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.
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, like Herr 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, like The 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 Kant was 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.
There’s another film of his I love, In a Year of 13 Moons, and that too is about unmotivated feeling, unmotivated love. Is it possible for you to see these films again or don’t you like to?
It’s a film I don’t like, this one . . .
In general, do you like to see the films again?
Some of them.
It must be very strange. I was with Bulle Ogier when she was seeing Rivette’s L’Amour Fou 25 years after she’d last seen it, and she said it was very upsetting. It wasn’t just “oh, I was younger then.” What you keep in your head is one thing, I imagine, but then to actually see it again must be very complicated.
I find it the other way around. I was often upset about doing a film and then seeing it.
And now it’s easier?
Now it’s like a fallen leaf. I pick it off the ground and look at it.
I know Béla Tarr and I was fascinated that you chose to be in a film of his. Was that a good experience? He said for him it was a wonderful experience.
No, working with you.
I find that very strange.
Because it wasn’t?
No, no. I was fascinated by Sátántangó. I thought, finally, a filmmaker breaking with all these illusions . . . things just take the time they take, and you discover so much by looking. This film threw you back to yourself because you had the time to meet yourself. I wrote him saying, “If ever you have a need for somebody like me, feel free to ask me.” So that he did. And then I went there and I was disappointed because it makes me talk about him in a way I don’t want to. You probably like him . . .
I don’t love this film as I do Sátántangó . . .
No, I’m not talking about his work . . .
You are rather hidden in the film. There’s a moment early on when you’re outdoors and it’s rather dark, and you know, where are you? You’re not there in the way you should be.
That’s not even the point either. I thought he would take things such as life makes it happen. But he’s shooting it again and again and again, and he’s wasting all this material because every shot is six, seven, eight minutes and people are so badly paid. Everything just goes into his obsession and nothing is for the people who work for it and they work so hard. If you really take the time to give that timing to your film, then you should be able to pick up the moment and not obstruct everything and if there is a little thing that doesn’t work while the camera is turning around here . . . he’s a perfectionist and that doesn’t interest me in life.
But it’s strange to learn that Fassbinder could shoot a film like Petra von Kant—which to me is almost like Mozart—in only 10 days. Most of his films don’t have that look, but what you’re saying is Fassbinder is getting this effect almost spontaneously, working of course with actors who knew what he wanted.
Fassbinder wasn’t a perfectionist.
But he could make something perfect.
But only because he would follow his instincts. He wouldn’t let doubt go in between. He was also in a hurry. Something in him was always like a driving force to get it over with already and on to the next thing. Perfection didn’t interest him. He was setting up the chemical situation, and taking what comes out of it. That is worth keeping in mind for anyone doing whatever he is doing . . . if you write something, try not to interrupt the flow of what you want to say by putting a doubt in there or wanting to make it better than it came out. It’s the biggest lesson I learned.
But he was surrounded by people who understood what he did. There are directors like Bergman and Fassbinder and Mike Leigh, who use the same core group of actors, and that provides a very deep experience for an audience. It’s part of the magic of the work.
I love how many people have come up to me and said, “Oh, you were great in Lola,” and that was Barbara Sukowa. It all comes now into one female. . . . Almodóvar is doing the same thing with the actors.
Yes, and although he has a totally different temperament, he is probably the filmmaker who’s the closest to Fassbinder.
He once came up to me when he wasn’t famous yet, and said, “May I introduce myself? I am the Spanish Fassbinder.”
I’m sure he was being as ironic as he was truthful. But maybe he was inspired by Fassbinder, that you shouldn’t say, this is the film that says everything, you just do another one.
And he’s getting deeper and deeper now.
He’s changed a lot, whereas Fassbinder was good from the beginning. I remember this because I was an unofficial adviser to the New York Film Festival when it was essentially Richard Roud and Amos Vogel. I went with Richard to Munich, where we saw Love Is Colder Than Death. I told him, “This is great, take it.” He said, “It’s sort of like Godard.” And I said, “No it’s not.” Maybe it was the jump cuts.
He was inspired by Godard.
Yes, but there was already something. Anyway, I didn’t win. I used to tease him. I said, “You could have been the first film festival to take the first film of Fassbinder,” but they did take virtually everything later. What are your plans now? Are you going to do more films?
I’m getting slowly ready to want it again. I’ve been out of movies 10 years. I have to wait. It’s not something I can get into gear myself.
You have to write to the right person.
Maybe. Would you know any filmmaker that you’d judge to be the right one for me?
You give me your address and if I think of anyone I’ll send it. After what you’ve done, you don’t want to do something that isn’t important.
I have made the observation—if I wish for something, at some point, it comes. For a long time I was quite glad I was not shooting anymore. I thought it was a waste of my time, but now I would like to do something again. I’ve always felt the best in life comes late.