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No morals without style

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's ex-wife, the actress and chanteuse Ingrid Caven, is outraged at the way the Fassbinder legacy is being misrepresented. She does not mince her words with Katja Nicodemus.

Die Zeit: Mrs. Fassbinder...

All photos courtesy of the Ingrid Caven website

Ingrid Caven
: Oh no, nonsense, there's no need to call me that. Rainer wanted me to keep his name for sentimental reasons. It had to do with the fact that after the divorce we went on holiday together so often. It was easier for us if we had the same name. And so that's still my official name.

When did you meet Rainer Werner Fassbinder for the first time?

In 1967 I went to see a play staged by Peer Raben, a collage of various Antigone texts. Fassbinder, who launched into making action theatre in the same year, was there too. And I noticed him looking at me with this strange concentration. I think Rainer was on the lookout for people. With Hanna Schygulla he also knew very early on and very clearly that she would be his leading actress. And I was, you might say, the woman for his private life.

People always say that Fassbinder used people. How did you fare?

I'd just come out of therapy and was trying to deal with a few problems I might have had with sadomasochistic tendencies. So I was not in any danger of getting crushed under his thumb. Perhaps that was precisely what interested him. Aside from that my sister, the opera singer Trudeliese Schmidt and I grew up in a very musical household. I had the opportunity to develop my own ideas about music and singing at quite a young age. So I already had a sensitivity for style that I could bring in. And at first he was just my best friend. It was only with time that I realised how quiet he was with other people, telling them almost nothing about himself.

Did he actually propose to you?

Oh it was so touching. He'd always go to the men's public toilets for sex and then we'd go out on the town. One evening we ended up sleeping together. I thought it was wonderful, but there was nothing more to it. I'd simply had sex with a homosexual. But Rainer was there in the morning in a white shirt. And he just came out with it: "We have to get married." Then he wouldn't stop going on about the marriage thing. I don't know why I eventually said yes. I think I just had the feeling that it would be fun.

Did you ever talk to Fassbinder about his sexual relations with women and men?

It was the main thing we talked about in those days. Which is why there was no need to discuss it first. I had sex with women too, it was pretty hard not to in those days. Just as nobody wanted only to be gay. And this open attitude to sex, to eroticism, it overflowed into the work. Rainer had a very sharp and objective eye for sexual power relations, whores, prostitution. Perhaps because he and Udo Kier went on the game together so young. Rainer used to say the rituals and middle-class taboos were as present in this milieu as anywhere else. He found the principle of pimping in bourgeois society and brought it into his films.

How did the "Fassbinder group" get along?

It was basically Fassbinder, Peer Raben and myself who would discuss everything and thrash things out. Peer, who was involved at every level as producer, composer and grey eminence, was the most important and most influential co-worker. The so-called Fassbinder group was never a group that had proper discussions.

What would your discussions be about?

About music and books, which we'd almost always read together during this period. I brought Rainer into contact with all of Freud's writings for example, also with Hans Kilian's "Das enteignete Bewusstsein" (the expropriated consciousness). This book became hugely important for him. Kilian was part of the citizens' rights movement of the Humanist Union, with Mitscherlich, Habermas and others, who were extremely interesting for us politically, because in Adenauer's Christian-conservative Germany, they created an oppositional public sphere. In "Martha" Margit Carstensen sits in her wheelchair holding "Das Enteignete Bewusstsein". And this book played a huge role for us because it was the common ground for our shared Utopian dreams.

In 1981, Fassbinder said that of all the many people who had once lined up "to effect the realisable Utopia" only he, Peer Raben and you remained. What did this Utopia look like?

It was about fundamental structural changes in feeling and thinking. Even if we didn't manage to pull it off. You know, I still think today that we failed to communicate something vital to the generation that followed us. Back then, in the sixties and seventies, there was a vehement need for all artists to confront the German past and also to intervene in everyday history. This attracted a lot of attention for us personally and for our own needs. And it forced us to confront power relations in love and in life. All this was essential for our survival as artists in post-war German society. At the same time it was always clear that if we wanted to analyse something, perhaps even destroy it, this could not happen at the cost of style. What remains of us is that we were wild and tempestuous and that somehow everything was rock 'n' roll. It was an enormously aggressive force which expressed itself through a style. Style and form – everything rested on this. No style without morals, no morals without style. But this also affects the way you live your life. It soon becomes clear that there's no separation of artistic work and life.

photo: Dominque Issermann

How did this style come about?

Although all Fassbinder films are also German mood paintings, although they always come from everyday histories, they are highly artificial constructs. Not only on a visual level. Just think of the way Brigitte Mira talks or the way Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla move. Fassbinder consciously used every means at his disposal to prevent things feeling realistic. For example, he used bits of Irm Hermann's everyday conversations or Günther Kaufmann's sayings, but he'd have other people say them, and these two were given other things to say. And to achieve this artificiality he had to steer totally clear of all psychological permeation of the dialogues by the actors.

Did you have a say in the content of the films?

Sometimes. For example when he was preparing "Effi Briest", he was also directing in Bremen, where we were living in the Park Hotel. Every evening we'd play Ludo, and Rainer would go crazy if he lost. So crazy that his face would go bright red and he'd have to take a shower. We both had a copy of "Effi Briest" to hand and we'd underline the bits we thought were important. At the end we compared passages and swapped copies. Sometimes huge arguments would break out. I'm not implying that I would regularly help write the scripts. But we did always talk about them.

Fassbinder's legacy is being run today by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. If one inquires after you there, one is met with a stony silence.

Because Peer Raben and I knew how Juliane Lorenz, the head of the foundation, falsified and altered Rainer's story. She fabricated a marriage with Rainer, which supposedly took place in Germany and then in Florida. When she was asked to give proof of this, she said that she'd thrown the marriage certificate out of the car window in joyful abandon.

What happened after Fassbinder's death?

Fassbinder's mother Lilo inherited the money and paid his father out. She asked Peer Raben and myself to help her to start a foundation in Munich to support artists in need. Peer Raben was too busy with his work, and I didn't want to appear just as this Fassbinder creature, and I able to do this abroad. The last thing I wanted was to adopt the role of the widow.

So it was taken on by Juliane Lorenz.

In the years immediately following his death, there was no mention of Rainer having been married or having had a partner. No one said anything about it. Juliane Lorenz did a good job in the last years, as Fassbinder's editor, and as a girl for everything like several other people. She only resurfaced when the question arose of who would inherit when the mother died. Then suddenly the story emerged about her alleged marriage. She would also tell his mother that Rainer was never really gay, that he didn't take drugs and that actually he'd got quite domesticated by the end.

A widow soap.

Juliane Lorenz was involved in another inheritance story after Rainer's death. When the actor and "Querelle" producer Dieter Schidor died, she tried to convince me and other people who worked with Fassbinder to give false statements. She wanted us to testify that she'd been engaged to Schidor. She ended up in court with Shidor's parents, fighting over the inheritance. And Juliane Lorenz lost the case.

What repercussions does this have for the Fassbinder legacy?

I and many others believe Juliane Lorenz is morally unsuited to manage his legacy, not only because she has constructed the whole thing on a massive lie. She has shut out almost all the people who worked most closely with Fassbinder, such as Peter Berling for example, Isolde Barth, Renate Leiffer, Günther Kaufmann and others. She's running an utterly fatuous genius cult while the people who formed the real-life background to his work are being defrauded. It is being made clear to institutions that there will be complications with the films if unpopular persons are invited. Steps are being taken to prevent the publication of books containing original manuscripts of song lyrics. It starts with the Fassbinder Foundation homepage. It features the "Kleine Liebe" song, allegedly composed by Fassbinder, who never wrote a note in his life. His name is simply being used here to elbow out the composer Peer Raben, who has the copyrights to this song. There are countless falsifications and half truths, but so many of them are not justiciable. As a result a life is being censored.

And your life too?

Naturally. We all laughed about it at the start . But in the annals of the foundation, I disappeared from Rainer's life after our divorce in 1972. But I was in closest contact with Rainer for the next fifteen years, right until the end, with perhaps two breaks. Right up to the end we celebrated his birthday together, and we even shared a flat in Paris until the end of the seventies.

Why did you never fight your cause?

I found it all too tawdry.

Why are you talking about it now?

I am increasingly questioned by journalists about these half truths and lies. Especially since Peer Raben's death in January. He was the most important of all the people working with Fassbinder, his closest friend, a brother, he was very active as a moral and psychological support right up to the time when drugs got the upper hand on Fassbinder. But the foundation refused to let him have a say in things. It also has to do with the early theatre days when Fassbinder and Peer Raben worked closely and wrote plays together. These beginnings were so important, Peer was head of production on many occasions and paid off huge tax debts for Fassbinder. All of these rights were gradually taken away from him by the Fassbinder Foundation in a court case because no proper contracts had been signed at the time. Eventually Peer ran out of the energy and financial means to fight his case in the courts. And yet he desperately needed these royalties. A few weeks after the final court case, he suffered a stroke which left him wheelchair bound.

Some people would say: the main thing is that the Foundation takes care of the films.

Of course, it's a huge apparatus which operates on an international level, and it organises the screening and the evaluation of the films. But what it's dealing with is an immensely complex, giant oeuvre, which exists thanks to the immense artistic productivity of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And it would have been impossible to realise without his fellow combatants and fellow travellers. Fassbinder films were watched by people with a certain intellectual preparation. And this audience has the right to be educated about this time in a proper and nuanced manner. These things cannot be lost. One cannot just erase Peer Raben. And this goes for myself and many others too.

What are you concerned about?

About the way we deal with the man who is perhaps still regarded internationally as Germany's most important director. This is about how people felt at a particular time, about artists who dared to do something. About people who worked on this art day and night. With a sense of responsibility. This is not some sentimental nonsense. I do not stand to benefit from opening my mouth now. But I can afford to do it. I just have to find the time.

When did you see Fassbinder for the last time?

A few days before his death, I drove down to Munich again. Rainer's room was utterly disgusting. It was a pigsty. It was so dreadful. Ashtrays, cigarette ash and old newspapers everywhere. Whiskey bottles, everything you could imagine lying around. It stunk, and his bed was so filthy that I didn't want to sit down on it, it was that bad. He was as possessive as ever. He called out in his drug-crazed state to my partner Jean-Jacques Schuhl in Paris saying, "Ingrid must stay with me." Then I talked to his mother, about whether we should do something, but it was all so futile.

How did the Fassbinder time change you?

I benefited quite considerably from it, from this energy, this power, which was also a way of seeing people, a moral position. The belief that every human being has poetic potential is still so strong in me today, that it doesn't even matter to me whether this potential can be realised or not.

What do you think Fassbinder would be doing today if he was still alive?

I think he would have continued to go further with the world. I don't know if he'd still be making films. He'd certainly have tried to do something that involved pleasure in thinking, feeling, analysing. A life without artistic work would certainly not have interested him.


Michael Ballhaus, one of the most successful cameramen in Hollywood, made several films with Fassbinder. He had the following to say about the intrigues surrounding the Fassbinder legacy:

"Because I worked in America for so many years, I did not keep up to date with the way Fassbinder's legacy was handled in Germany. I always got on well with Juliane Lorenz, the head of the Fassbinder Foundation. But I was very surprised at the major Fassbinder retrospective at the New York MoMA, that Hanna Schygulla sang songs that Fassbinder had written for Ingrid Caven. These songs were composed by Peer Raben and new music had just been added underneath. Then when I returned to Germany, I noticed that the Fassbinder Foundation had systematically erased Ingrid Caven, Peer Raben and others close to Fassbinder out of the story, or rather forced them out through court cases. It went so far that at a number of events Juliane Lorenz threatened not to allow films to be shown if these close friends of Fassbinder's were invited. I thinks this form of historical misrepresentation is outrageous."


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit in German on 24 May, 2007.

Katja Nicodemus is the film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp - let's talk european