Monday, February 8, 2010

Who Did What?

A few weeks ago, I watched The Tenderness of Wolves, which bears the credit "Directed by Ulli Lommel" (or the German equivalent). I find this to be a curious credit, for a few reasons. One is that the film was produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder -- so produced by him, in fact, that he goes all the way to "presenting" it, too -- and features many members of his regular cast, such as Kurt Raab, El Hedi ben Salem, Irm Hermann, and others. Also, it looks just like a Fassbinder film, with its deceptively plain and casual camerawork, colors that are drab except when they're not, and so on. Further, while I haven't seen any other Ulli Lommel films, I did see a trailer for his movie Curse of the Zodiac, which looks like it was shot on camcorder by Jess Franco, when he was doing image tests in order to get Snake Woman just right.

I realize that all of this means less than nothing, but there are a couple of other clues that, while also meaning nothing in themselves, contribute to my belief that maybe Fassbinder was behind the camera during shooting of The Tenderness of Wolves more than anybody is letting on. One bit of evidence is nothing, a mere trifle: on the DVD commentary track, which Lommel shares with Willim Lustig, Lommel says, over a particular shot, "Isn't that a beautiful shot?" Now, yes, he could very well be tooting his own horn, but the tone in which he says it makes it sound more like he was admiring someone else's work. The cinematographer, Jürgen Jürges's work, quite possibly, though I don't remember him being mentioned.

Meaningless, I know. But early on, when Lommel is explaining how the film came about, he says that Kurt Raab was fascinated by the film's subject, serial killer Fritz Haarmann, and through German tax shelter/film funding laws, Fassbinder had a surplus of cash, and wanted to make a movie fast. Raab pitched the idea to him, but Fassbinder demured, saying the material was "too controversial", and took the producing position instead, passing the directing reins off to Lommel. And I'm sorry, but when did Fassbinder ever give a shit about appearing too controversial? I'm hardly an expert on the man, but it has always seemed to me that Fassbinder always made precisely the kind of movie he felt like making, controversy be damned, and, in fact, knowlingly courted that kind of reaction not a few times. So why in the world would this material suddenly make him blanch?

Of course, there is precedent for this sort of thing in Fassbinder's career, although going the other way. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is credited to two directors: Fassbinder and Michael Fengler. However, I've been told by people more educated than I that Fengler really was the director on that film, and Fassbinder was happy to co-write the script and then occupy the sidelines. And that film, even if it was helmed solely by Fengler, looks and feels exactly like a Fassbinder movie, as well.

So who knows? I don't, but do any of you?. It's curious, and is made even more so when I think that a case could probably be made that Raab directed the damn thing himself.


Greg said...

This kind of thing happens occassionally, usually with a more inexperienced director being given the credit for a picture the real director did but doesn't want to take credit for, for whatever reason.

I know most people believe Hawks directed The Thing and given that Nyby has no other theatrical credits, only tv work, that's probably true.

People who worked on Poltergeist have said in interviews, and on Cinema Styles (lost now to the old haloscan system), that Spielberg pretty much directed it and that Hooper worked with him and learned from him, but that ultimately Spielberg felt many of the big "ideas" were Hoopers and felt he deserved full credit.

Welles says in his Bogdonavich interviews that he directed most of Journey into Fear but Norman Foster, no credits outside of theatre save this one, took over duties when Welles was busy elsewhere and did re-shoots while Welles was in Brazil. Since Welles wanted Foster to get recognition for his help outside of a "thanks to" somewhere in the studio program he gave him directing credit.

None of this means anything in connection to this case of course, but for whatever reason, sometime during production, perhaps Lommel, who was the assistant director, let's say, came up with enough solid ideas that Fassbinder let him take over and get credit.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I know about all those cases, and there is plenty of evidence to support each "alternate director" theory. For this one, I have nothing outside of speculation. But again: Fassbinder thought it was too controversial??? Come on!

Greg said...

Fassbinder thought it was too controversial??? Come on!

That does seem rather foolish, I agree. Someone needs to work on a better cover story, like he had a bad urinary tract infection and could only sign the checks while someone else directed.

bill r. said...

Or maybe that Fassbinder had decided that 40-plus controversial movies in one lifetime was his limit.

Ed Howard said...

This has apparently come up before. I haven't seen this film but now I'm VERY curious to. It could be a case like the two Fengler movies that Fassbinder supposedly co-directed, though in actuality he apparently just wrote the broad outlines and then gave them to Fengler to direct. (He was at least on the set acting in the utterly weird Niklashausen Journey, which is strange since it feels almost nothing like a Fassbinder film.) At that point (circa 1970) Fassbinder had dreams of forming some kind of artistic collective where they'd all come up with ideas and act and direct and such, very loose and open. As it turned out, pretty much only Fassbinder, always bursting with ideas, really stepped up.

The question brought up here is just how amorphous a task "directing" really is. If Fassbinder was on set and gave advice to Lommel and influenced the picture's aesthetic, did he direct it? When people say that Hawks more or less directed The Thing, that's what they really mean: Hawks was there guiding Nyby, telling him what to do, giving suggestions. That's what direction really is, this accumulation of ideas and choices. It's not hard to imagine that RWF might've involved himself in that process on this film, and thus could probably at least be called a co-director if he did.

bill r. said...

If Fassbinder was on set and gave advice to Lommel and influenced the picture's aesthetic, did he direct it? When people say that Hawks more or less directed The Thing, that's what they really mean: Hawks was there guiding Nyby, telling him what to do, giving suggestions. That's what direction really is, this accumulation of ideas and choices...

If Nyby took all of Hawks's suggestions, and did everything Hawks told him to do, then Hawks was the director. There's no necessary physical labor involved in the job, by which I mean you don't have to take hold of an object and make it do something to be a director. You tell somebody else to do it, and how to do it, as you pointed out. But, although stories have come out from eyewitness regarding THE THING and POLTERGEIST and so on, nothing has regarding TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES. I'm tempted to say because nobody cares that much -- it's certainly not that well known a film -- but Fassbinder's attached, one way or the other, so of course people care. So where are the stories?

But Lommel's story about controversy holds no water for me.

PS - It's a good movie, by the way. I'd be curious to know what you think of it.

Ed Howard said...

Well, nobody knows if Nyby took all of Hawks' suggestions, or how much Hawks suggested in the first place. There are conflicting accounts, which is why it remains a disputed case. But anyway, we agree that directing, out of all the tasks that go into making a movie, can be so easily disputed because it's such an amorphous, non-physical job.

Anyway, I'm going to have to seek out Tenderness of Wolves now. I'll see anything Fassbinder's involved in, although I still have a bunch of his undisputed directorial works to get to.

bill r. said...

I wasn't saying that Nyby took all of Hawks's suggestions, I was just saying that IF he did, then Nyby would be nothing more than a go-between. But is it disputed that he took a fair amount? Like, roughly half? I don't know all the details, but it's my understanding that for those who DO know the details, THE THING is pretty much considered a Howard Hawks film these days.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I mean I pretty much consider it a Hawks film. From what I've read, Hawks gave Nyby (his editor) a chance to direct and then Nyby didn't really know what he was doing, as a novice director, so Hawks came in and was more or less constantly on the set, directing things in fact if not in name. Given that, while I doubt Hawks "directed" every second of what shows up on screen, at the same time I have no doubt that he is substantially the director of the film. Even if it weren't for all the stories, the film's aesthetic and thematic concerns would leave little room for doubt.

And a great film it is, as I believe we've agreed in the past.

bill r. said...

It is indeed a great film, one of my favorites. It would make a great double feature with THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES.

Greg said...

I heard that Albert Brooks actually directed Taxi Driver, Garry Marshall directed Lost in America and Martin Scorsese directed Quiz Show.

I really did hear that because just a few seconds I said it aloud.