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I No Childhood at All

It would be naive to accept everything Rainer Werner Fassbinder told interviewers about his childhood, but we cannot simply dismiss all these vehemently bitter assertions: 'I grew up more or less without parents. I also lived entirely on my own very early - for example between the ages of seven and nine.'1 'As a child I was already what's called manic-depressive.'2 it was a childhood that can't be seen as a childhood in the normal sense ... It wasn't so much a messed-up childhood as no childhood at all.'3 i can only remember that I couldn't differentiate between people. For instance there was a woman called Anita. I called her Madam Anita. And every day she wanted to know who I liked better, her or my mother - and really I liked them both equally.'4 'This curious sort of non-parental home.'5 They divorced in 1951 when I was five ... But earlier, too, before they divorced, there was no-one to tell me that this is done, that's not done ... I really grew up like a little flower.'6

At other times he said he was six when his parents divorced, but he and his mother consistently falsified the date of his birth, which was given out as 1946 until after his death. The register of births in Bad Worishofen shows that he was born on 31 May 1945, so he was just thirty-seven when he died in 1982.

He had countless grievances about his childhood. He has complained bitterly about the seventeen-year-old boy, Siggi, his mother took as a lover when he was eight or nine. Siggi tried unsuccessfully to behave like a father,7 and Rainer had an even unhappier relationship with the much older man his mother married in 1958. The boy got on so badly at his first school that he was classified as 'ineducable' and expelled.8 He was then sent to a Rudolf Steiner school, where he was relatively happy, but afterwards he was sent to boarding schools, and ran away from most of them.9 It was only later in his life that he could feel he was getting to know his parents. Throughout most of his childhood, neither of them took much interest in him, except for brief periods when his mother took too much. She confided dreams she had about marrying him.10 But to say he had no childhood at all is to kick equally hard at each phase of his early development. That he should need to do this is revealing, but the phases were extraordinarily dissimilar.

For about six years (1945-51) he lived with both his parents. His father, Hellmuth Fassbinder, was a doctor with a surgery at his flat in Sendlinger Strasse, a main thoroughfare of prostitution in the centre of Munich. Prostitutes came to him for the medical check-up they were required to have,11 and the boy, who got used to seeing these women in the flat, liked them and formed the impression that they liked him. He was told he must have nothing to do with them, but he would go on feeling that there was nothing wrong or abnormal in prostitution. What confused him, though, was the number of people around him in the flat.12 He was born three months after the unconditional surrender of Germany. In Munich so many buildings had been reduced to rubble by the Allied raids that many people no longer had homes, and in the Fassbinder flat sleeping space was given to relations, friends neighbours and the doctor's locum.13 Fassbinder's mother Liselotte came from Danzig, which was occupied by the Russians, so her parents, brother and sister came to stay in the flat. 'All our relatives from the East needed help, and we were all living together in a sort of very large communal family, which normally might be very nice, but this life together proved to be terrible.'14

His grandfather, who had lost both legs, sat endlessly in the kitchen,15 while the grandmother, a pious Catholic, did the cooking, but Fassbinder's memories of her were mostly hostile. He used to tell the story of a toy monkey she made for him after he had jealously destroyed the toy monkey belonging to a patient's child. For this he was punished, and to console him, his grandmother spent a good deal of time on making him a monkey out of material stuffed with stones. But during a row they had in the kitchen, he threw it at her and it broke.16

The doctor, who had two sons by a previous marriage, did not take much interest in the child, and neither did Liselotte, who helped her husband in the surgery. A friend of hers, who used to take Rainer out for walks from the age of about three, remembers that he had an insatiable appetite for stories, and wanted them to be made up specially for him. Often, when she finished improvising one, he would ask her to repeat it. If the second version deviated from the first, he would complain.11

The liveliness of his imagination is evident in the early paintings he did. He produced a great many of them, but his mother has no memory of his ever playing games in the flat.18 It was at about the time of his parents' divorce that he began to develop a taste for Westerns. By the age of seven he was

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