Irm Hermann, from Torture to Triumph

On Film / The Daily — May 28, 2020
Irm Hermann in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Though she worked with Werner Herzog, Percy Adlon, Ulrike Ottinger, and Christoph Schlingensief and appeared in dozens of popular German television series, Irm Hermann, who has passed away at the age of seventy-seven, will always be remembered first for the more than twenty films she made with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. From Fassbinder’s 1966 short film The City Tramp through Lili Marleen in 1981, “the precipitously leggy” Hermann exuded “a gangly eroticism and an inner contempt on-screen,” wrote Chuck Stephens in a guide to Fassbinder’s stock troupe that accompanies our release of The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971).

In interviews, Hermann often spoke of feeling out of place growing up as the child of bourgeois parents in Munich. “Everyone was always telling me I wasn’t pretty enough,” she told the Spiegel’s Fiona Ehlers in 2001. She’d go to the movies every Saturday with her father, and watching Heimatfilme starring Nadja Tiller or Caterina Valente, she’d find herself yearning “to look like a movie star some day.” In 1966, she entered an acting contest, and that’s when she first met Fassbinder. “I quit my office job,” she told Ehlers, “and we lived hand-to-mouth, playing pinball and dreaming of making movies. Rainer was chubby, pimply, and he wore his jeans too tight—but I was swept away. He talked with me like a friend. He had a gift for looking deep into my inner being. With his brown eyes.”

Fassbinder often cast Hermann as precisely the sort of woman she feared she’d become before she met him. In Katzelmacher (1969), she’s trapped in an abusive relationship with a lover who refuses to leave. She plays the nagging wife in The Merchant of Four Seasons, a flighty secretary in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972), and her Marlene in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is “just one of the wallflower roles Fassbinder perversely delighted in having Irm Hermann play,” as Peter Matthews writes here in the Current.

The cruelty Fassbinder directed at Herman began to extend beyond casting. In 1976, when they were working on the television movie Women in New York, Fassbinder slipped a tab of acid into her meal without telling her. Her circulatory system collapsed and it took her weeks to recover. “Maybe Fassbinder tortured me more than, say, Margit Carstensen or Hanna Schygulla because we were sleeping together,” she told Herlinde Koelbl in Die Zeit in 2015. “I also think that he took a lot out on me that was meant for his mother. People said that I looked like her, and she played a very large and not especially nice role in his life.”

While she took on small roles in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Lili Marleen, Hermann personally broke with Fassbinder in the late 1970s and left Munich for Berlin, where she married the children’s book author Dietmar Roberg with whom she had two sons. She landed leading roles in the city’s major theaters and went on to appear in Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979), Adlon’s The Five Last Days (1982), Ottinger’s Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989), and Schlingensief’s The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997). In 2016, Hermann was cast alongside Schygulla, Carstensen, and Eva Mattes—“the great Fassbinder women,” as director Aelrun Goette put it—in an episode of Tatort, a crime series that many German households treat as an almost obligatory Sunday evening ritual.

For Wolfgang Höbel, who has written a tribute to Hermann for the Spiegel, one of her greatest performances was in a relatively small role, that of the wife of a nasty bigot played by Fassbinder himself in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). “Demystification” was her supreme talent, Höbel argues. Listening to her speak, “one might think that Bertolt Brecht had thought up his perhaps most famous line from his play Drums in the Night so that this actress could make it her principle and leitmotif. Because in the end, in all of her roles, Irm Hermann commanded us: ‘Don’t stare so romantically!’”

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