In the early 1970s, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, a German public broadcasting company, was commissioning a series of “worker films” for public television, films that would depict the every-day citizen of West Germany and explore the potential for civic change. Apparently at first the audience wasn’t too interested in what WDR was putting out, so the broadcaster looked to some popular filmmakers who could present a story that would appeal. At the time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was not yet thirty, yet he’d already directed around a dozen films and had entered the second phase of his short but electric career. WDR, impressed by his prior production, The Merchant of Four Seasons, saw him as a rising star and were happy to commission him. The result is Fassbinder’s eight-hour, five-part Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, which until recently, despite a few screenings over the years, was essentially unavailable and unwatched since its original run. It has just been released on home video by The Criterion Collection, and it’s a great one to pick up.
I didn’t expect Fassbinder’s long-ignored television series — one that he didn’t get to finish, by the way, having planned eight parts — to be anything near as great as it actually is. And now, I actually put it up there with his best work, much of which was still in his future, though the feeling that Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day conveys is very different. Where most of Fassbinder’s films show someone getting crushed by his or her circumstances, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day shows its central characters possess and utilize the power to change their world.
The series begins with a birthday part that leads to love. A young man named Jochen, played by Gottfried John, is celebrating his grandma’s birthday with his family (oh boy, do we come to know and love his family) when he is sent out to get some more champagne. Before he can make the purchase, though, he meets Marion, played by Hanna Schygulla (whom I always love to see in Fassbinder’s work), struggling at a pickle vending machine. They are immediately drawn to each other, and we want to see them continue on, their conversation is such compelling banter.
The next day Marion breaks up with her boyfriend: “Things like this happen.” There is, of course, some trouble for young Jochen and Marion. For one, Marion’s family does not approve. Jochen’s blue collar horizon is not quite what they had in mind for Marion. Jochen and Marion are wonderful together, though, and Marion even inspires Jochen to fight for some rights at work.
Jochen and Marion do not have the only compelling story in the series. Each episode focuses on a couple, perhaps romantically linked, perhaps not. Grandma, for example, meets an older man at the park. He is reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and, again with delightful dialogue, they strike up a lovely friendship. “If your wife only knew,” she says. “I’m a widower,” he replies. “Oh, that’s lovely. I’m glad to hear that.” They then go on to have their own revolutionary story trying to improve their corner of the world. Grandma later declares: “If you’re doing something, then you’re always right.”
There are several more characters we come to know well in this eight-hour drama, and not all of them display hope, but I’ll let you meet the family and fellow workers yourself.
When I watch Fassbinder’s work, I’m struck by how such a flawed man, who infuriated the people who loved him as he took advantage of them or abandoned them, could make such compassionate films about the exploited, abandoned, and lonely (see, for example, my review of Fox and His Friends). The thing is, his compassion is usually mixed with cynicism and an exploration of the ugly side of humanity, usually leaving characters hopeless. With Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day we actually get that compassion in a lighthearted film that doesn’t leave its characters doomed.
Apparently this was not always to be. In her essay contained in the Criterion release, Moira Weigel explains that Fassbinder’s eight-part vision did indeed contain a darker ending. As much as I’d love to see what he originally intended, I am very happy with what we got. Not only does it not feel truncated in any way, but it also feels joyous, even, at times, buoyant. Fassbinder’s oeuvre, not to mention us fans, need a bit of that.