The exhibition Fassbinder – NOW (May 6 – August 23, 2015) at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, organized by the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, provides new impetus for the examination of one of Germany’s most outstanding film directors. The occasion for the exhibition is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 70th birthday on May 31. Fassbinder made forty-four films within sixteen enormously productive years, a dense oeuvre that to this day has not lost any of its relevance. The presentation, which centers on the three aspects of workshop, costume design, and visual art, sheds light on the coherence of Fassbinder’s oeuvre and his influence on contemporary art production. The exhibition thus takes up a twofold perspective: a historical one as well as one that is linked to the present.

Fassbinder – NOW invites visitors to explore Fassbinder’s approach based on original documents and features works by the costume designer Barbara Baum. It furthermore juxtaposes compilations from Fassbinder films with works of contemporary art, such as videos by Tom Geens, Runa Islam, Maryam Jafri, Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, and Ming Wong, works by Olaf Metzel and Rirkrit Tiravanija, as well as photographs by Jeff Wall.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder — Oeuvre and Approach

When Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982 he was only thirty-seven years old, and the creation of legends around this exceptional director of postwar German cinema began the very day of his death. The show in the spaces of the Martin-Gropius-Bau begins by concentrating on Fassbinder himself and his creative work. His approach can be explored based on numerous exhibits — for the most part from the archives of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation in Berlin. Fassbinder explains his understanding of film on nine monitors with excerpts from television interviews — and also implicitly elucidates his methods of self-staging. This public image is enhanced by another: original documents and personal items from his estate provide detailed insight into the director’s life and his projects. Notes, letters, calculations, scripts, screenplays, and production schedules reveal Fassbinder’s method as well as his personal stance and illuminate his strategic and structured approach. Projected images show the highly concentrated director with his crew during production work. Visitors can virtually leaf through his work archives at media stations with digitalized documents and listen to excerpts from his dictations for the screenplay of the opus magnum BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1979/80) at audio stations. Exhibits such as Fassbinder’s legendary designer sofa, his collection of videocassettes, as well as his pinball machine provide insight into his private life.

The Costume Designer Barbara Baum

In addition, in a further exhibition space the focus will be on Fassbinder’s work with the costume designer Barbara Baum. From FONTANE EFFI BRIEST (1972–74), THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1978), and LOLA (1981) to VERONIKA VOSS (1981/82) and QUERELLE (1982), Barbara Baum designed the costumes for eight of Fassbinder’s film and television productions. The exhibition presents nineteen of her creations in combination with her working materials, including the spectacular silver lamé dress that Hanna Schygulla wears in LILI MARLEEN (1980), the delicate lace dress that visually transforms Barbara Sukowa into an innocent schoolgirl in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1979/80), or the stylized uniforms of Brad Davis and Franco Nero that smoothly blend into the artificially exaggerated sailor world of QUERELLE. Figurines with fabric samples, working screenplays with handwritten notes, as well as Polaroids taken during shooting and fitting from Baum’s personal archive communicate the multifaceted work of a costume designer for a director who invariably saw the costume as an essential part of his cinematic image. Film clips projected onto a large screen show Baum’s costumes in Fassbinder’s settings.

Fassbinder’s Films and Visual Art

Fassbinder’s cinematic oeuvre is defined by themes such as emotional exploitation in relationships, the exclusion of outsiders, and the criticism of social (capitalist) structures. The director communicates these by means of recurring stylistic devices such as claustrophobic rooms in which the characters seem to be trapped, reflecting surfaces that render the fragile identity and alienation of the protagonists visible, or melodramatic moments that alternate between emotion and distance. A spectacular example of this is the “magic” moment of the first encounter between a pair of lovers that Rainer Werner Fassbinder staged as a dizzying 360-degree dolly shot in the melodrama MARTHA (1973): the camera revolves around a man and a woman, entwining them as if with an imaginary ribbon. The famous scene is a tribute to the cinema’s power of illusion; at the same time, it ruptures it by means of the extreme artificiality of the staging. In TUIN (1998), the Bangladesh-born artist Runa Islam deconstructs and intensifies this Fassbinderian method by distorting a reenactment of the scene. In her installation, visitors stand among three screens, two of which allow looking behind the scenes at the camera on a circular dolly track. They can furthermore walk around a screen freely suspended in the space and thus physically retrace the dolly shot.

Runa Islam’s video is one of a total of five being shown in the exhibition that demonstrate how contemporary artists make direct and indirect reference to Fassbinder. Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, Tom Geens, Maryam Jafri, Ming Wong, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Olaf Metzel, and the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, who is represented by the three works THE THINKER (1986), ODRADEK, TÀBORITSKÀ 8, PRAGUE, 18 JULY (1994), and THE WOMAN AND HER DOCTOR (1980/81), also take up aesthetic strategies, themes, and motifs from Fassbinder’s films. The works by the artists represented in the exhibition open up a new perspective on Fassbinder’s oeuvre. They show what is particularly relevant about Fassbinder’s creative work today and demonstrate how the cinema influences current artistic media. By the same token, the works by the contemporary artists provide interpretive impulses for the present-day reception of Fassbinder.

As a basis for the comparison with the contemporary works of art, a compilation of excerpts from Fassbinder’s films on three large screens provides an introduction to the most important themes in his cinematic body of work and furthermore sheds light on defining stylistic devices, such as light, framing, and perspective.