This miniseries may be the most remarkable title in the German enfant terrible’s oeuvre.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away in 1982 at the age of only 37. Yet, despite his all-too-short life, he managed to complete more than 40 films, television miniseries, plays and other projects. He is often described as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema — the generation of filmmakers who rebelled against the relatively stagnant German art scene post-World War II and attempted to reinvent their country’s culture themselves.
Fassbinder was the rebel amongst rebels. The filmmaker who, instead of thinking about his ideas for an extended period of time, immediately wrote them down and turned them into movies — hence why he was able to complete so many projects in so short a time. His peak year of productivity was 1972, in which he worked on a whopping seven films, including such masterpieces as The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Yet the most ambitious project he shot that year was a five-part miniseries commissioned by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR).
As described in the new documentary from Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation head Juliane Lorenz, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: A Mini-Series Becomes a Family Occasion, WDR had plans to produce two dramatic series that year — a crime series and a family series. The latter, it was determined, should focus on the working class — a segment of society generally underrepresented in German drama. And who better to execute this project, WDR reasoned, than the man who was quickly becoming one of the most sought-after and talked-about artists of his time?
The resulting miniseries was Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, a five-part, eight-hour event that told the story of three generations of one working-class family in the industrial mecca of Cologne. The main protagonists are Oma (Nazi-era star Luise Ullrich, cast by Fassbinder at a time when actors from the war were mostly blacklisted), the lively grandma who finds a new lease of life when she moves into an apartment with her new lover, and her grandson, Jochen (the one-of-a-kind Gottfried John), a young toolmaker who finds time to fall in love with the beautiful and headstrong Marion (iconic Fassbinder collaborator Hanna Schygulla) when he isn’t negotiating better working conditions for the men in his factory.
Both of the main storylines in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day ignited a fiery debate when the series first aired. At that time, it was inconceivable for a widowed woman of sixty to be shown having a lover — not to mention one with whom she fought against city officials to start a kindergarten for underserved children. Even more controversial was the factory plot; its celebration of workers’ solidarity and focus on fighting back against semi-authoritarian bosses caused socio-political waves in a country hyperconscious of these topics only two decades after the building of the Berlin Wall.
The newly restored Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day recently had its US premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and will be opening at the city’s Film Forum in March. I attended the MoMA screening as well as a talk about the miniseries at NYU’s Deutsches Haus, and I came away convinced that Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is not only a surprisingly timely work 46 years after its debut but also quite possibly the most remarkable film in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It contains all of the elements of his best work, applied to a story that critic Thomas Elsaesser fittingly described as an “ironic fairytale” for the working class.
Fassbinder’s parents divorced when he was young, and he was primarily raised by his mother, who went on to have roles in many of his films. She was a great influence on him; for that reason, Fassbinder surrounded himself with other strong women throughout his career, from Schygulla to Irm Hermann to Juliane Lorenz.
As Lorenz relayed to the audience at Deutsches Haus, Fassbinder enjoyed writing women’s stories so much because he found women inherently more interesting than men. His entire BRD Trilogy — The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss — is a tribute to how women like Fassbinder’s mother drew on their strength to survive after World War II and rebuild a country whose male population had been decimated.
Similar strong women also abound in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. From Oma’s refusal to give up on finding an affordable apartment with her lover, to Marion stubbornly insisting to her disapproving middle-class mother that she will marry Jochen, to Jochen’s sister, Monika, finding the courage to leave her abusive husband even as he threatens to take their daughter away from her — the women of this family refuse to let societal expectations dictate their happiness.
Not only that: it is Marion who first convinces Jochen that he and his team should fight for a bonus denied them by the factory after they completed a project early. After all, she argues, Jochen devised, proposed and executed a new method of working that made the team more efficient and capable of finishing the project within the deadline; why should they be punished for that by being denied their bonus? Jochen’s activism in the factory is a major part of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, but it is because of Marion’s encouragement and anger on his behalf that he is able to unite his fellow workers and fight back against the bosses.
Another iconic element of Fassbinder films is a disdain for typical bourgeois life. He often told stories of those on the margins of society. During the mid-twentieth century, this also included homosexuals; being gay himself, Fassbinder was one of these outsiders. Many of his films also focused on immigrants dealing with racial prejudice, would-be gangsters, and attempts by desperate people to make a living by any means necessary. His heroes and heroines are often people stuck in so-called respectable situations who either suffer (such as the tragic titular character in Effi Briest) or rebel (like Maria Braun, who became a business magnate’s mistress just so she could rise to a position of power herself).
Fassbinder’s sympathy for people lacking in the traditional means of power and his admittedly left-wing politics are all over Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. Here, the most heroic thing a person can do is rebel against those in positions of authority. Oma does it when she opens her kindergarten illegally in a local library that had been shut down; she then teams up with local mothers to petition the city to allow the kindergarten to stay open.
Indeed, Oma is constantly trying to launch “associations” with other people in order to solve what she deems are society’s biggest problems, including the high price of tram fares and the lack of lower-income housing for older people living off their pensions. Her first instinct is to create solidarity with like-minded folks and, together, change the status quo.
Jochen’s story also revolves around leading the struggle of ordinary people against those in positions of privilege and power. For instance, when the man overseeing the factory floor insists on appointing an outsider as foreman, Jochen’s crew petition for one of their own to pass his foreman’s exam and get the job himself. They argue that it is far better to be overseen by someone familiar with their work than someone deemed superior just because he is an outsider.
Later, when the factory is suddenly set to move to the other side of town, drastically altering all of their commutes, the men come together to create a list of demands that they insist on being executed if they are to keep working there. The most shocking demand? That the factory workers be permitted to organize their work themselves and to work at a pace and a style that they determine — not the men in charge.
Many argued that Fassbinder’s portrayal of factory life was unrealistic and that these changes would be impossible to execute successfully in real life. Words like “utopian” were thrown around in the debates sparked by the series. Lorenz’s documentary includes one hilarious clip of Fassbinder arguing with an interviewer whose “silly question” concerned whether the factory scenes were realistic. Fassbinder noted that if you want to make a realistic film about ants, you just shoot the ants and overlay the footage with a commentary saying exactly what they are doing. Any other means of telling a story on film is inherently unrealistic. In Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Fassbinder does not tell a hyper-realistic story about a working-class family; he tells one that shows how things could and should be in a world that values solidarity, community, and empathy.
In addition to these thematic elements, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day also contains the technical elements one can’t help but associate with a Fassbinder film — ambitious camera moves that seem like they should be impossible, liberal use of close-ups that allow the actors to underplay their parts and thus make the characters feel all the more realistic, and eye-popping costumes loaded with memorable details. However, it also stands out in sharp relief from the rest of his films in one very enjoyable way: it is hilariously funny. Fassbinder’s films are often tragic, and any humor is usually very dark. But Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, while not without its share of tough moments, is laugh-out-loud funny to the point of even occasionally veering into slapstick. The comedic moments make the miniseries far easier to swallow than some of Fassbinder’s harsher and more cynical works.
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day stands out as a special triumph for a filmmaker whose career was full of them. I encourage anyone who can get to Film Forum or another theater hosting a screening to go. You’ll be treated to a thought-provoking, yet truly funny film about people whose stories are far too often deemed unworthy of being told.