Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote, directed, and acted in a Brechtian group called Action Theater (later renamed "antitheater") in the late 1960s, and he brought his closely knit theatrical company with him when he moved to film production at the end of the decade. In a body of work comprising over forty feature films and television miniseries, the self-identified gay Fassbinder wrote and directed only a handful of works with overtly gay, lesbian, or queer themes. Fassbinder's work demonstrates, however, that queerness in cinema is not necessary solely a function of subject matter.
Centralizing the notion that identity is constructed through social relations, Fassbinder's aesthetic destabilizes the identity of his protagonists not only in his notorious reliance on mirrors and mirror images, but also through his arrangement of visual exchange. Relationships are established in the act of looking and being looked at, and visual relations frequently establish unevenly distributed power relations between an individual and a group. This emphasis on alienation and the power dynamics of looking implicates the viewer's own look at the screen in a rich network of identification and desire. When the eponymous Moroccan guest worker of Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) stands naked and isolated in the frame, he solicits not only the look of his female friend cooking couscous for him off-screen, but also the viewer's look of desire at an object rendered vulnerable. Here and in Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975), in which the working-class protagonist (played by Fassbinder) faces the camera as he emerges naked from a mudbath, the male body is put on display at the same time that the director implicates the sexualized object in class relations, linking sexual vulnerability to economic disenfranchisement. In Die bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), lesbian relations become susceptible to similar power dynamics, and here the roles of master and servant are interchanged in an unstable relationship of desire and class.
The politics of sexuality become more elaborate in Fassbinder's final film Querelle (1982), where the act of male penetration becomes a staging of power and submission played out according to various contractual terms: the penetrated male reserving the ability to give or withhold pleasure; the penetrator fantasizing that his male sexual partner is actually the partner's sister. The film that enables the most elaborate network of queer positions of identification and desire is In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978), which begins as desire has already receded into the past. Its protagonist is the transgendered Erwin/Elvira, who has undergone sexual reassignment surgery after her male lover Anton makes a casual observation about how their relationship would be if Erwin were a woman. When Anton reduces Elvira to the status of a freakish object and discards her, however, the film becomes an emotionally and politically charged investigation of the instability of human sexual identity.
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