Steak For Dinner
by ALEX CARNEVALE
I always make the same film, again and again.
It is fairly easy to be disgusted by the rollicking, painful life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. No one could reasonably believe he was not culpable for his many crimes, even the ones he committed as a child. It is in fact difficult to believe he ever was a child.
He hated everything about his life then, and resolved to change it completely. There is something very brave in all Rainer did, even his cruelty. He proved that being bold could succeed on the force of its own enthusiasm.
He fled boarding schools, his parents — anything to avoid supervision. His father was a doctor who treated prostitutes, Fassbinder’s first friends. His ghastly mother confided her dreams to him, fantasies in which she married her young son. So in that sense, what did he have to work with, really? But no man is less explicable by his childhood than Fassbinder, except perhaps de Sade.
There is the story of the man who was forced to eat his fellow sailors after a shipwreck. He hid food away in his attic for the rest of his life. Rainer did the same thing but with money, stacking his entire salary on the bed of his hotel room during the shooting of his last film, Querelle.
This is making him seem sympathetic. He cannot be, no more than a demon could become an angel. What happened in the country of Germany after the Third Reich remains unclear to most outsiders. In any case, it is probably still happening.
Rainer’s life could not help but be a reaction to what occurred there. His bisexuality opened him to an entire coterie of foreigners, disenfranchised men and women who were as strange to the natives as himself. Women were the particular victims of his love/torture combination; many of them suffered merely by his presence.
It is fair to say Rainer attracted masochists, but that cannot be the entire reason for how he subjected his partners to abject horror. He was never an attractive man, but from the first moments he entered acting school, Rainer’s charisma was explosive. Both men and women coveted the approval that came through his obsessive, unrelenting nature. In this fashion, he won people over; this dogged persona converted even his staunchest enemies to his corner. Then again, they may have only been relieved to escape his wrath.
His first defining sexual relationship was with the actress Irm Hermann. Thinking he would marry her, she opened herself to him completely, moving in with Rainer and his boyfriend. Her acting jobs paid their rent. Rainer never let her make a single move without his knowledge, berating the woman he claimed to love almost incessantly. Many years later he said that Irm “finds her identity or her pleasure only in suffering, in being oppressed.” It was sadism made all the more disturbing by the fact that some part of his allegation may have been true.
He beat her continuously, first in her own squalid apartment, then in public. On occasion the violence occurred in front of their friends. He repeatedly suggested that she should kill herself. Eventually she tried, taking forty soma. When Rainer found her unconscious, he believed her to be faking and struck her again. What else could he have done?
Once he told her at dinner in a restaurant that for each steak she ate, she earned a fuck. The meat repelled her, she could not keep down even one. This cause Rainer to remark coldly, “I said, eat it, not puke it up. If you want a fuck, you’ve got to keep the meat inside you.” Irm represented only his first major cruelty. Irm’s beatings were merely practice. When he dumped her, he made her give him all the money she had.
Irm eventually named her child by another man what Fassbinder asked her to in a telegram. Have you judged him yet?
In Paris Fassbinder sold himself to men from within the confines of a popular sauna. He wrote off all this sordid behavior as a context for art. One of the most disturbing aspects (but truly not the most disturbing) was that those who surrounded him were more fascinated than horrified, more excited than aghast. During a dinner party on the set of Querelle, he and his guests used the company’s black member as an ashtray.
He succeeded partly on this tightrope, but also on the merits of his art. He may have been a tyrant, but it was quite obvious he was the most exciting young director in Germany.
Once he wore out his welcome in the theater, he moved to film. It suited him far better. Fueled by the rejection of the major German film academy, he eclipsed the output of all his peers in a relentless orgy of filmmaking.
It is true that his first films were not very good on either a technical or storytelling level. At the time, though, standing out did not require those virtues. Simple looking at screenshots from his films is enough to understand why they were more titillating than any pornography, more violent than seemed possible in a scarred, censorious German society. Fassbinder’s films show caricatures without seeming unreal.
In 1973 Rainer took over a theater in Frankfurt. He ran it into the ground in short order. Allegations of anti-Semitism, perhaps unfounded, dogged his last production, and his reckless temperament was on full display. This experience murdered the theater for him, forcing Rainer to admit that on some level he remained too unreliable for a medium that demanded the same show every night.
He might accomplish something once and preserve it forever on film. He had zero chance of making a habit of any virtue.
On set, his manner had the same impatience as his off-set mien. He eschewed repeated takes, giving his actors something to be thankful for, given that the abuse suffered at his hands was partly mitigated by immediate satisfaction of the result.
He told his actors, “Everything I examine I have somehow or other, also to rework, in order to have the feeling I’ve experienced it.” It was the closest he could come to an apology for who he was. What a roundabout way of describing a total lack of self-control. A peaceful thought in the hands of a saint, a frightening one in the hands of the devil.
Men held the greater attraction for Rainer over time. They could plausibly fight back, and he loved that resistance, the ebbing away of his considerable power over others. Having more than one person dependent on him was part of the fun, he sometimes encouraged his male lovers to cut off the hair of his girlfriends.
His relationship with the Moroccan actor El Hedi ben Salem ended after the man completed his amateur performance as Ali in Fear Eats the Soul. Salem loved Rainer desperately, but the director was not as enamored with Salem’s children, considering them an unnecessary complication. Eventually, when the film’s production concluded, Rainer cut him off without a word.
Contemplating revenge, Salem drank himself in a stupor and he stabbed three others with a kitchen knife. On the run, he reached out to his ex. Rainer refused him completely, and Salem hung himself in a French prison cell. It was a familiar tune for Rainer; these sorts of stories followed him.
Rainer’s next target was Armin Meier. Meier was fairly gorgeous, the actual product of Nazi experiments in perfection. Rainer found him working in a butcher shop, and considered him basically a plebian orifice. He was not entirely happy with Armin’s lack of sophistication, but the boy was beautiful.
Meier killed himself eventually too, just from Rainer’s abuse, but not before Rainer turned him into a cocaine addict. Meier loved the happy drug, but Rainer wasn’t satisfied with the high it provided. He drank bourbon out of a beer stein constantly as he was working, and cycled pharmaceuticals according to his mood. The illiterate Meier killed himself on Rainer’s birthday; it was a feeble revenge, but a revenge it was.
He married one of his actresses, Ingrid Caven, half to see what it was like, half as cover for his homosexual needs. Fondly recalling her husband’s proposal, Caven once said, “He’d always go to the men’s public toilets for sex and then we’d go out on the town.”
In the 1970s, cocaine took over Rainer’s life completely. He would plan the locations in his films based on their convenience to his drug suppliers. He not only sampled the drug constantly, but had to ensure that all those around him were likewise in its thrall. He particularly foisted it upon his actors, claiming at great length that it would improve their performances. This had two positive consequences from Rainer’s perspective: his actors would become increasingly indebted to and intoxicated by him, and they would struggle to find other jobs because of their addiction.
He enjoyed making his stars ugly with makeup. His favorites he allowed to keep their natural beauty, but everyone else had to come down to his level. In most ways, Rainer was amazingly perceptive of his own ugliness. He looks like a blob among his fitter gay friends; his profile looking more natural with women, made less repellent by proximity to their beauty.
He began mimicking de Sade openly in shooting his 1976 film Satan’s Brew. The drugs consumed him entirely. As he spiralled towards his death throes in his final years, he would sleep for only three hours during the night, eat like a horse, manage two bottles of bourbon per day, top that off with several Bloody Marys, a coterie of joints or hash brownies, and put himself down with a sleeping pill called Mandrax, a quaalude you could mix in a pipe with weed or hash. Rainer loved showing his friends just how much he could consume, the vast quantities of uppers and downers it required to even let him sleep those three hours. He was a mess.
On June 10th, 1982, his girlfriend Juliane Lorenz found him lying dead on his bed with a cigarette in his mouth. A policeman told reporters, “Even Fassbinder’s just a man.” The funeral proved otherwise — who can really tell if those in attendance were sad, disgusted, or just envious of the rain?
Ms. Lorenz has taken up the legacy of the man she found dead in her bed. It’s macabre but necessary; even a demon deserves a lawyer. Do not envy her the task: it’s impossible to hide all the terrible things about Rainer. They just keep coming out, even from those who loved him. His ex-wife described the scene of his death, mere days before Rainer’s passing: “The room was utterly disgusting. It was a pigsty. It was so dreadful. Ashtrays, cigarette ash and old newspapers everywhere. Whiskey bottles, everything you could imagine lying around. It stunk, and his bed was so filthy that I didn’t want to sit down on it, it was that bad. He was as possessive as ever.”
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.