Broadcast on German TV in the early 70s but never before released in the U.S., Rainer Werner Fassbinder's five-part miniseries Eight Hours Don't Make a Day arrives like a gift from the movie gods. Not only is it a major work from the trailblazing German filmmaker—indeed, his most ambitious project prior to Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1980—it also showcases a side of Fassbinder revealed only fleetingly in his films. Generous and humane, the series may be the only Fassbinder work whose characters are, for the most part, well-adjusted and happy. That's not to say that Eight Hours is sentimental; rather, it presents Fassbinder's usual themes (sex, love, longing, and class relations) in a different light, illuminating hidden corners of his oeuvre.
Fassbinder, who died in 1982, wrote and directed dozens of movies and plays that explored the interconnectedness between social structures and personal relationships. He believed, to quote the title of his first feature, that love is colder than death—meaning that people's desire to be loved drives them to conform to social expectations, and that, more often than not, this results in unhappiness. He developed this theme across 11 features before turning 26; this first phase of his career is marked by its deadpan style and unrelenting pessimism, with form and content complementing each other in classical fashion. In 1972, when he was 27, Fassbinder released two films, The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, with a more naturalistic and sympathetic approach. Drawing inspiration from the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder imbued his work with greater emotion and found a new balance between his cynical worldview and his sensitivity to individuals.
Even viewers familiar with those films will be astonished by the optimism of Eight Hours. The characters are capable of loving without sacrificing their individuality; moreover, they possess a social awareness that leads them to change their surroundings and work for better lives. Fassbinder clearly wants viewers to root for his subjects as they improve their situations at home and at work, and the series exhibits a winning charm that wouldn't crop up again until one of his last features, Lola (1981). Developing his characters over nearly eight hours, he creates more than a dozen fully realized individuals whose foibles are as lovable as their strengths. He also creates a rich and remarkably lively working-class milieu in which the characters can love each other freely. The social structure seems less rigid than in Fassbinder's other works; happiness may not come easily, but for perhaps the only time in his career, it does seem attainable.
The series opens with a scene of collective happiness, as Fassbinder introduces most of the major characters at a 60th birthday party for the grandmother (Luise Ullrich) of an extended working-class family in Cologne. The guests drink, dance, and generally enjoy each other's company. Before each character comes into focus, Fassbinder conveys the spirit of the family as a whole; they seem content with their lot, though no one has much money. (One character notes that the champagne they're drinking is a rare luxury.) Soon Eight Hours lands upon its central protagonist, Jochen (Gottfried John), a skilled laborer in his early 20s who lives with the grandmother and his middle-aged parents. Jochen borrows his brother-in-law's car to pick up more snacks for the party, and while he's out, he meets a young woman named Marion (Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder's frequent muse). The two hit it off, he invites her back to the party, and at the end of the evening, after he drives her home, they make plans to meet again. The scene is as sweet as anything Fassbinder ever imagined—one senses right away that the two will fall madly in love.
The remainder of this first episode details the couple's blossoming romance, which Fassbinder parallels with scenes of the couple at their respective jobs and of Jochen's noncomformist grandmother finding companionship with a kindly widower named Gregor (Werner Finck). Yet the couple's happiness is complicated by two factors. First, Jochen learns that the boss wants his close-knit laborers to complete a big project in less time than they're usually given; second, the hero discovers that Marion must care for her younger brother, which means Jochen will have to take on some of the responsibility if he gets serious with her. Jochen manages to resolve both issues: he invents a new process that allows the laborers to finish their project on time, and he accepts Marion's terms for the romance. Adulthood, it seems, requires compromise and innovation, but Fassbinder's characters are up to the task.
In the second episode, two other characters use their imaginations to deal with the challenges life throws at them. Jochen's grandmother decides to move out of her daughter's place and find an apartment with Gregor. Fassbinder devotes much of the episode to their search for a home, detailing the costs and tribulations associated with each potential domicile. During their search, the grandmother gets the idea to open a nursery, and soon her struggle to find a home is compounded by the even greater challenge of getting a license for the business. Whereas the first episode of Eight Hours evokes the Depression-era romances of Hollywood director Frank Borzage (Man's Castle; Little Man, What Now?), the second resembles the realistic comedies of working-class life that Mike Leigh was starting to make for British TV around the same time as Eight Hours was broadcast.
Working life is the focus of the third episode, in which Franz (Wolfgang Schenck), one of Jochen's coworkers, aspires to succeed the group's foreman, who has died. Franz struggles to better himself, taking correspondence classes to get certified as a foreman, but his dream of climbing the social ladder is thwarted when management hires an outsider to fill the position. Fassbinder dramatizes Franz's frustration sensitively, anticipating his later working-class drama I Only Want You to Love Me (1976), yet the episode is nowhere near as despairing as that film: the hero of Love Me must deal with his problems alone, but Franz finds moral support in Jochen and his other coworkers. In fact the group tries to intervene on his behalf and get him promoted. This solidarity among the workers provides the heart of Eight Hours, which shows how the relationships people create at work can better their personal lives.
The theme of personal fulfillment is central to the fourth episode, which concerns Jochen and Marion's marriage and the separation of Jochen's sister from her abusive husband. The most satisfying episode of the series, it climaxes with a lengthy sequence showing the wedding party in full swing. Fassbinder juggles almost two dozen characters here, and the social portraiture equals anything else in his oeuvre. As in the first episode, the thematic emphasis is on beginnings and endings, with the promise of the former shaded by the finality of the latter. Yet even endings can be sweet, as Fassbinder reminds us with the sister's triumphant escape from her unhappy home life. Characters from Fassbinder's other works might have resigned themselves to such a plight, but Jochen's sister shows greater resolve, and her drive to lead a better life enhances the joy of the wedding party.
The final episode of the series is even sweeter, as Fassbinder ties up the various subplots with a symphonic sense of harmony. Rolf (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) and Irmgard (Irm Hermann), friends of Marion and Jochen, are beginning a romance of their own, and at one point Irmgard tells Marion that she wishes Rolf would ditch his blue-collar job and get an administrative position. Marion argues that people can live fulfilling lives regardless of their social position, and her monologue, one of the longest in the series, summarizes Fassbinder's perspective and provides a stirring climax. "I think we can be happy [even if] the person we love isn't great," Marion says. "You're something great together, because you love each other." The director may have specialized in characters trapped by their social roles, but Eight Hours shows that he also believed people were capable of transcending them. v