The prolific, careening career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
FAUST: Joy is not the issue, I give myself to frenzy, to pleasure that hurts most. —Goethe
Death stands there with its thing sticking out. —Frederick Seidel
“Ah,” said the policeman studying the corpse on that summer morning in 1982, “even Fassbinder is mortal.” The German filmmaker lay on his bed in a swank benefactor’s penthouse, flesh cold, blood snaking from one nostril and the script for a new project—a spaced-out biopic of the communist heroine Rosa Luxemburg—lying next to his body. The postmortem would later reveal that Rainer Werner Fassbinder, aged thirty-seven, had died around four A.M. on June 10, his heart stopped by the fatal interaction between a mixture of cocaine and sleeping pills. Even if this scene related in Robert Katz’s scurrilous biography Love Is Colder Than Death (1987) is cultish apocrypha, there is something in its freeze-framed combination of unbelievable fact, mythic allure and disclosure of a desolate fall that serves to encapsulate Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life. Dionysiac excess was the norm: he drank all day, snorted snowdrifts of coke like a vacuum and gorged on barbiturates by the bagful but work was all that mattered. He spent the next day behind the camera shooting his new project, editing its predecessor at night, and writing whatever was next until dawn. “I really have a drive that’s hard to explain,” he said, “I’m actually only happy when I’m doing things and that’s my drug, if you will.”
Adopt his thinking and the merits of coupling sleeping pills with cocaine are obvious: achieve white-hot exhilaration with coke but smooth that comedown into a sweet dream with a rainbow combination of knockout tranquilizers. If that wasn’t a fast enough route to oblivion, he wasn’t scared to darken the mixture with a little heroin and promptly vanish down a black hole for the next few hours. The drugs would be syncopated with whiskey sloshed into a pint glass to keep his thinking limber and remove any residual jitters from the cocaine. For any observer, the whole desperate party must have looked like a suicide accomplished in slow motion. Fassbinder had kept up this rhythm for years; his films, too, were about fatal interactions, encounters between the kind-hearted and wicked that frequently end with the innocent’s demise. The policeman was right: he didn’t seem to have the same needs or limits as other men—he was, to quote the filmmaker Werner Herzog’s fond description of his friend, “an unruly beast.” Read More