There’s been a lot of Fassbinder buzz lately, both online and in festivals. (The recent Lincoln Center retrospective has me wishing I’d stopped over in New York for more than a few hours en route to Europe last month, that’s for sure). The latest item that keeps cropping up on the Internet is the 1966–67 short The Little Chaos, generously posted to Vimeo. (Suddenly, RWF is everywhere: even Andrew Sullivan linked to it!) So excited about this little breakthrough was I that I decided to break my own rule and watch it out of sequence.
I’m really glad I did. Now that I’m three films away from the end of RWF’s career (!), I can’t help but see this earliest of efforts in a completely different light than I would have had I watched it before all the others. (Only The City Tramp—to my knowledge unavailable—and a lost short called This Night This Night preceded it.) Indeed, had I not watched it so far out of sequence, I don’t think I would have had anything to say about The Little Chaos at all, beyond noting the extent of the young Fassbinder’s indebtedness to mid-sixties Godard.
RWF was twenty-one years old in 1966. Had he been a student at the time, we’d call Das kleine Chaos a solid if derivative little student film. Of course, we knew JLG was an important influence—just watch Love Is Colder Than Death, or Gods of the Plague, or The Niklashausen Journey, and you’ll see it quite clearly—but the extent of the imitation here is a little surprising. The film is a compendium of early-Godard stylistic elements: Breathless-style jazz snippet as our antiheroes pointlessly pile into their VW Beetle, drive about a hundred feet, abruptly park and pile out; bored, aimless young trio (two guys and a girl, of course) who hatch a plot to commit a seemingly gratuitous crime (cf. Bande à Part); exuberant young outlaw protagonist (RWF himself) emulating a Golden-Age Hollywood actor (here I’d say it’s James Cagney to Belmondo’s Humphrey Bogart); collage of cultural references, mostly cinematic (lots of posters), right down to that JLG mainstay, a character reading aloud to the audience. They’re all here. Even the woman our trio ends up robbing wears a fur-collared suit I would swear I’ve seen before, maybe on Anna Karina, in some Godard movie or other (Une Femme Est Une Femme?).
But Fassbinder is not Godard, even if it seems impossible to overstate the importance of the latter’s influence here. RWF’s emphasis on style (“No style without morals and no morals without style”), his intense fixation on Hollywood cinema (especially Raoul Walsh), his fascination with the gangster genre in particular (I’m pretty sure that’s a poster for White Heat on the wall behind RWF’s character in a key scene, although you never see the title), these preoccupations, though shared by Godard, seem different.
For one thing, RWF’s interest in Hollywood does not seem particularly intellectual, as Godard’s did. If the latter’s fascination with Hollywood can be described as theoretical and semiotic and political, RWF’s, by contrast, strikes me as emotional—primal, even, practically visceral. Which is not to say that RWF was not plenty intellectual—he was!—nor is it to deny JLG’s own intense romanticism. But if you had to pick one-word descriptors for each director’s approach, I think “intellectual” and “emotional” would serve quite well.
This, at any rate, is how I make sense of RWF’s criminally angry young protagonist in The Little Chaos. There is an almost sociopathic intensity simmering just below the surface of his performance—which finally boils over, inexplicably—that overshadows the clever cinematic self-reflexivity that structures this tiny film. (Did I mention, it’s only ten minutes long?) Like a witty and intelligent joke delivered by a murderous clown, it’s a little uncomfortable, a little de trop, especially if you approach it in the context already established in early Godard. But in the context of RWF’s life and work and, of course, his own peculiar relationship to classical Hollywood cinema, it makes perfect sense.
To put it very simply, in a very literal way, I think the movies offered a kind of lifeline to the young RWF, by which he was able to find a way of understanding himself in the world (i.e., postwar German society). And I think this understanding, for him, was personally, fundamentally liberating. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that movies (as he said about the novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz) actually saved his life. And I think he saw cinema (and theater) as a means of reaching other people and saving their lives, too. Hence the attraction to populist genres like the crime film and melodrama.
This, I think, is a very different relationship to Hollywood than, say, Godard’s, even if their ultimate goals as filmmakers were arguably the same. Whereas the latter’s fascination with Hollywood was shot through with moral ambivalence (classical cinema as guilty pleasure?)—hence the emphasis on deconstruction as a means of undermining and exposing classical cinema’s relationship to bourgeois ideology (with which his own fascination made him complicit)—I’d say that Fassbinder’s was fueled by something that strikes me as much more—how do I put this?—much more generous and ultimately optimistic, if less rhetorically coherent. With its direct line to the emotions and the subconscious, it’s ability to tap into our deepest desires, cinema, says RWF, has the power to actually help us free ourselves from the stifling constraints of bourgeois society.
So what I’m trying to get at here, which The Little Chaos has only just made me realize, oddly enough, is the extent to which even Fassbinder’s earliest efforts were revolutionary—not just in terms of the dominant cinema, or societal norms, or politics (which came later), but even in terms of their critical response to cinema itself. Which I could never have grasped had I not spent the past two years following his trajectory.
Sigh. I can’t help but think I should really watch those early gangster films again.