For me, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder are a color: yellow. That vibrant yellow of the tables and chairs in a particular scene in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), a tale of lovers who aren’t just star-crossed, but interracial and intergenerational. As the weight of Munich’s post-war society bears down on the matronly Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and the striking Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator and the director’s once-lover), they find themselves in a quiet garden cafe. The vibrant furniture surrounding them gives a sharp contrast to their circumstances: Emmi collapses in tears under the harsh gaze of the restaurant's patrons, as Ali grasps her hands across the table, whispering, “Habibi.” It’s moving, but clearly this gesture won’t be enough. Love, in Fassbinder’s world, cannot conquer all—no matter how brightly drawn the picture appears to be.
With TIFF mounting the retrospective, Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I’ve been drawn back again to this yellow, and thinking about my near-synesthetic connection to Fassbinder. This color has become an embodiment of the longing, desire, and desperation of his films, which, as James Quandt notes in his programmer’s essay, often have been misread as “pessimistic.” After all, Fassbinder did take a hue saturated with affirmative associations and apply it in the context of racist post-War Germany. But within his kaleidoscopic play, I’ve never been able to reconcile this notion of cynicism. Fassbinder’s yellows, pinks, and blues instead form a vibrantly hued mirror that refracts the colors of the world, twisting the prism of our preconceptions of reality—and especially of love.
As academics including Brian Price have written about at length (see Color, Melodrama, and the Problem of Interiority), this play with color is indebted to the work of Douglas Sirk. Fassbinder’s reverence for Sirk’s “women’s pictures” is well documented in interviews, and even in Fassbinder’s own essays on Sirk’s films. Price’s work on this matter, however, complicates any simple relation between the directors, especially given that while Sirk used color to express the overflowing of emotion, Fassbinder uses it “in a way that resolutely forestalls metaphor.” Instead, through such subversion, the colors point to the constructs of associations. In undoing the accepted colored sentimentality of emotion, Fassbinder creates a new rainbow of meaning—where pink is no longer rosy, and red no longer the color of love. But instead of an angry rejection of romance, there are comforts to be found in Fassbiner’s approach, albeit cold ones. It’s not a philosophy that human connection is to be feared, but an understanding that romantic love is not immune to, and often is a part of, the power structures of capitalism.
Take Lola (1981), the final film in Fassbinder’s masterpiece BRD Trilogy. Here bright neons seep into all corners of the mise-en-scene, from the cabaret where Lola (the incomparable Barbara Sukowa) sings, to her home space, to the office of Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the object of her social-climbing aspiration. These neon accents blur the boundaries between home and work, private and personal, as befits Lola: She sells love in order to make ends meet. Compartmentalization is a luxury that Lola can’t afford in a world where everything has a price. When Von Bohm finally discovers her true employment, he buys her services in a vengeful rage, only to break down in tears on her bed. Lola strokes his head, marveling, “You really love me.” But Lola doesn’t buy into it, either. She marries Von Bohm, and acquires not just a husband and father for her child, but also a brothel by way of a wedding gift. In Fassbinder’s fairy tales, love doesn’t have the power of a panacea, especially not in post-war Germany.
Fassbinder also explores this theme of social mobility and love in Fox and His Friends (1975). While the play with color really comes to bear in the film’s final blue-shaded scene, here Fassbinder uses mise-en-scene to point to capitalistic, bourgeois notions of home. After a circus performer-turned-rent boy, Fox (an impossibly young Fassbinder himself), wins the lotto, he takes up with a well-to-do industrialist, Eugen (Peter Chatel). But love has a cost, about “80,000 marks among friends,” as a furniture salesman says when Eugen picks out Chippendale candelabras and “dark Chinese silk rugs” for his new apartment with Fox. In deep focus behind Eugen and the salesmen, Fox is shown pulling out his checkbook, already resigned to pay the price of entry into the higher class. But for all the marks and loans Fox gives out, he gains no social capital. In scene after scene, the camera lingers on the dismissive and embarrassed faces of Eugen’s family as Fox commits such social sins as reaching across the table to grab the salt and using the wrong fork. Unlike Fox, the camera can read the cues of respectability, and knows he’s doomed when he can’t buy the main thing he wants: class.
Then there’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), which is also queer in content but explores the power dynamics of love through wardrobe stylization. A renowned fashion designer, Petra (Margit Carstensen), takes a young model, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), under her well-styled wing, as Petra’s mute and devoted secretary, Marlene (Irm Hermann), watches on, yearning for Petra’s love. Love as it’s commonly understood—the kind that’s caring, trusting—never factors into the equation, instead taking on a transactional nature, in Karin’s use of Petra, or warped loss of self, in Marlene’s hopeless devotion. (Even a visit from Petra’s daughter doesn’t spark the motherly reunion audiences might expect.) When Karin leaves, Petra is left alone, sprawled on a shag rug in an emerald green gown. Around her neck, as if slowly asphyxiating her, is a universal symbol of love: a red rose. It’s a bleak gag that makes it difficult not to let out an aptly bitter laugh.
When it comes to Fassbinder’s legacy, it’s this hard lesson that has left the greatest impression on me: It’s not that love doesn’t exist; it's that while roses are red and violets are blue, neither of those symbols really have anything to do with saying, “I love you.” Because love, in Fassbinder’s world, and in the one we know, proves always to be far more complex. As Fassbinder said, “For all of us, it’s the things that won’t work that keep our interest.” This is precisely why the colors of his films never seem to fade.
Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder runs from October 28 through December 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.