Journalist and author Ian Penman joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his new book Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, which explores the work of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Ian Penman. Ian's a journalist and music critic whose work spans several decades and art mediums. He began writing for the British music magazine New Musical Express in the 1970s and has since written for many popular and special-interest publications including Uncut, Sight and Sound, The Guardian, and of course City Journal, where he's been a regular presence for several years now, writing wonderful essays on Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, journalist Joan Didion, novelist Jean Rhys, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and others. He's the author of It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, and has just published Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, a marvelous new book that looks at the life and work of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So today we're going to discuss Ian's new book and Fassbinder's work and influence.

Ian, it's great to see you here in New York.

Ian Penman: It's great to be here.

Brian Anderson: Glad you could visit. To dive into this book and Fassbinder as this larger-than-life personality, he combined self-destructive behavior—he died, I think you could say from that behavior, at the young age of 37—yet with this extraordinary, in fact to me, hard-to-imagine level of productivity and work. You note in the book that he was ruled by excess, including in terms of his capacity for work. Could you talk a little bit just about how productive he was, how many movies he made, and about how he could be so productive given the kind of self-destructive aspect of his personality?

Ian Penman: I think one of the interesting things, there's a lot of tensions and contradictions in him and in the book, and one of them is that thing where we would in general, I think, say of a person that they're well-adjusted if they're productive. It's one of our paradigms. I think one of our modern paradigms is to love your work and to do a lot of it, and to be productive and so on. We think of it as something healthy, I think, and something that would make you healthy and whole.

But the interesting thing when looking at Fassbinder is you think, yes, he was excessive in his drug use and all these bad things that we think aren't healthy, that don't make you good and whole person, but if you look at the way he worked, he worked in what seems in a quasi-unhealthy way as well. So it makes you question the whole idea of is productivity healthy? Is labor necessarily a good thing? Why do we think this? Because, like everything, he throws it into extremes. Nothing is ever quiet or normal in Fassbinder, everything's exaggerated. So even the thing that should be healthy in him, which is at least he worked well, even that is—

Brian Anderson: You wonder, right. How many movies did he wind up making?

Ian Penman: It's hard to say because I think there's like 48 films, but there's also various TV series, TV one-offs, various plays he did, various things he acted in. I think at the end he was even trying to write a novel as well at the same time as doing all that.

And the thing to remember about some of these films, well, a lot of these films, is a lot of them he conceived of them, wrote the script, directed, sometimes did the cinematography, sometimes did the editing, sometimes acted in them, and sometimes did the set design and so on. So there were certain films, he's not only working in a conventional sense, he's doing six jobs at once.

Brian Anderson: It's extraordinary.

Ian Penman: And the other thing I think to bear in mind is that this idea of him as kind of excessive with the drinking and the drugs, and the smoking and everything, that was only relatively late. I think it wasn't his entire life. His main decade was in 1970s. He sort of started in 1969 working and he died in 1982. So I think the drugs only began around 1977, ‘78—'78 I think is when it really clicked in. So for most of the ‘70s when he did this thing, sometimes he would do two, three, four films in a year. And, as I say, sometimes he would do four jobs on each film. He wasn't out of control on drugs and drink and stuff. Work was his drug in that sense, I think.

Brian Anderson: I think you note in the book that when he died, he was basically setting up five new projects. He was always thinking of what he could be doing. But these were not invariably but overwhelmingly high-quality films. The TV series he did were remarkable and a lot of them truly stand up today. We'll get into that a little more.

His upbringing left a real influence on his films, you write in the book, and he was born in the ruins of Germany at the end of World War II. There was a kind of American presence that was unavoidable at the time, obviously directly in terms of the post-war military occupation, but also culturally in the movies that became his education in how to think about the world and how to think about life. So I wonder if you could speak a little bit about his upbringing and that American current.

Ian Penman: I think a lot of German, that generation of filmmakers and painters especially, I think, but also musicians were very influenced by German models and things. Musicians by rock and roll music, obviously. In a similar way, the French are, but I think unlike the French, they didn't take it too seriously. I think the difference with the Germans was it was more like a collage or a montage or something: "Oh, we'll take this bit from this film noir and we'll take this bit from this melodrama, and let's see what happens if we film that in German with ugly-looking, very un-Hollywood actors or something." But there's a curious loop there as well, because I think a lot of the American Hollywood films they liked were actually made in the first place by German, Jewish, European refugees or emigres in the first place.

People like Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang made these films that were on one level trashy gangster films, or Westerns, or bank heists, or romance. And on the other hand, they were informed by this very particular European sensibility of people like Wilder and Lang and Douglas Sirk, who was Fassbinder's favorite, who grew up in the Weimar years, who grew up working in the theater, who went to university there and mixed with all kinds of different strata, intellectual and artistic and social. And then they came to America and made these incredible films which shaped American speech and image, I think, in a way that is still stunning. If you just think of someone like Billy Wilder alone, this kind of cynical, flirtatious, sexy, funny dialogue didn't really exist before that. They invented it out of the air in a sense. And things like noir and certain ways of doing— the way Douglas Sirk uses color in his films.

So young filmmakers like Fassbinder would look at these films and in a very uncynical way, I think, they weren't looking at them on a film course being taught by academics or something. They were literally going to the local—

Brian Anderson: Theater and watching the movies.

Ian Penman: Yeah. And Fassbinder in his childhood said he would go and see two, three, four films a day, which you could do in those days, I think. But there's a good side to that, I think, which is we're talking about his productivity and so on. I think he took lessons from people like Wilder and Lang and Sirk, which is not to be too precious about it, just get the work done, just get the work done.

On the other hand, I think if you look at it in a slightly detached way, you think in Fassbinder certainly there's this living through images which I think can become unhealthy. I think his whole view of life was one that was shaped by these films and by this kind of world of images and stuff. And I'm not sure that he knew how to live outside that. Which again, looping back to your previous question, could be one of the reasons why he worked so much. It's because he would finish a film, but that would force him to go back to life, but he didn't really know how to live like normal people live. He didn't have the normal range of emotions. It was either all or nothing. It was one extreme or the other. So he would immediately start making another film because that was the one place he felt comfortable.

Brian Anderson: Speaking of his personality, you describe him at one point as a “monster of selfishness,” yet he was also capable of generosity. And many of the actors and others involved with his film productions were devoted to him, clearly, because they kept coming back and appearing again and again.

You also note several times in the book that external nature is almost completely missing in his movies, that so many of his films are set indoors, in rooms. There is a certain kind of claustrophobia to it.

Ian Penman: He's one of the most urban filmmakers ever, yes.

Brian Anderson: And there's also a bleakness to a lot of his work. I haven't watched a lot of these films in many, many years, but I remember them ending often in broken relations, death, sometimes suicide. So I wonder, as you revisited Fassbinder in writing this book and started re-watching some of these films, which were very meaningful to you as a younger person, did you find your attitude toward the movies and toward Fassbinder changing? Do you have a different view of him now as an older person yourself now?

Ian Penman: On the one hand, I think my admiration for him has grown exponentially. I think the achievement is astonishing. To do that much work and for so much of it to be top-flight work, to be really good work, innovative work, work that you can revisit, that stands up, anyone who's had anything to do with film or TV industry knows, I now know, it's very difficult to get anything made, especially if it's a very personal vision and especially if it's being made with someone else's money. It's very difficult to get one film made. In the space it took other filmmakers to make one film, he would've made five or something. So I think the thing about being a monster of selfishness, I think some of that is just a natural thing to do with film directors and producers. To get anything done, there has to be an element of that.

And one of the reasons the people were devoted to him was because if you worked for another director, you'd do this one film and then it'd be five years before anything else. Whereas with Fassbinder, or even if you'd fallen out with him, it's like another bus will be along in a minute kind of thing.

Brian Anderson: You can get another opportunity soon.

Ian Penman: So yes, on the one hand, I think my admiration just as technical, as an artist, I'm more amazed now because I know more about how difficult it is to do those things.

On the other hand, I do have a problem with the pessimism, the fatalism, the claustrophobic view. I think it's a worldview that's very attractive to the person, at the age I was back then. I was essentially still a teenager, or very early adult, and in the punk years as well. It's very attractive. But it is, I think, a very adolescent, almost, view of the world: all adults are hypocrites, all relationships are doomed, there's no hope. It's almost like a film equivalent of a Doors song or something. There's no way out, we're all going to die and there's nothing good.

And I think that's a problem because it's almost every film that's like that. I think in the book I do a tally of how—

Brian Anderson: Yes, how they end.

Ian Penman: How do things end? They end badly. They all end badly in both senses of that phrase, I think. And I don't think, he couldn't have sustained that much longer. And I think we have to remember that he didn't grow up innocent. He did die young, relatively young. And his whole life was lived within this bubble of theater and film, and I think the worldview is a problem.

I think there are moments in some of the films of tenderness and love, and some hope, but even at the time, I think people on both sides of the political divide had problems with him because of this, because this kind of "it's not worth doing anything, we're all doomed." Some of that as well, it should be said, I think, some of it was very specific to that post-war moment in Germany. I think he'd seen it up close and the adults were hypocrites. Post-war, a lot of the Nazis ended up just walking into nice jobs and continuing, and so on, on a macro level. But also he saw it in his parents and parents' friends and stuff, and the strange silences, and the things that weren't talked about. And so I think that informed him personally, that view of life.

As I say, it's attractive to the young person I was then, but if you don't die young, if you do get into middle age—early, late middle age, whatever—I don't think it's a view that's very attractive or rounded. It's too bleak.

Brian Anderson: There is an amazing kind of cinematic quality to a lot of these films. If you were to say where should somebody start with Fassbinder, Criterion editions, a lot of these films are now available to people in a way that might not have been in recent years. Where would you start? The early films on the post-war experience?

Ian Penman: There's several. Although I was going to say that, we were talking about how things end and they end badly and so on. The other day when I was doing these clips, picking clips from Fassbinder films for this event, we grouped together three endings, three of my favorite endings. And they are really bleak but they are so beautiful. And technically, they're stunning, but they're beautiful to watch and listen to. And you almost forget that it's so bleak just because it's done so beautifully.

But I wouldn't start with some of the bleaker later films, no. If you want to, I think the mid-period is his best. And those are the nearest the films get to being rounded films. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Fox and His Friends, films like that, which on one level are almost like soap opera or melodrama. And in some cases he did borrow plot lines from Douglas Sirk and stuff. But that middle period and from about Fear Eats the Soul to The Marriage of Maria Braun, there's several films in that period that are gorgeous visually and not quite as bleak as some of the other ones, I think.

And some of the other ones are very bleak, indeed. Some of the early ones are probably just of interest to Fassbinder completists where he's learning how to make films with his friends, basically. Although they are, even they are quite stunning in some ways.

Brian Anderson: Now he worked in television in a way that has kind of anticipated our age of quality serialized shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and so on. And I remember seeing a chunk of this when I was a young man myself, his monumental Berlin Alexanderplatz, and then there was a science-fiction television movie, I think two-part movie, that remains as you describe in the book startlingly contemporary, anticipating artificial realities, screen technologies, movies like The Matrix. So I guess he was ahead of his time in this regard. He didn't distinguish between film and television, and he was aware of the power of that kind of medium too.

Ian Penman: Again, like his mentor Douglas Sirk, Douglas Sirk is well-known for making a series of melodramas, a kind of what used to be called slightingly in the 1950s "women's pictures" and the films with Rock Hudson, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and so on. But he actually, Sirk, did a whole range. He did Westerns, he did war films, he did comedies, he did just about everything that you could do. And I think that rubbed off on Fassbinder because I think, yes, he worked in television, he worked in theater, he worked in film, he did the sci-fi film you mentioned. It's stunning. I mean, just the way it looks is stunning, but it's very prescient as well about digital, the age we live in.

There's another late, a film from 1978 called The Third Generation, which is about terrorism in Germany and stuff. But I would say to anyone: "Watch the first five minutes of that, watch the credit sequence, the first five, 10 minutes." It's stunning. Like the TV sci-fi thing, it looks like it could have been made yesterday. The use of sound, it's the first time I ever saw a video machine in a film, and it has people watching TV and video tapes and listening to the music. It's this very fractured. Again, it's like the way we live now, I think. Just the look and the color and the way he uses sound is stunning.

Ian Penman: But he had other TV projects he wanted to do. He had a whole bunch. And I think in some cases I think it might have been better for him, I think that way of working fast. That should be stressed as well about he never brought things in over budget; they were always under time and under budget. He was very good at that. And I think one of the problems with some of the later films is that the budgets start to get inflated. They became big productions with big money involved and so on. And I don't think it suited him. I think he’s suited to working quicker, far more. And I think once he started to get into the inflated territory of some of the later films, it didn't work well.

Brian Anderson: You write in the book about, and I found this something I could relate to very much, we were talking about this before the podcast. You write about the excitement that art-house cinema could once generate, where filmgoers would await the latest Fassbinder movie or Nicholas Roeg movie. These repertory theaters would program film surveys of great directors. I spent a lot of time at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, watching Bergman movies, and Werner Herzog, and Truffaut, and Fassbinder. That world seems diminished, if not gone. Movie houses are obviously closed everywhere. I wonder today how many viewers still think in terms of the auteur director and creator of some kind of film. Yet at the same time, these Fassbinder films and indeed much of cinema history are probably more available today than ever before via Netflix or Criterion. So I wonder, what's your view on this shifting history, which intersects with the history of technology?

Ian Penman: I think it's inevitable. I think it would be too easy for, especially someone at my age to just lose their temper and be a bit grumpy about people watching films on their phones or only streaming stuff. "It should be seen in a cinema on a proper screen," we would say. And I think there's enormously good things on Netflix, and I think there's Criterion where you can watch a lot. I think it does do a good job of getting young people excited about a lot of this stuff that would disappear, because it should be remembered that even back in the ‘70s and ‘80s it wasn't that easy to see a lot of Fassbinder. It's only recently, and thanks to people like Criterion, that I've seen some of it. His TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, for instance, and the sci-fi film World on a Wire. I tried to see them for years and years, and years, and couldn't. It's only recently that I've been able to see them because they're online and so on.

So, it's 50/50. I would in general prefer to see films, and certain films, on a screen because I think you lose an immense amount. Even on TV, I think you lose a lot on certain films, but I think it's inevitable. And I think if it's done well, then yeah, fine. And there's a lot of good stuff on Netflix and so on.

Brian Anderson: No question.

Ian Penman: A lot of rubbish as well.

Brian Anderson: Yes, it's just this incredible flood of content, some of it high quality.

Ian Penman: I'm not sure about this. I personally haven't read anyone writing about this in. When people want to read about photography, for instance, they still go to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes and so on. It's the same with, you are right, I think there's a big shift in how people view, and I think there's something fundamentally different about the kind of Netflix-type experience, where you sink into this kind of multi-episode, kind of fugue state almost. And I think there is a paradigm shift there. I think it is something that should be thought about and someone should write about it well. How is it different? We are watching differently, I think. And just watching things in your own home, I think, is very different from making the effort and going to the space of a cinema with a crowd of people and seeing it, and seeing something larger than you. It's a fundamentally different experience. Not better necessarily, but it's definitely different.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, it's interesting. Now, a final question just about the form of the book. It's not a long book. It is written in a very, very accessible way. It's fascinating. It's got autobiographical components. But it's also written in a kind of, I wouldn't say fragmentary way, but it's like a montage almost of impressions and feelings. Although if you read it carefully, it does have a structure from beginning to end. So I wonder why you chose the particular form that you did in this book.

Ian Penman: I think the key word there is "montage." There is a lot, it's almost like a strip of film. You've got all these bits with space between them and so on, and it adds up to a kind of almost flickering effect. I didn't think I could do the kind of proper Fassbinder book because it would take years and years and years, and I don't speak German, and I don't read German. I'm not the right person to do it. So I made a bet to try and do it in Fassbinder fashion, which is just do it quickly in two or three months. But it's very carefully planned.

Someone was saying to me last week that it read as if I'd started out loving Fassbinder, and started writing the biography, and fell out of love with him. That's not actually true. The picture of Fassbinder is very dark, claustrophobic. His art is very dark, perhaps too dark, partial, too partial, artificial, claustrophobic, not rounded enough. But that could be said of the book as well. The book is all those things, it's left out a lot. For instance, I'd write a lot about that period, could be called the post-punk years. And I write about it again, it's like talking in terms of terrorism, and strikes, and hard drugs, and so on. But it was also one of the best times of my life. I had more fun in those years than it's possible to say. So it's a deliberately partial, it's like a Fassbinder-style book about Fassbinder because it's got all of the same faults he has. It's a mirror, in other words. The word "mirror" crops up throughout it.

Brian Anderson: In the title.

Ian Penman: For various reasons, yeah. So I'm not putting myself above Fassbinder. I don't like that when critics say, "He had all these flaws and everything, but . . ."

Brian Anderson: You address them but you don't dwell on them in the book.

Ian Penman: Yeah.

Brian Anderson: And I think your appreciation for his art comes through.

Ian Penman: It has increased, as I said before. I do find some of the worldview hard to take now, I think, which any person who's lived to our age will. But in terms of his achievement and what he got done and how brilliantly he did it, yes, it's just that my admiration has increased.

Brian Anderson: One final question. I wonder now that the book's been out for a few weeks and you've been doing some events like this interesting event in Brooklyn you were describing to me earlier, what's the audience like? Are they newcomers to Fassbinder? Are they people who have been waiting for this to happen because they've been Fassbinder fans from their youth, or are there new people there coming in?

Ian Penman: That's a nice thing, I think it's both. It's a bit like the other book I did my book of writing about music. I was pleased to see that there were young people there. It's the same with Fassbinder. Yes, there are hardcore Fassbinder people, but it's nice to see there's a lot of young kids and a lot of people who basically didn't know much about Fassbinder before this.

But yeah, the book hopefully will lure people in because if it was a conventional Fassbinder overview or study, I think it would only appeal to a certain kind of film, not nerds exactly, I'm a film nerd. It would have a very specific readership. And again, I didn't really want that.

Brian Anderson: In this era when, again, you can access a lot of this work through Criterion or Netflix or through some of the other streaming services, it really is an opportunity for people to educate themselves about the work of a genius filmmaker.

Ian, thank you very much.

Ian Penman: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: Don't forget to check out Ian Penman's work on the City Journal website, We'll link to his author page in the description. And you can find him on Twitter @pawboy2, P-A-W-B-O-Y-2. Ian's new book, and it's called, again, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, is available on Amazon and other outlets. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes.

Ian, thanks very much.

Ian Penman: Thank you.

Photo by Filmverlag der Autoren / Tango Film/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

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