Frankfurt's city theater Monday withdrew a controversial play by the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder that has been branded anti-Semitic. The West German film director's play has caused a storm of protest among Frankfurt's Jewish community, which has campaigned to have it banned. The play, which features ``the rich Jew,'' has triggered a national debate as to how much anti-Semitism remains latent in West Germany.
Fassbinder wrote the play in 1975, but 10 previous attempts to perform it were canceled after protests. Jewish protesters occupying the stage of the small Kammerspiel theater in Frankfurt prevented its world premi`ere Oct. 31. City theater director G"unther R"uhle postponed another opening a few days later to let passions cool and to allow time for talks with the Jewish community. He canceled a performance scheduled for last night, stating in a written note that the play would not be performed because o f a need to preserve the peace of the city and secure normal working conditions.
``Garbage, the City and Death,'' as Fassbinder titled his play, describes the boom in commercial building that erased one of best residential sections in Frankfurt during the early 1970s.
At the time, members of various left-wing protest groups occupied some of the dwellings scheduled for demolition to make room for office buildings, and they were removed only after pitched battles with police. Left-wing propaganda of the time often accused ``Jewish speculators'' of buying up dwellings, tossing out the tenants, and then selling to builders at huge profits.
But critics pointed out that, in the play, while everyone else has a name, the central figure is identified only as ``the rich Jew.'' Furthermore, ``the rich Jew's'' description of himself and his activities could have been lifted from the Nazis' anti-Semitic publication, Der St"urmer. Critics said Fassbinder's figure as written is meant to represent an entire racial group rather than just an individual.
Furthermore, a Nazi character in the play complains he can't sleep because ``the rich Jew'' always manages to make him feel guilty. The Nazi says he regrets that ``the rich Jew'' did not die in a gas chamber. Critics complain that none of the other characters in Fassbinder's play counter this statement.
In the view of Jewish protesters, the attempt to perform the play now is linked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's success in getting President Reagan to lay a wreath at the Bitburg military cemetery, which includes the graves of some SS men, as well as a row that developed at Bergen, after Mr. Reagan's visit there, over an attempt to rename a local street after Anne Frank, the Dutch Jewish girl who died in the nearby Belsen concentration camp.
Michel Friedman, of the Frankfurt Jewish community, said it all sounds to him as if the Germans are trying to overcome or digest their past at the expense of its victims.
The Jews who occupied the Kammerspiel stage in Frankfurt held up a long banner reading ``subsidized anti-Semitism.'' This was a reference to the fact that the theater is wholly owned and operated by the Frankfurt municipality, and therefore that the play is entirely paid for with taxpayers' money.
Possibly the protests would have been less vehement had anyone suggested performing the Fassbinder play in a privately owned theater. But that has apparently never been considered.
In Germany, however, even the private theaters generally demand and receive state subsidies. This goes back to the days when the scores of princes and dukes all maintained court theaters. The states and cities that took over political power carried on the former cultural traditions.
Many who have read Fassbinder's play describe it as juvenile and filled with violence, sex, and scatological dialogue.
But the quality of the play is hardly any longer at issue. The question is whether the latent anti-Semitism that everyone knows exists in Germany would be least roiled by finally performing the play, or by continuing to ban it.
Werner Holzer, editor of the left-of-center newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, summed up the situation editorially after one of the demonstrations:
``The depressing thing about the momentary stand of the discussion is that only one group of people really feels good about it: These are the true anti-Semites and the anti-foreigner racists who always look for `evidence' for their attitudes so contemptuous of human beings. If the play is performed, they will understand it as confirming their version of the world. If it is not performed, they will grin and declare that one has once more seen what power the Jews actually have. No one can be pleased with