Profile: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

As you’ll notice down the sidebar of this page, this week’s Great Filmmaker of the Week is a man named Rainer Werner Fassbinder. For those of you not familiar with him, he was a German filmmaker who took the world cinema stage by storm in the 70s and early 80s, churning out film after film at unbelievable speed before his sad and sudden death of a drug overdose in 1982, at the too-young age of 37.

Fassbinder was born in Bavaria in 1945, just as World War II was ending, and had a busy early life. He soon decided he wanted to become a filmmaker, however, and moved to Munich in the early 60s, taking up acting and meeting Hanna Schygulla, the actress who would appear in a large majority of his films (and recently in my favourite film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)). In the late 60s, Fassbinder worked in theatre, acting, directing, writing and doing many other things to keep himself busy. He would later adapt his first play, Katzelmacher, into a film.

From his early twenties, Fassbinder began churning out films rapidly, and never looked back. Directing more than 40 movies before his death in ’82, Fassbinder achieved a fair amount of success with many of his films and is now regarded as one of cinema’s truest auteurs, and a vital staple in New German Cinema. His first film, Love is Colder than Death, was not well received but did not stop Fassbinder from continuing stubbornly. Next he would direct his play Katzelmacher for the screen, and then other adaptations and original works such as Gods of the Plague, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, The American Soldier and Whity. 

Many of these films, and by extension many of his others, would deal with serious social issues, such as racism, sexism, homophobia (Fassbinder was openly gay) and inequality. His films deal with these issues in a manner which deeply speaks to many people, and has thus earned him legendary popularity amongst many cinema fans.

The 70s proved to be an insanely busy time for the director; films such as the controversial The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the three-hour TV film World on a Wire, the small but bittersweet Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and the sexually powerful Fox and His Friends would earn him acclaim and respect. The latter of these films starred Fassbinder himself in the main role, as a man named Franz Biberkopf. This pseudonym would be used for a number of the characters in many of his films, most notably the TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In the late 70s Fassbinder’s film output continued, films flying out the door left, right and centre. Despite acclaim overseas, he never won an Oscar, but did win respect. His BRD trilogy on women in post-war Germany consisted of three films, the most popular of which was The Marriage of Maria Braun, which also turned out to be Fassbinder’s most popular film globally, alongside Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In between shooting this trilogy, Fassbinder also worked on something even more amazing: a fifteen hour movie split into thirteen one hour parts plus an epic two-hour epilogue. This became known as Berlin Alexanderplatz, and took almost a year to film, plus all of Fassbinder’s strength. With the lead character Franz Biberkopf, played by Gunter Lamprecht, he created a persona both alluring and repulsive; the ultimate anti-hero and a man who is so fascinating we can follow his adventures with ease and great interest even for as long as fifteen hours. I haven’t seen a lot of Fassbinder films yet, but the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz is so amazing it has to be the highlight of the man’s career.

Sadly, Fassbinder wouldn’t make many more films, for during the early morning of June 10, 1982, he would be found dead in his hotel room, a heart attack caused by pills and cocaine robbing him of the remainder of what surely would’ve been a delightful and prosperous lifetime. At only 37 and far too young, the world had been robbed of a genius and a great man. Though we have his legacy, we will never have his wonderful person except for in interviews, books and of course, films.

Fassbinder is in my mind an underrated director and one who deserves much more attention. I have acquired several films of his and will be watching them gradually over the course of the next month or two. Though I don’t think I could ever fully understand the man, the least I could do is get to know him through the cinema, the way I’m sure he would’ve wanted.

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Posted on June 26, 2012, in Filmmakers, Movies, Profile and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I suspect the sheer amount of films he made probably mitigates against any attempt to easily absorb Fassbinder. I wonder how he would’ve carried on had he lived. Can’t imagine him maintaining that work rate much longer, can’t imagine the industry being able to sustain him either.

    • You may be interested to learn that on the night he died he was working on a new screenplay, which was found unfinished next to his body. The man never stopped.

      • I’ve read that, yeah. If he hadn’t died he’d probably have had that released before the end of that year and done three films in 1982 (Veronika Voss and Querelle being the others). It’s hard to imagine these days when everyone seems to take two or three years between films, to say nothing of the time most scripts seem to get stuck in development hell.

  2. The only Fassbinder film I’ve seen so far is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I still remember that scene where Petra and Marlene are dancing slowly around the room to the Platters’ “Smoke in Your Eyes”. Whenever I hear that song, I think of that scene. It’s ingrained my mind ever since I saw it some years ago.

    I’m eager to check out more of his work as I hope to get some of them in the upcoming Criterion 50% off sale in Barnes & Noble next month and this coming November.

    Another Fassbinder-related project I saw is an adaptation of a play he wrote called Water Drops on Burning Rocks by Francois Ozon. It’s a pretty good film that I love to watch. Especially for Jeanne Laporie’s cinematography. Ludivine Sagnier never looked as beautiful in that film. Especially for the fact that she’s naked in part of the film but it was the way that she was lit that made it even more entrancing.

    • I haven’t seen that one yet. I’ll try fit it in at some stage. That is, if I can find it! Water Drops on Burning Rocks sounds interesting.

      I suggest you try and fit Berlin Alexanderplatz in at some stage. It will rock your world.

  3. I have seen this movie. I love it.

  4. The only film of his I own/have seen is World on a Wire but I’ve always been curious about Berlin Alexanderplatz. Nice write-up, it’s truly a shame he died so young.

    • It is a shame he died young. Berlin Alexanderplatz must be his masterpiece – I can’t imagine him topping it in terms of scale, size, scope and magnificence.

  5. One of my friends have seen almost all his films,and think he is a genius,I can’t agree more.I was impressed by his prolific career and his craft inherited from Douglas Sirk.I think his BRD trilogy is one of the most underrated trilogy in cinema history and Ali:Fear Eats the Soul is even better than its original – All That Heaven Allows.

    • He was very prolific. I’ve only seen the first film in the BRD trilogy, though I hope to see the other two eventually. I’ve got a bunch of his early films ready to be watched next.

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