Iron Director: Truffaut v. Fassbinder

When you’re a hardcore film nerd, you spend too much of your time trying to spackle in the cracks in your film knowledge. My friend Marty, for instance, is currently obsessively trying to knock out the entire Criterion Collection. It’s a noble goal- Criterion makes some amazing movies. But we’re talking about some 550 or 600 movies that they’ve released. To date, he’s somewhere in the 400’s. My recent obsession has been the films of two art house titans- Francois Truffaut and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I’d seen a small handful of Truffaut films and only Berlin Alexanderplatz from Fassbinder. The last two months or so has been about righting this wrong. And it’s giving me a great collective view of their individual styles and themes. Let’s get into some analysis, but first a caveat. As you can see, I’m obviously not a completist with either director. I’ve done a healthy dose of each, 15 or 16 films total, but that still leaves a gaping hole in the Fassbinder and Truffaut oeuvre.


If you asked me to close my eyes and imagine what an art film director would look like, this is pretty close to what I'd imagine


What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
BRD Trilogy: Veronika Voss (4 stars), Berlin Alexanderplatz (4 stars), BRD Trilogy: Lola (3 stars), BRD Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun (5 stars), Chinese Roulette (5 stars), Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (3 stars), Love is Colder than Death (5 stars)

Special ingredients
Fassbinder is something of a mish-mash of a lot of different influences. For instance, there’s a clear French New Wave (and noir) thumbprint on Love is Colder than Death as well as Berlin Alexanderplatz (most notably in the epilogue). His camerawork evokes Scorsese (not that ol’ Marty S. was necessarily an influence; just that it’s stylistically similar at times)- the camera is in constant motion. Other times, he went for the cinema verité/neo-realism angle (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?). And still at other times, he’s very reminiscent of northern European cinema (Bergman et al.), with deep, emotionally crippling themes.

His camera work, specifically, is phenomenal. Throughout Chinese Roulette, for instance, characters are constantly viewed through the prism of mirrors, fractured shots, and obfuscated close-ups. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, there were several times where he filmed scenes (often in flashback) with a pair of nylons on the lense. The BRD Trilogy films each had their own unique visual treatment. Maria Braun was dampened, desaturated in color, and the camera was in constant chaos, used to represent the inner turmoil of the protagonist’s role between pre-WWII Germany and post WWII Germany. Veronika Voss was rich in contrast, black and white, in an homage to Sunset Boulevard. And in Lola, the colors popped off of the screen- bright, vibrant.

A great deal of Fassbinder’s work is steeped in symbolism for the chasm between post and pre-WWII Germany. He explores it in great detail many times (and bear in mind, I’ve only seen a fraction of his films). He works hard to be a constant reminder to his fellow countrymen about the nature of memory in a post-WWII world.

And he loves his women. Obviously, the BRD Trilogy focuses on three specific women as markers and interpretations of post-WWII Germany. Similarly, Franz Biberkopf’s 16 hour journey in Berlin Alexanderplatz is very clearly demarcated by the women that he beds.

Best dish: Chinese Roulette and Love is Colder than Death (tie)
Both of these absolutely blew my mind.

Worst dish: Lola
Bored me to tears.


The joy of filmmaking


What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
400 Blows (4 stars), Jules and Jim (4 stars),Fahrenheit 451 (3 stars), Shoot the Piano Player (5 stars), The Wild Child (4 stars), Day for Night (5 stars), The Last Metro (5 stars), The Story of Adele H. (4 stars)

Special ingredients
Truffaut is the quintessential filmmaker’s filmmaker. He constantly reminds the viewer that he is indeed making a film. Long tracking shots, incredibly long scenes, blips of missing frames, jump cuts… as a viewer, you’re always at the mercy of his vision. But it feels more as if he’s bringing you along for the ride.

Unlike many of his French New Wave counterparts, his use of the various New Wave techniques are far more subtle. Truffaut was more “human” (if you’ll allow me to borrow from the extras on Day for Night). As a person, he loved other people and it bled through his camera. There were stories to be told and whoever was in front of the camera was going to have their story told. He wasn’t exactly bludgeoning you with his filmmaking. The deft touches were mind-blowing and impressive but always took the backseat to the actual story about the actual people.

Unlike Fassbinder, there’s a very clear style to Truffaut’s films. The montages juxtaposed with classical music (Vivaldi comes to mind), the tracking shots, etc… These are very much Truffaut’s cinematic imprint, as an auteur. And there is absolutely no denying his impact on cinema. So many techniques employed by Truffaut have  become commonplace today. We don’t even bat an eyelash when we see Scorsese’s tracking shot with Henry and Karen Hill; we aren’t jarred by the jump cuts in Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. It’s really quite an honor for the guy that he more or less revolutionized film.

Best dish: Shoot the Piano Player, with Day for Night just behind
He’s best known for other films, most notably 400 Blows and Jules et Jim. I liked both of those films just fine but the deft skill that he used to create Shoot the Piano Player and Day for Night completely changed my opinion of the man, and of movies in general. Those were the two that made the lightbulb turn on over my head, acknowledging his genius.

Worst dish: Fahrenheit 451
This was the one obvious instance where he partook in cinematic masturbation, where the story fell secondary to New Wave film techniques. I don’t hold it against him. But I’m most certainly glad that it didn’t happen often.

Who takes it? Whose cinema reigns supreme?

I would frankly feel guilty choosing Fassbinder. I have enjoyed his films every bit as much as Truffaut. Actually, I’ve enjoyed them more than Truffaut, which is quite a feat. Fassbinder’s best goes toe to toe with Truffaut. At the end of the day though, Truffaut’s cinematic influence changed the way films are made, and he was more original. In fact, there are times where what Fassbinder does is mimicking the very stuff that made Truffaut so relevant.

Despite a valiant (and eye-opening) effort from Fassbinder, I give the nod to Truffaut.


Filed under Foreign Film, French Film, Movies

11 responses to “Iron Director: Truffaut v. Fassbinder

  1. iamcart

    I bet Marty’s wife LOVES that dedication to laying on the couch! 😉

  2. This is an impressive article about these two legendary filmmakers, although I regret to admit that I’ve only watched a handful of their films. ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ is one that I’ve been wanting to see for a while now, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere (I no longer have Netflix).

    • Good luck finding “Shoot the Piano Player”. As a Criterion release, it should be somewhat available through a library or something, but you never know where you’ll find the movies you’re looking for. If you have IFC and/or Sundance and/or TCM, they like running Truffaut films from time to time. I went nuts for that movie.

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  4. You should do more of these Iron Director posts. Maybe next time you could compare Bergman and Kurosawa. Now that I would like to read.

    • Thanks! I enjoy doing them. I think the next one I have on my radar is the two auteur Andersons- Wes and P.T. But there’s definitely wiggle room with it (i.e. I may wind up doing something else; John Huston v. Billy Wilder comes to mind).

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  6. Hey John, this is probably pretty random, but I thought I’d drop you a line since it’s been so long since I’ve commented on your blog (I used to do the Monday Night Films, but had to give it up about a year ago). Anyways, I moved to Seattle recently and just found out that the art museum here is having a 2 month long Truffaut film series where they’ll be screening about 8 or 9 of his films. Sadly, though, I missed Shoot the Piano Player (which immediately reminded me of this article).

    Anyways, the website looks great…..oh, and by the way, congrats on the Cardinals winning the World Series last year!

    • Hey, I wondered what happened! Glad to see you back and dropping by! I bet Seattle has a killer movie scene in general. Two whole months of Truffaut sounds amazing. I’ll be seeing Truffaut on the big screen for the first time tomorrow. One of the local universities is showing it as part of their film series.

      The only problem with the Cardinals winning the WS is that in 2 weeks or so, the next season starts and that’ll be the very end of the glow. But that whole October (and September) run that they had was more fun than I’ve ever had watching baseball.

      • Seattle does seem to have a great movie scene, at least better than what I had in Montana. There’s a theater in a town nearby that’s going to be showing some Buster Keaton films this weekend, so I might go check that out (although I don’t think that’s quite as cool as you getting to see those Hitchcock films on the big screen).

        I was glad to see St. Louis win it all. After the Twins were mathematically eliminated in July, I kind of adopted the Cards as my team for the rest of the season. I bet it was a bummer seeing Pujols leave, although I’m sure they’ll still find a way to be in contention this fall..

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