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The Notorious Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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The Notorious Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainier Werner Fassbinder was one of Germany’s most important post-war filmmakers. We look back at the controversial life and career of the prolific cinematic bad boy.

Fassbinder was born May 31, 1945, in Bad Wörishofen, just weeks after the German surrender, and his parents relocated to war-ravaged Munich shortly thereafter. His father was a physician (and amateur poet) who’d just been discharged by the German army, while his mother had been a literature and history student whose education was curtailed by the war. Fassbinder was their only child.

His parents divorced when he was just 6, a traumatic event for the young Fassbinder, with his father moving to Cologne and the boy living with his mother. She supported the family by working as an English-German translator, but often had to be hospitalized due to tuberculosis. Fassbinder was looked after by other tenants in the housing complex and learned to entertain himself from an early age, busying himself with coloring and “radio plays” that he made with a tape recorder.

Fassbinder also spent an inordinate amount of time in movie theaters. With American films having been banned during the war years, the post-war period saw a deluge of backlist Hollywood titles, and Fassbinder would watch up to two or three a day. “The cinema,” he once said, “was the family life I never had at home.” By the age of 12, he claimed, he’d decided to become a director.

Fassbinder was a wildly uneven student, leading one of his math teachers to remark that the child might either be a genius or crazy, he wasn’t sure which. By 15, he had dropped out of school and following a conflict with his stepfather, went to Cologne to live with his dad. It was at this age he also unashamedly declared his homosexuality.

Returning to Munich at age 18, he enrolled in acting classes and started making 8 mm films. Soon he was working as a soundman and assistant director. After his application to the Berlin Film School was rejected, he made several short films (one starred his mother, who would later frequently be cast in his movies) and in 1967 he joined the Munich Action Theatre, many members of which would make up his de facto cinematic stock company. Shortly after he made his stage directorial debut in 1968, the theater was destroyed by a member jealous of Fassbinder's growing influence over the group.

The next seven years were incredibly productive, with Fassbinder staging plays in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt, as well as directing more than a dozen feature films and nearly as many TV productions. In 1969, he made his first feature film, a gangster movie called "Love is Colder Than Death." Far from a success, it was booed at the Berlin Film Festival and received a poor critical reception elsewhere. That year he also directed "Katzelmacher," a film about a Greek immigrant laborer confronting xenophobia and violence when he moves into an all-German neighborhood. A piece of social critique featuring an alienated outsider, it would lay the groundwork for much of his following work.

His breakthrough came with "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," a story about a young Moroccan guest worker who marries a retired cleaning woman in her 60s. Loosely based on a movie by Douglas Sirk, the film was shot in less than two weeks and would win two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, making Fassbinder an international star.

Clad in his ubiquitous black leather jacket and dark glasses, Fassbinder relished the role, becoming notorious for his provocative press statements and angering any number of groups, who accused his films of being in turn obscene, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. Conservatives accused him of being a Marxist. Marxists accused him of being a sell-out.

And if his films themselves weren’t enough, there was his personal life (although given his propensity to cast his friends, family and romantic partners in his films, it’s perhaps a false distinction). El Hedi ben Salem, star of "Ali," for example, was Fassbinder’s lover for three years but would later hang himself in a Parisian jail – becoming the second of Fassbinder’s former lovers to kill himself. Though twice married to women, Fassbinder carried out numerous relationships with men, long-term and otherwise. Throughout the 1970s, he kept the German press busy chronicling scandal after scandal, as former lovers and cinematic collaborators stepped forward with sordid tales of Fassbinder cruelties, abuses and chemical dependencies – few of which the man himself ever bothered denying.

Still the work continued at a phenomenal pace. By 1982, he had completed an astonishing 41 films in just 15 years. The most successful was 1979’s "The Marriage of Maria Braun," about the struggles of a woman working in a bar frequented by American soldiers in post-war Germany. As a direct result of its commercial success, he was able to increase the budget for "Berlin Alexanderplatz," an epic 15-hour mini-series based on the novel by Alfred Doblin. Many considered it Fassbinder’s greatest achievement.

But burning the candle at both ends was beginning to take its toll on Fassbinder. “Everyone must decide for himself whether it is better to have a brief but more intensely felt existence or to live a long and ordinary life,” Fassbinder once said.

You can probably guess which Fassbinder chose. He died from an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills June 10, 1982, a date which effectively marked the end of the New German Cinema. He was 37 years old.