Cold, Unbeating Heart: The Brechtian Socialist Melancholy of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982)

May 10, 2017 in General

Sight and Sound (May 2017) has a retrospective on the work of New German cinema gay director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who has been dead for the last thirty five years, at the same time that his cinematic oeuvre is playing at London’s British Film Institute on the South Bank. In his time, Fassbinder was often accused of exhibitionism, extremism and nihilism by his conservative and Stalinist detractors alike. However, his numerous cinephile admirers regard him as a Brechtian experimentalist and political utopian of rare talent. His rich cinematic oeuvre asks numerous questions about the alienated and inhumane condition of materialist and monetised West German society in the seventies. Oppression and victimisation are unrelenting within his work and there is no privileging of resistance, agency and community of interest in his work, whether from Turkish migrant workers and cross-cultural relationships (Fear Eats The Soul), or even lesbian (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: 1972), gay (Fox and His Friends: 1975) or transgender (In A Year of Thirteen Moons: 1976) lives. In each case, whether in the relationships of gay cross-class Berlin couple Fox and Eugen, or lesbian fashion designers Petra and Karin, or transwoman Elvira and her ex-partner, economic inequality and class division acts as a solvent to authentic lesbian and gay relationships and political solidarity. Whether the victimiser is working class lesbian Karin or middle-class gay man Eugen, their respective lovers Petra and Fox are used for upward mobility and conspicuous consumption opportunities and then cruelly discarded, as is transwoman Elvira, suggesting that gay equality or gender reassignment as an ameliorative reform will not be a panacea or universal remedy to West German hypercapitalist domination and its corrosive effect on all human relationships, whether cross-cultural straight, lesbian or gay alike. This Artaudian ‘theatre of cruelty’, as German film theorist and historian Thomas Elsaesser suggests, produces Brechtian insights into why West German society is so inhumane and corrosive within its matrix of pessimistic, melancholy realism, despite accusations of nihilism and defeatism from his detractors on the left and right.

In the recent Sight and Sound dossier on his work, Andrew Webber particularly captures Fassbinder’s Brechtian debt, arguing that artifice, performance and citation is common within his work, especially highlighting the use of colour and lighting effects in Querelle of Brest (1982), a Jean Genet adaptation and his final film, or in the claustrophobic set design of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant a decade earlier. Almost three and half decades after his suicide, Fassbinder’s Brechtian socialist pessimist aesthetic is even more timely and necessary in today’s neoliberal cultural and social orthodoxy across the western world. We do not have to accept his narrative closure, but domination and oppression are inhumane conditions and sometimes, they are beyond the reach of reformism to ameliorate.


Martin Brady: “Magnificent Obsession: The Explosive Genius of Rainer Werner Fassbinder” (20), Tony Rayns: “The Outsider” (22), Margaret Deriaz: “The Aesthete” (24), Elena Gorfinkel: “The Victim and Victimiser” (26), Martin Brady: “Mirror to Germany” (27) and Andrew Webber: “The Stylist” in Sight and Sound (May 2017):20-33.

Sight and Sound:

British Film Institute:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation:

Thomas Elsaesser: Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject: Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press: 1997

Rainer Werner Fassbinder et al (ed) The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays and Notes: Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press: 1992.

Brigitte Puecker (ed) A Companion to Reiner Werner Fassbinder: Malden: Wiley: 2012

Werner Rainer Fassbinder: Querelle: The Film Book: New York: Grove: 1983

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