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A Thousand Little Pieces: Ian Penman’s Fassbinder

Daniel Fraser

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors
Ian Penman
Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2023


rying to capture the essence of the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it seems, is impossible. This pronouncement is made by Ian Penman at the beginning of his book Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors, a welcome addition to what remains a relative paucity of Fassbinder books in English. Of course, when discussing any artist of merit, such statements always have a commonplace validity but Penman goes further, suggesting that any such summation would constitute a betrayal. To turn Fassbinder into a monument would be to render him grand and dead, recuperated, a fate the filmmaker (so far) has mercifully resisted. At the same time, Penman recognises a certain ambiguity in this, asking: ‘Why exactly is it thank Christ he has escaped being turned into a monument? Why exactly is it he has been so dishonoured by not being turned into a monument?’ This ambiguity is one of the book’s most productive tensions.

Thousands of Mirrors is, appropriately enough, a series of reflections, at once biographical, interpretive, and autobiographical. Penman’s principal subject being not Fassbinder himself, nor an interpretation of the work, but rather the mediation of these two things through his own relationship to the filmmaker. The mapping of this relationship is undertaken with a related, if not entirely complementary, conceit. Penman has written the book under the terms of a ‘Fassbinder fiat’: a ‘three to four month time frame’ designed to mirror the manic productive capacities of their subject—the ‘inhuman’ production machine that completed forty feature films between 1967 and 1982 as well as a number of plays, television serials and shorts. Form and content partake in the reciprocity of speed.

The result is, barring a short introductory overture and appendices, four-hundred-and-fifty numbered sections that range in length from a single sentence or phrase to a few paragraphs. Rather than monumentalise, Penman hopes for the book to ‘retain traces’ of the book he might or should have written shortly after the filmmaker’s death:

completely unbalanced and self-indulgent. Dissolute, unconventional, ablaze. Utterly partial. Fuck the dialectic! Way out on a limb. Insane montage and drugs everywhere and melancholy city skies.

This is, he admits, everything he’s left behind. In this sense, the book stands as attempt to produce a sober reflection that redeems, through its traces, the destructive power of an earlier fire. Consequently, it comes as little surprise that Penman writes through an engagement with Walter Benjamin, assigning Fassbinder a position equivalent to that of Baudelaire in the work of the German theorist. The French poet, for Benjamin, stood as an ur-figure of the transmission of the historical experience of capitalist modernity: the urban shock of the commodity form. Consequently, Fassbinder becomes a conduit, a vortex, through which postmodern experience (with all its damaged dreams, consumerism, play, spectacle, drugs and political fallout) is read. The personal, Penman’s epiphanies and responses, his screen memories and memories of the screen, give this reading a vital, experiential depth. To put it another way, Penman’s methods parallel Fassbinder’s: the director who was convinced filmmakers only ever had one subject identified his own as ‘the exploitability of feelings’. The primary motor of the art is replicated in the emotional dynamic of its reception.

By turns ecstatic and questioning, the kinetic energy of Penman’s style is undeniable; a fervor born from the coupling of sharp critical insight with autodidactic enthusiasm. The bricolage compositional method feeds this fire, with its imported quotations and personal exposures, roving but not slapdash, equivocal but never enervating. One of Penman’s imports, from Jean-Jacques Schuhl (describing his own 1972 book Dusty Pink), gives a neat picture of Penman’s project. The book, Schuhl surmises, is both a: ‘manifesto for a sort of impersonal writing, made up of a mosaic of genres,’ and a ‘very personal work, made of “bric-a-brac, a kind of ephemeral collage’”. ‘I don’t see anything contradictory in these two statements,’ Penman adds. This remark is as true of Penman’s methodology as it is of his Fassbinder, one who is ‘always himself’ despite the baffling web of contradictions he appeared to inhabit at any particular moment.

Particularly impressive are the creeping resonances, the echoes passing from section to section, moving with the rhythm of Penman’s attention. It is here that the formal constraint is most acutely felt, as pockets around a particular film, Despair say or The Third Generation, or a particular subject, drugs or the RAF/Gerhard Richter moment, surface and then recede. Throughout, the tendencies of the collector and the predilection for the marginal, which are Penman’s as much as they are Benjamin’s, make Thousands of Mirrors, along with its other qualities, a treasure trove of trivia, lists, and ‘strange affinities’.

Though the book is undoubtedly a real achievement, there is a niggling sense of something “not quite right” in the relation between the form/approach of the book and its stringent desire to avoid the canonisation of its subject. Bluntly, Thousands of Mirrors lives a little too comfortably in the shadow of the monument it refuses to build. ‘Is it ever a compliment when we call a work of art claustrophobic?’ Penman asks at one point ‘Or are we always signalling some kind of deep unease?’ This line of questioning is revealing: for if there is a criticism of Penman on the level of form, it is precisely from a lack of claustrophobia. The constraint of the fiat never quite compels us as necessary. We do not glimpse its walls, feel the torsion of enclosure. Given Fassbinder’s mastery of suffocation, this lack of torsion is deflating for a work that seeks a level of performative congruence.

This issue is compounded by the appendices which dilute the formal coherence of the book. The first is emblematic in this regard, comprising a series of quotations arranged under the heading: ‘Walter Benjamin had an unrequited dream of assembling a book that was just a constellation of other people’s quotes’. Aside from the fact that the statement’s inclusion precludes any possibility of the dream’s fruition, coming where it does the appendix has the appearance of an empty accumulation. Not blasted from the continuum but ballast. Instead of a constellation the fragments seem, for a moment, to be like Penman’s description of cocaine: a drug of ‘numberless additions, with no end in sight’. This lack of interior pressure betrays a tendency other than the ‘utterly partial’: a cloaked monumentality that puts Penman’s broader project at risk.

The cloaked monumentality of form hints towards one of content. Penman having thanked Christ that Fassbinder has escaped being turned into a monument, cites for the defence the bloated Edmund White biography of Jean Genet. Yet the comparison does not quit hold. To canonise Genet is a category error, the locus of his genius is always already elsewhere. But Fassbinder was invested in his own canonisation. Not simply ‘a warped version of the diva force-field’, it is a force integral to his art. Penman certainly recognises this, and there are moments where the monumental is gestured towards: putting Berlin Alexanderplatz under the designation ‘films as monumental architecture, before quoting Paul Virilio: ‘In a certain respect, the audiovisual media are the heirs of the monument.’ But this is then dropped. The monumental is evaded. The concern here is that by glossing over the internal construction/destruction of the monumental in Fassbinder’s own work, the image of the director presented is politically neutralised. In fact, is there not a sense in which the ever-shifting figure of contradictions that resists all canonisation is in fact the image of Fassbinder that is most calcified, most monumentalised?

Penman astutely discusses Fassbinder’s often deeply satirical handling of that slogan ‘the personal is political’ as a precipitation of the inward turn brought on by the political failures and explosion in consumption that form part of the legacy of the 1970s. Indeed that slogan and the director’s ‘exploitability of feelings’ are undoubtedly two sides of the same coin. Locked in by this interminable inwardness and the threat of exploitation in all expression, Penman rightly says that Fassbinder’s characters give off a ‘stifling air of no-way-out. Struggle is futile. Alienation is all.’ However, he goes on to say that ‘this kind of thing felt clear-sighted and truthful and credible when I was young and knew nothing about life.’ But what if this understanding of Fassbinder is a product of reception, not production? What if the thing that reveals itself not to be clear-sighted is not the nihilism of Fassbinder’s work, but the reading of it as nihilist? If the ‘endless mirrors and reflections in Fassbinder’s films are emblematic of lives without foundation or rooted beliefs’, he just as strongly presents this lack of belief as infantile, emptiness and surface. The autobiographical mode, without incorporating the monument into its form/content relation, shows its limitation. It remains internal to the dynamic that Fassbinder forces us away from. It is only by eliding the monumental that one could suggest that ‘the Fassbinder worldview’ is ‘just an abyssal reflection of the capitalist one he supposedly execrates’. To conflate the abhorrence of political compromise with nihilism would be a mistake.

Instead, I would argue, Fassbinder escapes the double bind of fluidity and canonisation by staging it in the production of his self-image and of his work. As Penman says, Fassbinder seems to ‘make a show of his inner contradictions’. To return to the initial ambiguity about the monument, it appears Penman largely develops one side of the argument, missing how Fassbinder answers each question with the other. At the level of mise-en-scène, we might call this element epic: a residual monumentality that persists in and through its deconstruction. The epic turns reflection, the process of thought, into a perceptual object. This is key to the deliberate presence of artificiality that unites Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk. Paradoxically, this residual force is ultimately what is most postmodern, most resistant. The monumental is political. Fassbinder spoke of his growing ugly as a form of distancing: ‘a monstrous bulwark against all forms of affection’. The epic practiced at the level of physique. The epic is an alienating condition that attempts to make reflection political through vulgarisation. This backward glance in Fassbinder is where his futurity is located, and it is this which brings the director closest to Benjamin (though perhaps more his Brecht than his Baudelaire).

Take The Third Generation, a film Penman describes as: prophetic of the ‘”post-truth” landscape we now inhabit’; and ‘of all his films’ perhaps ‘the one that still looks and sounds most fresh’. Both statements may well be true, though it is worth noting that the most avowedly ‘post-truth’ figures in the film are the police, and the industrialist P.J. Lurz, who begins the film watching Bresson’s 1977 film Le Diable probablement in his high-rise office. The implication of Lurz as a viewer is that he is in touch with the meaninglessness of existence that seemingly looms behind the film’s protagonist, Charles. But to read Le Diable probablement as nihilist is a misreading, it is precisely to repeat the mistake made by the analyst in Bresson’s film in his attempts to diagnose Charles. Faced with ‘the rejection of all politics’ nihilism becomes a comfort: a way to avoid a more frightening truth. That Lurz’s worldview is not exactly coherent is deliberately staged through his relationship to film:

Films consist of twenty-five lies per second, and because everything is a lie, it’s also the truth . . . but in movies, ideas mask the lies and suggest that they are truth . . . that’s the only real utopia for me.

As a reading of Solaris, the film that prompts this dialogue, this is comical in the extreme. It is on some level convincing for us, as it resonates with the inwardness precipitated by the fallout of political enervation in the final quarter of the twentieth century. The future is kept alive only as a form of nostalgia crystallised within the image. This is something that The Third Generation strenuously refutes. The film’s extraordinary use of sound, pulsating as it is with ‘Hi-tech signal/noise’ deliberately instills confusion almost to the point of headache. At every turn there are screens blaring, radios, and thumping synths. Sound is physically abrasive. It provides no time for dreaming. No time to even think. This is Fassbinder’s attempt ‘empty the theatre’ in the words of Penman quoting Jonathan Rosenbaum quoting Jean-Marie Straub. In the film, the ability for the image to crystalise, even as post-truth dissolution, the ability for an idea to form, is continually destroyed by a totalising brutality.

The openness to a nostalgic misreading is something Fassbinder shares with Walter Benjamin, and it is interesting that Thousands of Mirrors perpetuates these even as (for the most part) it works against them. To describe Benjamin, as Penman does, as: ‘more concerned with illuminating the past than battling with the immediate future’ is something of a mischaracterisation. Indeed it is contradicted by the very Benjamin quotation Penman includes on the same page: ‘to articulate the past historically means . . . to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in the moment of danger’. To deprive Benjamin of his futurity is to transform the politics of rememoration into nostalgia. Benjamin shorn of futurity, like Fassbinder shorn of monumentality, imports a lack of totalisation that itself becomes a frozen monolith. Against this, the questions Penman asks of Fassbinder (important questions for postmodern art in general):

How to work with the backwash of failed dreams? How to use failure itself as a base line. How to survive an extended mourning and/or melancholy?

are best answered by the preservation of the epic’s possibility for revealing our alienated condition effected in and through the staging of the epic’s own failure. The alternative, to sideline the monumental character of Fassbinder’s work, risks the degradation of the animating force of his films to mere exhaustion fended off by prolixity. Undoubtedly this is something that Thousands of Mirrors, a book excellent and enlivening in so many respects, would want to avoid, both for itself and for its subject.

Daniel Fraser

Daniel Fraser