The Fassbinder Bender: One month, five movies.

A casual observer watches “Love Is Colder Than Death.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder died alone in a locked bedroom in 1982, age 37. His television was on, a cigarette had gone cold between his lips, and blood leaked from a solitary nostril. A mix of barbiturates and cocaine had killed him at about 3 AM as he worked on a film.

Fassbinder and Ulli Lommel in “Love is Colder than Death”

From 1969 to 1982 Fassbinder completed over forty films, two television series, 24 plays, and seven short films and video productions. He would act, write, direct, compose, shoot, and edit.

Roger Ebert wrote, “He was sublimely uninterested in publicity, in press conferences, in interviews. He wasn’t awake during the hours when all of that went on. At some festivals he would have two or three films, but until late in his career they were made on small budgets with unknown actors, so he didn’t have to play the money game. Yet the screenings for his movies were always packed — critics wanted to see them even if their readers back home didn’t — and there was always a feeling of heightened anticipation when the lights went down.”

German cinema stagnated between the end of the war and 1962. Along with directors Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Helma Sanders-Brahms, and Margarethe von Trotta, Fassbinder was a catalyst of New German Cinema. The movement focused on art rather than commercial appeal.

It’s been years since I watched Fassbinder, and I’ve never compared his films. In October, I will watch and review five of his works and leave my thoughts and impressions.


Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)

I’ll not summarize what others have written on Fassbinder’s experimental use of the “blank canvas” or his use of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt in his feature-length debut, Love Is Colder Than Death. And, I can’t summarize the plot because I’m still uncertain. Gangsters and whores, and the like. It doesn’t matter. For me, the film was about a mood and a fine-tuning a technique.

Love Is Colder Than Death plays like a series of comic book panels spliced side-by-side. Either there is strict obedience to the rule of thirds and an abundance of negative space, or uncomfortable symmetrical framing with the subject dead-center. Rarely, there’s a tracking shot. Occasionally there is a Sergio Leone-like close up.

Some of it works to tell the story. Some of it misfires. It’s beautiful and I’m guessing (hoping?) it’s a proving ground for Fassbinder’s subsequent oeuvre.

If Love Is Colder Than Death were two reels of beautiful camerawork, I’d enjoy it. Young Fassbinder, however, understands cinema. To near-perfect effect, he isolates his characters to better reflect their isolated, narcissistic lives. If the underlying story had chops, I’d gush.

In a scene that doesn’t work, two characters talk at a window, but never share the cinematic frame over the course of conversation. I understand the intent, but jarring editing makes the idea less effective.

In a scene that does work, gangster Franz (Fassbinder) and his whore Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) are together in-frame, but ignore one another. He fidgets with a gun. She removes her stockings. Like so many interactions in the film, the scene evokes an Edward Hopper painting — people together, but not present.

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932

A final thought: the movie made me wish I were a friend of Fassbinder’s in the ’70s. It would be a trip to be a part of his circle, working all night and becoming part of a fast, critically-acclaimed low-budget film.

Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t. The fun of a roller coaster is that one can step off.