Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinema is a voyage to the Real, and amongst the most recklessly unashamed ones in European film. The trait of Fassbinder’s cinema that makes it absolutely relevant today is its ability to explore the tortured connections between desire, power and liberation, on both a personal and collective level. Particularly intriguing is the director’s ambiguous stance on the question of masochism as a strategy of liberation. When one looks at Fassbinder’s composite oeuvre, it is difficult not to notice the centrality reserved to the treatment of masochism, which is what is truly at stake in his interest in abject characters portrayed as victims. The relationship between victim and executioner is at the pulsating heart of Fassbinder’s imagination.
One thing must be clear from the start. When I refer to masochism as a strategy of liberation I do not mean ‘the theatre of sadomasochism’, which is merely a way to dupe the guard of the superego (to pretend that we are contravening its injunction to enjoy whilst we are actually enjoying pain). In Seminar VII, Lacan (1999: 239) stated that “the economy of masochistic pain ends up looking like the economy of goods”, which means that “pathological sado-masochism ultimately involves a ‘utilitarian’ pain for the sake of pleasure and, as such, does not go beyond the pleasure principle” (Chiesa 2007: 180). And even less am I referring to the postmodern logic of victimisation which, as Zizek has convincingly argued, is part and parcel of today’s ideological predicament.
What I am aiming at involves, rather, the painful confrontation with Lacan’s fundamental fantasy, upon whose foreclosure the process of subjectivation is based: “what the fundamental fantasy stages is precisely the scene of constitutive submission/subjection that sustains the subject’s ‘inner freedom’” (Zizek, 2000a: 280). The ruse of ‘masochistic theatre’ is nicely captured in the famous scene from Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty where a sadomasochistic couple meticulously arranges for an oddly-assorted audience (including four monks) to congregate in a hotel room with the excuse of sharing some Port and engaging in civilised conversation. After changing secretly into their S&M attire, the two suddenly perform their ‘whipping act’ in front of the stunned audience, even complaining when, a few moments later, these unwitting onlookers start flocking out of the room in shock and disbelief.
The point to emphasise is that such performances do not disturb the smooth functioning of the symbolic order, precisely because they openly rely on its efficiency: firstly, ‘the faked spectacle of punishment’ (Zizek 2000a: 281) can function only previous to the stipulation of a symbolic contract between the masochist and his dominatrix; secondly, it is sustained by a third gaze, i.e. it is performed for the big Other.
The immediate remark to make concerns the first point. Considering the sexual deadlock as an epiphenomenon, i.e. the result of a more fundamental disturbance (class difference), only makes sense if conceived against the background hypothesis of a ‘healthy’ universe where sexual difference, as well as class difference, would be eliminated. There is a moving sequence in Gods of the Plague (Götter der pest, 1970) where Franz Walsch (Harry Baer), the Gorilla (Gunther Kaufmann), and Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta), imagine their escape to a Greek island, where they would live on fishing, hunting and drinking wine.
The persistence with which Fassbinder stages the eroticisation of pain accounts for his awareness that what is at stake in masochism is not only submission, but also, crucially, our most profound attachment to life. What Fassbinder relentlessly attempts to represent is the masochistic experience as something akin to the fundamental fantasy, which ‘provides the subject with the minimum of being, it serves as a support for his existence — in short, its deceptive gesture is ‘Look, I suffer, therefore I am, I exist, I participate in the positive order of being’ (Zizek 2000a: 281). And the point is that our unconscious masochistic attachment to life needs to be consciously (and painfully) assumed if we are to free ourselves from its spell.
In this respect, the question of femininity is central. Fassbinder’s cruelty is not directed at women, as many critics noted, with indignation, when The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was released. It is mainly self-directed, insofar as the self matters objectively, as the most trustworthy representative of the external world, a world engaged in an endless struggle with its own contradictions. One of the basic lessons of psychoanalysis is that to be able to look at the world we first have to pass through the self, and take its division into consideration. This is why it would be a mistake to explore Fassbinder’s work through the ‘identity politics’ paradigm. Not only have questions of race, gender and ethnicity always been secondary, for him, to the question of class: ‘I’m often irritated by all the talk about women’s liberation. The world isn’t a case of women against men, but of poor against rich, of repressed against repressors. And there are just as many repressed men as there are repressed women’ (in Rayns 1979: 85); but also, at a deeper level, the question of sexual difference is treated by him as homologous to that of class difference, in the sense that it disturbs the same universal split.
If Fassbinder has often preferred to work with female characters, then, it is because of the rich complexity he saw in feminine sexuality (see Rayns 1979: 89), and because of his personal affinity with it in terms of sensitivity. This complexity concerns mainly woman’s basic ambiguity towards oppression: ‘I know some fairly emancipated women who enjoy being repressed and at the same time fight against their repression. It’s a state full of contradictions’ (in Rayns 1979: 91). Once again, we should insist that Fassbinder — like Pasolini, Bergman, Godard, and to an extent Von Trier — is profoundly fascinated by this contradiction, which is more likely to emerge in femininity and effectively amounts to the enigma of masochism. One thinks of Godard’s 1960s films, where woman is often represented as a commodity, an image exploited by consumerism; again, the key point is that, in films such as Vivre sa vie (1962), to this position of exploitation corresponds woman’s readiness to fully assume it (see Sontag 1964).
The crucial theme of the film, however, has to do with Fox’s more or less unconscious death-drive. As with most of Fassbinder’s heroes, he is depicted as complicit in his own downfall, which means that we are not merely dealing with a case of social Darwinism. More significantly, we find here the same overall strategy often used by Pasolini, inasmuch as the film as a whole is constructed around the figure of a poor devil whose inevitable demise proves instrumental to the uncovering of the oppressors’ sadistic perseverance in evil. It is not only that without figures like Fox — or, say, Accattone (Franco Citti) in Pasolini’s eponymous 1961 debut-feature — any denunciation of the brutal heart of power would prove unpersuasive, but rather that it is only in the character’s Fall that one is encouraged to read the signs of a new beginning. True hope can only emerge from hopelessness.
The key Christian topos of Fall and Redemption—in itself a central theme in European cinema—is a dominant trait of Fassbinder’s sensitivity. Apropos this double movement, Zizek highlights how Redemption is already implicitly contained in the Fall: ‘The Fall is in itself already its own self-sublation, the wound is in itself already its own healing, so that the perception that we are dealing with the Fall is ultimately a misperception, an effect of our distorted perspective. We rise again from the Fall not by undoing its effects, but in recognizing the longed-for liberation in the Fall itself.’ (Zizek 2003: 86)
We should not forget, however, that at the heart of Fox’s demise there lies the same old obstacle of Fassbinder’s cinema, the sexual deadlock. For Fox and Eugen the sexual relationship is indeed impracticable, since one gives everything (Fox), while the other simply takes (Eugen). It is not directly a matter of femininity vs masculinity, but rather gullibility (the nickname Fox is indeed ironic) vs greed and exploitation. When it comes to the melodramatic representation of sexual difference, Fassbinder tends to operate along the same lines: he consciously displaces the sexual deadlock onto the deadlock of class exploitation.
If the emotional focus of almost all his films is a more or less melodramatic situation highlighting the tragic impossibility of relationships, the underlying argument he presents, as a rule, ends with the acerbic condemnation of social inequality. In ideological terms, therefore, Fassbinder would seem to distance himself from the Lacanian axiom of sexual difference. For him, the gap between the sexes is a historical consequence of a more profound malaise concerning the perverse (capitalist) organisation of the social sphere (capital does not spare the bed). As a ‘romantic anarchist’ (Fassbinder 1992: 67), he constructed most of his works around the melancholic utopia of unadulterated relationships in a society spared from capitalistic exploitation.
To locate the film’s unconscious core, however, we need to look elsewhere, first and foremost in the insistence with which the camera cuts off Hans from his environment, suggesting either that, as in a Greek tragedy, his fate was always-already sealed, or, more insightfuly, that he somehow seeks his own undoing. The obstinacy of the camera’s gaze is correlative to the empty stare in his character’s eyes, which from the beginning alludes not only to his being doomed, but more precisely to his secret enjoyment of that tragic condition. This comes to the fore in the penultimate scene of the film, where Hans, having found the strength to momentarily step out of the daily grind that slowly consumes him, drinks himself to death in front of his petit-bourgeois relatives.
Transcribed from the film by Robert Fischer, Harry Baer on Rainer Werner Fassbinder (2006), on the RWF Foundation/Arrow Films DVD of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Saturday evenings at the cinema—The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; Aguirre, Wrath of God; Rhomer’s L’Amour l’après-midi; Ludwig, by Luchino Visconti.
Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci
Maman / Putain, Eustache
Realm of the Senses, Oshima
Cul de Sac, Polanski
The Passenger, Antonioni
Damnation, Bela Tarr
Element of Crime, Lars von Trier
American Soldier, Fassbinder