Psychological Background of the Decision to Suspend Democracy When Terrorists Attack Our Country

In the kitchen, Fassbinder heatedly confronts his mother who has been trying to persuade him not to speak out about the fearful political atmosphere surrounding the death of three German terrorists in their prison cells and the kidnapping-murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Federation of German Industrialists, and wartime Nazi economic administrator in Czechoslovakia.
Judy Stone, “Germany in Autumn”, The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1978

Fassbinder was worried about the destiny of democracy in Germany, when the government was using the terrorist actions of Baader-Meinhoff group as a pretext to curb the democratic freedoms by insinuating that critical speech helps terrorists. By this logic democracy is always bad for secure living and only totalitarian countries are safe.

Just before the events registered in Fassbinder’s piece, he gave a TV interview in which he expressed a number of critical opinions about conventional marriage. But after government’s anti-democratic over-reaction on terrorists’ actions and its propagandist confusion of terrorism and democratic criticism of the system created among people fear of repressions and mutual suspicions, he became worried that this interview can inflame already inflamed situation and tried to postpone its airing.

Fassbinder and his mother are discussing the political events and what could be government’s adequate and proper response to terrorist acts: solid, strong and in the spirit of democracy, and which would be antidemocratic: violent, impulsive, ineffective, and more, intimidating a peaceful population.

Fassbinder: “Democracy is the most human form of government, isn’t that right?”
Mother: “It’s the least of all evils.” Fassbinder: “What would be better if it’s the least of all evils?”
Mother: “The best thing would be a kind of authoritarian ruler who is quite good and orderly.”

Fassbinder is disheartened to see how little taste people have for democracy, how easily they come to fascist behavior if they facing difficult problems, how quickly they regress to mindless aggressive acting out instead of thinking rationally, and, therefore, what a perfect target they are for manipulation by their own government and elites which use “terrorism” and “enemies” to break critical thinking among their own citizens.

Rainer is trying to explain to Armin that a democratic government doesn’t have the right to behave non-democratically even when some segments of the population demand anti-democratic reaction on terrorism. He is explaining that democracy is not weakness but strength and that to think that democracy is weakness is a typically totalitarian feeling.

Rainer and Armin are creative collaborators, friends and lovers but while one is a democrat by the call of the soul, the other, Armin, is a traditional person with a conservative sensibility. Pay attention to the cross hanging on his T-shirt, that he is exposing, as if, demonstrating to everybody with an innocent (simpleminded) narcissism.

Both, Rainer and Armin are quite masculine – they don’t need to emotionally imitate the feminine identity to unconsciously justify their “homosexuality” by the “nature’s mistake” (that must be corrected) argument. They are psychologically strong enough to take responsibility for their behavior. Fassbinder‘ episode of the film suggests that the real problem is not presence among population of the people with homosexual inclinations, but the inability of the so called democratic governments to keep democracy alive and saved from regression to totalitarian behavioral patterns.

The reason for Fassbinder’s nudity in the scene referred to by this shot, has nothing to do with “sexuality” or “exhibitionism” but with his unconscious withdrawing from the area of public life that is totalitarized by the government’ surveillance and instigation of people to spy on one another. In this anti-democratic atmosphere, many regress to private life, to the body, to somatic occupations.


The non-democratic atmosphere in autumn of 1977 in Germany had effect of freezing the creative potential of the German culture. Totalitarian tendencies subdue innovative ideas about life, the very taste for improving the social relations between different strata of population from the entrenched conservative eternity to democratically oriented progress. The very ability to be existentially creative and think rationally loses its vitality. The righteous hate crushes the capability for intelligent love for life and for recognizing other people’s right to co-define the conditions of human existence and norms and values of the country.

A Democrat and a conservative, Rainer and Armin, were an example of a unique collaboration in the artistic project of an existentially rooted intellectual creativity. Political polarization of Germany as a reaction on internal terrorism made the potential for a precious democrats-conservatives collaboration (represented by the very relations between Fassbinder and Meier) along the progressive lines less and less possible to realize. The psychological pollution of the solidarity between democrats and conservatives on their way towards farther democratization of democratic country is registered and analyzed in “Germany in Fassbinder’s episode in “Germany in autumn”. Violent atmosphere sharpening incompatibility of democratic and conservative sensibility, created emotional difficulties between Rainer and Armin that became an epitome of the pernicious division of German society on frustrated/fascisized conservatives and shattered/ utopian democrats. Democrats became even more desperately entrenched and fearful while conservatives even more desperately belligerent, confused and tied by clichés.

Fassbinder suffers – Armin doesn’t understand why his mentor, friend and lover is so pained (like American democrats by sensibility suffered about Bush administration’s torture policy innovation or warrantless wire tapping of Americans, while most American conservatives “couldn’t understand” what is the problem). Armin, as a typical conservative, could simply have the kidnapped plain with the hostages blown up just to demonstrate how strong the state power is, how much stronger than any terrorist menace. For Fassbinder as for a democrat, the lawfulness and humanism of governmental actions is the supreme value regardless of how immorally and despicably the terrorists behave. But democratic values like Justice and Truth are luxury for too many people occupied with “survival”, success and entertainment. To keep civility and humanism among your values puts you in disadvantage. You have to coordinate with them, compromise with them your “natural” desires like that for material success, accumulation and consumption.

The semantic essence of Fassbinder’s political dialogues with his mother and with Armin is a demonstration of conflict between a democratic orientation and conservative suspicion towards democratic values. According to Fassbinder, democratic government must act democratically (rationality) even with those who violate democratic behavioral norms. Armin’s “argument” against democratic treatment of the ideological opponents, criminals and terrorists is a typical emotional reaction of the conservative majority that can be summarized as a position of revengeful out-terrorizing the terrorists (ROT). The point of view of Fassbinder’s mother, on the third hand, is a reaction of the majority of philistines with a passively democratic sensibility – we should be democratic because democracy is “lesser of all evils” but only during periods of relative ideological calm and general prosperity; if democratic life is under attack there is no need for freedoms and civility: they can be dangerous because they can stimulate farther discord and even encourage the enemies.

We, Americans of 21st century are well acquainted with both these reactions on terrorist attack – Armin’s totalistic revengeful response and Liselotte Eder’s more nuanced, “milder/softer” position that in periods of discord, fight or war democratic orientation is dangerous because instead of terrorizing and intimidating the terrorists it leaves them not terrorized and less intimidated. In both of them democracy as a political system and a democratic way of life are considered as something of a luxury, a gift to a population that cannot be sustained during tough times. It is as if democratic norms and values were close to indulgence, somehow decadent, like extra-food, recreational drugs or cosmetic surgery.

Considering a democracy as a luxury provided to population is a very peculiar position that shows that democracy is not taken seriously – as a civic obligation and a spiritual ordeal, that democracy for some is something only for pleasures, not the challenge for our responsibility. This decorative concept of democracy is psychologically very illuminating. Democracy is much more psychologically difficult way of life than totalitarianism rooted in basic narcissistic emotions. The very popularity of taking democracy as a luxury makes it clear that democracy functions as a façade for authoritarian/totalitarian psychology, that, may be in some cases it even was created as such a façade.

Fassbinder’s short in “Germany in autumn” forces us to ask ourselves the disturbing question – why democracy is so prone to reduce/suspend itself with such an ease when times of wars, discords or public/governmental debt to private pockets (filled with public money) comes along? Why is it so difficult psychologically to follow the position that democracy is not a weakness but, conversely, a source of strength, and that terrorist response to terrorism is a demonstration that something is wrong with democracy, that it then not democratic enough, not genuine enough.

When Fassbinder returns home after the grim news (about kidnapping of a passenger’s plane by terrorists) and share it with Armin, he gets from him the conservative reaction impregnated with his “instinctive” need to identify with the power of the State and to feel himself protected by the thick cross we see on Armin’s chest. It looks that it is easier to have a homosexual relationship with a conservative person than to try to explain to him the value of democratic worldview. That’s why today in US gays are closer to winning gay-marriage, but we all, straight and gay, are losing democracy. The tonality of the relationships between a frustrated liberal mentor and his partner-in-arts quickly deteriorates, with catastrophic consequences.

Fassbinder’s piece in “Germany in autumn” emphasizes how country’s regression into pre-democracy can torment an artist and a thinker and subdue his creative ability. The specific, unique only for this film pantomime and mimics of Fassbinder-the actor shows how his creative function is in the process of becoming mutilated by the brutalization of socio-political climate. For example, he almost obsessively covers, as if hides, his eyes with his hand or puts his gaze down, as if, unable to see what is happening around or losing the desire to see what is there. “I cannot imagine it” or “I cannot picture it” – he repeats staggeringly, referring to the government’s actions neglecting the security of hostages. These words mean that his ability to imagine and to picture realities as a film director is shattered by the violence that attacks meaning which needs the juxtaposition of thinking and visual semantic construction of space and time. Fassbinder’s thinking, as if, becomes split from his vision, loses its visual equivalent. It, as if, becomes blind – abstract.

Among the images Fassbinder creates to impersonate himself during the leaden times is a special manner of a slightly confused over-grimacing, as if, he is embarrassed and doesn’t know who he is and what image of himself he is projecting/revealing to the world. He is permanently touching his body and things and surfaces around, as if his attention is being pushed from the world into himself and to the things in proximity to his body. His nudity becomes a form of retreat from the world into himself. Rainer’s throwing up, his desperate telephone calls to share his agony, his weeping cry and his fear – of police, of secret agents, spying philistines, his closeness to the walls – he is framed either inside cave-like (made by tube-like perspectives) rooms, or being close to dark walls, his inability to look around while eating, the disappearance of his gaze meaninglessly directed downward at the table (and almost no shots made outside of the apartment) – all of this creates the impression that the human intelligence and creativity are being squeezed from the public realm into a claustrophobic existence inside private life.

Fassbinder’s short becomes a metaphor of today’s devastating utilization and standardization of public space (shown when the homeless young man is moving as a shadow through the square) and concentration of human vitality on the physicality of living. It is, as if, only the police and terrorists are outside, clashing in the public space, terrorists from down (from the bottom) and terrorists from the up (in the name of the top of the social hierarchy). Terrorism became the name for public realm, public life itself. Democracy became a private affair.

In his film “The Third generation”, made soon after “The Germany in autumn” Fassbinder shows terrorism from the bottom and terrorism from the top as a completion of each other, as limbs of the same body. Both “work together” against democracy following the logic of negative collaboration, like the one that existed between Hitler and Stalin who used each other to reinforce their power over their populations, or like Bush Jr. and Osama Bin Laden, one dismantling American Laws and the Constitution, and the other becoming a messiah of militant peasant Islamic youth. The first task of despots is to destroy the democratic energies in their own countries by using enemies as an excuse for this deed, and only the second one is to clash with each other.

At a time when many American film-directors encircle themselves with the aura of wealth and glamour and show themselves to the public in their houses of luxury as if, wrapping themselves as Christmas presents, and when their names solemnly invoked in public, as if, embellished by multicolored ribbons, Fassbinder reduces himself in his film to the banal human nakedness, to helpless frustration, a condition when human soul retreats to a body that then moves between the walls of a private apartment as locked up animal. Making this film is Fassbinder’s heroic act as an artist and a human being, the act that makes his soul sublime through the very profanation of himself as a human being spiritually tortured by his country.

*The expression is borrowed from the title of Margarethe von Trotta’s film “Marianne and Juliane (The Leaden Times)”.

Posted Mar 3 2015 –   “Germany In Autumn” – (omnibus film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlondorff, Edgar Reitz…- 1978) Fassbinder’s episode  by Acting-Out Politics