- Fragments of Utopia: A Meditation on Fassbinder’s Treatment of Anti-Semitism and the Third Reich
This essay grew out of a book-length study of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece, In a Year with Thirteen Moons. The essay argues against commonly held misconceptions of Fassbinder as the “Bad Boy” of 1970s New German Cinema—to comprehend him as a serious and profound artist deeply concerned with the Holocaust, and a poetic champion of society’s outsiders. Though his films are staged around issues of helplessness and victimization, with an ironic awareness of how outsiders become complicit in the process of their own persecution, Fassbinder primarily explored the ways in which negative projection is forced upon minority groups. Fassbinder’s depictions of Jewish characters are deliberate reversals or complex re-readings of the inflammatory propaganda of the Nazi era: where once Jewish men were depicted as “feminized” Untermenschen, in Fassbinder’s films it’s the German men who become feminized (and hystericized) vis-á-vis their Jewish counterparts. The essay positions In a Year with Thirteen Moons as an expression of postwar misanthropy, in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, The Condemned of Altona, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, and August Sander’s portrait-photographs from the 1920s.
If only because of his difficult and unenviable historical position as a postwar German (he was born in 1945), Fassbinder could not escape bearing witness to the destructive impact of the Holocaust in every frame of his films. I believe absolutely without question that the Six Million were the most brutalized victims of the Third Reich, and that the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis were and are unpardonable, and although I think Fassbinder would have considered it aesthetically “vulgar” to include such a bald statement in one of his films, there is nothing in his films that contradicts it, and in fact his films affirm it.
But first of all, how does one depict the atrocities of the Holocaust in a film? No film has ever succeeded in being bleak enough, devastating enough; instead, films about the Holocaust often come to seem like traditional war movies, with the camps as one more horror among many to be resisted or suffered through. In contrast, Fassbinder depicts the Holocaust as a kind of negative presence, a shadow on the present, the return of the repressed, through moments in which violently disturbing unconscious material breaks through the deceptively calm surface of consciousness: the way that Hans, in Katzelmacher, suddenly beats Joanna and pulls her hair because she has stood up to him; the devious, narrowed eyes of the sister-in-law in Fear of Fear (1975) as she spies on Margot; the way the mother in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) crushes her son’s first choice of careers (auto mechanic) because she fears the stigma of a job where he must “get his hands dirty”; and the sickly, perverse smile that the nightclub owner gives to the Kusters daughter, in Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1974), propositioning her just after she has learned that her father is dead. These four examples, pulled at random from Fassbinder’s work, are like lightning-flashes in a dark sky whereby we glimpse a tiny visceral wedge of the psychopathic, amoral parade that was the Third Reich, and the widespread collective inhumanity that was the Holocaust. They are notes deliberately struck to expose what I would call “the Nazi moment,” dramatic translations of something vast and unknowable into something pointed and barbed, something that can be rendered palpable.
This is also the point of the surreal moment in Despair (1977) when Herman Herman, at a sidewalk café, watches brownshirts throw bricks at the windows of a Jewish butcher’s shop. In fact the brownshirts do not succeed in breaking the windows, even when one of them kicks the glass with his boot. They skulk away and the shop owners desultorily come out to clear away the bricks. If Fassbinder had staged this scene like one of the overheated, operatic street-fighting scenes in Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977), for instance, he would have been competing not only with the...