Lang, as émigré directors, link well with Fassbinder’s theme of the transportability of “national” art, as well as consolidating auteur-driven cinephilia. But the latter is never an insider’s art for art’s sake: it links social critiques of German history to other artists’ approaches to other, but related, moments of that history. When in Lili Marleen the Nazi functionary Henkel twiddles with a world globe, Fassbinder draws on a celebrated scene in Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (US 1940). All these film references in Lili Marleen go beyond its oft cited general allegiance to the UFA style of the 1930s and 1940s. They also stake out an alternative path for German film history, both in provenance and in themes. And they simultaneously relate back to Fassbinder’s central preoccupations in his own film in creating a kind of parallel between German history and the song’s history: constant in their subject matter (at the level where the song is “just a song”), but wildly fluctuating, sometimes within the one audience, in their reception.

Music and melodrama in Fassbinder [9]

In his classic article on the family melodrama, Thomas Elsaesser stakes out the broad background of the American cinema as “determined (…) by an ideology of the spectacle and the spectacular, (…) essentially dramatic (as opposed to lyrical – i.e., concerned with mood or the inner self) and not conceptual (dealing with ideas and the structures of cognition and perception)…” [10] In films of the New German Cinema it was virtually impossible to bypass the conceptual, and not to deal with ideas arising from one’s national history and particularly recent history. Lili Marleen, for instance, while certainly not lyrical (the weakness of its love-strand) but beholden to the spectacular – outright pandering to Fassbinder’s Hollywood aspirations, its critics claimed – nonetheless retains a concern with the conceptual. And this link to history is what perhaps characterizes Fassbinder most among the contemporary European directors with whom his name is linked as auteur.

The past revisited might be the musical past as well, often invested with an ideological overlay, and still shaping the current cultural climate. This is the subversive aspect of many of the musical quotations in Fassbinder, whether from art or popular music. In Fear Eats the Soul, the Arab music that draws Emmi to the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) pub in the first place is an escape from all familiar associations. For these reminders intrude everywhere: Emmi was a member of the Nazi Party (“like almost everyone”, she claims), and of all the restaurants in Munich her wedding feast alone with Ali takes place in Hitler’s favourite haunt. The counterpoint to the Arab melody is a German song on the jukebox whose text intones: “Come, you black gypsy, play something for me…” “Black” of course is transparently applicable to Ali, and his subsequent restless wandering – back to the much younger pub owner – matches the stereotype of “gypsy”.

In a film invoking the Nazi shadow cast on the present this just might create a continuity of attitude between the forced labour of concentration camps and the ostracized guest workers: what it beyond doubt alludes to is a solidarity of bourgeois rejection. So strongly does the unlikely pair feel their pariah status that at one point in the film both become “gypsies” in simply fleeing, but the 19th century topos of retreat into a private idyll is no longer representable and this stage of the narrative remains a dramatic gap. Whatever simple affect the song’s text might once have had, it has lost, and any momentary immersion of Emmi’s self can only come through totally unfamiliar music. The leitmotif in this film, a recurring snippet, was penned by Fassbinder himself as yet another facet of the auteur: [11]  he called it “Eine kleine Liebe”.

Early on in Chinese Roulette (Germany 1976), the viewer hears a section close to the end of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The lush fullness of the music, nearing its long-delayed finale, contrasts starkly with the barrenness, the lack of visual or emotional opulence, of the film’s opening frames, with the emotional void sustained to the end (midst coruscating camera work and virtuosic mise-en-scène which, without an emotional referent, emphasize the vacuum all the more strongly). There may be tenuous connections to the plot of Fassbinder’s film – his characters are called Angela and Gabriel; the text to the Mahler is the end of Faust II complete with angelic hordes – but basically this is music distanced from its “earlier contexts, identities or fantasies.” [12]  It is used here substantially as (ironically totally inappropriate) mood rather than in the sense of being a cultural marker.

It’s worth mentioning that Fassbinder claimed Mahler’s Eighth was his most personal piece of music, the music which best expressed himself, [13]  which might support a totally eclectic view of his use of the classics. The same has been claimed for, or rather levelled at, Peter Weir. Certainly Fassbinder does use music across films, e.g. the final duet from Der Rosenkavalier both in Angst vor der Angst (Germany 1975) and The Marriage of Maria Braun. But in both cases the libretto (“ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein”, “‘Tis a dream, it cannot be real”) is factored in with poisonously satirical effect. He can use gesturally melodramatic art music as “mood” – e.g. the Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1 in Martha and Veronika Voss. Character constellations are sketched through musical tastes, as with Helmut’s imposition of Orlando di Lasso (here seemingly equated with bloodlessness) on his wife as part of her unsentimental education in Martha, and the preference of the same film’s title figure for Lucia di Lammermoor, which also takes on narrative significance in presaging her own mad scenes. Further instances show contrapuntal connections between music and film action. In Rio das mortes (Germany 1970) a conversation between two women is underpinned by the celebrated Albinoni Adagio, and the sole appearance of a landlady asking for the rent sees her go back to warbling Puccini with unabated gusto once her mission has proved unsuccessful. But in a context like the plot of Lili Marleen, whatever the degree of conscious programming by Fassbinder and/or Peer Raben, Mahler’s Eighth (conducted towards the end by Robert) takes on additional overtones. As cultural spectacle it sets up a high art parallel to the song “Lili Marleen”, while as validation of the film’s ironies, it belongs to the postwar corpus of Germanic music, within its most characteristic genre, the symphony, despite its composer having fallen foul of Nazi racial politics.

This sort of example illustrates how Fassbinder can, at least on occasion, go far beyond the more idiosyncratic side of the auteur, to juggle cultural icons in sovereign fashion and release new energies from their potentially clichéd reception. This is where Fassbinder succeeds in transporting Hollywood to Germany. But the German dimension, especially throughout the final sequence of The Marriage of Maria Braun, where a non-German audience is privy through subtitles to the banal dialogue of the reunited lovers but not to the implications of the increasingly raucous radio broadcast of the World Cup Soccer final, can be seen as Fassbinder’s final blow for national identity. For these significations remain insider ciphers: as ambiguous, through their Hollywood packaging, as the assertive subtitle of Reitz’s Heimat (Germany 1984): “made in Germany”. In English in the original, this slogan paradoxically advertises a quality German product, in a general context going well beyond this film. The finding of identity, after all, is in the language of the occupier, the language of Hollywood.


[1] Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam U.P., 1996), 19.
[2] See Wallace Steadman Watson, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art (Columbia (S. Carolina): Uni. of Sth. Carolina Press, 1996), 173: “The discussion is not completely spontaneous, as some interpretations suggest; nor does it seem completely planned.” At all events the authorial control over the film in progress parallels the offscreen relationship of domination with two people close to him.
[3]Most notably in his play Der Müll, die Stadt und Der Tod (written in 1975, performed once in Germany to a closed audience in 1985), but also, for instance, in his unrealized plan to serialize Freytag’s novel Soll und Haben.
[4] James Naremore, “Authorship” in A Companion to Film Theory, ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 21.
[5]See this section of the excellent documentary I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me: The Filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Hans Günther Pflaum, Germany 1992).
[6] H. G. Pflaum/R. W. Fassbinder, Das bißchen Realität, das ich brauche: wie Filme entstehen (Hanser; Munich, 1976), 128.
[7] See Roger Hillman, “Narrative in film, the novel and music: Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun,” in Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography, ed. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 181-95.
[8] Elsaesser, 134.
[9] The melos of melodrama is largely neglected in connection with Fassbinder. An exception is Caryl Flinn’s treatment of the important topic of “Music and the melodramatic past of New German Cinema” in Melodrama: Stage Picture Screen, ed. Jacky Bratton et al. (London: B.F.I., 1994), 106-18.
[10] Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama”, in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Gerald Mast et al. (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 523.
[11] Herbert Spaich, Rainer Werner Fassbinder : Leben und Werk (Weinheim : Beltz, 1992), 256.
[12] Flinn, 115.
[13] Hans Günther Pflaum, Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Bilder und Dokumente (Munich: Spangenberg, 1992), 76.

About the Author

Roger Hillman

About the Author

Roger Hillman

Roger Hillman teaches Film Studies and German Studies at the ANU. Other research interests include Turkish-German cinema, representations of Gallipoli in novel and film, and the use of classical music in European cinema (e.g. the book Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology (Indiana UP, 2005)).View all posts by Roger Hillman →