What are we to make of Rainer Werner Fassbinder? If, in the year of a major BFI retrospective, the director’s reputation has been consolidated, our idea of the man himself is anything but fixed. To some, his open bisexuality and inclusion of bisexual characters in his films made him an LGBT icon. To others, he was an abusive misogynist who drove two of his lovers to suicide. He was as prolific as he was controversial, making over 40 films before his death at the age of 37 from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and sedatives, and always political – a sentiment expressed in the tagline quote used for the BFI campaign: ‘I don’t throw bombs, I make films’.
Lola (1981), in that case, is a Molotov cocktail of a film. The third chronologically in Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, a series of films connected thematically by their female protagonists and engagement with Germany’s ‘economic miracle’ of the 50s, Lola is a scathing social criticism of the ruling elite.
Set in the town of Coburg in 1957, the film stars Barbara Sukowa as Lola, a sex worker employed by the greedy entrepreneur Shuckert (a spectacular Mario Adorf). When the new building commissioner, the moralistic von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), arrives in town, he both threatens the complacent corruption of Shuckert and attracts the romantic interest of Lola.
If any aspect of Fassbinder’s filmmaking is open to criticism, it’s his divisive style. In Lola his penchant for the dramatic zoom is largely absent, but in its place are kitschy scene dissolves and even kitschier lighting – artificial greens and pinks give a surreal edge to the film’s otherwise stark realism. His style hasn’t necessarily aged well, but in the context of the film it’s mostly effective.
Fassbinder was able to drawing profound human truths out of melodrama – in this way Lola is typical of the director – and here issues of class, materialism and historical amnesia are touched upon. But the film’s focus is personal as well as ideological – Lola is primarily concerned with exploring the effects of greed upon individuals on an emotional level. No character is free from some degree of moral condemnation; not even von Bohm, whose sense of social justice is driven by sexual jealousy. Lola too is implicated, though Fassbinder allows for a little more sympathy with his protagonist – an emotionally charged strip tease provides the film’s most devastating moment.
Lola was released the year before Fassbinder’s death, arguably at the peak of his talent. Were he alive today, I wonder what sort of films he would make about contemporary Germany and the rest of the world. Whatever we make of Fassbinder, it would be hard to name many modern directors that create films that are as honest as his were.
A NEWLY RESTORED 4K VERSION OF LOLA IS AVAILABLE TO OWN ON NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND EST.
Image: Studio Canal