flapped paperback

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors

Ian Penman

Published 19 April 2023
French paperback with flaps, 200 pages


A naked man stalks his grungy, low-lit apartment. You get the impression everything is the colour of nicotine. A claustrophobic place of thick carpets and bleary mirrors, empty rum and Coke bottles piled high in the kitchen. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is having one of his stand-offs with the world. He alternately berates and beseeches his impossibly patient partner, Armin Meier. He tears into his mother for her mildly reactionary politics. (She believes that the thing West Germany most needs in its new hour of crisis is a strong leader again.) He orders a delivery of drugs, then flushes them away when he hears a passing police siren. He never stops smoking, moving, talking, thinking. It is a portrait of a man utterly sure of himself, and yet flailing.
     I can still recall the feelings of shock and disbelief and – what else? – something like exultation, seeing Germany in Autumn for the first time in 1978; or, more accurately, the opening 26 minutes of it directed by Fassbinder. It was the kind of full-on provocation you might then have expected from the fringes of punk or performance art, but not a 32-year-old, more-or-less-mainstream cultural figure, whose big (indeed, breakthrough) film that year was the beautifully crafted The Marriage of Maria Braun.
     Germany in Autumn was conceived by various figures in the New German Cinema as a many-headed response to the unstable political situation in West Germany; a concerted campaign of violence by the Red Army Faction was being used as justification for swingeing new state-security measures, known as the Berufsverbot legislation. ‘The German Autumn’ was the name given to a period in Germany associated with the following events: the murder on 7 April 1977 by the RAF of Siegfried Buback, the attorney-general of West Germany; the murder on 30 July 1977 by the RAF of the banker Jürgen Ponto; the kidnapping on 5 September 1977 and later killing by the RAF of industrialist, businessman and former SS member Hanns Martin Schleyer; the hijacking on 13 October by the RAF and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of Lufthansa Flight 18; the discovery on 18 October 1977 of three RAF members (Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe and Andreas Baader), dead in their cells in Stammheim Prison.
     The film opens with footage of the Schleyer funeral, and then we launch straight into Fassbinder: Germany, inside and out. It may though have been unwise to kick off with Fassbinder’s contribution, which makes everything that follows seem flat, all too pious and pro forma: art, life and politics in their usual discrete boxes, undisturbed. Fassbinder puts his life on-screen, all its chaos and contradiction: his own cowardice and violence, doubts and addictions and tantrums. Sex and drugs and political argument as if your life depended on it. You can almost feel the sheen of sweat on his skin, the cigarette breath, the unshaven cheek. He looks soft and babyish, but also jagged and powerful. Is paranoid, but informed. A wild provocateur, utterly sure of his aim; but also worried about his place in the bigger picture. He is under siege, self-indulgent, self-pitying, drugged, and paranoid. But his segment tears through the figurative screen separating life and art, breathtaking in its honesty.
     I saw it again recently for the first time since 1978 and found it just as shocking and disturbing, disarming and irresistible. Something you can’t defend yourself against – as if RWF were in the room, ranting at you, and your hypocrisy and laziness. I think that calling it shocking may have something to do with a pervasive sense of complete and uncensored intimacy. I can’t remember seeing anything remotely similar before or since. Except – only four years later in Dieter Schidor’s 1982 documentary Wizard of Babylon, there is equally disturbing footage of Fassbinder caught without veils or baffles, but in an entirely different manner. Fassbinder now is pasty and bloated, visibly stoned, nodding out, a victim of unrestrained appetites, like a doomed character in one of his own films. All the snap and vibrancy have gone. You can still detect his unique sensibility and bullish intellect behind the druggy mirage, but it’s not at all a happy or reassuring picture. What on earth happened between these two films, and their scenarios or dreams or nightmares?


Melodrama, biography, cold war thriller, drug memoir, essay in fragments, mystery – Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is cult critic Ian Penman’s long awaited first original book, a kaleidoscopic study of the late West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982). Written quickly under a self-imposed deadline in the spirit of Fassbinder himself, who would often get films made in a matter of weeks or months, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors presents the filmmaker as a pivotal figure in the late 1970s moment between late modernism and the advent of postmodernism and the digital revolution. Compelling, beautifully written and genuinely moving, echoing the fragmentary and reflective works of writers like Barthes and Cioran, this is a story that has everything: sex, drugs, art, the city, cinema and revolution.

‘Ian Penman is an ideal critic, one who invites you in, takes your coat, and hands you a drink as he sidles up to his topic. He has a modest mien, a feathery way with a sentence, a century’s worth of adroit cultural connections at the ready, and a great well of genuine passion, which quickly raises the temperature.’
— Lucy Sante, author of The Other Paris

‘This is a wonderful book, and a surprisingly encouraging one too. Acute in its glancing survey of Fassbinder’s films, it also engages the early Seventies as a moment of ideological dishevelment that refuses to pass. If Penman lingers over those years in his own taut and revealing way, that is partly because they produced a kind of critical thought that, having not yet been squared up to fit the academic conveyor belt, could be rarified, speculative and experimental while also remaining closely engaged with political reality. Fassbinder is a great model for anyone puzzling over how we might remember as well as think and act in this chaotic time.’
— Patrick Wright, author of The Sea View Has Me Again

‘Ian Penman – critic, essayist, mystical hack and charmer of sentences like they’re snakes – is the writer I have hardly gone a week without reading, reciting, summoning to mind. The writer without whom, etc.’
Brian Dillon, author of Affinities

Praise for It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track

‘The eight pieces have a depth and expansiveness that transcend their origin as book reviews, several of them cannily commissioned by someone at the London Review of Books who saw his potential as a long-form essayist. ... What gets us home, as it were, is Penman’s verve, and his eagerness to make us listen to the records as attentively as he does. ... his essays on James Brown, Charlie Parker and Prince aren’t definitive; they are only inimitable.’
Anthony Quinn, Guardian

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track summons the lives and times of several extravagantly damaged musical geniuses and near-geniuses in (mainly) the brutal context of mid-century America – its racial atrocities, its venality, its murderous conformities. Ian Penman writes an exact, evocative prose as surprising as improvised jazz in its fluid progress from music criticism to social commentary to biography and back. He’s found a way to be erudite without pedantry, entertaining without pandering. His ear for mesmerizing nuance is unmatched by any music critic alive.’
—Gary Indiana, author of Three Month Fever

‘Consistently told me stuff I didn’t know about stuff I thought I knew. No other ‘music writer’ combines such lightness of touch with such depths of diving.’
—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

‘At his best, Penman exemplifies the art of effective music criticism: neither comprehensive nor hagiographical, his portraits of pop-cultural figures have a unique richness.’
K Biswas, New Statesman

‘Ian Penman’s work has the tone, and the texture, and the complexities of the music and musicians he talks about, whether it’s Steely Dan laughing up their sleeves, the thorny declines of John Fahey and James Brown, or Elvis’s conflicted southern manners. It’s sharp and incisive but also full of love; it is beautiful writing.’
—Bob Stanley, author of Yeah Yeah Yeah

Ian Penman is a British writer, music journalist, and critic. He began his career at the NME in 1977, later contributing to various publications including The Face, Arena, Tatler, Uncut, Sight & Sound, The Wire, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and City Journal. He is the author of the collections Vital Signs: Music, Movies, and Other Manias (Serpent’s Tail, 1998) and It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019). Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is his first original book.