Monday, June 4, 2018

Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (Acht Stunden sind kein Tag)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the set with actress Hanna Schygulla

EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY (Acht Stunden sind kein Tag) 
– made for TV           B-                   
Cologne  (478 mi)  5 TV episodes (Episodes 1 and 2: 101 mi, Episode 3: 93 mi, Episode 4: 91 mi, and Episode 5: 90 mi)  April – August 1972  d:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder

It is above all a matter of the cohesion and solidarity of the workers.  Since the employer treats the worker as an isolated individual, it’s difficult for them to show solidarity.  We have tried to say:  unity means strength.  And we’ve documented that in various examples.  We’ve shown that there exists for workers the possibility of defending themselves, and that they can best do this as a group. 
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973

A working class family melodrama, designated “A Family Series” at each chapter installation, a soap opera in the worse sense, with elevated orchestral music, plenty of close-ups and highly stylized still shots, that is cheesy, lightweight, exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous, yet highly entertaining, despite feeling preposterous, as the idea of implementing socialist critique into a popular TV melodrama was simply unthinkable at the time.  In what might be described as anarchistic romanticism, this is Fassbinder’s second television production, released at a time when few in Germany had television sets, completed a week ahead of schedule, and the last of his major works to be restored, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival in February of 2017, an extended 5-part mini-series showing an unprecedented euphoria with a possible utopian existence, where all things are still possible, and nothing can be ruled out.  In that sense, much of this feels like a working class fairy tale, though in typical Fassbinder fashion, serious issues are introduced throughout, with characters having to grapple with relevant, modern era problems, though the solutions may seem all too simplistic.  One of the few Fassbinder films that is not a cynical critique of German politics, as he throws all that out the window in this comical romp examining life at a local factory.  What’s missing is the influence of trade unions, as this particular factory has no union presence, so there’s no history of the company targeting leaders or organizers with fascist era repressive attacks, like calling in the police and making arrests, which are fairly typical occurrences at many factories, as evidenced by Mario Monicelli’s THE ORGANIZER (1963), John Sayles’ MATEWAN (1987), or Pudovkin’s MOTHER (1926), though each is set in much earlier times.  Ken Loach’s contemporary Bread and Roses (2000), however, his only venture to America, examining the treatment of non-unionized janitors cleaning high-rise professional buildings, suggests more of the same.  While there are references to a work council, they seem entirely ineffectual, where workers must take matters into their own hands if they expect results.  According to German television producer Martin Wiebel, “Every series in those days played in middle-class, bourgeois family circles.  A worker series was something—it was almost unimaginable.”  Made between THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VAN KANT (1972) and World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) (1973), while presumably set in the cultural hub of Cologne, much of the factory shots took place in the western industrial regions of Mönchengladbach, using longtime cinematographer Dietrich Lohman, who shot Fassbinder’s early films on 16mm.   Eight episodes were planned and written, but only five were shown, as trade unions objected to the Fassbinder technique of resolving labor issues without a labor union, suggesting it was highly unrealistic, and the television production company wasn’t happy with some of the story developments, particularly a suicide from one of the women, despite having found a devoted partner.  As a result, the film ends prematurely, with plenty of unresolved business.    

Certainly brighter and sunnier than other Fassbinder films, featuring many of his familiar cast members, the film stars Gottfried John as Jochen Epp, a machinist in a tool factory, where it remains impossible seeing John as a romantic lead, or a trustworthy, nice guy, as his ruthless portrayal of the unscrupulous Reinhardt in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980), including the brilliantly choreographed murder sequence of Miezi in the woods, remains chilling even after nearly forty years.  Nonetheless, here he is as a decent sort, kindhearted throughout, and the link between two differing storylines, one taking place at the factory where he works, with Jochen designing a more useful machine tool that can lower their estimated complete time of their project, saving money for the company, which reneges on their agreement to pay out a bonus to each worker if they finish ahead of time, claiming the tool made it too easy.  While there is plenty of work solidarity in their team, including naked group shower sequences, an amusing Fassbinder touch that is simply unimaginable for American TV, it does establish the power dynamic between skilled laborers and their employer, which is at odds throughout the entire film.  The other storyline follows what’s happening with Jochen’s near dysfunctional family, opening with an explosion from a champagne cork signaling cheers and salutations celebrating the 60th birthday of Oma Krüger, otherwise known as Grandma, Luise Ullrich from Max Ophuls’ LEIBELEI (1933), an UFA star between both world wars, the spunky matriarch of the family (gleefully seen watching the film on TV at one point).  This is a typical European family gathering with various friends and relatives crowded around a table for a raucous family dinner, leading to plenty of drunken laughter and family squabbles that serve as an introduction to many of the characters followed throughout the film, including Jochen’s father Wolf (Wolfried Lier), who instantly flies off the handle, growing testy, arguing and complaining about every little comment that he finds irritating, always seen drinking heavily, commanding no respect from the rest of his family, his agreeable and docile wife Käthe (Anita Bucher), his younger sister Monika (Renate Roland, whose career surprisingly never blossomed), her rigidly uptight husband Harald (Kurt Raab), and their young daughter Sylvia, Andrea Schober from Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette)  (1976).  Rounding out the table are Aunt Klara (Christine Oesterlein), Grandma’s incredibly odd and cantankerously disagreeable daughter, and Jochen’s best friend, Manfred (Wolfgang Zerlett).  Running low on champagne, they send Jochen out for more, but he gets sidetracked by the radiant appearance of Marion (Hanna Schygulla) stuck at a vending machine, offering his assistance before inviting her home to meet the family, forgetting all about the champagne.  One can see how she might have that kind of effect on a man.  They become smitten lovers, drowning in each other’s eyes, where she doesn’t presume judgment about a “worker,” or his lowly station in life, unlike her coworker at a newspaper advertising office, Irmgard (Irm Hermann), who looks down upon the working class with a haughty attitude, as if they are the dregs if the earth, claiming “Your father was a civil servant…you’re worlds apart.”  That doesn’t matter to Marion, though she has a younger brother, Manni (Thorsten Massinger), who feels more like a son than a brother, forever jumping into bed with her at night, claiming he can’t sleep, interrupting any possible sexual developments between Jochen and Marion, adding an element of serious commitment to their relationship. 

Opening and closing each episode is music composed under the pseudonym of Jean Gepoint, otherwise known as Fuzzy, who happens to be Danish musician Jens Wilhelm Pedersen, creating bombastic theme music that sounds like French circus music, surprisingly upbeat, like something played for outdoor sunny occasions.  What might have kept this film out of print and unseen in decades are the extensive musical rights, something Fassbinder probably didn’t even consider at the time, though the series is replete with 50’s and 60’s American songs, like Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc,” Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” The Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting,” works by Elvis Presley and Paul Anka, but also the Drifters, “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” while there were even a few recognizable refrains from “Memories Are Made of This,” Veronika Voss Memories are made of this - YouTube (2:32), a foreshadowing of Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss) (1982) a decade later.  This scattering of American music has an influence on the overall mood and tone, particularly when heard during party sequences, becoming universal statements of freedom with a dark undertone.  The second episode entitled Oma and Gregor introduces the family elders, Grandma in her flowered hat and her new pushover boyfriend, featuring those whose generation was around to see the rise of the Third Reich, withholding comments, as politics are thrown aside for easy laughs, making it all too easy to laugh “at” Grandma while laughing along “with” her as well.  Finding a new beau, Werner Finck as Gregor, constantly befuddled by her aggressive plotting and scheming, instantly combining their collective pension benefits (his twice as much as hers), then dividing it up equally, thoroughly bossing him around with ease (though she’s a master manipulator who bosses everyone around, always with a leading smile hiding her genuine intent), with their shared love of sipping shots of schnapps, they go through a comical routine searching for a new apartment together, devising various strategies of approach, all of which fail miserably, insisting upon a rock bottom price, not a penny more than 25% of their combined income, meeting at a familiar café which features the loud squawking of wild birds, with bodies hidden behind tableside flower arrangements, almost blotting them out entirely.  This playful Grandma humor, pointing fun at a lovable old couple and their sheer eccentricities, where a shot of schnapps is their cure for everything, is astonishingly conventional, like a throwback to an earlier pre-war era of Burlesque and Vaudeville, and is noticeably absent in the Fassbinder repertoire, reminding some of the worst Nazi war comedies, which was too much for Fassbinder regular Harry Baer, who was one of his closest assistants, working as an actor and assistant director, often collaborating on art design and production management, but split with Fassbinder on this film, finding it politically tame and opportunist, “It wasn’t radical enough for me.  I found it trivial.  That’s when I took my leave, at any rate until FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)…Many people found EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY really great, but these grandma characters were too calculating and ingratiating for me.”  Criticized on the left and the right, the television series was surprisingly popular, aiming for a middle ground from the normally uncondescending director, which certainly wasn’t the case for his later television efforts, some of which remain among Fassbinder’s best work ever.  

It’s the inordinately hopeful depiction of working life in the factories that sets this film apart, as there are barely any scenes of the men actually working.  Instead, they stand around and talk endlessly about their lives, their broken hopes and dreams, and how they’re being taken advantage of by the employer, followed by evenings in a bar where they drink heavily and all end up inebriated, only to show up at work again the next day to do it all over again.  The excessive drinking is reminiscent of THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (1972), where disillusions turn self-destructive when one world weary character actually drinks himself to death (sharing the same last name of Epp, by the way).  This choreography of the workers is staged almost as if it’s a Brechtian musical, only instead of breaking out into song, they collectively air their grievances, first among themselves, and finally in a remedying proposal to their employer, which, surprisingly, is actually taken seriously.  One of the driving forces behind the worker’s strategy are heart-to-heart talks at home by Jochen and Marion, where she surprisingly channels their outrage in a positive manner, often feeling more righteous anger and moral indignation than they do, refusing to allow them to be taken advantage of, as they work so hard.  Her social consciousness is on display throughout the film, which is what makes her character so intriguing, as she seems to have her pulse on the heart of the issue, and is able to verbalize rationally exactly what needs to be done.  Fassbinder’s strategy to humanize the work force, allowing precious input into how they organize the work orders, deciding for themselves the best way to get their work done, as the men on the floor understand their work better than any outside managers, is a utopian working class view not at all reflective of the drudgery of factory work, where part of the crushing dehumanization is just how demoralizing it is to have absolutely no say in the matter, forced to constantly follow someone else’s orders, whether it makes sense or not.  Disinvested from taking any real interest in the work is the actual employer strategy to divide workers from one another, where it’s easier to suppress the wages and spend less on upgrading working conditions, treating workers like interchangeable parts, repeatedly informed they are easily replaceable.  That hard line attitude is nonexistent here, as all things remain possible, where it’s Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds,” where the idealistic hopes of 60’s have not died, and the bombs have not yet been thrown by the German far-leftist militant Baader-Meinhof group (Red Army Faction) that terrorized Germany throughout the 70’s, where they believed the West German government was populated by holdovers from the Third Reich, declaring war on banks and German capitalism in a spree of guns and violence.  None of that seething discontent is present here, creating instead a picture postcard world of sunny tomorrows, where openly racist neo-Nazi workers coexist with the rest, including Rüdiger (Herb Andress), who has it out for a Greek coworker, undermining him at every turn, continuously trying to get him fired, ostracized and not really a part of the social fabric from an ideas standpoint, yet he shows up for all the drinking binges and parties, and remains part of the working collective.  In this way, racists and neo-Nazis are thoroughly integrated into society, but their hate-filled, inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric is minimized, ultimately rendered harmless and ineffective.  The idea that this noxiously undermining sentiment can be managed properly is simply foolhardy. 

The most remarkable sequence in the entire film takes place at the Krüger residence in episode four, which shows the wedding reception for Jochen and Marion, merging the two separate storylines into one, all coming together in a bravura display of extraordinary filmmaking.  All the principal characters are present, including the workers and their wives, along with the entire Krüger family, Marion’s mother (Brigitte Mira), as well as an assortment of friends, all drinking heavily to a montage of American music, with Wolf cutting a rug on the dance floor with a variety of partners, with the elusive camera moving in and out of rooms with ease, like a silent observer, capturing what’s happening just around the corner.  In this way, it’s reminiscent of Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada (2016), a highly complex choreography of tightly enclosed space, capturing small groups chatting in hallways, while around the corner the Greek worker, Giuseppe (Grigorios Karipidis), is tantalizing the women in the kitchen with his own recipes, veering into the next room where people are bickering vociferously, creating a mass of confusion, yet the music has a calming effect, adding a touch of tranquility to the enveloping madness, with the unbending stubbornness of an insufferable Harold finally agreeing to grant Monika the divorce she craves, suffering unbearably under his abusive tyrannical rule, where oddly matched couples take heart in each other’s arms, including Irmgard who quickly rids herself of all preconceived aversion to workers, finding one in particular that she likes, with people sprawled around throughout the rooms, many asleep, some just in a drunken stupor, creating a panorama of chaos finally coming under control, including the presence of Fassbinder regular Eva Mattes laughing uncontrollably to herself all evening long, while alcohol slows the tempo down to a late night crawl, with people finally leaving as Marion sleeps in a chair and Jochen slumps to the floor of a doorway, preserving a picture of content.  While there is an elegiac tone of harmony, with people finally drained of every ounce of energy, the world has not changed, as all the existing problems have not gone away, yet the artistic mastery on display is uniquely that of Fassbinder, who, in essence, provides his own portrait of humanity in all its glorified dysfunction.  For a moment anyway people set aside their petty differences to celebrate the lives of others, who begin a daunting task together in marriage, starting a new life.  Nothing else in the film holds the dramatic power of this extended scene, which is beautifully realized and deeply touching.  Generous to a fault, Fassbinder adores all his characters, who become intimately familiar over time, withholding judgment, where only the bureaucratic hardliners are skewered in this film, city workers who sit in their offices all day refusing every idea that comes their way to actually improve living conditions in the neighborhoods, forcing people to take matters into their own hands and militantly force them to get off their asses and earn a day’s pay.  This thread of anarchistic activism has fairy tale overtones, as it simply doesn’t resemble real life.  According to actor Gottfried John, “Workers who were interviewed [about the series] said, ‘Bullshit. There’s nothing like that in our shop.’”  The overall tone of the film suggests a pragmatism that’s conducive to civil discourse, which has all but fallen off the rails of late.  Hardly prescient in its insights, suggesting lives are getting better, but real power and control remain thoroughly out of reach, this is an old-fashioned melodrama that delights in small accomplishments, saving the big picture for later endeavors.  

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