Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the German Theatre

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the German Theatre

by David Barnett

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Using extensive and untapped archival material as well as a series of in-depth interviews with Fassbinder's main theatre associates, this book offers commentary on and insights into Fassbinder's plays, his dramaturgies and staging practice. David Barnett helps to unlock the much-discussed theatricality of Fassbinder's films by showing its many concrete sources. As


Using extensive and untapped archival material as well as a series of in-depth interviews with Fassbinder's main theatre associates, this book offers commentary on and insights into Fassbinder's plays, his dramaturgies and staging practice. David Barnett helps to unlock the much-discussed theatricality of Fassbinder's films by showing its many concrete sources. As the first study of Fassbinder's work in the theatre, as a playwright and director, this book presents full contextualization of his work within the upheavals of its times. Readers are introduced to the cultural history of the West German theatre in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Barnett brings to this project the expertise of a scholar of contemporary German drama and theater history. His analysis of Fassbinder's work in different areas of the theater—as a stage actor, director and playwright—is informed by extensive archival research on the plays and the original productions as well as twenty interviews with central actors, ensemble members, and theater critics who followed his career." - Cynthia Walk, University of California, San Diego

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Cambridge University Press
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Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre Series
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5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.10(d)

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the German Theatre
Cambridge University Press
0521855144 - Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the German Theatre - by David Barnett


Fassbinder: life, film and theatre

Rainer Werner Fassbinder may well have died on 10 June 1982 at the age of thirty-seven, yet the spectre of his biography has eclipsed the forty-two films he left behind, and the rest of the work has remained an underrated footnote to the excesses of his life. The publication, in the same year as his death, of three books by two close associates and an author with whom Fassbinder had worked in various capacities helped to establish a series of Fassbinder legends which have never really forsaken him or his reputation.1 The biographical interpretation of his work followed and has more or less been a staple of Fassbinder criticism, with a couple of notable exceptions. Psychologizing accounts which include his work more as an excuse for revelations and speculations have been written by Ronald Hayman, Robert Katz and Peter Berling. The new monograph on the artist that was released to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death contains the line that Fassbinder's life was 'identical to his film work'.2 The biographical interpretation of his work was not helped in the slightest by a television film, Ein Mann wie EVA (A Man like EVA), directed by Radu Gabrea in 1983, which highlighted all the worst clichés about Fassbinder's life. The idea of casting a woman (Eva Mattes, an actress Fassbinder worked with on several occasions) in heavy make-up as 'Fassbinder' was shrewd and could have produced an interesting sideways glance at him. But EVA (an allusion to Fassbinder's abbreviated initials, RWF) is spiteful, unstable, wilful, emotionally exploitative, hypocritical, squalid, tyrannical and vindictive. Herbert Spaich, a biographer who does not get bogged down in pat psychological interpretations, called the film 'the height of bad taste'.3 A recent film by Rosa von Praunheim, Für mich gab's nur noch Fassbinder. Die glücklichen Opfer des Rainer Werner Fassbinder (For Me There Was Only Ever Fassbinder. The Grinning Victims of Rainer Werner Fassbinder), made in 2000, is just another sensationalist account which pays almost no attention to artistic output in the slightest.

To an extent, Fassbinder was partially responsible for the prominence of his life in interpretations of his film work. As Thomas Elsaesser points out, the 'rumour-machine' was a way of attracting attention, ultimately to the films, and thus creating an audience and a dialogue.4 That the film work has been so neglected in favour of scurrilous depictions of a life is nothing short of a scandal.

Fassbinder is one of the great multi-media artists of his generation. His sensitivity towards medium and his ability to understand crucial distinctions between artistic genres led to a sizeable body of work that far outstrips the already astonishing tally of forty-two films. He was at home in the cinema, on television and in the theatre, yet the last has been much neglected.

Fassbinder was a playwright, a theatre director and a stage actor. He wrote sixteen published dramas (of which five were radical adaptations of classic texts), two radio plays, and there are various texts, adaptations and fragments which either remain in the archives or have been lost over time. After training at acting school and work as an extra, Fassbinder entered the theatre at the age of twenty-one in 1967, when he stepped in for an injured actor at the small, independent action-theater. Its forced closure in 1968 allowed Fassbinder and his team to set up the antiteater, which grew to national prominence within a year. Fassbinder was 'discovered' by one of the most important figures in West German theatre, Kurt Hübner, in 1969 and was invited to become an in-house dramatist and then director at Hübner's Bremer Theater. In the following years directing commissions arrived from some of the most prestigious theatres in the Federal Republic. In 1974, seven years after his first tiny role and still in his twenties, Fassbinder was given his own part-publicly funded theatre in Frankfurt. Yet these impressive credentials are overlooked and erased in the critical literature. Mauro Ponzi, who wrote a short, comparative biography of Fassbinder and Pasolini, barely considers the drama work at all, even though both film-makers spent a great deal of time working in the theatre.5 Christian Braad Thomsen, one of the great popularizers of Fassbinder's film work outside Germany, believes that we cannot properly understand the drama because it was written for specific actors with specific styles in mind. However, this argument is at best questionable, since it rather renders the investigation of almost any drama, from the ancients via Shakespeare to Beckett, pointless. Thomsen concludes: 'for Fassbinder, theatre was undoubtedly a "film school"'.6 Wallace Steadman Watson asserts that 'one can make only limited claims for the importance of Fassbinder's work in the theatre', which he views, like Thomsen, as ephemeral and too closely shackled to its times.7 However, such opinions, espoused by authors who are not theatre specialists themselves, are openly contradicted by the major upswing of practical interest in Fassbinder's theatre work in the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century (cf. the table of productions in the epilogue to this book). The plays are being produced and performed regularly and often, both in the German-speaking countries and further afield. Their appeal clearly transcends their immediate contexts and has found resonance in contemporary society.

Fassbinder himself did little to dispel the impression that he was never really interested in the theatre. Filming almost always took precedence over theatre commitments, and after the acclaimed production of Claire Luce Boothe's The Women as Frauen in New York at the Schauspielhaus Hamburg in 1976, he was never to work in a theatre again. Yet these facts belie a more active engagement. Fassbinder was never afraid of revealing his debt to his experiences in the theatre, even though they were usually couched in terms that viewed them as secondary to his film achievements. In 1971/2 he said the theatre had taught him 'how to work with actors and how to tell a story'.8 By 1974 he explained how dearly he valued the depths of relationships developed over a rehearsal period in a theatre: when he worked on the film Martha with Karlheinz Böhm, everything went swimmingly. But after seven weeks of work on Hedda Gabler at the Theater der freien Volksbühne in Berlin, the emergence of complexity and 'chasms' in his relationship with the actor was 'absolutely central'.9 Even in an interview in which he said he was never really that interested in theatre and would never direct another play again, Fassbinder added a few pages later that he would consider returning there to direct a play more like a film, 'concretely, directly, together with people who were interested and affected by it'.10 Fassbinder went on to stage Frauen in New York a few months after the interview and hatched various plans to return to the theatre in the last seven years of his life. These plans ultimately came to nothing.

Where theatre is mentioned in the longer studies, it is almost exclusively presented with factual inaccuracy or other material error. Although such mistakes are usually minor - a wrong date, a failure to understand the boundary between Fassbinder's work at Munich's action-theater and the antiteater - they betray the fact that almost no concerted work has been done on the history of his theatrical activities. Even Joanna Firaza, who has written and published a doctoral dissertation on Fassbinder's dramas, is reliant on other people's accounts and, although she offers many interesting and important insights into the texts and their contexts, she displays a palpable lack of knowledge of the original productions themselves.11

The second problem in the existing literature on Fassbinder's theatre concerns theatrical aesthetics and their deployment by critics. For the most part, Fassbinder is portrayed as an Artaudian, a sensual, irrationalist director, fascinated by the unsayable in performance. Fassbinder's interest in Artaud is well documented: Artaud provides the epigraph to the much-misunderstood film Satansbraten (Satan's Brew) in 1976, is recited by Fassbinder as a voice-over in his only documentary, Theater in Trance (1981), and the film Despair (1977) is dedicated to him, Van Gogh and Unica Zürn. Such a view was pioneered by Michael Töteberg in an article in which he argues that the action-theater was 'the Munich branch of the Living Theatre'.12 Although he suggests that Fassbinder's aesthetic is somewhere between Artaud and Brecht, his belief that the action-theater owed much of its energy to the ecstatic revolutionaries from America owes much to one production, Antigone, in which Fassbinder stepped in for an injured actor midway through the run. Non-specialists have championed the Artaudian Fassbinder and dismissed a Brechtian influence. Jane Shattuc attempts to historicize the assertion by claiming Brecht was part of the 'established left' and therefore not such an oppositional figure, although this was not really the case in the late 1960s.13 There had been a 'Brecht boycott' in the Federal Republic which had followed the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Elsewhere, critics are keen to follow Fassbinder himself on Brecht. In an interview of 1971, Fassbinder associated Brecht with coldness and abstraction, whereas he preferred the Hungarian Ödön von Horváth, who was more concerned with relationships between everyday people.14 In 1975 Fassbinder elaborated on this position, when asked about Brecht's influence. He believed he had been influenced

as much as anybody in Germany has been influenced by Brecht, but not especially . . . What's important to me and everyone else is the idea of alienation15 in Brecht, and my films have the character of the Brecht didactic pieces. But they are not so dry as the Lehrstück ['the learning play']. That's the thing that disturbs me about Brecht's Lehrstücke, the dryness; they have no sensuality.16

The 'dry' or 'cold' Brecht discussed here is used as a brickbat by critics against Brecht the theorist when addressing his part in Fassbinder's development. I shall be returning to Brecht and his role in Fassbinder's theatre practice in chapter 2, and will be exploring a different, more sensual interpretation of Brecht.

Fassbinder and the West German theatre

We see, then, that in the various histories of Fassbinder and his work, the dramatist and theatre director receive fairly short shrift. And even when commentators do consider the drama, the analysis lacks the edge of primary research. What is left unwritten is the remarkable climb of a minor actor from a small role in a little-known theatre's production of a Greek classic to a figure of great stature within the West German theatre system. At the peak of his directing career, Fassbinder was offered contracts at some of the most important theatres in Germany by some of the most innovative Intendanten17 and was finally entrusted with his own experimental theatre before he was thirty. Equally exceptional is the fact that in this brief seven-year period, Fassbinder had also made over twenty-one feature-length films for cinema and television. Although this book is exclusively dedicated to Fassbinder's work in the theatre, it should be clear to those familiar with the films that Fassbinder's aesthetics owe a great deal to a sense of artifice, or theatricality. This quality arose from his extensive experience of the theatre, which engaged his creative focus for a full and intensive year and a half before he made his first feature. Fassbinder was acutely sensitive to the differing demands of a medium, something he exhibits at the age of twenty-one: 'In the world of television, I am most interested in the possibilities afforded by the TV film, whose fundament is not theatre plays but solely texts written for the possibilities of the television.'18 Klaus Ulrich Militz argues that new media are 'not born into an empty world', and that the new medium pressurizes the old, so that the old must learn from the new.19 Fassbinder did not mistake the theatre for a cinema or a television set, but engaged with all three to generate new forms of theatre and performance.

In addition to Fassbinder's work as a director, I shall be examining the plays themselves, the conditions of their production and their contribution to a post-Brechtian theatre. Fassbinder's dramas have been treated in scholarship, but only with a limited focus on a small number of works, and then with little, if any, discussion of Fassbinder's approach to theatrical production or direction. Shorter, article-length criticism is mainly textual rather than dramaturgical. Only Firaza has dedicated a whole book to Fassbinder's drama, but even she has not quite delivered the promise of her study's title, namely an aesthetics.

A closer examination of the oeuvre reveals something far more interesting than the literary quality of the texts or their relationships to various genres. Firaza notes that heterogeneity is the only unifying factor in Fassbinder's drama.20 The playwright paces impatiently from style to style, playing with the possibilities of one before moving onto another in his next play. He takes up the Volksstück (a genre discussed in chapter 1), the melodrama, the experimental play, the burlesque, satire and the radical adaptation. Yet even the concept of genre is problematic. As Benjamin Henrichs points out, Fassbinder's works are all 'bastards of form'.21 The theatre imports ideas from the cinema, and provincial perspectives from his native Bavaria are seen through the lens of America. Each play demonstrates a new approach, an alternative perspective, a fresh consideration. However, at the very heart of Fassbinder's drama is a fascination with language as a social phenomenon. The ability, but more often, inability to communicate, the violence exerted through language, and the dependencies language creates are investigated through a kaleidoscope of forms.

Fassbinder's work in the theatre is not solely of interest within the man's development as an artist. His career in the theatre allows us to explore the West German theatre system itself. Fassbinder's career takes us through all the major crises and debates that surround the most subsidized theatre in Europe. The Kellertheater scene that flourished in post-war Germany was a direct challenge to the conservative, stagnant, yet well-funded theatres that were still the norm in Germany at the time. In a Germany that was both facing up to its catastrophic past and looking to forms of art that challenged bourgeois concepts of literature and theatre, smaller private theatres were starting to offer aesthetic competition. That Fassbinder's association with the antiteater gained it a national profile, distinguished the company in that it was able to offer an alternative not only to its own more immediate rivals in Munich, but to the state-supported theatres as well. The success of the antiteater generated an interest in Fassbinder and his approaches to production that was to channel him into the system itself: Kurt Hübner, one of the most innovative Intendanten in Germany, engaged Fassbinder as a playwright and later as a director at the publicly funded theatre in Bremen. This came at a time when more adventurous Intendanten were seeking a new kind of theatre, one which called into question the orthodoxies of the older generation and their conservative conceptions of theatre. The Regietheater ('directors' theatre') that was taking off in the late 1960s became a haven for Fassbinder and his radical ideas on staging. Once established as a theatre director in his own right, Fassbinder was left to deal with one further issue that had dominated West German theatre politics ever since the student revolts of 1968: Mitbestimmung ('collective decision-making'). Fassbinder's period as the head of the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt was in many ways his theatrical Waterloo. The challenge of running a theatre under the principles of collectivity was untenable, and his initial enthusiasm and subsequent disenchantment mark the end of an era in the theatre history of the Federal Republic. Fassbinder thus presents himself as an important figure in all the major debates surrounding the post-war theatre's problematic metamorphosis from the polite pastime of the middle classes into a more inclusive, more experimental and more exciting institution.

This book is thus a contribution to a much-neglected area of Fassbinder's working biography, a critical examination of both Fassbinder's drama and its production, and an exploration of West German cultural politics at a time of great crisis and upheaval, around and in the wake of the turbulent year of 1968. I have consulted the broad source material in a bid to gain a clearer idea of the productions and their rehearsal and performance styles. Extensive interviews were also undertaken with almost all the central figures from Fassbinder's early days in the theatre in Munich and the later period, including actors, ensemble members and theatre critics who followed his progress. I have also visited the archives of the major theatres and cities in which Fassbinder worked after his auspicious beginnings in Munich. The evidence from all the sources is contradictory, and the reader should understand that each description of a production is provisional. I have, however, tried to give as helpful, critical and authoritative a set of sketches as possible in order to establish the methods and the principles of Fassbinder's work in the theatre.

In the first chapter I shall be discussing the action-theater, the collective Fassbinder joined as a stand-in before establishing himself as one of its central members. The theatre will be considered within the context of both a highly subsidized theatre system and the network of Kellertheater in the Munich of the late 1960s. The second chapter moves on to deal with the antiteater and its distinctive performance style. The central importance of the 1968 student movement and its effects on cultural paradigms will be compared to and contrasted with the antiteater's practices. Chapter 3 charts Fassbinder's uneasy integration into the system, and his various commissions to direct at the cream of the German theatres. Here the ideas of the Regietheater will be explored and Fassbinder's place as a director will be assessed. The fourth chapter will then consider Fassbinder's spell as the head of the Theater am Turm (TAT) together with the attendant difficulties of a limited budget and the principle of Mitbestimmung, that last hangover of the days of revolt in 1968. The fifth chapter then looks at Fassbinder's aborted plans after his final theatre production in Hamburg, evaluates Fassbinder's resonance on the German stage after his death in 1982 and investigates West Germany's greatest post-war theatre scandal when the Schauspiel Frankfurt tried to perform Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (Rubbish, the City and Death) in 1985. An epilogue reviews Fassbinder's achievements in the theatre and speculates on the reasons for his continued popularity.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

David Barnett is Lecturer in Drama Studies at University College Dublin. He is the author of Literature Versus Theatre, a study of the later plays of Heiner Muller in performance (1998). He has also published widely on contemporary German drama, metatheatre and postdramatic theatre.

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