Fassbinder's Germany

Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder's Germany: History Identity Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), 396 pp.

book coverRainer Werner Fassbinder is one of the most prominent and important authors of post-war European cinema. Thomas Elsaesser is the first to write a thoroughly analytical study of his work. He stresses the importance of a closer understanding of Fassbinder's career through a re-reading of his films as textual entities.

Approaching the work from different thematic and analytical perspectives, Elsaesser offers both an overview and a number of detailed readings of crucial films, while also providing a European context for Fassbinder's own coming to terms with fascism.

  "Through close reading of groups of films within a framework of the complex argument that Fassbinder's oeuvre displays a definite trajectory, a "central theme," Elsaesser makes a convincing case for the integrity of the filmmaker's work as a whole. That is: Fassbinder manages to represent questions of his times and of Germany's past through his absolute investment of self, of his own body, "taking up a moral space and function [...I central to his universe" by embodying "rather than merely identifying with" (258) the mediator figure-from the "strong" woman, through the "bad" Jew and "victimized" homosexual, but also the recurring Franz Biberkopf. Elsaesser concludes that Fassbinder was able to realize his theme because he "possessed one of the very few genuinely new visions of how the Germans he sought to reach might make contact again with their past, [...I without shunning the price needed to be paid for assuming a history from which in 1945 they had decided to cut themselves off, after seeing how far it had cut them off' (256). This sums up Fassbinder's importance as an artist, encapsulates Elsaesser's contribution to Fassbinder studies and is thus what makes this book special." Sheila K. Johnson, The German Quarterly, Winter 1999, 111.

"As early as 1980, Thomas Elsaesser began looking at German cinema to investigate how specific national subjects were historically constructed. The films directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder received special attention. For Elsaesser, the fading of subjectivity in Fassbinder's films demonstrated not only the deconstructive techniques in German cinema that dislodge voyeurism and fascination as the primary viewing impulses but also the critique of German fascism that so brilliantly radiated from these films' historical focus. What Elsaesser found common in Fassbinder's films is that cinema transforms from "a machinery of surveillance" into an "occasion for self-display" and exhibitionism. For instance, everything falls apart in the opening of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); visual metaphors for the phallus, the nation, and modernity are in a state of debris. Yet, even as the city hall is being bombed, the marriage of Maria Braun and Herman is pronounced by a city hall official. The ironic display of this birth of a new family juxtaposed with the hysteria and the crisis on the national scene challenges viewers to question the nation's identity." Kyung Hyun Kim, Cinema Journal, 41, No. 4, Summer 2002, 96

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