This is certainly the most optimistic film of Fassbinder’s entire career: Made for TV and divided into five episodes, lasting around 95 minutes each, the prolific German director tries to be ready to compromise his usual pessimism for a more “user friendly” content, at the same time giving in to the aesthetic of television. Unlike those in Berlin, Alexander Platz, also a TV production, the working class heroes here have a chance to make their lives better. Originally planned for a much longer run, Fassbinder only finished five episodes.
Set in Cologne, a city dominated by industry, the narrative focuses on toolmaker Jochen (John), his family and friends. All five episodes have their different titles, always the names of couples, even though Jochen and his wife Marion (Schygulla), are always at the centre of the action. Fassbinder liked to cast actors from the 1950s in his films, and Eight Hours is no exception: Jochen’s grandma (Ullrich) and grandfather Gregor (Finck) are always integrated into a story, where working life and private stories form what could in hindsight be termed socialist realism, even though Fassbinder tried very hard to use the structure of existing TV series – so as not to lose the TV audience who were unaccustomed to his usual, rather artificial mode of story-telling. Human conflicts are always resolved. And Fassbinder used contemporary themes, often involving female financial dependency as a reason for women staying put, even after love has gone. He also transferred his other pet feature film topics to his TV work, namely the difficulties faced by immigrants (Gastarbeiter) in Germany. Housing costs also play a big role in his characters’ lives: Jochen and Marion are shown as a very modern couple, clever and sexy, always keen on finding solutions.
Fassbinder has never been so accessible as in Eight Hours: he tries very hard to adjust to the expectations of the TV audience. But at the same time, the episodes show the rewards of active community life, and how it invariably leads to a better life for the working class protagonists. The characters are enthusiastic but never revolutionary, their fighting spirit is contagious, and they are always likeable, and their happiness is well-earned, as are their little victories in the fight against capitalism. Only some of Fassbinder regulars, like Kurt Raab as Harald, are allowed to act as caricatures of mean-spirited Kleinbürger.
The whole series tries to raise the consciousness of the audience, hoping to give some practical examples of problem solving. In this way, Fassbinder stays with the tradition of Agitation Cinema of the Weimarer Republic. Discussions are always down to earth: in the pub, Jochen tries to explain to Marion’s little brother that the streamlining in he factory will mean less money for the workers. But Fassbinder was criticized by many from the Left for this approach; even some of his regular actors, like Harry Baer, called Eight Hours much too’ insipid’. It is certainly true that Fassbinder often made use of post-war comedies structure to get his message home. And Luise Ullrich, who was a star of the UFA between the wars, uses a cheeky cleverness, which reminded some of the worst Nazi comedies. But overall, Fassbinder’s “gentle revolution” was welcomed by the TV audience. And West Germany’s most successful soap opera Lindenstrasse, broadcast in 1990s, was proud to “stand on the shoulders of Eight Hours”. AS
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