I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
September 1979, almost 20 years ago, at the height of my bachelor days.
I was at a party given for the German directors in the New York Film Festival; the Goethe House was filled with press agents, cultural attachés, distributors, and freeloaders (like myself)—and I was talking to this bald-headed acquaintance of mine, Bruce, when a stunning blonde sauntered up and saucily hailed us, with Marlene Dietrich camaraderie: “Junge, sind Sie Deutsche?”
When we admitted we didn’t speak the language, she translated, “Boys, are you German men?”—an odd, shivery question, in that we were both actually Jewish men. She had a model-chiseled face with an ambiguous, slightly cruel smile, the face of a beautiful betrayer, Marthe Keller in Marathon Man (I adore Marthe Keller), and her hips rotated boldly in a swishy black-purple skirt of pleated silk. So I strung together some chatter and she turned, more toward me than my friend, and asked (impertinently or flirtatiously, I was not sure which), “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to celebrate the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.”
“Ah, yes, Fassbinder,” she said with vague bitterness, as if she had completely forgotten that the party was being given largely in his honor. “I know him …” she said, even more vaguely. I wondered if she was an actress who had tried out unsuccessfully for a part in one of his films.
“Has he arrived yet?” I asked.
“Ya, sure,” she said with the same air of contempt. And she pointed to a thicket of male backs surrounding the black-leather-jacketed, lardy figure, well-known from his photographs, with scraggly beard and porcupine hair: his provokingly unwashed appearance a seeming incitement to those with a knack for turning frogs into princes.
I was tempted to go over there and pay my respects; but a fumbled blurting of sycophantic homage, met very possibly by rudeness on his part, would only muck up the pristine Fassbinder cosmos that existed in my head. Besides, I was more interested just then in my alluring conversant. “Forget Fassbinder; I just want to see his new film, Despair.”
“Ya, Despair,” she said, disappointedly.
“You’re not interested in seeing it? It’s supposed to be very good.”
“I am but … I have not a bill. It was too late by the time I tried.” Bruce wandered off, leaving the field to me. “Also, I hear they are very expensive.”
Not so, but I allowed the error to stand. “I happen to have an extra ticket. Would you like to go with me?”
“Certainly” Now she is all attention: she trains her green huntress eyes on me. “You have an extra ticket? Perhaps you have two extra tickets.”
“No, I’m sorry. Just one.”
“I ask only because of my roommate. But—that doesn’t matter. I would like very much to see it.”
“Fine. When shall I pick you up? The film starts at nine o’clock.”
“Eight-fifteen? Here is my address,” she said, writing down on a cocktail napkin Gudrun something (I read upside down). Our names and phone numbers exchanged, we laughed, and suddenly had nothing further to say; each began to scan the room.
I now had a beautiful date for Saturday night. My bachelor strategy of buying pairs of tickets to the film festival was working. Fassbinder had always brought me romantic good luck: ever since his films had starting appearing in the New York Film Festival, one or two each fall (taking over the position of fecund house-genius from Godard), they seemed to generate erotic as well as aesthetic rewards. Making out passionately in a taxicab after The Merchant of Four Seasons; sleeping for the first time with someone new after Fear Eats the Soul: Ali; being taken back temporarily into an ex-girlfriend’s good graces as a coda to Fox and His Friends.
It is a curious fact that, in the New York of the ’70s, the films of this quintessentially gay director functioned as hot dates for straight couples. Their aphrodisiac effect came, I suspect, from the coldness with which he portrayed sex. Especially sex between men and women. Think of the nude, adulterous Irm Hermann riding her prone lover in The Merchant of Four Seasons, like a self-righteous Hausfrau performing with Lutheran grimness her duty to the sexual revolution. Fassbinder’s couplings displayed none of the mistiness found in commercial movies’ sex scenes, but rather a bold, brutal pleasure-taking, less sentimental even than pornography, because pornography has its own sentimentality (the achievement of orgasm), whereas Fassbinder disdained to record this final tenderness. One of his early titles, Love is Colder Than Death, expressed his (peculiarly liberating) denial of the humanistic pretensions of love. I cherished his intransigent pessimism and his ruthless division between love and sexual appetite. He was like Bresson: one of the strict ones.
I had already suspected on our first meeting that Gudrun was false, cold-hearted, and probably unable to appreciate my best qualities. I expected little to come of our date, yet I was excited enough for the chance to pursue her. Was this longing for beautiful women to be explained by simple immaturity, insecurity or unimaginative consumerism on my part? Ought I to chalk it up to a film aesthete’s saturation with the impossible dreams and erotic ideals the screen insidiously provided? Or perhaps this desire for beautiful women requires no excuse at all.
At the time, I kept picturing Gudrun’s roommate as a redhead—seeing them as two sexy continental actresses sharing a New York apartment. Fantasies, fantasies, and more fantasies. Yet, I also had my doubts; I even imagined arriving and finding nobody home. Maybe that was why I got to her posh address—she lived in a thin, tasty townhouse on the Upper East Side—ten minutes early.
The door opened on several people scurrying and scraping their chairs. A small dinner party of Europeans, at the grapes, cheese, and espresso stage. My evening date was clearing off the dishes from the table: it looked like the bones of a pork roast.
“So sorry, we have nothing to offer you!” said Gudrun with a dazzling smile. “It is all gone.” She introduced me quickly to her company as they headed out the door, and to her roommate, Emil, a curly-haired, handsome fellow in a turtleneck. He shook my hand affably, thinking nothing of loaning his woman to me for the evening. Such savoir-faire.
Gudrun had gone to fetch a jacket, leaving me alone with her beau.
“So you like modern German cinema?” he asked me with feigned astonishment.
“Some of it, yes.”
“But Fassbinder you like? I think I prefer Geistermacher and Schlöndorff, The Tin Drum.”
“Schlöndorff has made some good films,” I agreed.
“What do all you Americans see in Fassbinder? In Germany the public hates him.”
Just then, Gudrun returned and stared at us both suspiciously. There was something strained, older-looking about her tonight. I began to justify my liking for Fassbinder: first, formally (his economy of means, his rigorous camera style, his expressive framing and color sense, his sly, deliberate tempo), then thematically. All Fassbinder movies, I said, no matter where they start, end up illustrating that life is cruel, humiliating, and disappointing. In this way they were like Ozu or Naruse films, they gave no false consolation. And they were “religious” in the Buñuelian sense that every scene conveyed an underlying sense of sin.
I may as well have been speaking Chinese as far as Emil was concerned. Meanwhile, Gudrun pounced, “Say why you think that!” like a Prussian schoolmaster demanding, Define your terms, and when I did, then, “Ya, I see,” reluctantly impressed, but as though sniffing out potentially stale, coffeehouse ideologies with her sharp, chiseled nose.
“Are you a film critic?” Emil asked, as though only this could explain my taking movies so seriously.
“No, but I am a writer. What do you do?” I asked, shifting the spotlight off myself.
He pretended not to hear the question, and said something in German to Gudrun. She replied curtly. The second time I asked (I was curious!), he told me with disinclination that he ran a business in New Jersey. What kind of business? I inquired. Repairing stock cars, he muttered. I saw nothing shameful in that: it helped pay for this duplex, which, with a white staircase connecting one floor to the other, had the kind of charm a New Yorker would kill for, and that a foreigner of a certain class seemed to luck into effortlessly. I congratulated him on the find. He said it was not as expensive as it looked: the landlord was an eccentric, who liked them, so he gave them a bargain. “We even get to use his roof garden, which has Astroturf.” Though he said the word with the annoyingly slumming affection which hip Germans (like Wenders) have for American kitsch, there was something about this Emil I could not help liking: a square-jawed, basic innocence, perhaps.
He saw us to the door, and they again exchanged a few sentences in German. I imagined her saying, “I’ll ditch this sucker by eleven-thirty and return to you, luv, so keep the bed warm,” because his face lit up at the end.
In the taxi Gudrun told me she was writing a novel. It was to be all about America, from the viewpoint of a European woman. It would be called “The Money Farm” (what else?). “I don’t know if the title sounds so good in English. In German it sounds just right to my ear. The story is about an intellectual woman living in America with a racing-car driver. She does not understand him because he is not intellectual and so on. They start in New York and go to Las Vegas. It is written in short scenes. No chapters, just extra white space. Like in a film—oh, what is the word? In German we call it Schnitt.”
“Yes,” she said, surprised.
I told her I had recently published a novel. She asked me avidly how often I wrote, how many hours and pages a day, whether I made outlines. After each answer I gave, she became more insecure. She confessed she had never written a novel before and was probably not doing it right. I tried to reassure her that there was no “right way” to do a novel, each time one was in the dark. I sensed that she was both discounting my words, and secretly holding onto them.
The taxi to Lincoln Center got us there ahead of time and in our seats waiting for the film to begin she told me her life story. She had been a sensitive child, had written poems from early on, had done a little modeling and acting but decided to become a journalist “for practical reasons,” had married young and gotten divorced, had come to America to make big money but all she had gotten was the runaround. Now she wants to go back. But not until she finishes her novel. “I am at an age where I must make a success.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“The same as me. That’s not so old. Why must you have a success just now?”
“Because I am living in a country where I don’t feel I belong. And my child is back in Germany. She is ten years old and I want to join her. But it’s difficult, because of the father … . And I don’t communicate well with Emil. And for many other reasons.”
She looks unhappy, momentarily overwhelmed by her life. The lights dim. I would like to know how solid is this discontent with her boyfriend; but I don’t dare allow myself to think of it as an invitation. At stagefront, Richard Roud, the festival director, introduces Fassbinder, who says a few words in sweet, halting English, ending with the obligatory “I hope you will like the film.”
In fact, Despair is awful.
So awful that I probably would have left in the middle, were I by myself. Moreover, it is the first time I have failed to be charmed by Fassbinder. Oh, I’d seen weaker Fassbinders before (Chinese Roulette, Jailbait, Satan’s Brew, etc.), but each time there was the pleasure of watching a minor work by a major director, and enjoying the signature of his orderly style flowing through the chaotic, sloppy ruins. Indeed, some of my favorite Fassbinders were precisely the rawer or more plotless ones, when characters lurched around wasting time in an interesting way: Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, In a Year of Thirteen Moons … . The problem with Despair was that it did not feel, properly speaking, like a Fassbinder picture. It was a European Art Film, slickly shot, polished, with high production values—but no soul. Working from such seemingly highbrow material, a Tom Stoppard script adapted from a Nabokov novel, the director seemed lost, like a maître d’ at a fancy restaurant, left with nothing to do but seat people. The first half of the movie was taken up with shooting the characters through lamps and glass partitions, against frosted glass walls, amidst every Art Deco prop imaginable. John Grierson once remarked, à propos von Sternberg, that when a filmmaker deteriorates he becomes a photographer. In Fassbinder’s case, the temptation was to become an art director.
One reason the film lacked the proper Fassbinder tone was that it was in English; perhaps I was being snobbish in missing the exotic distancing of the German tongue. Another reason was the fetishistically tony way its international star, Dirk Bogarde, was employed, in a congealed parody of Visconti’s and Losey’s earlier, sexually ambiguous use of that actor. It did not help matters that Bogarde was called upon to fake a Russian accent, nor made to writhe randily yet distastefully in elegant dressing gown over a plump, naked Andrea Ferreol, whose fleshy corpulence the director seemed to mock. So much dialogue in the early reels was taken up with the hero calling his wife “a stupid woman” and a “featherbrain,” and she concurring with this judgment (while cuckolding him with her “cousin”), that it was hard not to scent misogyny. This time I felt alienated from Fassbinder’s overall sensibility: he seemed to be portraying heterosexuality itself as a vulgar, tacky prejudice.
The secret of Fassbinder’s dramatic power had always been the underground sympathy he showed for his otherwise messed-up characters; but this time there was no sympathy, only chilly mannerism. Bogarde plays a rich, jaded Russian, Herman Herman, who owns a chocolate factory. Neurotically detached from himself and his life, he meets a worker named Felix, who is broad-shouldered and endomorphic, but whom Herman deludely believes is the spit and image of himself. As in Hitchcock’s Stranger on a Train, the two men seem to merge identities, with homoerotic undertones. Herman kills Felix and exchanges his clothing with the corpse, thinking he can assume the dead man’s life as well. But of course, looking nothing like the victim, he is tracked down by the police, and the film ends with a Norman Bates-like voice-over monologue of the madman to the camera.
All this occurs against a rise-of-Nazism backdrop, which seems present more as costume opportunity—Weimar decadent chic—than serious political commentary. Amidst the deadeningly cynical reversals, the only feeling of any kind seems reserved for the scenes between Bogarde’s Herman and the proletarian Felix (Klaus Lowitsch). The plot, while admittedly clever, is also so far-fetched, so sterilely “playful,” that Fassbinder cannot settle down to telling it; his camera, usually so patient, roams over the natty decor like a restless shopper. The film itself ends up a box of (bitter) chocolates.
I cast about for some way to excuse my directorial idol. Perhaps it was the big budget: Fassbinder’s vitality came out strongest when improvising on the cheap. Or was it the script?—that Stoppard was all too crafty, I never liked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he’d tricked Fassbinder into playing his academic illusion-and-reality games, the way that other British playwright, David Mercer, had crippled poor Resnais in Providence. Or maybe it was excessive reverence for Nabokov’s text: Fassbinder’s crude power matched up poorly with the subtle, devious Russian master. And surely Bogarde’s arched-eyebrow performance deserved some blame; fine actor though he was, he needed sitting on. But in the end, the fault rested with Fassbinder. I wondered if he had exhausted the personal in his previous year’s masterpiece, In a Year of Thirteen Moons—gone so far in the direction of honesty that he could only retreat to this smoothly mannerist, armored style.
When we stood up, Gudrun slipped her cinnamon tweed jacket over her tapioca satin blouse. I notice that a) she is very beautiful, with that remarkable golden hair; and b) her cheeks look puffy. Could she have been so moved by that tripe?
“What did you think?” I ask.
“Well—I am afraid to say, not very good!”
“A total mess. Fassbinder’s worst,” I declare. We are relieved to agree. As we leave the theater, I ask self-consciously, “Would you like to go somewhere for a drink?”
“Yes, why not?” she answers, but somberly; she seems preoccupied, reabsorbed in her problems. She tells me she must fly tomorrow to Las Vegas to research the novel and write an article on American gambling for a German magazine. “This editor is a total swine.”
We walk a block or two to O’Neals, and just as we are about to go inside, she stops at the revolving doors, as if trying to remember something.
“I must go home because my teeth are hurting. I have had root canal today, and it still feels very sore. Did you ever have root canal?”
“No,” I say, “but it must be painful.” I put her in a yellow taxi, telling her to have a good time in Las Vegas, and walk home thinking, Root canal—that’s a new one.
“Root canal” seemed to put the perfect sardonic cap on this romantic misadventure. I regarded it purely as an alibi, and she as a “cheat,” escaping her social obligations to have a drink with me (the prolongation of my erotic fantasy); though I now wonder if her teeth were actually in pain, which would explain her puffy cheeks. In retrospect, I see that I had set myself up for disappointment: by bribing her with the ticket, I made it almost impossible to accept that she was interested in me, and I thrust her into the role of the heartless coquette who would leave me at the door of the saloon. I can hardly believe I was so naive as not to guess that her “roommate” was a man. Beautiful women rarely live alone. Perhaps I did have a premonition, but simply needed to play out the farce. When I met Emil, his rugged handsomeness clicked in my mind as the physically appropriate counterpart for the exquisite Gudrun. I was getting my comeuppance for thinking I could make off with this lovely starlet-type I had no business to covet. Back to your kennel.
Which shows how far we are willing to stretch reality to fit our need for rejection. The irony was that Gudrun was not a starlet, after all, but another struggling writer, eager for craft advice, who—far from dismissing me as a clumsy nerd—perhaps even looked up to me. Neither was she that clichéd “cold German” I had wanted her to be (as a frisson to my New York Jewish soul), but someone with a mountain of problems, who seemed trapped, baffled by life, going round and round in place. It was I who showed a measure of coldness by my inadequate, or uneven, sympathy. True, I had been touched by the frankness of her despair; yet, once I realized that my chances of sleeping with her were nil, I was happy to dismiss her as something between a misdirected opportunist and a loser. More precisely, I saw her as the prototype of an insecure glamorous woman who is utterly bored with her looks but has traded on them all her life, so that she doesn’t know how to substitute patience and discipline for the shortcuts they have given her.
And yet, I had listened eagerly enough. My mother had trained me from childhood on to listen to a woman’s troubles. Gudrun remarked that she thought it odd to be telling so many personal things so shortly after meeting me, but to me it was perfectly natural: I had slipped into the Oedipal situation, complete with larger virile man in the background whom she complained did not understand her. I had become the “son” paralyzed between pressing his suit and loyally defending his father. In the end, I had listened to Gudrun with the same engrossment I might have felt while watching one of Fassbinder’s films about women in crisis, such as Fear of Fear, in which a gaunt, elegant blonde becomes increasingly isolated and anxious. Life is the continuation of film by other means.
As it happened, I was given a second chance to take her seriously as a human being, when—marring the perfection of the “root canal” vignette—Gudrun phoned me, after her return from Las Vegas. She had greatly enjoyed our last conversation, she said, and called just to chat. She may also have been indirectly looking for a way out of her life with Emil, but this I will never know; I was not that encouraging and failed to arrange another meeting with her. It struck me at the time that she was lonely for a writing guru or a brotherly confidant, neither of which role I wanted to play with her. You see, I was in the market strictly for a lover.
* * *
And what about Fassbinder? Despair proved to be a turning point in my appreciation of him. Though I never reneged on my passion for his earlier movies, it was one of those films that jolted me out of a particular auteur worship. With Antonioni, the disenchantment had been Zabriskie Point, with Fellini, Juliet of the Spirits, with Kurosawa, Red Beard, with Truffaut, Stolen Kisses: these were works that exposed some smug, rancid, or intellectually shallow side of their maker’s personality, to an extent that it was no longer possible for me to look forward to their future productions with uncritical faith.
After Despair, Fassbinder went on to make a few decent movies, like Lola and Veronika Voss, but for the most part, I felt, his juices had dried up. Berlin Alexanderplatz, that supposed summit of Fassbinderist art, actually seems to me flat and indifferently realized, a TV miniseries directed by the yard. He appeared to have lost his way, partly thanks to drugs, by the time he died of an overdose. Of course, such hindsight can never be trusted: had he lived, he may well have got a second wind and turned out even riper, more mature masterpieces.
Indeed, I believe that the cinema has never properly recovered from the untimely deaths of its last two great visionaries, Fassbinder and Tarkovsky. Perhaps because we have never properly grieved them—allowed ourselves fully to feel the emptiness their passing left on the world’s screens—we cinephiles stumble on, mumbling and complaining and hoping and exaggerating our enthusiasms, in the perplexing, splintered, and mostly numb terrain which is contemporary film.
“We have lost our greasy wild boar,” Werner Herzog said after Fassbinder’s death. Hearing his words, I felt a pang of loss myself; and I wished I had bothered to introduce myself to the leather-jacketed maestro that evening at the Goethe House.
“Fassbinder’s Depair,” from Phillip Lopate’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, to be published by Anchor Books in November.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee