Productive and Destructive: The legacy of radical queer filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder

It's 1981 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder doesn't look well. He's in a cheetah print suit but he wears the sweat dripping off his bullfrog face way better. As the star of Wolf Gremm's baffling sci-fi noir "Kamikaze 89," he's got to run around and bust bad guys as some kind of cyberpunk Sam Spade and, oh my god, he is so pale and his eyes are barely opened in some of these scenes. He is, however, surrounded by some of his close collaborators and ex-lovers and people he's abused who, in a way, he also made a life for, having dragged them across his 40-plus movies—19 of which are currently available on streaming service Filmstruck—through the late '60s, all through the '70s and now, amid the kick-off of the cocaine '80s.

By the time of "Kamikaze 89"—a rare appearance of Fassbinder as an actor, especially in somebody else's movie—he's hoovering coke and popping pills in order to maintain his staggering output (in total, 42 movies) and to run away from some things too (including the suicides of two different boyfriends in the past five years). He'd be found dead, at age 37, early in the morning of June 10, 1982, by his close collaborator, maybe wife, and these days head of the Fassbinder Foundation, Juliane Lorenz. He was found in his bed, a cigarette in his mouth, blood scurrying out of his nose—dead from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates. "Kamikaze 89" was released about a month later.

"Querelle," the final movie Fassbinder directed, released three months after his death, is an adaptation of the 1947 Jean Genet novel about opium and fluid queerness in a port town in France and it's his most zooted and operatic. The lighting is always golden and the sky is often a cruel red, less magic hour than zero hour, as if the world's about to end, and it is a horny movie, where everything leaches lust—stone columns are, well, not even phallic; they are just big, thick dong-pillars—and dread, which is never too far away from lust in Fassbinder's work. It's not so much a last or final film as a new beginning that never got going.

Throughout his career, Fassbinder moved between snail's-pace microdramas, class-conscious melodramas, visceral avant-garde narratives about marginal figures, and a few old Hollywood "Women's Picture" approximations and now, here he was, wrapping it all up with some phantasmagorical gay softcore. There are however, persistent themes: the way that capitalism crushes everything and everybody either by ruining them or twisting them until they're fine ruining other people; the hopelessly overwhelming complexities of identity, particularly queer identity; the impossibility of utopia; and the ways in which the left's idealism means it's always shooting itself in the foot. His riffing was indefatigable, but if you had to narrow it down to some key influences, it'd probably be Douglas Sirk, Antonin Artaud, Leonard Cohen, Michael Curtiz's "Mildred Pierce," and Andy Warhol.

It's 1974 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder looks really good. He's lean and skinny, which he hasn't been for most of his life—30 years old, he could pass for 19. Fassbinder obsessively dedicated himself to getting in shape and looking kyooooot as Franz or Fox, a sideshow performer and occasional hustler in "Fox And His Friends" and perhaps the only truly pure of heart character in any Fassbinder movie. And this being Fassbinder's world, that means the worst things will happen to Fox. He wins the lottery, soon gets scooped up by a gay bourgeois group of friends and business associates, one of whom, Eugen, is co-running his family's failing printing business. So Eugen and family slowly soak Fox for his money while pretending to make him more dignified when he is already a playful, swaggering, long-cocked rough trade who doesn't need to change for anybody.

The only hope in the movie is for Fox's heart to eventually harden, or for him to be suddenly saved by his merry group of weirdo, working-class queers, but neither happens and it does not end well for him—though most Fassbinder movies do not end well, so this is less a "spoiler" about his movies than the big spoiler about life, you know?

Briefly, the other Fassbinder bummers currently streaming on Filmstruck (not including "Love Is Colder Than Death," "Gods of the Plague," and "Effi Briest," which I haven't seen): "Fear Of Fear," a Lifetime movie-like exploration of mental illness whose best scene finds actress Margit Carstensen unabashedly grooving to Leonard Cohen's 'Lover, Lover, Lover'; "Ali: Fear Eats Soul," a candy-colored tearjerker about a Turk and elderly woman's scandalous romance (the Turk is played by El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder's boyfriend who would hang himself in jail in 1977); "The American Soldier," a gangster pastiche and Vietnam War indictment that culminates in a syrup-slow homoerotic death-hug; "Beware Of A Holy Whore," a satire of communal living by way of a failed, messy movie production; "Satan's Brew," a stoked star turn for Kurt Raab, a long-suffering Fassbinder regular (and it should be noted, some claim, a pedophile) and ridiculously stoned tone poem in celebration of S&M; "The Bitter Tears Of Petra Van Kant," a narcotic lesbian melodrama that seems to move so slow it's going backward; "The Merchant Of Seasons," a relatively straightforward tragicomedy about one town drunk's downfall; tweaking sci-fi epic "World On A Wire"; "The Marriage of Maria Braun," a haughty Hollywood-like look at how easily Nazism fed capitalism (part of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland Trilogy along with "Veronika Voss" and "Lola"); "Chinese Roulette," a calloused chamber drama about the petty rich; "Katzelmacher," a Warholian hang-out movie and rumination on German groupthink, immigrant paranoia, and Nazism; and "Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven," a working-class tragedy where the tragedy is how the left and the right are exploitative shitheels only out to take what they can get from the aggrieved.

It is 1978 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder is fucking devastated. How he looks doesn't matter. Armin Meier, his boyfriend, recently committed suicide. Fassbinder penned a long break-up letter to Meier and it totally devastated Meier, the story goes. The contingencies of suicide and mental illness suggest it's never as simple as someone's "fault," but Fassbinder's cruelty cannot be ignored here (one story: Fassbinder crashed a car which sent Meier through the windshield, wrecking his face; Fassbinder paid for plastic surgery but also demanded Meier claim he was driving the car). Though Meier was maybe just doomed: An orphan raised by nuns, he was taken in by a doctor in his teens and sexually abused into his mid-twenties, then kicked out at 26 or so, eventually got a job at a bar, met Fassbinder there, started acting and then offed himself at 31.

Within weeks of Meier's death, Fassbinder, angry, confused, grieving, cranks out "In A Year With 13 Moons"—not streaming anywhere unfortunately, but buy the DVD or torrent it at least, please—a two-hour wail of a movie detailing the final days of trans woman Elvira Weishaupt's life leading up to her suicide. Every exchange Elvira has disappoints and what remains is a person who is either dead inside or firing off feelings all the time—never in-between—and as a result just not navigable as a fellow human being.

I watch it and think of my own peeled sensitivity following a friend's suicide. How grief and/or being so sad and lost that everybody can just see it turns interactions into lopsided transactions, emotional flim-flams where you're always off the mark: If someone gave me their time to chat or tried to make me feel better by driving me to buy records or something they were kind but condescending too and maybe using me to make themselves feel better; if someone fucked me they were loving and sweet maybe but taking advantage of me because it seemed as though all that was left was stuff to take.

"In A Year With 13 Moons" emanates grief like no other movie. It's as much an expression of Elvira/Meier's pain as Fassbinder's mourning and guilt and in the way that loss shatters you and nothing makes sense after it. "In A Year With 13 Moons" tells its story by way of tangents and associative connections (a monologue over footage of a slaughterhouse; a ridiculous recreation of a Jerry Lewis routine; a stagnant scene where Elvira cries and cries while Roxy Music's 'Song For Europe' plays), all of which add up to an omnidirectional portrait of Elvira, who is sympathetic, yet often annoying and impossible the way depressed people can be.

It is 2017 and Fassbinder, who worked so hard on some things, who processed emotions by working like a fucking maniac to make movies out of those emotions and seemingly, didn't work at all on so many other things in his life, is a legacy.

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