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The Imperfect Storm

Fox and His Muse: Fassbinder Star Hanna Schygulla Revealed

The most iconic actor in the Rainer Werner Fassbinder company, Hanna Schygulla appeared in more than a dozen of the late German director's films. In town for the opening of Film Forum's RWF retro (through March 27; 13 titles are being released by Wellspring on video and DVD), Schygulla discussed her career—and Fassbinder's—with author, critic, and longtime Fassbinder fan Susan Sontag.


Susan Sontag:I'm always happy to see Fassbinder's films again—they seem a bit different each time. When I saw The Marriage of Maria Braun yesterday I thought it was much funnier—I had remembered this painful, allegorical story with your character representative of the German economic miracle in all its squalor and courage and ingenuity and cynicism, but it's also really funny, even like vaudeville.

Schygulla on Fassbinder: "He was looking for something beyond comprehension."
photo: Robin Holland
Schygulla on Fassbinder: "He was looking for something beyond comprehension."

Hanna Schygulla:He always had a grain of humor, even in his most cruel statements.

What are your favorite roles?

In his films? They were never played by me. I love the character of the old woman [played by Brigitte Mira] in Fear Eats the Soul. And I love Mieze in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Yes, Barbara Sukowa's character. She's a complete victim, don't you think?

She's a victim of her capacity to love everybody.

Berlin Alexanderplatz made a huge impression on me—a moral impression. When I pass a beggar on the street, I always think now, maybe it's Franz Biberkopf. It changed the way I look at people. I can't anymore say, "Well, I couldn't know such a person."

I mostly think of the child that person must have been.

This is a character that you would think is hard to sympathize with, particularly for a woman. He commits terrible violence against women. But in some way, you don't judge him because you see how much he suffers and how vulnerable he is. Fassbinder's films make you sympathize with people you might not usually sympathize with. That's the deepest level of so many of his films, likeHerr R. Run Amok . . .

By the way, that's not a film done by him.

What do you mean?

The idea was his, but it was realized by his assistant. It was almost totally improvised also, which was never his way of shooting.

Was it because he lost interest or had another project?

Maybe he wanted to give a chance to people in the group. It was done by Michael Fengler, his assistant. In the beginning there was some hope that others could have been . . . maybe like at the Warhol Factory, where they would get into doing things too. But he was such a creative bomb that nobody co-existed.

The films that seem most deep are very structured and formal, likeThe Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which is such a tour de force because you have one space, and to find so many different ways of shooting. There must have been a lot of rehearsals.

That was the film that was shot in the least time. It was done in 10 days.

With just one camera?

Just one. He never shot with two cameras as far as I know because he made the choice in his head before he started shooting. That's why it all went so fast.

Petra von Kantwas first of all a play . . . ?

It was written as a play but it was first realized as a movie.

Did you have the complete script before the 10 days of shooting?

No. The way things happened with him was not that you get everything and then you prepare yourself. You came on set and you got your pages and you did it. Even from the beginning, he liked to invert . . . something that is destined to be on stage, all of a sudden put it into another medium. Even onstage, he was giving it a timing that was sometimes like in movies. He began in theater because he didn't have the means to make movies and they didn't accept him at film school. Twice he tried and he didn't make it because of a lack of talent. This is to encourage everybody who fails. . . . But to come back to Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer said that he felt like all the three characters in one. Biberkopf is always getting into disaster and still believes everything will come out fine, Reinhold is driven to be so destructive and he doesn't know why, and Mieze is ready to love everybody and there is no reason for it.

Is it true that Fassbinder wanted to play Biberkopf?

He wanted to play Reinhold.

I always heard it was Biberkopf, a role that Günter Lamprecht did so magnificently.

Lamprecht resembles Rainer a bit. Rainer said this novel saved his life, when he was an adolescent and so conflicted about being gay. I never quite understood all this, but he found that love with no reason and no purpose was his ideal. It's not for me to understand, because every love has some reason and every friendship is a form of exchange and has a purpose. But he was so afraid of being exploited, maybe even of being the exploiter, and he was always into this mechanism. He was looking for something that was beyond comprehension and he found it in these two characters.

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