Gilbey on Film: Fassbinder's unrequited Lamborghinis

How rejection fuelled the director's vision.

A belated "happy birthday" to Günther Kaufmann, who turned 64 last week. If you are at all familiar with this Bavarian actor and his work, chances are you will remember him like this rather than like this. Not a towering figure in cinema history by any means, but a tangentially influential one, given the effect he had on a director for whom "towering" would not be overstating the case. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was besotted with Kaufmann, and in 1971 he wrote a play based on their relationship. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a berserk, angry, funny and ultimately exhausting analysis of sado-masochistic power games masquerading as love. In 1972, he made a film version. I wonder if Kaufmann watched it as part of his birthday celebrations. I would think not.

Many of Fassbinder's films were painfully autobiographical works. But of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, his biographer Robert Katz writes: "Rainer never challenged the view held by those closest to him that every word in the play was spoken either to him or by him." When Fassbinder became infatuated with Kaufmann, the latter soon realised that the attentions of an increasingly wealthy film-maker could, with the minimum of reciprocation, prove profitable for him. "Suddenly prosperity stepped into Kaufmann's life," said Fassbinder's collaborator Kurt Raab. "Every wish, pronounced or merely read in his eyes, was granted." Lamborghinis took the role played in most relationships by chocolates and flowers. "There were four in one year, because hardly had Kaufmann wrecked one of these previous vehicles when the next one had to be found."

By all accounts, Fassbinder did not feel sufficiently reimbursed for his extravagances. So when the opportunity arose to shoot a film in Spain, he decided to combine business with pleasure: he wrote the bizarre and brilliant western Whity for Kaufmann, complete with scenes specially orchestrated to relieve him of his shirt. Away from Kaufmann's wife and children, Fassbinder hoped that this access to his leading man's body would continue when the camera was switched off.

The shoot was hell. "Fassbinder would start the day demanding ten Cuba libres -- rum and Coca-Cola," remembers the producer Peter Berling. "He would drink nine and throw the tenth at the cameraman." If the previous night had been a sexually fruitful one between actor and director, then the following day would be fruitful too. But if Fassbinder had been rebuffed in bed, everyone would pay. After one long, sexless night, the director threatened suicide. "He even went as far as borrowing a razor," said Berling. "But in the end he simply shaved."

Fassbinder was nothing if not a man who knew how to spin gold from heartache. So blatant is the autobiographical thrust of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that Robert Katz can without fear of contradiction call it "the story, transsexualised into a lesbian love affair, of Rainer's relationship with Günther." Petra is a self-absorbed fashion designer besotted with her doll-faced model, Karin, who responds only with scorn, boredom or material demands. Lamborghinis are not mentioned, but you get the gist. By the end, Petra has trashed her friends, her family and her crockery, all for a woman who barely notices she exists.

The play premiered in Frankfurt in June 1971, when Fassbinder was just 25, and received lukewarm reviews. By February 1972 he had shot a film version that was faithful to the play with the exception of a final-act divergence to darken further the tenor of the piece. He had addressed the perils of love and cohabitation previously in his maligned play Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which he wrote as a teenager (it was filmed 16 years after his death by François Ozon). But in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, there is a weight of experience and anxiety that was merely cosmetic in the earlier play.

Only once in the film's two hours and three minutes do we depart from the cramped single set -- that's during the opening shot of two cats preening on a staircase. After that, we are cornered, like the characters, in Petra's garish apartment, with its vast murals of reclining nudes, and its staff of bald mannequins with heads pressed together in wordless and sinister gossip. It is here that Petra (Margit Carstensen), ponders her life, and receives a procession of visitors who line up like courtiers paying their respects to a dying queen.

The picture is even more claustrophobic than Twelve Angry Men; think of it as Three Pissed-Off Lesbians and you're close. For his cinematographer, Fassbinder returned to Michael Ballhaus -- the man with the Cuba libres down his shirt-front. It might seem incongruous that Ballhaus went on to work with Martin Scorsese after completing 14 films for Fassbinder: what do the roaming spectacles of GoodFellas and Gangs of New York have in common with this airless torture chamber? More than you might think. Ballhaus's camera finds depth in Petra's dungeon. He examines its dimensions, magnifying them, distorting them -- at one point, the white shagpile occupies half the screen, with Petra relegated to the top half of the frame, where she cries into her gin.

In 2005, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was adapted into an opera. The film has legs, as they say. Next month, there are two screenings of it at BFI Southbank. It's one of Fassbinder's most robust and punishing movies, almost on a par with his masterpiece Fear Eats the Soul, which is another picture born out of his destructive relationship with a male actor. Great director and everything, one of my favourites in fact, but he couldn't compartmentalise to save his life.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant screens at BFI Southbank, SE1, on 24 and 26 July.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem