Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 60th Birthday

The director once had high-flown plans for Frankfurt's TAT

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most productive and prominent representative of the so-called New German Cinema, came to Frankfurt in summer 1974 to direct the TAT (Theater am Turm) and turn it into an experimental theatre based on the co-determination model. Although the “Fassbinder Era” got off to a good start, it failed after only a few months

Frankfurt am Main (pia) The director asked the head of the Department of Culture to meet him at “Zero”, a generally smoke-filled gay bar in Berlin. There, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, surrounded by his team, waited for his guest from Frankfurt at a huge round table. Fassbinder welcomed Hilmar Hoffmann with a casual “hello”, and without getting up from his deep armchair. When Hoffmann asked, with a slight irritation, where they could go to negotiate, Fassbinder gestured to a free seat at the table. In this “collective situation”, Hoffmann, Fassbinder and his reti-nue soon reached an agreement: For the 1974/75 season, Fassbinder would take over the artist directorship of the Theater am Turm (TAT) in Frankfurt. His actors and other employees would accompany him, and each of them – be that a supporting part or a star actor, and including the future director himself – would re-ceive the same salary of three thousand marks per month. After all, they were intending to create a model theatre based on the principle of co-determination. “In retrospect,” Hoffmann writes in his memoirs, “this kind of contract negotiation was certainly cost-saving and thus in the interests of the tax payer.”

At the time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was already a star. 60 years ago, on 31 May 1945, Fassbinder, son of a doctor and an interpreter, was born in Bad Wörishofen. After training as an actor and gaining his initial experience at a theatre in Munich, in May 1968 he was among the founders of the so-called “anti-teater”, an actors' collective whose unconventional theatre, film and television productions drew a lot of attention. In spring 1969, Fassbinder made his first feature film, Love is Colder than Death, which remained largely unknown. His second feature film, however, a melodrama about an immigrant worker, entitled Katzelmacher, received numerous awards. Since then, the director and his group had been making up to three films a year. So when he was appointed artistic director of the TAT in Frankfurt on 26 November 1973, the 28-year-old could already boast a considerable oeuvre. Around that time, in spring 1974, he caused quite a sensation with the film Fear eats the Soul about a love affair between an aging German cleaning woman and a young Moroccan immigrant worker.

Frankfurt had great expectations of the prominent director, who was to transform the crisis-ridden TAT into a leading experimental theatre. The chosen one himself also had high flown plans and was dreaming of a “Theatre Centre Frankfurt”, which he hoped to create in collaboration with Peter Palitzsch, director of the “Städtische Bühnen”, which encompassed all the theatres funded by the city. In his application for the post, Fassbinder had persuaded the board of the Bund für Volksbildung, the legal body supporting the TAT, with claims like: “We are aware of the City of Frankfurt's social and political traditions, we are familiar with the TAT and the Volksbühne (people's theatre) organisations. We intend to mobilise that knowledge and our aspirations towards producing a people's theatre in the broadest sense of the term at the TAT.” In his first season, Fassbinder chose the theme “group psychology” for the programme – something which could be related to the ideal of collective theatre work which he was striving for.

Fassbinder took up his post in Frankfurt punctually on 1 August 1974. He directed the TAT together with the actor Kurt Raab, who had been dispatched from the ensemble to the management, and the administrative expert Roland Petri, who represented the Frankfurt Bund für Volksbildung. The first premiere by the Fassbinder group, a stage version of Zola's Germinal, was performed on 15 September 1974 in the presence of international critics and prominent municipal and state figures, all with great expectations. But as FAZ-critic Siegfried Diehl recalls, the audience “was courteously bored”. One month later, the collective staging of Strindberg's Miss Julie, in which Fassbinder played the role of the servant Jean, elicited only a lukewarm response. For Fassbinder the “group experiment TAT” had failed. During work on the two following productions in late 1974, huge disagreements emerged. Fassbinder had obviously overestimated the possibilities for free work at a subsidised theatre like the TAT, and underestimated the established administrative apparatus.

Open conflict broke out at the TAT in January 1975. On his return from a trip to the US, Fassbinder threatened to design at short notice, whereby his anger was directed in particular at his co-director, the administrator Petri. Fortunately, Hoffmann was able to put things right again. Fassbinder then cheerfully presented the concept for his second season, which was to focus on the German character (das deutsche Wesen). But success seemed to evade the TAT: abortive projects, failed productions, and finally the rejection of the new co-determination model by the Bund für Volksbildung. Fassbinder, long since on unpaid leave, gave notice on 4 June 1975 with immediate effect.

Only three days earlier, the director had begun rehearsals for a “Frankfurt play” which he had written on one of his Atlantic flights. Immediately after Fassbinder's resignation, the Bund für Volksbildung halted work on the production. In an interview Fassbinder gave at the time he said, “the play was surely ... I don't know, perhaps too obscene for them, or too controversial, or whatever ...” It was called Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (Garbage, the City and Death). The performance planned for 1985 at the Schauspielhaus gave rise to a theatre scandal.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in Munich on 10 June 1982, at the age of 37, abruptly torn away from his non-stop production activities, which resulted in more than 40 films in 13 years. As he once confessed, “I'd like to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theatre, Marx for politics and Freud for psychology: someone after whom nothing is as it used to be.”

Sabine Hock

Internationaler Wochendienst, hg. v. Presse- und Informationsamt der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, vom 17.05.2005

Eine deutsche Fassung erschien im Wochendienst, hg. v. Presse- und Informationsamt der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, ebenfalls am 17.05.2005.