To this day, to be a homosexual is to be an outsider. Granted, things have improved tremendously over the passed forty or fifty years, but mainstream acceptance can only be afforded to homosexuals in American film if they adhere to certain stereotypes and designated behavioral patterns. In film in general, the characters of homosexuals are the comic relief, the villains, or objects of superficial pity without the necessary dimension to make them relatable to a heterosexual audience. The filmmakers who broke the taboos, who challenged convention, were often working on the fringes, subversive revolutionaries, relegated to the background of cinema and often suppressed. The luminaries of these “rebels” come from around the world, and each participates in a filmic dialogue distinctly removed from that of their comrades. Kenneth Anger worked in the world of short experimental films while his contemporary Jack Smith constructed experimental narratives. Jean Cocteau, Jean Vigo, and Jean Genet brought a dreamy surrealism to the Romantic French narratives of the late nineteenth century with a collective output of less than a dozen films made in their lifetimes. Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol set their 16mm camera on the world of camp and drag queens, culling their aesthetic from the old Hollywood musicals of the thirties. Monika Treut made her lesbian dramas as a continuation of Morrissey’s work but in a distinctly German voice. Pier Paolo Pasolini turned to classical painting and philosophical themes to articulate what he saw as the political struggle out of isolation that faced homosexuals such as himself in Italy after WWII. All these filmmakers, whose work appeared before the New Queer Cinema of the nineties, represent a unifying tendency to remove the emotional experience of their films from the reality of their audience. These filmmakers are reactionary; they trapped within an insular sub-culture, and are designed to keep a certain distance between the art and the audience.
Only one director ever successfully transposed his own emotional turmoil and political exile as a homosexual in the preferred language of film realism and melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s body of work surpasses that of any filmmaker’s fourteen-year output, which was the precise length of time during which Fassbinder made over forty films. Throughout his expansive filmography Fassbinder was able to experiment with a number of modes of filmmaking before settling on the classic melodrama, a style he himself revived in West Germany under the tutelage of Hollywood master filmmaker Douglas Sirk.
In the world of melodrama, with its heavily saturated colors, lush musical scores, elaborate camera moves, period costumes and sets, Fassbinder sought to address the issue closest to him, a controversial issue for the mid-seventies, his own experience as a homosexual. Never explicitly autobiographical, Fassbinder’s films on gay culture each represent a facet of his own experience and its political ramifications, imbuing every protagonist with an element of what can best be called “subjective truth”. The single truth at the heart of Fassbinder’s films is tragedy, a unifying loss of power and spirit. This is not strange when one considers Rainer Werner Fassbinder the man. All his life he dealt with a disconnect from family, struggled with multiple drug addictions, lived in a self imposed exile due to his leftist political views, and burned through relationship after relationship with a sadistic abandon worthy of a Gothic Romance novel. Fassbinder’s life, which ended in a drug overdose in 1982, is only tragedy.
In Fox & His Friends (1975), Fassbinder himself plays the lead, which upon winning the lottery begins an affair with a manipulative partner, whose only interest in Fox is to exploit his sudden financial security, eventually leaving him penniless. This film articulates better than any other of Fassbinder’s films the danger of Romantic inclinations and naïveté in the insular world of Berlin’s gay subculture. Fox has nowhere to turn where he will be accepted, and he is far too trusting and too much the idealist to realize what is happening to him. For Fassbinder, Fox & His Friends is a cautionary tale about first love, trust, and an account of his own failed early affairs with men. The sexual politics of the dominator and the dominated form an over arcing narrative device in his films that he himself described as “he who loves less has more power”. The same power struggle is the centerpiece of his Sapphic chamber drama The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1972). In the world of a single apartment, the nexus of gay Germany has shrunk further still, and the emotional power struggles ever more violent as Petra rejects lover after lover. More so than Fox & His Friends, The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant is a study in unhappiness and unfulfillment. Where Fox was easily contented with kind words of love, Petra (Margit Carstensen) must control her partners beyond a doubt, must rule her relationships in a neo-fascistic fashion. But as much as these two films deal exclusively with gay culture, their themes of sexual power and dominance are universal, and the dynamic of high drama permits the audience to invest themselves in the characters without the dreamy remove of fantasy or camp.
In A Year With 13 Moons (1978) Fassbinder tackles an even darker theme prevalent in the popular German perception of the homosexual outsider, suicide. The transgender protagonist Elvira (Volker Spengler) spends most of the film tracing her life from childhood to adulthood by visiting old friends and caretakers. In scenes of long dialogue exchanges, Fassbinder presents a portrait of Elvira as a perpetually isolated and lonely character, whose sexual preference evokes only violence and exploitation from those around her. The excessive use of dark reds coupled with slaughterhouse visuals and music by Suicide imbue the film with an inescapable emotive quality designed to both provoke the audience and to evoke utter despair. When Elvira takes her own life at the end of the film following a final rejection from the man for whom she pines, Anton (Gottfried John), her death is both a tragedy of character and that of an entire society. To Fassbinder, who made the film in response to his own boyfriend’s suicide, Elvira is a victim of a society intolerant to homosexuals. This theme of unrequited love and societal condemnation carries over to Fassbinder’s magnum opus, the epic made for television film of the novel by Alfred Doblin Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Franz (Gunter Lamprecht) and Reinhold (Gottfried John), who share a common attraction and homoerotic desire for one another, are not permitted to act on their feelings because of the society that surrounds them. They may articulate their thoughts and desires to themselves, but to act upon them is taboo, and therefore manifest in displays of violent aggression and self-destruction. Due to the long running time of Berlin Alexanderplatz Fassbinder is able to put onto film with tedious effect the relationship between Franz and Reinhold from their first revelations of homosexual desire to their final destruction and mutilation. This journey represents how Fassbinder saw the trajectory of all of his homosexual romances, as well as that of the gay culture in Germany at the time. This fatalism on Fassbinder’s part is the product of his own experience, his own hopelessness for recognition in Germany of homosexuals in general.
By the time Fassbinder made his last film Querelle (1982), from a novel by Jean Genet, his treatment of homosexual love and sex had deteriorated to the point where it became only a means of manipulation and destruction, appearing without any hints of romance that manage to sparsely populate his earlier work with the subject. Like Genet and later William S. Burroughs, the treatment of homosexuality in Fassbinder’s Querelle is an act of two-dimensional political ramifications, simplified to the point where it represents only the power struggles between characters. Such an approach marks a departure for Fassbinder from the melodramas that came before and saw him adopting a more expressionist approach to filmmaking derivative of F.W. Murnau. Visually, Querelle contains more artifice than either The Niklashausen Journey (1970) or Whity (1971), and marks a turn toward the visual iconography of gay culture as put forward in the films of Kenneth Anger. This change is also the product of Fassbinder’s own disillusionment, which appears to have only gotten worse following In A Year With 13 Moons.
For all of Fassbinder’s bitterness and despair, his films about homosexuality are each works of transcendent beauty, whose ability to evoke strong emotional responses from their audience classifies them as timeless. In many ways this is a singular achievement in the world of Queer Cinema. For the most part, films about homosexuals are inescapably tied to their moment and often appear dated only a few years after their initial release. This makes it even more bizarre that Rainer Werner Fassbinder is often passed up in survey studies on gay filmmaking in favor of far less influential and enduring films.