‘Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands’ (‘Fassbinder – Lieben Ohne Zu Fordern’): Berlin Review

Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An inclusive biographical portrait that’s more psychological than cinematic

Danish author-director Christian Braad Thomsen reflects on the life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder had one of the most prolific careers of anyone working after the silent movie era. Directing more than sixty feature films, telefilms and short films, as well as two full-length TV series, in the span of only fifteen years, Fassbinder’s cinematic output is simply mind-blowing. But what’s even more impressive is the fact that within his massive body of work, there are several certified masterpieces, while hardly any film can be deemed a total misfire. Practically everything the guy made was great.

Delving into the motivations that drove Fassbinder to such artistic excess – and to his death at the age age 37 from what one actor called an “overdose of work” (officially it was an overdose of cocaine) – Danish author-director Christian Braad Thomsen offers up a comprehensive biographical portrait filled with film clips, archive footage and interviews, including a rarely seen 1978 Cannes-set dialogue that finds the auteur nursing a monumental hangover (and a full glass of whisky). It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the mind of a major auteur, even if Thomsen tends to favor psychology over cinema. A premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section will be followed by fest, cable and VOD play.

While Fassbinder – who was born in Bavaria in 1945 – is recognized as one of the foremost German directors of the post-war era, the opening scene in Thomsen’s documentary reveals how that wasn’t always the case. Footage from the premiere of his debut feature, Love is Colder Than Death, at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, shows the film’s screening met with boos and shouts of scheiss (shit) from local critics. At the press conference, Fassbinder seems to ignore the clamor, simply stating that his movie is about “feelings.” In a later talk with Thomsen, he explains how early genre works like Love were his way to “collect [his]own understanding of Hollywood films.”

Such remarks, as well as a discussion about Fassbinder’s idol Douglas Sirk (whose All That Heaven Allows he remade into one of his best films, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) help us gain some insight into the cinematic underpinnings of his work. But for the most part, Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands is a portrait of the man and not the movies, concentrating on how a chaotic but happy childhood shaped him into an obsessive workaholic who in one record stretch, directed five features in only five months, while claiming to sleep merely three hours a night for much of his adult life.

Fassbinder believed that his tumultuous upbringing, where he was raised by a single mother and often left to his own devices, created an “illness that gave him the strength” to be both so prolific and so controlling. Having constantly switched households between his mom and his father, as well as other relatives, he was forever in search of a new family – and managed to create his own with the coterie of actors he would cast time and again in his films: Hanna Schygulla, Gunther Kaufmann, Ingrid Caven, Kurt Raab, Gottfried John, Irm Hermann and Harry Baer.

The latter two are featured in present-day interviews, with Hermann recounting a harrowing love affair with the director that ended with her botched suicide attempt. Indeed, anyone who worked or fell in love with Fassbinder (it was often both) could be subject to his excessive demands, but also to his brilliance, and Thomsen gives his film ominous chapter headings like “The Adult Child,” “Sadomasochism” and “Death” to underline the immensely difficult persona the director created on and off the set.

If there are scattered movie excerpts – including scenes from Ali, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Martha and Despair – featured throughout, they’re used more to reveal how Fassbinder’s personality was reflected in his work, rather than to highlight his filmmaking style or approach to narrative. (One section does however deal with his direction of actors.) It’s more of a thematic and psychological profile, but one that does a good job explaining what made the man tick. “I only thought I existed when I was working,” he mentions at one point, and Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands ultimately reveals how, and perhaps why, the great German auteur wound up working himself to death.

Production company: Kollektiv Film
Director: Christian Braad Thomsen
Producer: Christian Braad Thomsen
Director of photography: Bente Petersen
Editor: Grete Meoldrup
Composer: Peer Raben

No rating, 109 minutes