Obscenity, Feminism, and Fassbinder

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder never ceases to amaze me not only as a brilliant film director for his masterful direction of some of the most challenging, most brutal screenplays in New German  Wave cinema throughout the 1970s and 80s, but also as a precise craftsman of the most obscene theatrical plays, especially those of his controversial antiteater collection, six of which are published in 1986’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Plays, edited and translated by Denis Calandera.

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In this particular context, I use the term ‘obscene’ in the most positive light allowable; the antiteater plays are truly the most uncomfortable, macabre, disturbing, hyper sexual, hideous and abusive plays one could hope to find. The characters are despicable. Not one seems to have any redeeming quality to them, from Petra, the emotional abuser of her lesbian lover in “Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,” to the members of the xenophobic German youth who assault a Greek nationalist in “Kazelmacher,” to the lies shoved into the brain of alien Phoebe Zeitgeist who visits earth to learn about the human concept of democracy in “Blood on a Cat’s Neck,” not a single one of the characters saves readers from the despicable tragedies unfolding before them. And it is beautiful.

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To further complicate matters, in true Fassbinder style, all the plays are overly sexualized and fetishized to the point of the grotesque. Everyone wants or needs someone to do something else to them- an ongoing theme throughout all Fassbinder’s work.

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So why is all of this obscenity a positive for these plays? It highlights Fassbinder’s favorite theme (besides weird sex) of alienation. Each of the six plays carry a heavy sense of alienation within them, and this alienation leads characters to act in obscene, outlandish ways. As Calandera points out in his introduction of the text, Fassbinder made a living out of tragedy, including his own. These plays consist of nothing but tragedy; the most haunting downfalls of humans. His characters act so obscenely to show their alienation from those around them that it becomes brutal knowing the ultimate tragedy of the antiteater plays- these characters exist amongst society but never can truly belong within it.

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However, one of the most fascinating aspects I find about Fassbinder’s work is his focus on women. His feminism, especially for the time he was writing, is thought- provoking. Many of his characters are women that find themselves trapped in stereotypical gender roles, caught in the trap of wanting to accomplish so much in their lives but resolving themselves to fulfilling their societal roles as wives and mothers. While much can be said on Fassbinder’s feminist themes, perhaps his emphasis on the anxiety women feel in order to maintain humility, the characteristic the text emphasizes that men need to remain in these stereotypical roles, is the most obvious in these six plays.

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Fassbinder’s work is challenging, and sometimes it’s even more challenging to comprehend a play in its written form as opposed to when it is acted out by a talented group of actors (that probably includes Hanna Schygulla). But his antiteater plays are worth a go. They’re not the gentlest, but they’re perhaps the least painful way to begin the journey into the obscenity that is Fassbinder’s work.

ca. 1975 --- Director of the 1978 film . --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

ca. 1975 — Director of the 1978 film . — Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

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