Years after the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death in 1982, the actor Gottfried John gave a remarkably clearheaded account, both admiring and critical, of what it was like to work with him. Their first collaboration was the television drama Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972), a “family series” commissioned by the channel Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). Fassbinder had by then directed some seventeen films and had developed a reputation for his intense, domineering behavior on set. “We were sizing each other up,” John recalled.
I remember how he once passed me in the WDR building, looking straight ahead, while he stepped right on and over my foot. I thought he must be crazy. Then I saw him standing in a corner somewhere. So I went over and stepped on his foot. We looked at each other, laughing a little. That was it.
It was the sort of everyday competition for dominance that filled Fassbinder’s films. Immediately before starting Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, he had made The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), about a sadomasochistic love triangle between an imperious fashion designer, her female lover, and her live-in servant, full of small exploitations and exercises of power. He had recently discovered the films of Douglas Sirk, which, in his view, showed that “human beings can’t be alone, but they can’t be together either.” He crammed the people in his movies into apartments, hotel lobbies, and city blocks that enclosed them like prison cells. Whenever they tried to escape, they’d be restrained by problems of money (The Merchant of Four Seasons), racism (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), marriage (Effi Briest), or their own dependence on one another’s poisonous company. Their efforts to push back against those circumstances would give his films a kind of pressurized energy that, he hoped, would in turn “give the moviegoer the courage to continue expressing things.”
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day has until now been among the less well-known and more difficult to see of Fassbinder’s major films. At the time he made it, it was his most widely distributed production. The five feature-length episodes that aired each had millions of viewers, and their subject matter was fashioned with a wide audience in mind. They take place in Cologne. At the center of the series is the romantic union of a young, skilled factory technician named Jochen (John) and a newspaper assistant named Marion (Hanna Schygulla). They make a model heterosexual couple of the kind Fassbinder often tormented: he tall, long-limbed, with chiseled features; she with a Hollywood-style glamour and an immaculate, curled hairstyle that somehow survives her long hours typing out classified ads.
Three other romantic associations throw theirs into relief: the long marriage of Jochen’s quarrelsome father and his forbearing mother; the affair his spirited grandmother “Oma” (Luise Ullrich) undertakes with a new paramour named Gregor (Werner Finck), an easygoing fellow she picked up on a park bench; and the miserable life Jochen’s sister Monika (Renate Roland) shares with her controlling, wealthier husband, Harald (Kurt Raab). Partnership is one of the show’s main preoccupations. The other is work. A significant part of the series is given over to Jochen’s co-workers and their struggles with management, an emphasis WDR would have expected for what they hoped would be an Arbeiterserie (“working-class series”) with relatable characters and settings.
Seeing Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day now — in a discerning new restoration by ARRI — is a shock. We have all the ingredients here for one of Fassbinder’s savage, grimly comic studies of exploitation among the West German working and middle classes: hastily made domestic arrangements; intense money consciousness; intergenerational family disputes; love between the elderly and across social strata; conflicts over how to raise children and over what sort of life a married woman should have. So it is all the more startling that, in this case, Fassbinder flipped the tables. He gave the characters in Eight Hours all the freedom, satisfaction, and powers of self-determination he would, in his other movies, carefully withhold.
Fassbinder’s breakneck shooting methods dictated that visual information be conveyed casually and swiftly, with elegant loping camera movements and periodic quick zooms. In his other work from the early Seventies, those techniques often had the effect of compressing the space and cooping up the human figures in the frame; here, the style opens up the spaces and lets us mill around the characters as if we’re on familiar terms. Fassbinder in effect consigned Jochen and his family to the same sort of prison in which he usually locked his characters, then opened the gates.
Everyone, more or less, gets what they want. Jochen and Marion take limitless pleasure in each other, spar playfully, and handle each other with mutual respect. A brief fight between them erupts on a flimsy basis and quickly resolves itself. Oma easily dominates Gregor, who submits with wry enjoyment to her capricious plans. Monika and Harald’s is the sort of cruel, abusive relationship one finds in other Fassbinder films — but by the show’s fifth episode, Harald has been dispatched by a divorce; their daughter lives with the kinder parent; and Monika has been swiftly paired with the man she really loves. Her brief flirtation with a sleazy pyramid-scammer might, in another Fassbinder movie, have been the occasion for a tragedy of credulity and manipulation; here, Oma looks the man up and down and scolds him out of her granddaughter’s life.
It is an odd spirit of generosity and possibility, and it applies as well both to the characters’ labor conditions and to their interactions with state power. Oma and Gregor establish a kindergarten in an underserved neighborhood by squatting in an abandoned library and setting up shop without a license; when they’re arrested and ordered to close down, they stage a playful nonviolent protest that instantly wins them the permit they need. Jochen and his small band of colleagues tower over their bosses and supervisors, using nothing but their wits and their collective influence to lobby successfully first for a foreman of their choice and then, when their plant moves across the city, for a list of demands that culminates with the right to organize, supervise, and pace their own work. “It was supposed to be something about the positive side of anarchy,” John said of the series — “that with common sense people could emancipate themselves.”
Fassbinder and WDR initially planned Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day as an eight-episode series. According to Fassbinder’s future editor and partner Juliane Lorentz, it ended after the fifth because German trade unions objected to what they considered the show’s idealized vision of non-unionized bargaining. (The network rejected as “artificial” Fassbinder’s attempts to write the unions into the later episodes.) The show’s cast has a share of the bigoted figures with whom Fassbinder often populated his films and whom he often hinted would have been enthusiastic Nazis thirty years earlier: Harald, in this case, or Jochen’s blond co-worker Rüdiger. But it is they who leave this series powerless and diminished.
Why in this case did Fassbinder invert the power dynamics on which the rest of his films depended? For the critic Owen Hatherly, the show “suggests that Fassbinder’s rage was directed at the West German bourgeoisie he came from, and that it simply didn’t apply outside of it.” Most of Fassbinder’s films do take place among the bourgeoisie, but when he imagined working-class characters outside of this series — most notably in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which centers on a Moroccan mechanic and a much older cleaning woman, and later in the anguished interwar underworld of Berlin Alexanderplatz — it was with a much darker, more cynical tone than here. Hatherly is right, on the other hand, to call attention to the moment at the end of the series when Marion reminds her husband and his co-workers that, even after all their successes, their bosses still take home the biggest cut of the factory’s profits. That scene suggests that Fassbinder saw where the fault lines in Jochen’s life still lay.
In a 1973 interview with the Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder said:
My films and plays are made for an intellectual audience.… One can easily be pessimistic with intellectuals and simply let films end without promise because an intellectual can always permit reason to intercede. However, with a big audience, like for a television production, it would be reactionary — yes, almost a crime — to depict a world without promise, because above all you have to give your audience courage and tell them: For you there are possibilities.
One wonders how seriously this was meant. Fassbinder seems an unlikely filmmaker to sugarcoat his politics for a mass audience. (Nor did he, years later, when he made Berlin Alexanderplatz for WDR.) It is strange to find this intransigent, uncondescending director suggesting paternalistically that his working-class viewers wouldn’t “permit reason to intercede” should they be confronted with unpleasant or pessimistic views of German society. In fact, according to Gottfried John, “workers, who were interviewed [about the series], said, ‘Bullshit. There’s nothing like that in our shop.’ ”
We are left with the possibility that Fassbinder took this commission as a chance to test what would happen if he didn’t press down on his characters quite so hard. What kind of emancipation would they pursue? What subtleties of personality and tone would they take on? The energy in his films had, until then, come from characters resisting whatever constrained them. What energy could be produced if they had the space to move where they pleased?
This experiment produced some of the most memorable and charismatic people in any of Fassbinder’s work. Jochen, with his mixture of boyish enthusiasm and cunning shrewdness; Marion, with her self-possession and confidence in advocating for herself; Oma, with her skill at brushing off defeat: These people inspire a comfortable fondness that few of Fassbinder’s other characters earn.
In a relaxed scene early in the show’s fourth episode, Jochen and Marion lie in bed well into the day doing precisely what couples in Fassbinder’s work rarely do: talking intimately and unguardedly about their lives and those of the people they love. “They do argue quite a lot,” Jochen remarks about Oma and Gregor. “It keeps you on your toes,” Marion says. “You always have to figure out how to be smarter than the other person.” Power, in the world of this series, doesn’t wither, strangle, crush, or erode, as it does so relentlessly elsewhere in Fassbinder’s work. It lets its opponents stay in fighting shape.
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day
Written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Film Forum, Opens March 14
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