The good news: I finally get to review a film by Fassbinder.
The bad news: The film is "The Stationmaster's Wife" (1977).
Let's start with the good news.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the best known of all the New German filmmakers during the 1970s. His reputation exceeded even that of the infamous daredevil/madman Werner Herzog. Fassbinder was a one-man film industry, a relentless dynamo whose star burned white hot like few others before or since. To call Rainer Werner Fassbinder prolific doesn't begin to do justice to one of the unique careers in modern cinema.
Depending on how you count them, Fassbinder directed forty feature-length films in a thirteen-year period from 1969 to 1982. This counts "Berlin Alexanderplatz," Fassbinder's 15-hour long television mini-series, as just one film. If you're not amazed yet, try this measure: Fassbinder's first feature length film, "Love is Colder than Death," was produced in 1969; his tenth, "Beware of a Holy Whore," was produced in 1971. Fassbinder not only directed, but also wrote most of his films. He acted in many of them as well, though he appeared on-camera much less often as his career progressed. I'm not even going to talk about the numerous plays he wrote, performed and directed in the few spare minutes he had between each film shoot.
Fassbinder developed an efficient system for rolling films off the assembly line. Like many great directors, he worked with the same actors over and over again, particularly his leading ladies. Margit Carstinsen, Brigitte Mira, Irm Herrmann, Ingrid Caven (briefly Fassbinder's wife), and the magnificent Hanna Schygulla (perhaps my favorite actress of all-time) came to be known as "Fassbinder's women" though they also worked with other New German directors. With a troupe that was familiar with his working methods, Fassbinder wrote and directed his films as fast and furious as possible. Often, he relied heavily on long master shots to help speed up shooting; "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972) is the most extreme example, consisting of only a handful of extended shots (perhaps no more than a dozen, though I don't have an official count).
You might expect his films to have a rough-hewn, no-frills look to them. While that is true of his earlier films, his later works are highly stylized with very elaborate set designs and camera movements. Fassbinder became enamored of the Hollywood films of German transplant Douglas Sirk, and he imitated and amplified Sirk's stylistic excesses. Like Sirk, Fassbinder worked almost exclusively in melodrama, though he exploited the genre for some rather scathing political and social critiques of modern Germany. Some critics would replace the word "scathing" with "misanthropic." Fassbinder's detractors decry his films as needlessly sour and mean-spirited; he has been accused from everything from misogyny to homophobia, the latter despite the fact that he was openly bisexual. Love him or hate him, it is fair to say that Fassbinder's vision of the world and of humanity is a profoundly dark one. Of course, the same thing is true of many great directors, Kubrick and Bresson among them.
As you would expect, a relentless production schedule like Fassbinder's generates its share of failures as well as successes. Unfortunately, "The Stationmaster's Wife," loosely adapted from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," is one of the failures. Fassbinder regular Kurt Raab stars as Xaver Bolwieser, a dull-witted husband who is obsessed with his sexy new wife Hanni (Elisabeth Trissenar). Unfortunately for Xaver, the rest of the town shares his obsession, and Hanni is more than happy to indulge all suitors. At first, she has an affair with the town butcher Merkl (Bernhard Helfrich) but pretty soon the rest of the men in town are lining up for their turn.
Xaver manages somehow to be the only person in town who doesn't know about his wife's extracurricular activities, and he quickly becomes a walking laughingstock. When Xaver confronts Hanni, she not only denies the charges but insists that her husband file suit against some of the townsfolk for libel. As if being married to the town slut and being openly mocked by everyone in town wasn't bad enough, Xaver manages to dig himself an even deeper hole by committing perjury in court. Though he does it to protect Hanni's "honor" (*ahem*), he gets himself thrown in jail for four years after which his wife divorces him. As fellow hard-luck case Charlie Brown might say, "Good grief!"
Unfortunately, Xaver isn't nearly as sympathetic as good ol' Chuck. Xaver is a putz, a schmuck, a total loser; if he doesn't quite deserve what he gets, you can't help but root for somebody to give him a vigorous thrashing. His total cluelessness is implausible at first, and quickly becomes infuriating. Xaver is ultimately no more likeable than any of the other miserable louts in this god-forsaken town. Every character in this movie is either pathetic or cruel; those charges of misanthropy aren't entirely misplaced.
"The Station Master's Wife" is not without its charms. Xaver and Hanni own a parrot that constantly shrieks as if it was being roasted alive; these hideous screeches punctuate the soundtrack at strategic moments in the film, a bit of dark humor from the director. Fassbinder also makes great use of reflective surfaces throughout the film, producing some of the loveliest shots in his oeuvre outside of the exquisitely beautiful "Veronika Voss" (1981). Some of the swooping crane shots are worth the price of admission themselves, but can't spice up this lackluster story. "The Stationmaster's Wife," known as "Bolwieser" in Germany, was originally a much longer television movie, and was chopped down by nearly an hour for its theatrical release. Perhaps the complete version offers a more compelling narrative; what we're left with here only carries the faintest hints of Fassbinder's enormous talent.
Just as Fassbinder's star burned hot, it also burned out quickly. Fassbinder was a man of insatiable appetites, infamous not only for his sexual exploits (according to one rumor, he cheated on his wife on their wedding day… with the best man) but also for his voracious drug use. You don't make forty films in thirteen years and bang half of West Germany without a little chemical aid. Unfortunately, Fassbinder pushed the envelope too far and died of a drug overdose in 1982, at the age of 37.
The film, originally broadcast on television, is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is a bit too murky. I suspect the original colors in the film are much brighter (remember Fassbinder was a man of Douglas Sirk) than they appear on this DVD. However, the image quality is clear and more than acceptable.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.
One Critic's Guide to Fassbinder
"The Stationmaster's Wife" is not the best example of Fassbinder's work, but is still a welcome addition to the burgeoning Fassbinder DVD library (which now takes up an entire shelf in my bookcase). Fassbinder's prodigious output can be daunting for a first-time viewer. Therefore, I offer my personal Top Ten list of Fassbinder films, all available on DVD, which you may or may not wish to use as a guide. I am not listing them in any particular order save for his masterpiece "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974) which I recommend as a starting point for anyone.
Ten Essential Fassbinder Films
"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974)
"The Merchant of Four Seasons" (1972)
"The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" (1972)
"Veronika Voss" (1982)
"Love is Colder than Death" (1969)
"The American Soldier" (1970)
"The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1979)
"Beware of a Holy Whore" (1971)
Fassbinder will not be suited to everyone's taste, but what great artist is? There are no other directors like Fassbinder. You wouldn't want to go through life without seeing one of his films, would you?