The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Takes 450 shots – but doesn’t always hit the mark


commanding­ly austere, 14-part 1980 miniseries. I don’t think I could have braved that whole thing again in my own Covid bunker. After the false start, Penman latched onto a Fassbinder­esque

ethos to get going: “Just sit down and write something.” It took three or four months – the rough gestation period of an Fassbinder opus? – and he landed on the 40th anniversar­y of the filmmaker’s death as an endpoint.

The book thereby produced is a slim feast of 450 fragments, some a short quotation or pensée (“Aren’t all masks death masks?), some pursuing a line of attack for a page or two. It’s interestin­g that Penman spends longer on the instructiv­e failures of Fassbinder’s artistry than some of the highlights. Petra von Kant barely gets a mention, but Despair (1978), the stiff, waxworky Nabokov adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde, which Penman deems “pretty much a complete disaster on every level”, pops up frequently, and so does the director’s final effort, Querelle (1982), with its crazily lush, hot-house artifice, training a drug addict’s woozy lens on Jean Genet.

The standard idea of Fassbinder as a Leftist provocateu­r shaking the world up (“a slob, a barbarian, a punk anarchist queer”) comes in for some stern questionin­g. (In this regard, Penman follows in the footsteps of the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.) How does one reconcile all of these trapped lives – “nowhere to run, no chance of redemption” – with any particular­ly open or progressiv­e philosophy? The tang of defeat in Fassbinder is everywhere. The gay characters are largely miserable, yes, but so is everyone else.

Penman touches on this director’s “comfort zone” – something akin to a settled agoraphobi­a, with his trusted company of actors thrashing out some dank psychodram­a indoors. There’s a sense of wallowing in truths that Fassbinder knew only too well. As the author astutely points out, this isn’t often mentioned when we’re busy hailing Fassbinder’s films as uncompromi­singly brave: perhaps it was worth more digging.

Do Penman’s flurries of quickfire erudition add up to a dazzling kaleidosco­pe overall, or a labyrinth of aborted pathways? The answer is “both”. He’s boldly querying his subject’s genius from every vantage point – angry and young; older and (maybe) wiser.

 ?? ?? Unusual lens: the volatile, troubled Rainer Werner Fassbinder, c1975
Unusual lens: the volatile, troubled Rainer Werner Fassbinder, c1975

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