Marking the 70th anniversary of Fassbinder’s birth, Little Earthquake joins forces with the University to stage the Birmingham premiere of this classic melodrama from the boozed-up bisexual bad boy of German cinema.
Petra von Kant is the queen of the Bremen fashion scene, and having buried one husband and divorced her second, she unexpectedly finds love in the form of Karin, a much younger woman who becomes her model and her muse.
But when home truths start to flow along with the gin and tonics, the stage is set for Petra’s downward spiral into self-destruction, all set to a sizzling soundtrack of German kitsch pop classics.
Love Is A Battlefield
Conceived during the last months of the Third Reich, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born in May 1945, just three weeks after VE Day. He would have turned 70 this year, and it would have been wonderful to be able to invite him to see the Birmingham premiere of his play — but an overdose and heart attack in 1982 brought his life and career to a premature end. His partner at the time, Juliane Lorenz, found him in his room, slumped over the screenplay he was in the middle of writing, with an old Bette Davis film flickering on the television in the background and with cigarette smoke lingering in the air.
Before you shed a few bitter tears of your own over this tragic death-bed scene, I’ll make it clear that we could easily fill this entire programme with magnificent stories about how vile Fassbinder often was to those closest to him when he was alive. (We’ll just include a few.)
His first defining relationship was with the actress Irm Hermann (who played Marlene in his 1972 film version of Petra.) The fees from her acting work paid his rent. He repaid her by beating her up, behind closed doors at first, but more and more, in public, in front of their shocked circle of friends. Eventually, after Fassbinder repeatedly suggested she should kill herself, Hermann tried. When he found her almost comatose from the sleeping pills she’d taken, he thought she was faking it, so he beat her again while she was still unconscious.
Hermann was a vegetarian, but one evening, while they were having dinner in a restaurant, Fassbinder told her he would have sex with her once for every steak she ate. She tried her best but she couldn’t even keep a single one down. “I said, eat it, not puke it up,” Fassbinder shouted at her. “If you want a f**k, you’ve got to keep the meat inside you.”
Whilst shooting the bizarre western Whity on location in Spain, Fassbinder would start each morning on set by ordering ten Bacardi and Cokes, drinking nine of them and throwing the tenth at Michael Ballhaus, his cinematographer. Throughout his career, Fassbinder regularly pimped out his lovers — male and female — most of whom were performers in his films — as a way of raising some much-needed cash to keep the productions afloat. He foisted cocaine onto many of his actors, insisting it would improve their performances: it also had the convenient side effect of making everyone else in the industry refuse to employ them, so that they had no choice but to keep working for him.
Two of his lovers committed suicide: El Hedi Ben Salem, the male lead in Fear Eats The Soul, was whisked off to Morocco after stabbing three people in a Berlin bar and later hanged himself in a French jail; Armin Meier, the star of Satan’s Brew, swallowed four bottles of sleeping pills in Fassbinder’s flat on Fassbinder’s 33rd birthday — but as he had gone to the film festival at Cannes, he didn’t find Meier’s body until he got home: a whole week later.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In Fassbinder’s vision of the world, love truly is a battlefield.[/pullquote]
Fassbinder’s professional life, then, was as turbulent as his personal life; there was often no real distinction between the two. The shifting patterns of dominance and submission and the casual cruelties dished out to all who fell under his spell translated effortlessly into the relationships he depicts on stage and screen. In Fassbinder’s vision of the world, love truly is a battlefield.
Petra is the fourth and last production of the current season. For me, one thing in particular has emerged as a common thread linking each of the season’s plays so far: they have all shown the profound effects of war upon women. In every case, I’ve found myself responding more to the women, and less to the war.
I’m not a politically engaged person and my grasp of history is poor. Probably the only time I engage with current affairs these days is when the families on Gogglebox discuss a recent news story. As a maker and as an audience member, I think I escape into theatre to hide from big issues. I certainly don’t use the work we make to explore my stance on anything.
What I do engage with, in the theatre and outside of it, is people. Things happening to people — awful things and wonderful things — and the way they respond to those experiences: that grabs my attention and emotions very easily. And if there is some political dimension to the experiences of characters in plays that I watch, I can usually be relied upon to miss it or misinterpret it. You’ll never hear me banging on about my interpretation of a play’s meaning after I’ve seen it. I’d only embarrass myself (and you) if I tried.
Tonight, then, you’ll be seeing a very different theatrical take on war in Germany: one in which the battle lines are drawn across the pages of a fashion designer’s sketchbook or the contours of a made-up face — where the bold colours of the catwalk replace the sombre tones of the mud-walled trenches — where alliances are forged and broken between the sheets of a sunken bed — and where a refused kiss can be as devastating as an atomic bomb.
– Philip Holyman