If you look closely at the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder you’ll see that all of his films were in some way very personal. No other filmmaker has been so specific in achieving this as Fassbinder, and certainly no other filmmaker has been so prolific. A select number of themes reoccur in all of Fassbinder’s work, stringing them together across genre, across style and narrative content. But few of his themes are so heavily internalized in Fassbinder the man as the portrayal of sex in his films.
The sex in a film by Fassbinder is very rarely romanticized, and if it is, it is with the purpose to juxtapose the sex that occurs later in the film. Sex to Fassbinder was not about love. Dominance was derived from sex. Control was derived from sex. Anything that was sociologically necessary to a character was derived from that character’s sexual relationship with another character.
In Fox And His Friends, Eugene uses sex as a way to control Fox. Fox is a naïve romantic, and Eugene employs sex as a means of convincing Fox that love is a component in their relationship so that he may exploit Fox’s lottery winnings. The Marriage Of Maria Braun uses sex the same way. To ensure financial success, Maria seduces her employer Oswald. In Querelle sex is again used to exploit another individual for selfish gain.
In The Merchant Of Four Seasons and Martha, sex is a means by which one character inflicts pain upon another. What Fassbinder’s characters gain from this excursive is a means by which to control their partners through both pain and fear. In The Merchant Of Four Seasons a wife seeks to control her husband through adultery. In Martha, a husband wishes to possess his wife completely beyond all other things. Over the course of their marriage he drives her to a nervous breakdown that results in a car accident in which she is crippled, and thusly turned into an inanimate object to adorn their house.
For Fassbinder, these dark themes that permeate the sexuality of his films comprise elements of his own sexual relationships. If one were to read any literature on the life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it becomes very clear that he was a master manipulator of people. Resorting to all kinds of methods to control those people around him. The reflection of this behavior in his films speaks to a morbid fascination Fassbinder must have had for these perverse relationships he carried on with the people in his life.
His films are not one sided after all, focusing equally on both the perpetrator of sexual control and the victim. So his films become a meditation on the conditions that allow these relationships to occur and flourish. This sort of heavy “personalization” may account for the vulnerability one feels when one views a Fassbinder film.
That Fassbinder was able to achieve this level of personalization so unapologetically speaks to just how cold and distant a person he was. Artistically, what is remarkable about these relationships in his films is that they gradually became more complex and intricate. With each meditation or film, Fassbinder, along with his audience, came to understand something deeper and more profound in these relationships. Which, when all is said and done, is the purpose of good art.