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Fastest Filmmaker in the Fatherland

While in some ways as redolent of his era as disco and free sex, the work of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder has lasted better; it still speaks to us today with its impressive blend of storytelling, formal experimentation and challenges to conformist shibboleths of every sort. Starting this weekend, you can see a remarkable chunk of his remarkable work. Over the next month and a half, 22 of the director's most amazing films will show in three Houston venues: the Rice Media Center, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Goethe-Institut Houston.

As a director, Fassbinder led the New German Cinema movement, an auteurs' reaction to the dumbing-down of film in post-Nazi Germany; his compatriots in the movement included Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. The name of the Houston series -- "There Will Be Time to Rest When I Die: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder" -- refers to his frantic pace. Between 1969 and 1982 (when he died of an overdose), he directed more than 40 projects -- an amazing output even for a director not striving for artistic merit. And what's more, he also wrote many of his own scripts, produced some of his own movies, edited his own film and sometimes even acted.

Lola, a sarcastic tale of love and corruption, opens the series Friday, October 3, at the Rice Media Center. The movie -- part of the glossy trilogy that includes The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronika Voss (1982) -- shows Fassbinder's unending interest in the misuse of power. Not surprisingly, all three of the films examine the high human cost of the postwar German "economic miracle."

Lola, full of Fassbinder's trademark stylizations, is a good place to begin to see the filmmaker as a visual artist. The 1981 movie is constructed with his beloved long takes, and its eye-boggling color scheme -- everything is a lurid pink or blue or both -- points to the highly stylized direction his career would likely have taken had he lived past 1982. (His last film, Querelle, is even more artificial, an airless, studio-bound box; it's not included in this series.)

Like most of Fassbinder's works, Lola is superbly acted down to the smallest stock parts (hypocritical mayor, dizzy secretary). The film's stars -- Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Mario Adorf -- excel as the points of the film's central triangle. Unfor-tunately, about three-quarters of the way through, the characters stop acting like autonomous human beings and become puppets in a deterministic parable of universal sin. Didacticism was always and forever one of Fassbinder's weak spots.

Adorf worked only once for the director; Mueller-Stahl made only a cameo appearance in Lola. This is unusual, as Fassbinder's films were generally cast with the various members of his remarkable stock company, from the potato-faced Gottfried John and raccoon-eyed Kurt Raab through to Hanna Schygulla, the angelic blond who usually played the part of "movie star" in Fassbinder's constellation -- as she does in Friday night's second feature, the hugely entertaining melodrama Lili Marleen (1980). Fassbinder addicts will have great fun spotting all the recurring faces as the series continues. Look! There's Irm Hermann -- the pasty-faced, put-upon drudge whose actions place the perfect capstone on the compelling chamber piece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). One of the more interesting actors is Fassbinder himself, starring as the title character in Fox and His Friends (1974) and visible in many other films. And there's also the notable work of Fassbinder's regular composer, Peer Raben, whose work evolved from the insinuating noodles of the early films into mini-symphonies of great emotional power.

Another pleasure of immersion in this body of work is spotting the director's recurring themes. Fassbinder sifted complex notions of love, loyalty, betrayal, corruption, politics and sex over his 14-year career. Yet for all the intelligence on display, he succeeds most when his heart can be spotted, bleeding and beating, on his sleeve -- as it does in the sublime Berlin Alexanderplatz. (The 15 1/2-hour TV series will show at the Goethe-Institut over six days.)

Perhaps the director's finest hour is Volker Spengler's performance as the transsexual Erwin/Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). Spengler has changed his sex after a chance comment made by a man he loves, but has lived to regret it. Fassbinder's early intuition that the world is a slaughterhouse is graphically confirmed by an excruciating tour of one. The gruesomeness is balanced by the empathy Fassbinder extends to Elvira and the grotesque humor of her predicament.

Fassbinder's previously unseen Whity is the real discovery of the series. Hitherto Whity has been known only for the trauma of its gestation, commemorated by Beware of a Holy Whore, the director's well-known film about Whity's filming, and the psychoses involved. A sort of chamber made-in-Spain Western, Whity oscillates between a Tara-like Southern plantation inexplicably located in the Old West and a saloon/ brothel populated by a singing Hanna Schygulla and Fassbinder as a racist lout. The heart of the film is GYnther Kaufmann's turn as the one competent member of a family of weaklings -- he's black and decent, while his depraved brethren are simpering albinos. Yet he has accepted the virtues of white civilization, and his bitter mother, the family maid, is seen as right to call him "Whity" for that sin. Fassbinder's use of the venerable genre of the Western looks forward to the director's great melodramas of the mid-1970s, his most successful blend of politics and drama, for which Whity is a not inconsiderable sketch.

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