Two documentaries about trailblazing artists who were both dead before forty open in New York this week: Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands is informed by director Christian Braad Thomsen’s friendship with the New German Cinema godhead, while Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse surveys the life of the paradigmatic post-Minimalist sculptor largely through giving voice to Hesse’s diary entries. Each film offers an instructive lesson on the use (and abuse) of first person in nonfiction filmmaking.
Thomsen, a Danish filmmaker who’s been making docs and narratives since 1971, opens his chronicle with sensational footage from the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, where he first met Rainer Werner Fassbinder, then presenting his debut feature, Love Is Colder Than Death. Called to the stage, the unsparing RWF, a butch number in a leather jacket, is greeted with boos and cries of “Pure narcissism!” and “It was shit!” Fassbinder, who throws up his arms and then swaggers off, seems to bask in the invective; he would, after all, make 39 more movies that pitilessly exposed German complacency before dying, at age 37, in 1982.
That clip is just one of several archival treasures featured in Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands, though none has quite the revelatory power of the wide-ranging interview Thomsen conducted with RWF in a cramped hotel room in Cannes in 1978 (footage that the Danish director says he himself hadn’t revisited in thirty years). The conversation, generously excerpted, shows the furiously prodigious filmmaker looking visibly depleted: With a highball in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Fassbinder often speaks to Thomsen with his eyes closed. But his somnolence doesn’t diminish his volubility as he reflects on how his childhood may have influenced his “compulsion to work.”
The subject of numerous books and documentaries, Fassbinder does not lack for biographers. (A request: Could some rep house please revive Radu Gabrea’s A Man Like Eva, a fictional, gender-tweaking “biopic” from 1984 starring Eva Mattes, a real-life member of Fassbinder’s troupe, as an RWF-inspired monstre sacré?) Thomsen’s narration, which does not refrain from using “I,” occasionally lapses into fatuous editorializing; he leans too heavily on the Oedipus complex to explain his legendary pal, for example. Yet his opinions never overshadow his film’s greatest asset: direct access to RWF’s own thoughts in the last thirteen years of his abbreviated life. Thomsen culls wisely from Fassbinder’s filmography to illustrate the kino-giant’s abiding themes, patricide and masochism among them.
Speaking just as candidly as Fassbinder does in those rare clips are three of his former collaborators, who, in present-day interviews, recall the glory and the horror of being close to such a phenomenally talented brute. Most in thrall to RWF was Irm Hermann, among the most recognizable faces in his sprawling ensemble. “I was completely and utterly at his mercy,” the actress tells Thomsen during a 2014 sit-down, calmly cataloging her abject devotion to the queer director. Though devoid of such self-abnegation, Thomsen, too, is an RWF acolyte, hailing Love Is Colder Than Death as “the first film in the world.” His deep admiration for his exalted confrère and subject is best evidenced by his insistence on privileging Fassbinder’s own words, in his own voice.
Conversely, Eva Hesse relies too heavily on ventriloquism to recapitulate the high and low points of the artist, who was 34 when she died of a brain tumor in 1970: First-time filmmaker Begleiter enlists Selma Blair to read from Hesse’s diaries (which will be published next month by Yale University Press) and correspondence. The actress’s delivery — too soft and too theatrical — banalizes a pioneering figure who, per Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman, set out “to make an art on the borderline of uncontrollability.”
Sussman is one of several talking, mostly graying heads assembled to expound further on the significance of Hesse’s use of latex, fiberglass, and other industrial materials in her sculptures, which broke away from Minimalism’s hard edges and rigid grids. Their words add welcome gravitas to Begleiter’s documentary, the first on Hesse, counteracting to some extent the mawkishness wrought by Blair’s aural infelicities (offenses made even worse by a Teutonically accented Bob Balaban, here voicing Hesse’s father, Wilhelm).
It would appear that little footage exists of Hesse, who is rendered in Begleiter’s film via a series of photographs, still images that nonetheless convey the artist’s dynamism. We see a tantalizingly brief segment from Dorothy Beskind’s short film of Hesse, shot in her studio during the winter of 1967-68, and yearn for more. Just as fleeting is the snippet of the audio from Hesse’s interview with art historian Cindy Nemser, which would be published in Artforum in May 1970, the month the sculptor died. (Hesse’s Contingent, consisting of eight magnificent banners made of cheesecloth, latex, and fiberglass, was featured on the magazine’s cover.) After a good ninety minutes of Blair’s muted melodramatics, Hesse’s actual voice comes as a total delight: a tough New Yorkese completely at odds with her interpreter’s inflections. The surfaces of Hesse’s sculptures may be soft, but nothing about her was.
Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands
Directed by Christian Braad Thomsen
Metrograph, April 29-May 5
Directed by Marcie Begleiter
Film Forum, April 27-May 10