Learning German with filmmaker Fassbinder | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 28.11.2013
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Learning German with filmmaker Fassbinder

Filmmaker Rainer W. Fassbinder is considered the more important filmmakers in post-war German cinema. He influenced artists and directors around the world - even if they couldn't understand a word of German.

Ming Wong gets straight to the point: "At the time, I didn't understand the German language very well, but I understood her very well." With "her" the Singabore-born artist Ming Wong means the character Petra von Kant from the 1972 Fassbinder film, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant."

Ming Wong became familiar with the German director's films in the 1990s, thanks to the Goethe-Institut. He was excited and fascinated by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's menagerie of characters.

Emotionally touched

"Without much previous knowledge of Fassbinder, I entered into the world of Petra von Kant completely unprepared," Wong said, adding that he was deeply touched by the world showcased by the film, in which only anxious, stressed women exist.

"I was Petra von Kant," said Ming Wong about his relationship to the film character. His fascination continued. Ming Wong, who studied media art in Singapore and London and lives between his hometown and Berlin, fixated on Fassbinder for several years.

Black and white photo of director and producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk

Fassbinder is pictured here in 1981 on the set of "Lola"

Two of his installations are being featured in Frankfurt in the German Film Museum's exhibition, "Fassbinder NOW. " Ming Wong is one of seven artists whose work deals with Fassbinder. The other artists hail from Bangladesh, Pakistan and countries throughout Europe. The show in Frankfurt demonstrates the fruit of Germany's cultural efforts abroad and reveals Fassbinder's strong presence in both German and international film.

Cultures collide

Fassbinder was at the heart of German filmmaking in the era of New German Cinema, an artistic movement that introduced new formal and thematic constructs to Germany in the 1960s. "Fassbinder NOW" impressively shows what was once perceived abroad and what is now.

"The cross-cultural reference is quite essential to the exhibition," said curator Anna Fricke. "It shows that Fassbinder's body of work - more than people in Germany know about - is absorbed internationally and plays a role in the minds young artists, at film schools and at art schools."

Fassbinder's works are discussed in classrooms abroad and shown at Goethe-Institut locations around the world, Fricke said. The films are still relevant.

A still of people dressed up, playing characters from Fassbinder's films from Maryam Jafri's Video, Costume Party, Copyright: Maryam Jafri

Playing with characters from Fassbinder's films: Maryam Jafri's (Pakistan/USA) video, "Costume Party"

For one thing, it's Fassbinder's aesthetic concept that resonates today - but also the content he concentrates on. In his 44 films, the director focuses decidedly on German history.

"Lili Marleen," showed Germans during the Nazi regime. "Lola" and "The Marriage of Maria Braun" covered chapters of West Germany's economic miracle. With "In a year with 13 Moons" and "Germany in Autumn," Fassbinder displays the tense period during Germany's left-wing terrorism movement at the end of the 1970s. His monumental "Berlin Alexanderplatz" offered an impressive perspective on Germany in the 1920s.

Fascinating aesthetics

On the other side, the artists in Frankfurt, as well as many international filmmakers, are fascinated by Fassbinder's sophisticated imagery. The cinematic aesthetics of color, the complex camera movements, the interplay between views and perspectives, often through mirrors during extremely melodramatic moments of his films - it's all part of his tactic.

Just as Fassbinder sought inspiration from film artists of earlier eras, today's filmmakers, like Pedro Almodovar, Francois Ozon or Martin Scorsese, are influenced by the work of the German director.

Screenshot of Tom Geen's (Belgium) video: 'You’re The Stranger Here,' from 2009, a man is looking in a mirror with his reflection and another man looking back at him, Copyright: BFI & FILM4

Inspired by Fassbinder's mirror technique: Tom Geen's (Belgium) video, "You're The Stranger Here"

In melodramatics, artists and filmmakers have a way of crossing paths. Fassbinder, for example, patterned work after Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, who had emigrated from Germany. Anna Fricke said, in this way, Fassbinder sought "to encourage the audience to think."

He used the theater as an "illusion machine" to "transport content," Fricke continued. This theme is present in nearly all the artists' work in Frankfurt.

The German genius

The fact that Fassbinder is better known in other countries than in his home country is confirmed by Juliana Maria Lorenz, Fassbinder's long-time film editor and now manager of his estate.

"In Germany he's seen by many as crazy, simply because of his creativity," Lorenz said. It's not like that in the US, she added. In fact, Americans find his genius exceptional. "I'm not saying that he was a genius, Rainer would not have said that about himself. But he was insanely dedicated, had charisma, and had gathered together the right crowd of gifted, young people around him."

Set photo from Fassbinder's 1972 film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Copyright: DIF Peter Gauhe

"You disgust me," some of Ming Wong's first German words, learned from "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant"

In his installation, "Learn German with Petra von Kant," Ming Wong plays scenes from Fassbinder's 1972 film. Dressed as the film character, the artist repeats lines from the film in broken German. It's at once absurd and comical.

For Ming Wong, the film was a "self-made cultural and linguistic integration course. "I can repeat sentences with such fervor, like, 'Oh, man, I'm so messed up,' 'You disgust me,' 'Do you think I care about you?' 'If you only knew how dirty you are.' Believe me: These sentences have served me well during my time in Germany."

The exhibit "Fassbinder NOW - Film and Video Art" will be featured in the German Film Museum / Film Institute in Frankfurt/Main until June 1, 2014, and is planned in conjunction with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation in Berlin.

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