Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors Is a Love Letter to Postwar Counterculture

The music critic Ian Penman made his name during the heady days of anti-Thatcher counterculture. In Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, he finds his match in the frenzied life and work of postwar Germany’s most iconoclastic director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1975. (John Springer / Corbs via Getty Images)

One day in the mid-’70s on an air force base in “flattest, dullest” Norfolk, England, an African-American airmen shared some of his deep Southern blues records with a young, white English boy named Ian Penman. The meeting was more or less random, occasioned by the drift and cloistered openness of Royal Air Force family life; the music, rough and transporting, was more or less transformational. Up until then, the great love of Penman’s life was painting. Like many working-class teens in the punk and post-punk years, he appeared bound for art school. But suddenly music took the lead.

He found a record store run by a soul aficionado in the drowsy port town of King’s Lynn and fashioned a lifelong love for black American music, pop, and its subcultural tangents more generally. The sound of punk left him cold, but the culture’s radicalism lured him. Before long he’d given up on art school and begun writing for the popular music magazine that rode the postwar waves of succeeding rock styles to new heights: the New Musical Express or NME.

For some of the magazine’s historians and fans, Penman’s entrance marked the beginning of its downfall: the paper’s finger slipping from post-punk’s pulse and embracing instead an overly intellectual navel-gazing. For others, he was the greatest writer from the magazine’s greatest era, the vanishing, too-good-to-be-true years in the early English ’80s when socialist politics, French theory, and novel reveries in pop music all seemed to linger on the same corner, and to play off each other in the tossed-off pages of the same daring magazine.

If you grew up working-class in England in the ’80s and happened, somewhat improbably, to cook up an interest in the cultural theory wafting over from the continent (Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan), there really was only one obvious source: the popular music press. “My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman,” the late cultural theorist and working-class autodidact Mark Fisher wrote in 2005, in a piece explaining the motivations behind starting his famed blog k-punk. “No sob stories, but for someone from my background, it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.”

The late ’70s and early ’80s blew new winds into the music press. Punk gave way to post-punk; regional styles proliferated, often outside the mainstream gaze; and a renewed sense of oppositional political commitment suffused the air, as Labour Party socialists took over London’s municipal government while Margaret Thatcher rose to power on the national stage.

The NME, the magazine that invented the weekly pop charts, transformed itself into a magazine of regional dispatches on the DIY scenes in Manchester and Belfast, attacks against apartheid and Thatcher, and long-form essays on pop culture that sought not just to apply poststructuralist theory to pop music and movies, but to see pop music and movies as themselves coursing with ideas and novel ways of seeing.

Notoriously, these theory-minded pop reviews were authored by two writers, Ian Penman and Paul Morley, though in the years following they would spawn many imitators, both at NME and in other music magazines like Melody Maker. At a time when much pop and punk culture felt new and estranging, these interventions scrambled the high-low cultural binary, challenging — to quote Fisher again — both “the middle-class assumptions of Continental Philosophy” and “the anti-theoretical empiricism of mainstream British popular culture.”

Yet Penman’s ’80s writing left an ambiguous political legacy. In the world of party politics, the working class seemed newly up for grabs. Some working-class segments peeled away from their traditional home in the Labour Party and drifted toward Thatcher’s talk of freedom and new horizons, while the social democratic left peeked in the media-glitzed mirror and saw endless representations of itself as rusty and gray-industrial, top-down and bureaucratic, bound to a fading past and unable to stir up excitement in its vision of the future.

Among more freighted things (inflation, slowing economic growth, the decline of labor unions), the Left had an image problem. “The Great Moving Right Show” was cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s phrase for the times, voiced in a famous suite of essays. He argued that the Left needed, essentially, a new style — a rhetoric and program that could tap into the popular desires conjured up by the period’s energetic youth culture. The Left needed to reconnect with imaginative visions of freedom and democracy, futurism and innovation: in short, the very cultural world neoliberalism was remaking in its own image.

From his perch in the music weeklies, Penman argued something similar. What did it mean to make politically charged music in a moment of peril, amid New Right ascendancy and Old Left decline? Should lefty artists zip up their Springsteen jeans and thunder down twangy highways in working-class drag? Should they pen heroic Billy Bragg–ish protest songs, set to spare folk chords and rhyming wholesome, desperate words like “family” and “austerity,” drawing thick lines between the myths of the Old Left and the hopes of the New? Should they, to sum up, make their music as committed, as literal, as brazenly materialist as possible, casting their gazes backward to shore up a left working-class tradition already fraying at the seams? Penman’s answer was unequivocal, and Brechtian: we shouldn’t focus on the good old days, but the bad new ones.

Penman thought there was another way, a whole “other politico-musical discourse.” Uncanny noise, untethering us from old certainties, dissolving our sense of self in the slipstream of multiplicitous voices and genre-bursting pop experimentation. Shadowy machine music that chopped up our creaking folk furniture and humanist soul comforts and threw them into the processor. As he wrote in an essay on the British producer Tricky, his ideal was music “in which any political inclination could only be registered as a trace of confusion or ambiguity; that if politics was daily ruined for us by being dully ground out in the language of Authority then any countercultural motion must find an entirely new language.”

Setting the tone for much of Fisher’s later music writing, Penman fell entranced with a wayward sound of “eerie disembodiment,” of “sci-fi shamans” and “demonaic flowering,” drawing in late ’80s Prince, Kate Bush, George Clinton, late ’70s Miles Davis, and Brian Eno. This was music that intimated new futures, new discomforts and confusions, a world of new desires, often wrapped in the shiny paper of pop music.

Countered Culture

But there was always something uncomfortably protean about the Left’s call for a new culture. How easily could the Cool Britannia euphoria of early Blairism be distinguished from the new culture demanded by Hall or Penman? Penman’s plea for a political music of stealth and fugitive desire collapsed into an end-of-history world of sonically safe, depoliticized pop. In the aftermath of the sidelining of working-class cultural production, there was little room left in the void created by conglomerate-controlled algorithms for either the aesthetic oddity Penman celebrated or the open political declaration he criticized.

In the end, both projects became subsumed by neoliberalism, even as they resisted it. Their attempts to critique left culture from within left them outflanked, stranded on hopeless, unrecognizable land already bought up and rented out by capital’s new offensive. In 2003, back in the days when Penman kept the blog The Pill Box, a former left-winger who turned neoconservative wrote in crediting the music critic for inspiring his about-face.

Also — and this will probably horrify you — my move right came partly thanks to Ian Penman and Paul Morley at NME! Your rejection of overtly politicized agitprop in music back in the late seventies made intuitive sense to me — I disliked the didacticism of Billy Bragg or Crass, and could stomach even less the critics who pretended to be revolutionaries, etc. There was far more truth in an August Darnell ballad, I came to believe, than in the entire socialist posturing of, say, the Gang of Four or Robert Christgau.

The sharp oppositions of the day’s culture wars nixed any chance of Penman’s position being heard on its own terms. Writing years later, Fisher argued that it was just this contrast — socialist didacticism versus fun, lusty, consumer-ready pop — that doomed left culture in the Thatcher years. “As soon as it was a question of dour meat and potatoes no fuss empiricism (left) versus bright and brash hedonism (right), there was no longer any real choice.”

We woke up to a new world, and Penman’s presence in our music magazines grew fainter. Fisher mourned him as if he died (“If anyone doubts what a LOSS Ian Penman is, and I’m sure no one does . . .”). The music press became more corporate and poptimistic, and Penman’s lush style — Barthes references and flighty metaphors — and commitment to hearing pop music as theory seemed like things only a previous century would allow.

Meanwhile, he, too, wanted out. He was sick of rushing off eight-hundred-word reviews in an afternoon and wanted more space, more time, to write essays that added up to something. In 2013, just when he was about ready to pack it in, he found a new home at the London Review of Books and cultivated a sort of late-middle-age style. His new pieces took months, even years. They clocked in at five or ten thousand words. The way-out-there metaphors of old clarified into singing, carefully estranged imagery.

The references to Benjamin or Lacan became subtler, more internalized, more background presence than name-drop. His new writing ideal, he wrote, “is a kind of writing that is entirely accessible to whomsoever might happen by; but one that also repays repeated readings, if these occur. In other words: anyone can dip in and out of the text… but at the same time, there may be a web of half-hidden clues, suggestions, portents insinuated between or behind the lines, there for you to find. If you catch them — great; if you don’t, that’s also just fine.” A friendlier, gentler critic, offering a shy sort of entertainment. The kind of critic, the writer Lucy Sante blurbed, “who invites you in, takes your coat, and hands you a drink as he sidles up to his topic.”

There came to be two Penmans, the first young and excessive and drug-spiked and beamed-in from some far-off, pop-mod planet, the second old, reflective, patient, and movingly humanist. And yet the two were quite plainly the same writer, covering the same slightly reframed territory. Like the old Penman, the new Penman wrote on Kate Bush, David Bowie, Charlie Parker, Prince — only now he did so in a retrospective mode.

In a veiled way, he became a critic who reflected on himself — his own history, youthful folly, highs and lows — by writing on the lives of others. Why did so many of last century’s great creative lives sputter out in a haze of drug addiction? Why did we ever find this romantic, and why do we now reduce it to something entirely joyless? What do we want to rescue and marvel over from the ruins of postwar and ’70s/’80s culture, from that transitional moment when high and low cultures conjugated, and class felt both solid and shifty? And what do we want to discard, face up to, and consign to the past?

These questions guided the long, beautiful essays that make up Penman’s comeback 2019 essay collection, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. But in some ways they get their most open airing now, with the release of Penman’s first full-length book, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors. All those years ago, when Penman was nursing his soul obsession and beginning to write for the NME, circulating through post-punk squats and soaking in pint glasses, he developed a true acolyte’s love for the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder — as if it were here, in the glinting mirrored interiors of Fassbinder’s movies, that he could find something to emulate, or the right materials to design a life with.

He first thought of turning this love into a book in 1982, after Fassbinder died of an overdose, breathless in a stifling apartment with the TV droning, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and small hills of cocaine skiing through his system, leavened by sleeping pills. (The same night, in a north London club, Penman tried heroin for the first time.) But there were music reviews to write and parties to attend, so the book had to wait until now, when a new Penman, aged sixty-four, emerging from the couch-cushioned, cat-litter-tray basement of semiretirement into a calm second era of writerly productivity, could come and write a book that retains “traces of the book I might (should?) have written at the time,” while inflecting it with a different perspective altogether.

Who was Fassbinder, this radical-left humanist-hedonist from the terroristic German ’70s? And who were we, “in the turbulent, seeds-sown, messy era just before everything changed”?

Fassbinder and His Friends

German intellectuals have a long tradition of seeing their country as backward, a step behind France in politics, thought, and art, and therefore, paradoxically, in a special position to divine the future. To be a French intellectual, filmmaker, or radical was to be caught in heated throes of political action and roundabout turns of cultural fashion; to be German was to sit in the back of the theater and enjoy a little perspective. “The German observer is not standing at the head of the stream,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay on surrealism. “That is his opportunity.”

So with Fassbinder, born in 1945, the year after the war ended, into a bombed-out, year-zero country in which everything was still a little quaint, a little old-world, a little folk-feeling and yet scrambled and voided and up for grabs. Real estate capitalists, new media, Americanized mass culture: all these things etched their disorienting empires on the blank slate of rubble-strewn soil and broken-down families. This was Fassbinder’s world: one foot in the past, the other in the future. Part vaudeville and part pop art. Equal parts meat and potatoes and bright and brash hedonism. A child of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola, he kept the former a little arms-length, ambiguous, very Brechtian, and too plain-spoken for his theory-heavy times, while the latter always seemed a little small-time, born out of the provincialism of a German culture at capitalism’s periphery.

In thirteen years, between 1969 and 1982, Fassbinder made forty-three films. They were set in strange, transitional eras — the ’20s, the ’50s, the ’70s — and covered huge swathes of life: stories of short-lived trans lives, self-destructing leftist terrorists, self-organizing industrial workers, interracial love affairs, failed bootstrap business ventures, successful corrupt business ventures, airless bourgeois marriages, garish and murderous gay trysts, friendless working-class moms converting to anarchism, failed Nazi-era film stars tipping into postwar insanity. The same actors appear from film to film, even living together as the films were made — Family Fassbinder, per Penman.

They contributed to a distinct Fassbinder feel, or a distinct set of oppositions structuring his films: the same actors playing different characters, small crucifix-stuffed working-class apartments and sleek modernist penthouses, loud artificial colors and meticulously arranged single-shot frames, cold satire and a humanist heart. His films traveled between worlds, bringing working-class queers into capitalist offices and the soft chatter of French restaurants, old white spinsters into low-lit immigrant bars, modest apolitical moms into the piano-filled living rooms of well-heeled Communists.

Fassbinder embodied these oppositions. He was queer, punk, and leftist, without conforming much to his era’s expectations of any of those things. He looked a bit scuzzy, beard-patchy, fattish and fattening — “the only addict pre-Fassbinder,” Penman once wrote of Charlie Parker, “to get fatter, not thinner, as his habit deepens” — rough with a playful glimmer in his eye (usually blocked by shades), appearing, if anything, “like your everyday straight Hell’s Angel or construction worker type guy.” Nevertheless he became a West German tabloid star — so many films, so many drugs, a good deal of money profligately spent, and a cultish reputation for hedonism and trenchant bad-boy social criticism.

In a telling phrase that Penman makes much of, Fassbinder once said he wanted to appear “ugly on the cover of Time.” The phrase suggests something of the high-low medley of his persona. His movies are undeniably arthouse, claustrophobic productions that hold us for too long in humid interior rooms filled with the wrong furniture and the wrong people.

But much of these movies’ style and inspiration comes from lower cultural depths: gangster films (early Fassbinder), the theater (a good splash of Brecht, but heftier pours of cabaret, vaudeville, the flamboyant world of underworld nightclubs), and, perhaps most importantly, the melodramas of German-exile-turned-Hollywood-pioneer Douglas Sirk. From Sirk, Fassbinder learned a certain simplicity, a soft moral sensibility, a humanist feel for the sadness of life. A way to make political films out of everyday scraps. You get a taste of this in Fassbinder’s massively charming essay on Sirk, written in 1975 and republished in New Left Review.

Jane Wyman is a rich widow, Rock Hudson prunes trees for her. In Jane’s garden a love tree is in flower, which only flowers where love is, and so out of Jane’s and Rock’s chance meeting grows the love of their lives. But Rock is 15 years younger than Jane and Jane is completely integrated into the social life of their small American town. Rock is a primitive and Jane has something to lose: her friends, her status she owes to her late husband, her children. [. . .]

This is the kind of thing Douglas Sirk makes movies about. People can’t live alone, but they can’t live together either. This is why his movies are so desperate. All That Heaven Allows opens with a shot of the small town. The titles appear across it. Which looks very sad. It is followed by a crane shot down to Jane’s house, a friend is just arriving, bringing back some crockery she had borrowed. Really sad! A tracking shot follows the two women and there, in the background, stands Rock Hudson, blurred, in the way an extra usually stands around in a Hollywood film. And as her friend has no time to have a cup of coffee with Jane, Jane has her coffee with the extra. Still only close-ups of Jane Wyman, even at this stage. Rock has no real significance as of yet. Once he has, he gets his close-ups too. It’s simple and beautiful. And everybody sees the point.

Imagine having this heart-on-the-sleeves sensibility, this precise formal imagination, and implanting it into a ’70s/’80s West German world of grunge and sleaze, corrupt capital, leftist terrorism, cybernetic media, gay fantasia. Sweet, bleak, and garish, all at once.

For Penman, Fassbinder finally seems too messy, too contradictory, and above all too productive to be folded into the vast, singular, magisterial story that we might expect from a treasured late-middle-age author’s first full-length book. It would take too long, feel too precious, and never really capture the many-sided man. And so, as if making a pact with his young review-churning self, Penman opted for a different strategy: to write quickly, finishing in a matter of months a critical portrait of Fassbinder in the style of Fassbinder — fast, made-to-deadline, bristling with ideas yet economical.

The book rushes by in a flurry of numbered one-or-so-paragraph notes. The notes drift, venture lightly and suggestively down quick-flash exploratory tunnels, turn Fassbinder and his films over and peer at them from various heights. We see Fassbinder as a child without a childhood, split between his divorced parents’ crowded homes, where the border between family and the outside world seems porous; Fassbinder as a Hollywood-obsessed Cold War figure; Fassbinder as an aesthete, as a radical, as the freakishly productive up-down addict who “never missed a deadline”; Fassbinder as premier artist of the ’70s Krautrock/New German Cinema moment when modernism flared out and some new future order stirred; Fassbinder, finally, as a figure who, despite all this, insisted on the solidity of his identity, his one true self.

Forty years after his death, Fassbinder’s films seem to me a curious mix of dated and fresh. They tell pared-down stories of men pushing fruit carts, new building inspectors arriving in old towns, young gay cruisers scoring big on the lottery. At first glance, they can feel fable-like, as if in Fassbinder’s world there’s really just one capitalist, and he sleazes around brothels or sits high in a glass tower with an ancient pigskin face.

The Fassbinder films that speak to us now do so not because they take on frigid postmodern themes — artificial sci-fi simulations, wiretap surveillance, terrorist cells, new vistas of consumer frenzy — but because they seem, in some resonant way, pre-postmodern: they have heart, they’re told simply, and they believe in moral and political meaning in a way that we, too, are beginning to, in similarly garbled, frustrated ways.

It’s possible, watching LolaFox and His Friends, or Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven to think that here, surely, is a movie that will end with a lesson, a touching human moral. A film that will end by saying deep things in basic ways. But instead of Sirkian ambiguity, where you finish the movie feeling sad and happy all at once, tuned in to how we can’t live together and we can’t live apart, in Fassbinder’s world all endings point in one direction: bleakness. (The glorious prove-the-rule exception is Ali, Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.)

You leave his films devastated, or with a bitter smile. You feel distance, as if all the warmth seeped out the backdoor. Instead of opening onto scenes of care or political potential, these possibilities detonate into corruption, suicide, insanity, a world of closed doors and suffocating rooms. In so few years, so many hopeless movies with soap-opera titles: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, In a Year with 13 Moons, and I Only Want You to Love Me.

As Penman sees it, Fassbinder never got the chance to grow up. He lived too feverishly and died too young. By returning to Fassbinder’s films decades after the filmmaker’s death, and decades after his own strung-out wild days, Penman can take his distance from the Fassbinderian excess and bleakness and try to mark out what it means, after all these years, to hold true to the post-punk, Fassbinder-tinted, just-before-neoliberalism moment and meanwhile grow old.

To be a little bit less of a “fuck the dialectic” anarchist and a bit more of a day-to-day lefty; to be less spiky and more deep and mellow; less bleak and sure of the endgame, and more open to lighter moods, small shifts in perception, to whatever a stranger in the street or the past and present might hold. To mark out what in Fassbinder it might be time to say goodnight to, and to recall that there remains a special world of feeling and ruthless political insight in many of these films, even if they end in some acrid emotional desert. Something, in the present, worth returning for.