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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

[fahs-bin-der]

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (May 31, 1945 – June 10, 1982) was a German film director, screenwriter and actor. A premier representative of the New German Cinema. Famous for his frenetic pace in film-making, in a professional career that lasted less than fifteen years Fassbinder completed 35 feature length films; two television series shot on film; three short films; four video productions; twenty four stage plays and four radio plays directed; and 36 acting roles in his own and other’s films. He also worked as an actor (film and theater), author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.

Fassbinder was distinguished for the strong provocative current underlying his work and the air of scandal surrounded his artistic choices and private life. His intense discipline and phenomenal creative energy when working were in violent contrast with a wild, self-destructive libertinism that earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, as well as its central figure. He had tortured relationships in his personal life with the people he drew around him in a surrogate family of actors and technicians. However, his pictures demonstrate his deep sensitivity to social misfits and his hatred of institutionalized violence. He ruthlessly attacked both German bourgeois society and the larger limitations of humanity. His films detail the desperate yearning for love and freedom and the many ways in which society, and the individual, thwarts it. A prodigiously inventive artist, Fassbinder distilled the best elements of his sources — Brechtian theatrics, Artaud, the Hollywood melodramas, classical narrative, and a gay sensibility into a complex body of work.

Fassbinder died at the age of 37 from heart failure resulting from a lethal interaction between sleeping pills and cocaine. His death is often considered to mark the end of the New German Cinema.

Early life

Fassbinder was born in Bavaria in the small town of Bad Wörishofen, on May 31, 1945, three weeks after the Americans entered the town and three weeks after the unconditional surrender of Germany. The aftermath of World War II deeply marked his childhood and the life of his family. Fassbinder himself, in compliance with his mother, later altered the date of his birthday to 1946 in order to enhance his status as a cinematic prodigy. It was towards his death that his real age was revealed confronting his passport.

Born into a cultured bourgeois family, Fassbinder had an unconventional childhood about which he would later express many grievances in interviews. At three months, he was left with a paternal uncle and aunt in the country, since his parents feared he would not survive the winter with them. There was no glass in the windows in the family apartment in Munich, nor was there anything that could be used for heating. He was a year old before he saw his mother again.

Fassbinder’s mother, Liselotte Pempeit, came from Danzig, which was occupied by the Russians, so her relatives came to live with them in Munich. There were so many people living in the Fassbinder’s household that it was difficult for Rainer to decide who were his parents.

From 1945–1951, Fassbinder lived with both his parents; he was their only child. His father, Helmut Fassbinder, was a doctor with a surgery at his apartment near Munich’s red light district. He saw his career as the means to indulge his passion for writing poetry. The doctor, who had two sons by a previous marriage, did not take much interest in the child, and neither did Liselotte, who helped her husband in his medical practice. Rainer’s parents divorced when he was six. The child was left alone with his mother after the dissolution of both his parent’s marriage and the extended family.

Liselotte raised her son as a single parent. To provide for them, she rented out rooms, but tuberculosis kept her away for long periods while she was recuperating. Rainer, who was about eight, was left in the company of the people who had rented the rooms, but with none to look after him properly, he became more independent and uncontrollable. He spent time in the streets, sometimes playing with other boys, sometimes just watching what went on. He did not get along well with his mother's young lover and his relationship with the much older journalist Wolf Elder, who became his stepfather was even worse. Liselotte, who worked as a translator, could not concentrate in the company of her headstrong son and he was often given money to go to the movies. Later in life, he would claim that he saw a film nearly every day and sometimes as many as three or four. "The cinema was the family life I never had at home.

He was sent to a boarding school, from which he ran away repeatedly. He left school before passing any final examinations. At the age of 15, he moved to Cologne to stay with his father. They argued frequently. He lived with him for a couple of years while attending night school. He earned a living working small jobs and helping his father who rented shabby apartments to immigrant workers. He wrote short plays, poems and short stories. He frequented gay bars, and had his first boyfriend, a Greek immigrant. In 1963 he returned to Munich.

Theatre

Encouraged by his mother, Fassbinder studied theater and, from 1964-1966, attended the Fridl-Leonhard Studio in Munich. There, he met Hanna Schygulla, who would become his most important actress. During this time, he made his first 8 mm films and took on small jobs as actor, assistant director, and sound man. He failed the state examinations for actors, but wrote among others the play Just Once Slice of Bread. To gain entry at the Berlin Film School, Fassbinder submitted a film version of his play title parallels. He also entered several 8 mm films including This Night (now lost), but he failed the entrance exams.

He then went back to Munich, continued with his writing and made two short films in black and white, persuading his lover Christoph Roser, an aspiring actor, to finance them in exchange for leading roles.The City Tramp (Der Stadtstreicher, 1965) and The Little Chaos (Das Kleine Chaos, 1966). Fassbinder acted in both this two short films which also featured Irm Hermann. In the latter, his mother - under the name of Lilo Pempeit - played the first of many parts in her son's films.

In 1967, Fassbinder joined the Munich action-theater and in two months became the company's leader. He directed, acted in, and adapted anti-establishment plays for a tightly knit group of young actors, among them Peer Raben, Harry Baer and Kurt Raab, who along with Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann, became the most important members of his cinematic stock company. In April 1968 Fassbinder premiered directed the first play written by himself: Katzelmacher, a twenty-minute highly choreographed encounter between Bavarian villagers and a foreign worker from Greece, who with scarcely a word of German, becomes the object of intense racial, sexual, and political hatred among the men, while exerting a strangely troubling fascination on the women. A few weeks later, in May 1968, the Action Theater was disbanded after its theater was wrecked by one of its founders, jealous of Fassbinder's growing power within the group. It promptly reformed under Fassbinder's command as the Anti-Theater (antiteater). The troupe lived and performed together, staging avant-garde adaptations of classics, as well as Fassbinder's 14 politically trenchant original plays. Working with the Anti-Theater, he would learn writing, directing, acting, and from which he would cull his own repertory group.

Fassbinder's career in the theatre (productions in Munich, Bremen, Bochum, Nurnberg, Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, where for two years he ran the "Theater am Turm" with Kurt Raab and Roland Petri) was a mere backdrop for a seemingly unstoppable outpouring of films, made-for-TV movies, adaptations, and even a TV variety show. During the same period, he also did radio plays and took on roles in other director's films, among them the title part in Volker Schlöndorff’s Brecht adaptation BAAL.

Fassbinder used his theatrical work as a springboard for making films; and many of the Anti-Theater actors and crew worked with him throughout his entire career (for instance, he made 20 films each with actresses Hanna Schygulla and Irm Herrmann). He was strongly influenced by Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect" and the French New Wave cinema – particularly Jean-Luc Godard (1965's Pierrot le Fou, 1967's Week End). Essential to Fassbinder's career was the rapid working methods he developed early on. Because he knew his actors and technicians so well, Fassbinder was able to complete as many as four or five films per year on extremely low budgets. This allowed him to compete successfully for the government grants needed to continue making films.

Unlike the other major auteurs of the New German Cinema (e.g., Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders) who started out making movies, Fassbinder acquired an extensive stage background that is evident throughout his work. Additionally, he learned how to handle all phases of production, from writing and acting to direction and theater management. This versatility later surfaced in his films where, in addition to some of the aforementioned responsibilities, Fassbinder served as composer, production designer, cinematographer, producer and editor. He also appeared in 30 other directors' projects.

By 1976, Fassbinder had become an international star. Prizes at major film festivals, premieres and retrospectives in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and a first critical study on his work appearing in London had made him a familiar name among cinephiles and campus audiences the world over. He lived in Munich when not traveling, rented a house in Paris and could be seen in gay bars in New York, earning him cult hero status but also a controversial reputation in and out of his films. His films were a fixture in art houses of the time after he became internationally known with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

Personal life

Fassbinder was entangled in multiple romantic relationships with women, but more frequently with men. His personal life, always well publicized, was riddled with gossip and scandal. Early in his career, he had a lasting but fractured relationship with Irm Hermann, a former secretary whom he forced to become an actress. Hermann, who idolized him, was tormented and tortured by him for over a decade. She even claimed domestic violence abuse: “He couldn't conceive of my refusing him, and he tried everything. He almost beat me to death on the streets of Bochum ....” In 1977, Hermann became romantically involved with another man and became pregnant by him. Fassbinder proposed to her and offered to adopt the child; she turned him down.

Fassbinder's main love interest during his early period as a film director was Gunther Kaufmann. Kaufmann was not a trained actor and entered cinema when, in 1970, Fassbinder fell madly in love with him. The director tried to buy his love with movie roles and expensive gifts. Kaufmann famously smashed up four Lamborghinis in a year. That he was heterosexual, married and the father of two was not a deterrent for Fassbinder.

Although he was opposed to marriage as an institution, Fassbinder married Ingrid Caven, a recurrent actress in many of his films, in 1971. Their wedding reception was recycled in the film he was making at that time, The American Soldier. Their relationship of mutual admiration survived the complete failure of their two-year marriage. “Ours was a love story in spite of the marriage,” Ingrid explained in an interview, adding about her former husband's sexuality: “Rainer was a homosexual who also needed a woman. It’s that simple and that complex.” Neither Irm Hermann, nor Ingrid Caven or Juliane Lorenz, the three most important women of Fassbinder’s life, were disturbed by his homosexuality.

In 1971, Fassbinder fell in love with El Hedi ben Salem, a Berber from Morocco. Their turbulent relationship ended violently in 1974. Salem, famously cast as Ali in Fear Eats the Soul, hanged himself in jail in 1982. Fassbinder, who barely outlived his former lover, dedicated his last film, Querelle, to Salem.

Armin Meier, a former butcher who was almost illiterate and who had spent his early years in an orphanage, was Fassbinder's lover from 1974 to 1978. After Fassbinder broke up with him, Meier committed suicide on Fassbinder’s birthday. He was found dead in their apartment only days later. Devastated by Armin’s suicide, Fassbinder made In a Year with Thirteen Moons to exorcise his pain. In the last four years of his life, Fassbinder's companion was Juliane Lorentz, the editor of his films from that period. They were about to get married in different occasions and even had a mock wedding ceremony during a trip to the U.S., but actually never did marry. They were still living together at the time of his death.

Controversy

The scandals and controversies ensured that in Germany itself Fassbinder was permanently in the news, making calculatedly provocative remarks in interviews. His work often received mixed reviews from the national critics, many of whom began to take him seriously only after the foreign press had hailed him as a great director.

Fassbinder’s reputation in his own country was entangled almost continually in controversy. There were frequent exposés of his lifestyle in the press, and attacks from all sides from groups his films offended. His television series Eight Hours do not Make a Day was cut from eight to five episodes after pressure from conservatives. The playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz sued for Fassbinder's adaptation of his play Jail Bait, alleging that it was obscene. Lesbians and feminists accused Fassbinder of misogyny (in presenting women as complicit in their own oppression) in his “Women‘s Picture”. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has been cited by some feminist and gay critics as both homophobic and sexist. Gays complained of misrepresentation in Fox and his Friends. Conservatives attacked him for his association with the radical left. Marxists said he had sold out his political principles in his depictions of left-intellectual manipulations in Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven and of a late-blooming terrorist in The Third Generation. Berlin Alexanderplatz was moved to a late night television slot amid widespread complaints that it was unsuitable for children. The most heated criticism came for his play Garbage, the City, and Death, whose scheduled performance at the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt was cancelled early in 1975 amid charges of anti-semitism. In the turmoil, Fassbinder resigned from his directorship of that prestigious theater complex, complaining that the play had been misinterpreted.

Fassbinder did little to discourage the personalized nature of the attacks on himself and his work. He seemed to provoke them by his aggressively anti-bourgeois lifestyle, symbolized in his black leather jacket, battered hat, dark glasses and perennial scowl.

Death

By the time he made his last film, Querelle (1982), heavy doses of drugs and alcohol had apparently become necessary to sustain his unrelenting work habits. On the night of June 9 -10, 1982, Wolf Gremm, director of the film Kamikaze 1989 (1982), which starred Fassbinder, was staying in his apartment. At 3:30 a.m, when Juliane Lorentz arrived home, she heard the noise of television in Fassbinder’s room, but she could not hear him snoring. Though not allowed to enter the room uninvited, she went in, and she found him lying on the bed, dead, a cigarette still between his lips. A thin ribbon of blood trickled from one nostril. It was ten days after his thirty-seventh birthday.

The cause of death was reported as heart failure resulting from a lethal interaction between sleeping pills and cocaine. The script for his next film, Rosa Luxemburg, was found next to him.

Film career

Starting at age 21, Fassbinder made over 40 films in 15 years, along with numerous plays and TV dramas. These films were nearly all written or adapted for the screen by Fassbinder himself. He was also art director on most of the early films, editor or co-editor on many of them (often credited as Franz Walsh), and he acted in nineteen of his own films as well as for other directors. He wrote fourteen plays, created new versions of six classical plays, and directed or co-directed twenty-five stage plays. He wrote and directed four radio plays and wrote song lyrics. In addition, he wrote thirty-three screenplays and collaborated with other screenwriters on thirteen more. On top of this, he occasionally performed many other roles such as cinematographer and producer on a small number of them. Working with a regular group of actors and technicians, he was able to complete films ahead of schedule and often under budget and thus compete successfully for government subsidies. He worked fast, typically omitting rehearsals and going with first take.

In 1972, Fassbinder began his collaboration with a highly experienced and successful producer at West Germany's most prestigious television network, Peter Märtesheimer. Under Märtesheimer's influence, Fassbinder turned with even more determination to recognizably German subject matter. Together they made, among others, the television series Eight Hours do not Make a Day, and in 1978 co wrote The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder's commercially most profitable film and the first in his post-war German trilogy with Lola and Veronika Voss. For many critics, Fassbinder crowning achievement was the 14-part television adaptation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz , much maligned by the German press. Although for Veronika Voss Fassbinder received the Golden Bear at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival, a much-coveted Oscar nomination eluded him.

There are three distinct phases to Fassbinder’s career. The first ten or so movies (1969 -1971) were an extension of his work in the theater, shot usually with static camera and with deliberately unnaturalistic dialogue. The second phase is the one that brought him international attention, with films modeled, to ironic effect, on the melodramas Douglas Sirk made for Universal in the 1950s. In these films Fassbinder explored how deep-rooted prejudices about race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class are inherent in society, while also tackling his trademark subject of the everyday fascism of family life and friendship. The final batch of films, from around 1977 until his death, were more varied, with international actors sometimes used and the stock company disbanded (although the casts of some films were still filled with Fassbinder regulars). He became increasingly more idiosyncratic in terms of plot, form and subject matter in movies like The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Third Generation (1979) and Querelle (1982). He also articulated his themes in the bourgeois milieu with his trilogy about women in post-fascist Germany : The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Angst of Veronica Voss and Lola.

"I would like to build a house with my films," Fassbinder once remarked. " Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house. "

Avant-garde films (1969-1971)

Working simultaneously in theater and film, Fassbinder created his own style out of fusion of the two forms. His ten early films are characterized by a self-conscious and assertive formalism. Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and the theories of Bertolt Brecht, these films are austere and minimalist in style. Although praised by many critics, they proved too demanding and inaccessible for a mass audience. It was during this time, however, that Fassbinder developed his rapid working methods. In this period, his most prolific, Fassbinder made controversial films about human savagery, such as Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971) and Whity (1971).

Love is Colder than Death (1969)

In 1969, Fassbinder made his first feature length film Love is Colder than Death (1969) (Liebe ist kälter als der Tod), a cinematic deconstruction of the gangster film genre. Fassbinder dedicated the film to his cinematographic mentors: Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Marie Straub. Success was not immediate: Love is Colder than Death was ill received at the Berlin Film Festival, but was the beginning of the successful careers of the film's three leading actors: Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel and Fassbinder himself.

Katzelmacher (1969)

His second film, Katzelmacher (1969), (Bavarian slang for "foreign worker"), was better received, garnering five prizes after its debut at Mannheim. It featured an immigrant from Greece who encounters violent xenophobic slackers when moving into an all-German neighborhood. This kind of social criticism, featuring alienated characters unable to escape the forces of oppression, is a constant throughout Fassbinder's diverse oeuvre. Katzelmacher was adapted from Fassbinder's first play - a companion feature to Jean-Marie Straub's 10-minute stage adaptation of Ferdinand Bruckner's three-act play, Sickness of Youth (1926) for the underground Action Theater.

The American Soldier (1971)

The main theme of the gangster film The American Soldier is that violence is an expression of frustrated love. The eponymous hit man of the title (actually a German, played by Karl Scheydt) wipes out half the Munich underworld for the corrupt police. American Soldier also alludes to Southern Gothic race narratives like Band of Angels (1957), directed by Raoul Walsh, another of Fassbinder's influences.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Beware of a Holy Whore was based, like many of Fassbinder’s films, on a personal experience -- the shooting of his earlier film, the revisionist Western Whity (1970). The film shows an egomaniacal director, beset by a stalled production, temperamental actors, and a frustrated crew. When asked what the movie he is making is about, he replies: brutality. The film ends with a typical Fassbinder-esque irony, as the crew gang up the director. Beware of a Holy Whore marked the end of Fassbinder’s avant-garde period. It presented such an embittered and radical self-critique that his future films would have to be quite different from the ones made before. After spinning out ten films within two years in a frenzied burst of creativity, his anti-film anti-theater drive seemed pretty much exhausted.

German melodramas (1972-1976)

After Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder took an 18-month respite from filmmaking. During this time, Fassbinder turned for a model to Hollywood melodrama, particularly the films of German-trained Douglas Sirk, who made All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life for Universal Pictures during the 1950s. Fassbinder was attracted to these films not only because of their entertainment value, but also for their depiction of various kinds of repression and exploitation.

The Merchant of the Four Seasons (1972)

Fassbinder scored his first domestic commercial success with The Merchant of the Four Seasons (1971) (Händler der vier Jahreszeiten). The film portraits a fruit merchant, who in spite of his efforts faces rejection from both his wife and his mother. After his spirit is crushed by a cruel society and his own futility, he literally drinks himself to death.

The Merchant of the Four Seasons introduced a new phase of Fassbinder’s filmmaking, using melodrama as a style to create critical studies of contemporary German life for a general audience. It was Fassbinder's first effort to create what he declared he aspired to: a cinematic statement of the human condition that would transcend national boundaries like the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. It is also his first realization of what he learned from Sirk: that people, however small they may be, and their emotions, however insignificant they may seem, could be big on the movie screen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Loneliness is a common theme in Fassbinder's work, together with the idea that power becomes a determining factor in all human relationships. His characters yearn for love, but seemed condemned to exert an often violent control over those around them. A good example is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant), adapted from one of the 14 plays Fassbinder penned. The title character is a fashion designer who lives in a self-created dreamland, a languid, overripe environment that lacks any reference to the world outside its walls. After the failure of her second marriage, Petra falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with a working-class, cunning young woman who wants a career in modeling. The model's exploitation of Petra mirrors Petra's extraordinary psychological abuse of her silent maid. Fassbinder portrays the slow meltdown of these relationships as inevitable, and his actresses (there are no men in the film) move in a slow, trance-like way that hints at a vast world of longing beneath the beautiful, brittle surface.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Fassbinder first gained international success with Fear Eats the Soul (1974) (Angst essen Seele auf). Even for his quick output on low budgets, this movie, shot in 15 days in September 1973, ranked among his quickest and cheapest. Nevertheless, the impact on Fassbinder’s career and foreign cinema remains cemented as a great and influential work. It won the International Critics Prize at Cannes and was acclaimed by critics everywhere as one of 1974's best films.

Fear Eats the Soul is based on the American classic All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk. It details the vicious response of family and community to a lonely aging white cleaning lady who marries a muscular, much younger black Moroccan immigrant worker. The two are drawn to each other out of mutual loneliness. As their relationship becomes known, they experience various forms of hostility and public rejection. The good-hearted cleaning lady is only absolved of her “crime” when those around her realize their ability to exploit her is threatened.

Martha (1973)

Fassbinder’s main characters tend to be naifs, either men or women, who are rudely, sometimes murderously disabused of their romantic illusions, which threaten the social and philosophical status quo. In Martha (1973), a melodrama about the cruelty of a bourgeois marriage, an impulsive woman with a hunger for life marries a wealthy, sophisticated man, who hates her spontaneity, innocence, and sheer sense of self and tries to remake her as a reflection of his own bourgeois interests. Martha’s initially positive wish to be liked by those around her push her to such an extreme that she is prepared to enjoy her own oppression. She eventually accepts it as a natural condition of life and even takes a certain pleasure in it.

Effi Briest (1974)

Effi Briest was Fassbinder’s dream film and the one in which he invested the most work. While he normally took between nine and 20 days to make a film, this time it required 58 shooting days, dragged out over two years. The film is a masterful period piece adapted from Theodor Fontane's classic novel, concerning the consequences of betrayed love. Set in the closed, repressive Prussian society of the Bismarck era, the film tells the story of Effi Briest, a young woman who seeks to escape her stifling marriage to a much older man by having an affair with a charming soldier. Six years later, Effi’s husband discovers her affair with tragic consequences.

Fox and his Friends (1974)

Many of Fassbinder’s films deal with homosexuality, in keeping with his interest in characters who are outsiders to society, however, he drew away from most representations of homosexuals in films. In an interview at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, Fassbinder said about Fox and His Friends: “It is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different, it’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell”.

In Fox and His Friends (1974) (Faustrecht der Freiheit) a sweet but unsophisticated working-class homosexual falls in love with the elegant son of an industrialist. His lover tries to mold him into a gilt-edged mirror of upper-class values and ultimately destroys his illusions, leaving him heartbroken and destitute.

Fassbinder worked within the limits of Hollywood melodrama, though the film is partially based on the plight of his then lover Armin Meier (to whom the film is dedicated). The film is notable for Fassbinder's performance as the unlucky Fox, in his only self-directed starring role.

Fox and His Friends has been deemed homophobic by some and overly pessimistic by others. The film's homosexuals are, not surprisingly, any different from the film's equally lecherous heterosexuals. Moreover, the film's pessimism is far outweighed by Fassbinder's indictment of Fox as an active participant in his own victimization, a familiar critique found in many of the director's films.

Chinese Roulette (1976)

In Chinese Roulette a wealthy married couple say goodbye before going off for the weekend, which each intends to spend separately abroad. However, at their country house the two unexpectedly meet again, in the company of their respective lovers. Their twelve-year-old crippled daughter had arranged this encounter out of hate for her parents lack of affection. The film centers on a truth game Fassbinder often played with his friends. The players divide into two teams, which take it in turn to pick out one member of the other side and ask them question about people and objects. The game is played at the suggestion of Angela, the disabled daughter, who plays on the opposite side from her mother. When the mother asks: "In the Third Reich, what would that person have been?" Angela’s answer is “Commandant of the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen”; it is her mother she is describing.

International films (1977-1982)

Enthusiasm for Fassbinder's films grew quickly after Fear Eats the Soul. Vincent Canby paid tribute to Fassbinder as "the most original talent since Godard". In 1977, Manhattan's New Yorker Theater held a Fassbinder Festival.

In 1978, he released Despair. Shot in English on a budget of 6,000,000 DEM that exceeded the total cost of his first 15 films, Despair is based upon the eponymous novel by Vladimir Nabokov, adapted by Tom Stoppard and featuring Dirk Bogarde. Favorable comparisons with such revered directors as Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Luchino Visconti soon followed. However, as enthusiasm for Fassbinder grew outside of Germany, his films accomplished little to impress German audiences. At home, he was better known for his television work (e.g., the 15.50-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz[1980]) and for his notoriously open homosexuality. Coupled with the controversial issues of his films — terrorism, state violence, racism, sexual politics — it seemed that everything Fassbinder did provoked or offended someone.

After completing in 1978 his last low-budget and very personal ventures (In a Year with 13 Moons and The Third Generation) he would concentrate on making films that were becoming increasingly garish and stylized. But Fassbinder's acclaimed TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz were a naturalistic adaptation of the two-volume novel by Alfred Döblin, which Fassbinder had read many times.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Fassbinder’s greatest success was The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun) (1979). He finally attained the popular acceptance he sought, even with German audiences. The film was the first part of a trilogy that was completed with Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982). All three films center on women in the Federal German Republic after World War II. These films offer careful analysis of the social make-up of those years in terms of dissidence and the changing and unchanging nature of Germany during that period.

The Marriage of Maria Braun recounts and assesses postwar German history as embodied in the rise and fall of the title character, played by Hanna Schygulla. Her story of manipulation and betrayal exposes Germany's spectacular postwar economic recovery in terms of its cost in human values. A cultural shift has occurred in the aftermath of the war, and government mandates cannot repair the damage done to the human soul. Even Maria's corporate success is a consequence of a figurative act of prostitution. Despite her increasing wealth, Maria prefers to return to a demolished, abandoned building, surrounded by faint sounds of reconstruction emphasizing the country's incomplete recovery from the war. Although Maria yearns for a happy life with her husband, The Marriage of Maria Braun is not about an enduring love, but rather, the idea that true love has no place in an exploitative and emotionally detached world of materialism and economic struggle.

In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978)

In the years following Maria Braun, Fassbinder made "private" films, such as In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) and The Third Generation (1979), stories that translated personal experiences and attitudes, as well as big budget spectacles, like Lili Marleen (1981).

Fassbinder most personal and bleakest work is In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden). The film follows the tragic life of Elvira, a transsexual formerly known as Erwin. In the last few days before her suicide, she and her prostitute friend decide to visit some of the important people and places in her life. In one sequence, Elvira wanders through the slaughterhouse where she worked as Erwin, recounting her history amid the meat-hooked corpses of cattle whose slit throats rain blood onto the floor.In another scene, Elvira returns to the orphanage where she was raised by nuns and hears the brutal story of her childhood. Fassbinder's camera tracks the nun (played by his mother) telling Elvira's story; she moves with a kind of military precision through the grounds, recounting the story in blazing detail, unaware that Elvira had collapsed and can no longer hear it.

In a Year of Thirteen Moons was explicitly personal, a reaction to Meier's suicide. In addition to writing, directing, and editing, Fassbinder also designed the production and served as cameraman.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Returning to his explorations of German history, Fassbinder finally realized his dream of adapting Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1980. A monumental TV series running more than 13 hours, with a two-hour coda released in the U.S. as a 15-hour feature, it became his crowning achievement. The director's interest in the inter-related themes of love, life, and power culminated in Berlin Alexanderplatz. The wunderkind of the postwar German film was mesmerized by the figure of Franz Biberkopf, the proletarian protagonist of Döblin's novel. Fassbinder often insisted: "I am Biberkopf."

Lola (1981)

Sex as a means for the strong to manipulate the weak is a frequent motif in Fassbinder's work. This is one of the themes in Lola, which tells the story of an upright, new building commissioner who arrives to a small town. He falls in love with Lola, innocently unaware of the fact that she is a famed prostitute and the mistress of an unscrupulous developer. Unable to reconcile his idealistic image of Lola with reality, the commissioner spirals into the very corruption he had sought to fight out.

Lola was loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and its source novel, Professor Unrat, by Heinrich Mann. In The Blue Angel, a cabaret singer leads a sanctimonious teacher to his ruin, and "Lola" is the name of the character portrayed by Marlene Dietrich. Unlike the earlier film – of little stylistic resemblance to Lola – Fassbinder equally emphasises his leading man and leading woman, rendering them compellingly, and giving added thematic resonance to how both are corrupted: the weak-willed commissioner by submitting to Lola, and Lola by submitting to the sham values of materialism.

Querelle (1982)

Fassbinder did not live to see the premier of his last film, Querelle, based on Jean Genet's novel Querelle de Brest.

The film deals with various forms of sexuality and love. It features scenes of fetishized homosexual romance, cluttered with archetypal gay imagery, from leather-clad clubgoers to sailors to a tortured fag hag. The backdrop is a kind of permanent orange sunset, as if the world were at its end, with an architectural landscape of vague alleys, parts of ships, and huge phallic columns overshadowing the action. Fassbinder exploits the sexual and criminal tensions in this enclosed space, particularly in scenes involving title character, a thief, prostitute, and serial killer.

Filmography

All titles written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder unless stated otherwise. According to Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder had no part in making of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, that was realized off his idea by Michael Fengler, his assistant. Same might also argue that this is the case for The Niklashausen Journey.
Year English title Original title Notes
1965 This Night This Night Short. Nonextant.
1966 The City Tramp Der Stadtstreicher Short.
1966/67 The Little Chaos Das kleine Chaos Short.
1969 Love Is Colder Than Death Liebe ist kälter als der Tod
1969 Katzelmacher (aka Cock Artist) Katzelmacher Based on his play.
1970 Gods of the Plague Götter der Pest
1970 The Coffee House Das Kaffeehaus TV film. Based on a play by Carlo Goldoni.
1970 Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? Co-directed and written (improvisation instructions) with Michael Fengler.
1970 The American Soldier Der amerikanische Soldat
1970 The Niklashausen Journey Die Niklashauser Fahrt TV film. Co-directed with Michael Fengler.
1971 Rio das Mortes Rio das Mortes TV film.
1971 Pioneers in Ingolstadt Pioniere in Ingolstadt TV film. Based on a play by Marieluise Fleisser.
1971 Whity Whity
1971 Beware of a Holy Whore Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte
1972 The Merchant of Four Seasons Händler der vier Jahreszeiten
1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant Based on his play.
1972-1973 Eight Hours Are Not a Day Acht Stunden sind kein Tag TV series, 5 episodes.
1972 Bremen Freedom Bremer Freiheit TV film. Based on his play.
1973 Jail Bait Wildwechsel TV film. Based on a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz.
1973 World on a Wire Welt am Draht TV film in two parts. Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye. Co-written with Fritz Müller-Scherz.
1974 Nora Helmer Nora Helmer TV film. Based on A Doll's House by Ibsen (German translation by Bernhard Schulze).
1974 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Angst essen Seele auf Inspired by Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows.
1974 Martha Martha TV film. Based on the story "For the Rest of Her Life" by Cornell Woolrich.
1974 Effi Briest Fontane - Effi Briest oder: Viele, die eine Ahnung haben
von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch
das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch
ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen
Based on the novel by Theodor Fontane.
1975 Like a Bird on a Wire Wie ein Vogel auf dem Draht TV film. Co-written with Christian Hohoff and Anja Hauptmann.
1975 Fox and His Friends Faustrecht der Freiheit Co-written with Christian Hohoff.
1975 Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven Mutter Küsters Fahrt zum Himmel Co-written with Kurt Raab. Based on the short story "Mutter Krausens Fahrt Ins Glück" by Heinrich Zille.
1975 Fear of Fear Angst vor der Angst TV film. Based on the novel by Asta Scheib.
1976 I Only Want You to Love Me Ich will doch nur, daß ihr mich liebt TV film. Based on the book Lebenslänglich by Klaus Antes and Christiane Erhardt.
1976 Satan's Brew Satansbraten
1976 Chinese Roulette Chinesisches Roulette
1977 Women in New York Frauen in New York TV film. Based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce.
1977 The Stationmaster's Wife Bolwieser TV film in two parts. Based on the play by Oskar Maria Graf.
1978 Germany in Autumn Deutschland im Herbst Fassbinder directed 26-minute episode for this omnibus film.
1978 Despair Despair - Eine Reise ins Licht Screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
1978 In a Year of 13 Moons In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden
1979 The Marriage of Maria Braun Die Ehe der Maria Braun Co-written with Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer.
1979 The Third Generation Die dritte Generation
1980 Berlin Alexanderplatz Berlin Alexanderplatz TV series, 14 episodes. Based on the novel by Alfred Döblin.
1981 Lili Marleen Lili Marleen Based on Der Himmel hat viele Farben, the autobiography of Lale Andersen. Co-written with Manfred Purzer and Joshua Sinclair.
1981 Theater in Trance Theater im Trance Documentary.
1981 Lola Lola Co-written with Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer.
1982 Veronika Voss Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss Co-written with Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer.
1982 Querelle Querelle Co-written with Burkhard Driest. Based on the novel Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet.

Documentaries about Fassbinder

  • The Many Women of Fassbinder
  • Life, Love and Celluloid
  • Fassbinder in Hollywood
  • Life Stories: A Conversation with Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • I Don't Just Want You to Love Me: Feature-length documentary of Fassbinder's life and career
  • RWF Last Works
  • Fassbinder's Women

Notes

Bibliography

  • Baer, Harry, Ya Dormiré cuando este Muerto ,Seix Barrall, 1986, ISBN-10: 8432245720
  • Braad Thomsen, Christian Fassbinder: Life and Work of a Provocative Genius , University of Minnesota Press, 2004, ISBN 0816643644
  • Elsaesser, Thomas, Fassbinder's Germany. History Identity Subject , Amsterdam University Press, 1996. ISBN 90 5356 059 9
  • Hayman, Ronald, Fassbinder Film Maker , Simon & Schuster, 1984. ISBN 0671523805
  • Katz, Robert, Love is colder than Death : The Life and Time of Rainer Werner Fassbinder , Random House, 1987, ASIN: B000OP6C1M
  • Lorenz, Juliane, editor. Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder , Sutton Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1557832625

Other references

  • Watson, Wallace, The Bitter Tears of RWF, Sight and Sound, 1992.
  • Pipolo, Tony, Straight from the Heart: reviewing the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Cineaste, 2004.
  • Rufell, Joe, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database, 2002

External links

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