A few weeks after I watched Whity this spring, Gunther Kaufmann died suddenly of a heart attack in Berlin. He was 64. May he rest in peace.
This is not earth-shaking news, of course. Many of Fassbinder’s collaborators are long dead, after all. And we’ve had 30 years to get used to Fassbinder’s own death—as well as 30 years to celebrate him. But Gunther Kaufmann? I had only just begun to appreciate him.
I had never heard of Gunther Kaufmann until I began this project. I knew him by sight, of course—didn’t we all?—as the hunky black GI from The Marriage of Maria Braun, but that’s about it. [In fact, it isn’t. Kaufmann did not play “the hunky black GI in Maria Braun;” that was just my lazy, stereotypical assumption nearly 35 years after the fact. Kaufmann had a much smaller role in the film.] I certainly didn’t know his name. But after watching him in six films made between 1970 and 1971 (!) I have come to see him as utterly central, if only briefly, to Fassbinder’s universe. As important, for a time, as Hanna Schygulla was to RWF’s oeuvre.
Bavarian and black, Kaufmann was the son of a German (mother) and an American GI (father) stationed in Munich after the war. An oddity and an outsider by definition, especially in a society that had less than 30 years previously defined itself in terms of racial purity, Kaufmann was tailor-made for Fassbinder. Add to this a truly impressive physique and an apparently omnivorous sexuality and you have a match made in heaven.
Of course it didn’t last—these things never do. Pioneers in Ingolstadt was the last movie Kaufmann made with Fassbinder until 1978, when he appeared in several late RWF films (most notably Maria Braun). Interestingly, the Fassbinder Foundation obituary says that Kaufmann took a break from acting after Pioneers, but a glance at his career history suggests that he just took a break from Fassbinder. (It seems the two were romantically as well as professionally involved. Small wonder Kaufmann needed a break.)
The last years of Kaufmann’s life were not easy. His career faltered, especially after he became embroiled in a bizarre stranger-than-fiction intrigue in 2002 when he falsely incriminated himself in the extortion and murder of his accountant to protect his wife, who appears to have been guilty but who was dying of cancer at the time. (Kaufmann served time in prison before new evidence exonerated him.) He published an autobiography in Germany several years ago and was set to participate in a film about his life when he died.
It seems almost beside the point to mention that what made Gunther Kaufmann so compelling was not his skill as an actor, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. In a highly self-conscious theatrical universe, intentionally devoid of affect or traditional emotional identification, Kaufmann exuded pure energy, like some elemental source of electricity, a kind of vital center in an otherwise barren and artificial landscape. With his massive physique (which his clothing seemed barely able to contain), his opaque and irresistable grin (often at odds with the demands of the story), and his air of perpetual good nature (even as his character might be beating another man to within inches of his life), Kaufmann often seemed about to burst—out of his clothes, out of the confines of the narrative, right out of the film frame. Not so much larger than life, but larger, on some level, than art.