Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder often described his early years as lonely and lacking in love and affection. His father, a physician, and his mother, a translator, were divorced in 1951, and Fassbinder had little contact with his father after that. From around the age of seven, Fassbinder would be sent by his mother to the cinema so that she could work on her translation projects. He would later claim that during this period of his life he went to the movies almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day. He attended private and public schools at Augsburg and Munich but left before graduating in 1964 to enroll in a private drama school. In the summer of 1967 Fassbinder joined the Action Theater, modeled on American Julian Beck's Living Theater. Two months later, he had become the company's co-director, and when it reorganized under the name "anti-theater," he emerged as its leader. The group lived together and staged a number of controversial and politically radical plays in 1968 and 1969, including some of Fassbinder's original works and adaptations. Fassbinder's work in the theater, however, was primarily a means toward his goal of making films. He had applied in 1965 to the Berlin Film and Television Academy but failed the entrance exam. In the same year he wrote and directed his first film, a ten-minute short entitled "The City Tramp." During his "anti-theater" period he made ten feature films, including "Love is Colder Than Death" (1969), "Katzelmacher" (1969), and "Beware of a Holy Whore" (1971). Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and the theories of Bertolt Brecht, these films are austere and minimalist in style, and 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. Using actors and technicians from the "anti-theater" group, he was able to complete films ahead of schedule and often under budget and thus compete successfully for government subsidies. In search of a wider, more sympathetic audience, Fassbinder turned for a model to Hollywood melodrama, particulary 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. This mixture of melodrama and politics is evident in Fassbinder's first commercially successful film, "The Merchant of Four Seasons" (1972). But the film that brought him international acclaim was "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974), which won the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1974. "Ali" relates a love story between a German cleaning woman in her fifties and a young 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. Fassbinder makes it apparent that social and economic factors constrain the couple, through his favorite techniques of double-framing shots and extremely long takes of characters looking with objectifying gazes. At the end, Fassbinder withholds a "happy solution" and directs our attention to the ongoing problems of migrant workers. The overall effect of the film is to foreground the tenuous boundaries between public and private life and to stimulate the audience to find a solution to the couple's problems. Enthusiasm for Fassbinder's films grew quickly after "Ali." Vincent Canby paid tribute to Fassbinder as "the most original talent since Godard," and in 1977, Manhattan's New Yorker Theater held a Fassbinder Festival. That same year saw the release of "Despair." Shot in English on a budget that nearly equalled the cost of his first fifteen films, "Despair" was based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, adapted by Tom Stoppard, and starred Dirk Bogarde. Favorable comparisons with such revered directors as Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Luchino Visconti soon followed. But even as enthusiasm for Fassbinder grew outside of Germany, his films seemed to make little impression on German audiences. At home, he was better known for his work in television ("Eight Hours Are Not a Day," 1972 and the 15 1/2 hour "Berlin Alexanderplatz" 1980) and for a certain notoriety surrounding his lifestyle and open homosexuality. Coupled with the controversial issues that his films took up--terrorism, state violence, racial intolerance, sexual politics--it seemed that everything Fassbinder did provoked or offended someone. Charges leveled against him included anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, and anti-feminism. With "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978) Fassbinder finally attained the popular acceptance he sought, even with German audiences. The film recounts and assesses postwar German history as embodied in the rise and fall of the main character, played by Hanna Schygulla. Its story of manipulation and betrayal exposes Germany's spectacular postwar economic recovery in terms of its cost in human values. In the years following "Maria Braun," Fassbinder made "private" films like "In a Year with Thirteen Moons" (1978) and "The Third Generation" (1979), two of his greatest works, stories that translated personal experiences and attitudes, as well as big budget spectacles like "Lili Marleen" and "Lola" (both 1981). By the time he made his last film, "Querelle" (1982), based on the Jean Genet novel, heavy doses of drugs and alcohol had apparently become necessary to sustain his unrelenting work habits. When Fassbinder was found dead in a Munich apartment on June 10, 1982, the cause of death was reported as heart failure resulting from interaction between sleeping pills and cocaine. The script for his next film, "Rosa Luxemburg," was found next to him. He had wanted Romy Schneider to play the lead.