Review: ‘Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day,’ Another Fassbinder Masterpiece

A time capsule that somehow reveals a neglected masterpiece every decade, the back catalog of the prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82) keeps on giving.

In 2010, the rediscovery of his science fiction mini-series “World on a Wire” showed that he had gotten the jump on “Inception” by almost 40 years. Now “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day,” a five-episode series shown on West German television in 1972 and 1973, arrives at Film Forum, where it’s screening in three chunks. Once again, here is a work that — in the generosity of its scope and the sophistication of its staging — makes Mr. Fassbinder look more inventive than just about any filmmaker working today.

Screened earlier this year at MoMA’s “To Save and Project” festival, “Eight Hours” has played in the United States before. The New York Times reported its presence in a program at the Museum of Broadcasting in 1983, at least. But the new restoration, from the original 16-millimeter film, probably represents the best it’s ever looked, given its original airing on tube television. (Movies-versus-TV debates inevitably hit a wall with Mr. Fassbinder, whose broadcast dramas had a habit of turning up theatrically outside his home country.)

Yet this so-called “family series,” an ensemble portrait of an extended clan in a West German city, is also a complete surprise — funnier, more humane and more optimistic than anything in the Fassbinder canon. The plot pivots on the relationship between Jochen (Gottfried John) and Marion (the ever-luminous Hanna Schygulla), a working-class couple who meet cute when he helps her to extract a stuck pickle jar from a vending machine. Soon, to the delight of Jochen’s family and the tut-tutting of Marion’s busybody colleague (Irm Hermann), Marion has dumped her white-collar boyfriend for Jochen, and they set about building a life.

Anyone familiar with the doomed fruit seller of Mr. Fassbinder’s “The Merchant of Four Seasons,” the luckless lottery winner of his “Fox and His Friends,” or the Weimar-era ne’er-do-well hero of his “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (with Mr. John as a villain as treacherous as Jochen is good-hearted) is forgiven for expecting the worst. While few characters in “Eight Hours” wind up dead or humiliated, it’s not as if Mr. Fassbinder’s bleak worldview has entirely gone away.

That “Eight Hours” is a comedy — or perhaps a tragedy stopped short — owes something to both design and chance. According to the film scholar Brad Prager, Mr. Fassbinder told a contemporaneous interviewer that he wanted to leave a broad TV audience with a sense that the world was full of possibilities. On the other hand, West German television, which commissioned the project, pulled the plug before the director was able to film the last three episodes, in which he had planned to lower the hammer.

But “Eight Hours” nevertheless feels complete, a lighthearted polemic that is at once a soft-Marxist guide on how to band together to improve your workplace and an almost traditionalist ode to family and community. Jochen, a factory worker who makes specialized tools, leads his fellow laborers in pushing for their friend’s promotion. Wishing to turn a shuttered library into a day care center, Grandma (Luise Ullrich), the strong-willed matriarch, and her new companion, Gregor (Werner Finck), don’t wait for city permission.

As always, the polish of Mr. Fassbinder’s direction is a marvel; none of his 1970s contemporaries ever used zooms to better comic effect. And for a man who found time to make more than 40 features in his 37 years, the fluidity of his camera and blocking is miraculous — particularly in a nearly half-hour wedding-party sequence at the end of Episode 4.

For sheer joy per minute of film, there’s nothing playing now that comes close.

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