The Eclipse line, produced and released by the Criterion Collection, offers insight to overlooked and otherwise ignored stages of the careers of great filmmakers. The releases are DVD-only, and feature no special features by design - but the films are often nothing less than revelatory. The latest release in the line, "Early Fassbinder," focuses on the first films of that great German filmmaker. He may not have been the first queer auteur, yet he remains among the most influential to date. But that's merely a talking point. The sheer quality of his pictures ranks him among the greatest artists of the 20th century - orientation disregarded.
None of these early pictures - all made within two years of his debut - explicitly depict gay characters, but the way he photographs his lead boys, with quiet contemplation and uninterrupted admiration, points to the fetishistic photographic aesthetic he would develop in his later works. Those preferences are clear in three of the included films, all black-and-white riffs on American gangster movies, and the French New Wave experiments-in-style they influenced.
In "The American Soldier," "Gods of the Plague," and "Love is Colder Than Death," Fassbinder uses genre conventions as a short-cut; pairing his take on the anxiety of love and the brutality of rejection with the tones and themes of archetypal hard-boiled noir hopelessness. His compositions are startling and exacting; he holds onto some takes for near-unbearable lengths, watching as his trench-coated men and the femme fatales they desire mislead and manipulate each other into artistically exaggerated tragedies. Fassbinder would go on to become one of the great genre filmmakers; partially because he was never afraid to mix the cliche and the achingly personal - and that aesthetic is already in place for this loose trilogy of gangsters-and-lovers-on-the-run pictures.
While those three pictures help us to define his style, "Katzelmacher" defines his interests. Adapted from a play Fassbinder wrote himself, this austere black-and-white character piece observes the social ripples caused by the arrival of an unassuming Greek émigré into post-WWII Germany. Fassbinder's camera coldly observes and slowly tracks a group of small-town acquaintances - to call them "friends" would be to overstate their affection toward each other - as they gossip and talk trash about each other. Fassbinder's sympathy for social outcasts, and detached observations of oppression and exclusionary social mores, are as finely tuned and developed here as they would be in his later works.
The box set closes up with "Beware of a Holy Whore," the only picture included that's lensed in color (by regular Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus; a great artist in his own right, he would go on to photograph "Goodfellas" and "The Departed" for Martin Scorsese.) Fassbinder watches patiently here as his characters attempt in vain to produce a doomed picture - "Whore" dramatizes the making of his "Whity," which had been released the previous year and isn't included here. The relaxed pace and fly-on-the-wall style character development is in tune with the four other films included here - detached and mannered, even as his avatars lose their scruples. Yet the cinematography points to Fassbinder's future. Swirling and dancing along with the action, capturing kinetic pleasure whenever it can, the camerawork and lighting in "Beware" suggests the hallucinogenic and fevered images that would define his later classic melodramas, like "Fear Eats the Soul."
"Whore" is the best picture included, a manic representation of filmmaking-as-chaos. It may not measure up to the German troublemaker's masterpieces, but it informs them in an integral manner; as do the other four films. This may not be the definitive Fassbinder collection - but it's the ideal introduction to his art.