In the process of creating our “Love Is Colder Than Death” t-shirt — a tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder — we came across a fascinating interview with the filmmaker that first appeared in German Playboy in April, 1978. In it, Hella Schlumberger speaks to Fassbinder about love, false utopias, and his recurring nightmare of murdering someone. Read our abridged version below:
You’re always criticizing the “provincialism” of Germany, but you’re not in America yet. Why not?
You can’t draw any conclusions from the fact that I’m still here. Besides, I’m in Paris most of the time. I think Germany’s well on its way to being a nation where people become more and more alike. And that means that individualists …
Like you …
You said it, not I … that people who react a little differently to reality have to ask themselves whether they can still afford to have opinions. Whether it’s worth it. And that’s where castration of the imagination begins.
Could you see yourself being forced some day, like Gunter Grass in Italy recently, to defend Germany against the charge of being a fascistic country?
I couldn’t bring myself to defend Germany the way Herr Grass does. Besides, they really should find a new word instead of “fascism.”
So what does keep you here in the Federal Republic?
Obviously the language first of all, which I grew up with and work in. Then my upbringing, my childhood, which of course left their traces – actually those are the reasons why I didn’t leave a long, long time ago.
But you always emphasize that you hardly had an upbringing.
I didn’t have an organized, painful upbringing, the kind you’d have to rebel against later on. But afterwards no one could ever get me to go along with anything I didn’t accept.
People say you’re authoritarian. Is that true?
I used to be authoritarian, because I didn’t have so many options. Today I can afford to work without the authority that’s usually reserved for a director. For that reason I prefer to work with professionals. Earlier, when people were trying to work non-hierarchically, the group would always look for a Daddy or Mommy when the going got tough. If I hadn’t taken on that role, the group, I mean the various groups, would have collapsed much sooner. But professionals don’t expect me to play a paternalistic role.
They expect me to accept them as professionals, motivate them, and acknowledge the significance they have within the production. The better and more freely they can work, the less anxiety in the atmosphere.
Well, what sort of people are they?
From the beginning I’ve tried to line up film crews who know their craft so well that they really enjoy learning new things. Not people who are just learning the ropes, but those who enjoy trying out something new. It was similar with the actors: the more I had real professionals – the kind who could still be motivated – the less anxiety I felt, and the more new forms could be tried out, because they had perfect command of what was normally expected of them.
What sort of anxiety do you mean, what about?
About failing, about not being validated. It’s only while you’re still learning your metier that you think you have to keep your eye on everything. Not later on. A lighting man you can leave to handle the job as he sees fit can do incredibly wonderful and important things for a production. In the case of all the professionals who’ve got caught in the wheels of television, you can see how their imagination’s being crushed, how they’re being molded to perform on command. When creativity’s driven out and only routine performance is wanted, many of them begin to drink, as a way of dealing with all the cringing they’re forced to do. And it seems to me that if you live your life in a cowardly way, whatever you actually manage to do can’t possibly be very courageous. But we happen to live in a country where that sort of thing’s encouraged.
Earlier on you spoke scornfully of the “left-liberal journalists”– what do you have against the leftists in the Federal Republic?
Most of them aren’t that at all, in my opinion. A left that’s so little capable of organizing itself …
Well, they’re individualists, too.
But if they really want to defend this individuality they should realize that some form of organization is needed. By the way, that’s a sentence I don’t find easy to say, because I’m basically against any form of organization myself. But how can we preserve individuality in a totally organized society, in a system that will soon be using computers to store information on each of our habits and preferences, if we don’t fight it with halfway similar methods? As in fact the reactionaries are doing.
You never say anything against them.
Against the reactionaries? Just look at the films I make. Fundamentally I’ve never made movies for the reactionaries; they don’t need to be told what I think of them.
And where do you fit in politically in this country, if at all?
Here, I wouldn’t categorize myself as “leftist.” If I did, I’d have to ask myself which of these splinter groups I identify with, which one I’d want to work with to try to do something for freedom. I’m well aware of how depressingly ineffectual they are, and it seems to me you’ve got to find better ways to fight such terrifying things as that law that excludes political radicals from civil-service professions. And soon you won’t even be allowed to demonstrate against nuclear power plants. The fact that things could move at such a dizzying pace certainly shows that we don’t have an effective left. And when this Italian professor asks in his seminar papers, “Why is there no opposition in the FRG?”people here smile at the question and say the man doesn’t know much about the country, but I’m sorry to say he’s right. There isn’t any opposition.
You don’t expect to find similar horrors in American society?
A society you haven’t grown up in, which you can’t see through as easily – well, obviously you’ll be less critical toward it. In France you have a broad-based middle class whose life I would describe as more pleasant, and from the outset they’re given more options than the Germans. People know they’re allowed to have an opinion, and it’s not held against you. So of course you enjoy forming one, you see?
Is it still true, as we hear, that in Paris you go sit in a cafe, drink, play pinball, listen to music, and write your screenplays?
It’s true, I’ve done that. In Munich, too, I always have the radio on; I can get up, watch TV, and so on. I have to have an atmosphere where I can switch to something else. These incredibly white sheets of paper really have something terrifying, something paralyzing about them if I tell myself they’ve got to be filled up with writing. For me writing isn’t a sacred act, to be carried out in absolute silence. I find writing strenuous, because you have to formulate in words something that already happened a long time ago in your mind.
And how do you react when people throw obstacles in your path when you’re working on a project like Garbage, the City, and Death, when they charge you with being anti-Semitic?
I didn’t understand it; I found it infuriating. And then the reasons they gave! That’s the last taboo in Germany, this business with the Jews. And clinging to this taboo, in my opinion, isn’t a way of defending the Jews but a further form of discrimination. If you’re not allowed to talk about them, that simply means that someday they’ll be the scapegoats again. I can’t explain it any other way.
And those other taboos – homosexuality, prostitution, and transvestitism?
If you present the exotic side, the glamor, then of course they don’t treat these things as taboo, only if you show the societal context. That’s the case with all minorities. Earlier, when I was still making films where the representatives of the minorities were good and the others were bad, society really lapped up my films. But when I came up with the much truer idea of showing the minorities the way society has made them, with all their twisted behavior, then suddenly people didn’t like my films anymore.
Do you yourself belong to a minority?
Yes, to several.
To which ones?
Well, to the minority that can afford to leave this country. Then, since I have the concrete utopia of anarchy in my head, I’m an extreme proponent of democracy, and that’s a minority, too. That’s something you hardly dare mention anymore, this business about anarchy, because we’ve learned from our media that anarchy and terrorism are synonymous. See, on the one hand you have a utopian ideal of a form of government that would function without hierarchies, without fear, without aggression, and on the other hand you have a concrete social situation in which utopias are suppressed. The fact that terrorism could develop here means that the utopian ideal was suppressed far too long. So a few people flipped out, understandably. And a certain ruling class actually wanted that, perhaps even unconsciously, in order to be able to constitute itself more definitively.
What do you do when you’re not working? What do you do for fun?
Don’t know. I enjoy going for a drive. Not really looking for adventure, the way other people do, younger people. Nope, in countries and cities where there’s a different culture, where I don’t even bother to try to get a handle on the social inequities. Just driving around. I might even describe it as tourism.
You go alone?
I’m trying more and more to learn how to be alone.
The things we often read, about your being a “misogynist” and so on – are they true?
Somehow it’s really idiotic to always have to be saying “I’m not a misogynist, I’m not an anti-Semite.” This is where I think this misogynist business comes from: I take women more seriously than most directors do. To me women aren’t just there to get men going; they don’t have that role as object. In general, that’s an attitude in the movies that I despise. And I simply show that women are forced more than men to use some pretty revolting methods to escape from this role as object.
And how about you personally?
I have pretty much the same relationship with men and with women. When needs become compulsions, when something that was once fun degenerates into a demand, I always react aggressively and negatively. With Ingrid Caven, the woman I was married to at one time, I still have my most important elective affinity.
Didn’t you use to be fairly jealous?
I still am.
At the moment do you have a, shall we say, happy relationship with anyone?
Nope, I don’t. For three and a half years I’ve been living with Armin Meier, and that’s a particularly difficult relationship. Then, as I said, the important relationship with Ingrid, which now that we’re divorced has actually gone back to what it used to be. The fact that someone’s simply there, you understand, something you don’t have to use all the time or use out of habit. Then I have a very complicated relationship with my mother. I finally came to understand her as my mother at a time when she was very ill. On the one hand, that brought out pity in me; on the other hand, guilt, because in my egocentrism – as a child I was terribly egocentric, because I didn’t have any authority figure who could have put me in my place – I saw her illness as my fault, which then brought out hostility in me. That seemed to me the only way to endure this guilt, no matter how ludicrous and imaginary it was. I’m certain we’ll never get over these complications completely, but in the meantime we’ve become capable of developing something we couldn’t have earlier, a friendship. So those are three; the fourth of my happiness-producing or non-happiness-producing relationships is the one with Michael Ballhaus …
Yes, as a director you really need a cameraman. It goes so far that your two independent private lives actually come to be dependent on each other – that became clear to us the longer we worked together. How important my cameraman is to me is a relatively recent insight. Earlier I would have denied it.
And all these relationships you regard as “material” to be used in your work. Can you really still live spontaneously?
Viewed quite soberly, no. On the other hand, I think that by going through extreme situations involving despair and pain, even when they’re used as “material,”you can arrive at a new spontaneity. That seems to offer a better chance of achieving a new naivete of experience than repression.
That sounds pretty fragmented, pretty negative. Isn’t there any positive realm for you?
Not for me. It seems to me the society I live in is shaped not by happiness and freedom but rather by oppression, fear, and guilt. In my opinion, what we’re taught to experience as happiness is a pretext that a society shaped by various forms of compulsion offers the individual. And I’m not about to accept that offer.
Well, where do you get the strength to go on working?
From my utopian ideal, from my perfectly concrete yearning for this utopia. If this yearning is driven out of me, I’ll come to a dead stop; that’s why I have this feeling I’m being murdered as a creative person in Germany, and please don’t take that for paranoia. In my opinion, this witch hunt we’ve been going through, which I think is only the tip of the iceberg, was staged to destroy individuals’ utopias. And also to cause my fears and guilt to become overwhelming. When it’s reached the point where my fears are greater than my yearning for something beautiful, I’ll have to put an end to it. Not only to my work.
To your life?
Yes, sure. There’s no reason to exist when you don’t have a goal any more.
But you are trying to realize parts of this utopia in your own life, aren’t you?
Yes. Of course you try it first in human relationships. But I’d say that I’ve been more successful at driving away fears through work, through work done jointly with others. And then there are moments of great happiness that validate me in what I’m doing, and not only me, the whole team.
Could you imagine falling madly in love, going away somewhere and not working at all?
Funny, when I’ve fallen madly in love it’s always resulted on the contrary in a craze for work. I want to work with the person in question, because for me it all goes together.
How do you feel in Paris – in comparison with Munich?
Better, because in Paris there are many more opportunities to do the things you want to, but also the freedom not to do them. I don’t have to clutter up my mind with things I’d like to do but can’t, the way I do in Munich.
What sort of things?
Cultural, personal, sexual, whatever.
You couldn’t conceive of living out in the country?
No. What sort of a relationship do you have to nature, if any? I don’t find nature any more human than human beings.
Just as cruel?
Is there one recurrent dream you have?
Yes. There’s a dream in which I’ve committed a murder. Sometimes I know whom I’ve murdered, and sometimes I just know that I’ve murdered someone, and sometimes I don’t even know whether I’ve murdered someone, but I’m living under suspicion or on the run.
Along with the feeling of being pursued, do you also have a sense that you’re guilty?
That’s the problem I’m always turning over in my mind. I don’t believe that being pursued is the crucial thing in these dreams, but rather the idea that there’s something that gives me this sense of guilt or wants to make me aware of some kind of guilt through the dream. That’s more important than the part about being pursued, which is just very uncom- fortable. And that part is probably only there to make me experience the guilt, or whatever it is, in a more concrete way.
Is there ever a time when you’re cheerful?
Always — for instance, I’m cheerful right now.
Aha. But it doesn’t show.
It doesn’t have to. Cheerfulness that’s characterized as cheerfulness by the usual signs usually isn’t the real thing. I’m cheerful in a certain way, and it’s for myself. Expressing it – that’s something I can’t do.
You don’t want to, either.
I probably can’t do it because I don’t want to. If I’m so cheerful that people notice, they’ll be totally nonplussed and say, “He must be mentally deranged,” or something like that. As much as possible I want to avoid replaying my life. Do you understand what I mean?
Well, I don’t want to trot my feelings out all over again, the way it happens in a film or on television or in the theater, where you would stage it so others could see what was happening inside you.
Is that too simplistic for you, too crude?
That’s neither too simplistic nor too crude for me. It would just take an effort that would destroy the feeling for me.
Yet other people’s feelings don’t matter to you.
No, I experience other people’s joy just the same as mine. I don’t have to be told about it.
Haven’t you ever heard from others that your presence doesn’t exactly encourage people to be open, because you always have this air of artificiality about you?
I’d think it would be just the opposite. But when a person who’s eating feels it’s necessary to keep saying “Oh, what a marvelous piece of meat!” or “This sauce is incredibly delicious!” I have a strange feeling that for some reason he has to talk himself into believing it. Or if you’re out for a walk and the other person keeps saying how lovely it is to go walking with you and look at the sunset. Then I say, “No way, thanks a lot.” Up to here and no farther. Someone who always feels the necessity to say what he may or may not be feeling – he must have to talk himself into it. There’s a wonderful film about this, which I saw when I was very young and which had a big influence on me: Le bonheur, by Agnès Varda. The film says that for people who are objectively happy but who feel they have to keep asserting it, happiness is incredibly interchangeable. The man has a wife and two children, and they always find everything just beautiful. Then the woman kills herself, yes, she does, and then he has the next one, and everything just continues as before, because there’s no real emotion behind it. That’s how I would see the problem of the whole. In principle I’m not against expressing something now and then, on the contrary – language is a significant means of getting things across, after all. But I just think it shouldn’t be a constant thing. Especially when it comes to feelings, I really react critically.
Are you sometimes afraid of seeming banal to yourself?
No, I wouldn’t say that. No.
For instance, can you say, “I love you”?
I can, for instance. There comes a moment when I can’t do anything but say it. I’ve even got myself to the point where I don’t tell myself how dumb it sounds. In the beginning I would say “I love you,” but make it ironic. In the meantime I’ve taught myself not to, and when the moment comes, I simply say it. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not standing back and watching myself at the same time. But this business of always checking to see if my experiences can be used as material is another question.
So you do use these love scenes as material, don’t you?
That’s true. On the one hand I use what I’ve experienced as material, on the other hand I allow my film characters much more leeway than I give myself. For instance, I reached the point much earlier with the characters in my films where I could give them a chance to express their feelings directly.
So through your film characters …
With my film characters …
Through and along with your film characters you yourself have changed?
Yes. If you look at my first ten films one after the other, you’ll notice that these characters really had a chance to react incredibly directly in situations. Basically they’re not very talkative, right? And suddenly … yes, in the first ten films the expression, “Wow, that’s crazy!” occurs at least fifty times, simply because someone experiences a situation as so powerful, as so complex, that that’s all he can say. That can mean anything and everything, terrible or terrific. At that time I wouldn’t have allowed myself to say something like that. But today I would.
In your case do work and love contradict or complement each other?
I don’t follow a fixed pattern, if that’s what you mean – one day of living, one day of writing. Rather, I’ve lived a few weeks during which a project took concrete shape in my mind, and then there’s nothing but work for a few days, a few weeks, it depends, and that’s really the sexual contact with the work process; it turns me on. It’s no accident that there have been people in my life who became jealous of a typewriter, a writing pad, a tape recorder, or a camera, even more jealous than they would have been of another human being.
Are you capable of, how shall I put it, surrendering to another person?
Once I had a relationship in which I came pretty much to the verge of self-surrender. That happened to me once, but it won’t happen again.
Yes. From that relationship I learned never to let a relationship get that way again.
And an equal relationship between two people who are equally strong?
That would be desirable, sure. In practice … well, you can only hope, let’s put it that way.
So theoretically you could live alone.
You’re asking why I don’t forgo my relationships? I guess I still need them for some reason. Unfortunately.
Yes, unfortunately. I’m at a point where I would actually be very glad if I could live without steady relationships. Probably I’d be happier. To what extent I’d succeed in achieving that is another question.
What do you actually have besides work, love, smoking, and drinking?
Not a thing. What I do gives me pleasure. Even the pressure I occasionally subject myself to – deadline pressures and the like – aren’t stressful for me.
But when you express it that way, it doesn’t really sound convincing.
Yes, yes, because it’s changed a little, because I have to recognize that I subject myself to fewer pressures than I used to. But I can’t work for the desk drawer, that I can’t do. Writing or directing a play in the theater, making a film – there the external structure provided by deadlines really meets my needs.
How would you define yourself if you had to? What are your weaknesses?
It’s fairly hard to answer that. As I see it, and as I live, I don’t have any weaknesses. I’ve set things up so that objectively I won’t have any, but can simply live my life subjectively, the best way I can conceive of. I know that’s a luxury. Maybe that’s my weakness, that I do it. But I’d answer your question this way: I don’t have any weaknesses so long as I’m still working to do something about the things I consider wrong. They only become weaknesses when they become rigid, become final stages.
So you’d picture the ideal partner as being just like you, without weaknesses?
That would be my ideal, yes.
You haven’t found anyone like that yet?
So the people you were together with were more like your opposites?
Up to now I’ve picked people to live with for a longer time who didn’t present an intellectual challenge for me. More psychological, practical challenges, if at all. Maybe that’s a weakness. But then I’ve had so many important experiences that I couldn’t have had with people I could only interact with intellectually. I’d really like to be involved with someone with whom everything is possible. Where sex, eroticism, consciousness, everything is in constant dialogue. And that in one person – that would be great. Except I don’t believe anymore that it’s possible.
Have the themes of your films, the general tenor, changed markedly in the last ten years?
No, the tenor, if you will, hasn’t changed. The theme’s remained the same, and always will remain the same: the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings within the system that we live in, and that at least one generation or more after us will certainly have to live in. What’s changed is the workmanship, the form,where I always try to get beyond what I’ve already mastered. In contrast to other artists, I’ve given up the purist notion about art that I once had: that art has to be very direct and very simple. For me that always had to do with the level of my technical skill. For me it would have been a mistake to stick with these theories once they were developed. For others that may be perfectly all right.
In your films death appears often. You’ve said that there were situations in your life when you played with the idea of killing yourself. How do you feel about that at the moment?
Life doesn’t become manageable and accessible until the moment when death is accepted as the true aspect of existence. As long as death is treated as a taboo, life remains uninteresting. A society based on the exploitation of human beings has to treat death as a taboo. In my life there came an important moment when my body suddenly realized it was mortal. Since then life’s been much more fun for me. Even if it doesn’t always appear that way, as you’ve remarked a couple of times. It was the business with the pain in my heart. It got to the point where I couldn’t breathe, where I said to myself, “Okay, now you’re going to swallow all the pills.” It wasn’t until the doctor examined me and said that physically there was nothing wrong with me that the symptoms stopped. Within three days. The body really is terrifying.
This difference between the body, which gets you in the end, and the spirit, which is actually immortal – that’s really a terrible discrepancy. A spirit which, existentially speaking, can move about freely, and a body with intestines – ugh!
It sounds as though you don’t have a particularly affectionate relationship with your body.
That’s where you’re completely mistaken. I have great affection for the opportunities for fun, for pleasure, for everything my body’s capable of producing. No doubt about it. Still, not for one moment does the body lose the repulsive feature that it can refuse to meet the needs of my spirit. The spirit’s there, and in a different body it would certainly be different, too. Of course the spirit has to make do with the specific body through which it experiences things.
Do you actually want to be someone entirely different, or are you satisfied with who you are?
No, no. Well, maybe way back, when I was between fifteen and twenty and had really bad acne. Otherwise, never. I’m much too content with myself. Really, I’m so satisfied with myself that it borders on lunacy.