Film Review: Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day

Often funny, always acutely observed, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sprawling 'Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day' explores the often tendentious intersection of the personal and the political in the lives of an extended working-class German family.
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Originally broadcast in five parts on West German television over the winter of 1972-73, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sprawling family saga Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is making its long-overdue U.S. theatrical debut in a two-week run at New York City’s Film Forum. Fassbinder’s funny, always acutely observed miniseries explores the often tendentious area of overlap between the personal and the political as refracted through the experiences of an extended working-class family living in Cologne. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day remains something of an outlier in Fassbinder’s intimidatingly outsized body of work: warmer, witty rather than scabrous, and more hopeful (however tentatively) about the possibilities for positive social change than many of the filmmaker’s harsher indictments of an apathetic and cruelly exploitative society.

The series immediately strikes a high note with an extended set-piece, centered around a birthday party for the Epp family matriarch, that introduces us to most of the dramatis personae in one fell swoop, succinctly sketching in the dynamics of their allegiances and antipathies. The first episode also introduces a matched pair of romantic encounters that frame the rest of the series: Tool-machinist Jochen (Gottfried John) meets Marion (Fassbinder mainstay Hanna Schygulla), who transcribes classified ads for the local gazette, at an automat while out procuring more bubbly for the festivities, then brings her home to meet the clan. Later, Grandma (Luise Ullrich) picks up fellow pensioner Gregor (Werner Finck) in the park when she notices that he’s reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Love, as it turns out, isn’t always colder than death, even if the marriage between Monika (Renata Roland) and Harald (Kurt Raab) smacks of the familiar Fassbinder association of repressive sexuality and sadomasochistic tendencies. The more successful relationships in Eight Hours tellingly involve the two family members who are most engaged and forward-thinking. In fact, Grandma’s insouciant declaration “If you’re doing something, then you’re always right” could stand as the central existential mandate of the entire series, a sentiment that also echoes Fassbinder’s own self-professed political ethics.

Both Grandma and Jochen actively pursue and ultimately achieve their political goals, however fraught and circumscribed they may be. While out apartment-hunting, Grandma and Gregor decide to take over a recently decommissioned public library, converting it into a much-needed nursery for the neighborhood’s underprivileged children. Chafing at the imposed rhythms at his workplace, Jochen successfully petitions management for the workers’ right to self-organize their own labor process. In both cases, grass-roots activism trumps the active indifference of city government as well as imposed, top-down managerial styles. But that’s only because, on the one hand, media scrutiny shames city officials into capitulation, and, on the other, the workers’ increased efforts to meet their own deadlines happen to coincide with the factory owners’ interests.

Lest Eight Hours come across as little more than a political treatise, Fassbinder imbues the series with a visual panache (far removed from the more abstract modernism of his earlier films) that points the way to the lush Sirkian melodramas to come. Fassbinder and DP Dietrich Lohmann frequently employ a roving camera that appears to effortlessly glide through a series of intricately choreographed tracking shots. Snap zooms bring emotional reaction shots into sudden focus. Soaring crane shots serve to underline the solidarity of Jochen’s work group. Fassbinder likes to diffuse his more static tableaux through some obfuscatory object in the foreground, a stylistic quirk he also picked up during his study of Douglas Sirk’s classic Hollywood films.

Eight Hoursis further fueled by Fassbinder’s brilliant diegetic use of pop music playing on barroom jukeboxes and living-room turntables: Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee”—with its plaintive chorus of “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”—underscores a tense meeting of the workers’ coalition. Ballads of lust and longing from the 1950s counterpoint Jochen and Marion’s increasingly drunken wedding party, where the two very different worlds represented by their respective workplaces collide in inebriated acts of social comedy and commentary. In a scene that manages to work in some slyly referential cinephilia, Jochen and Marion visit a cabaret where a stripper called Arizona Baby performs to the sounds of Ennio Morricone’s For a Few Dollars More theme.

Because Eight Hours was truncated from eight to five episodes during its production schedule, it’s impossible to say how Fassbinder originally intended to conclude the series. Collaborators intimate that the course of events likely would have turned increasingly pessimistic. As it stands, the series concludes on an unexpected note of unforced intimacy, with a free-spirited embrace of life experienced in all its vicissitudes, its triumphs and tribulations, windfalls and shortcomings. Here we find Fassbinder in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day makes for an enthralling experience.

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