German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder is widely regarded as one of the leading figures of the endlessly influential New German Cinema movement. Over the course of his illustrious career, Fassbinder produced several masterpieces like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Fox and His Friends among others. On the 76th anniversary of his birthday, we revisit Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and career as a tribute to his impact on the world of cinema.
Born in Bad Wörishofen after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Fassbinder grew up in a post-World War II world which deeply impacted his own ideals and beliefs. Due to his parent’s divorce when he was five-years-old, Fassbinder had limited contact with his father, a doctor, and was primarily raised by his mother. A member of a bourgeois family with a lot of cultural capital, the young boy left school at the age of 16 and became addicted to the world of cinema. From a very early age, he felt a strong inclination towards the art form and claimed that he indulged in it a lot: “The cinema was the family life I never had at home.”
Soon after leaving school, Fassbinder became involved with Munich’s avant-garde Action-Theatre. He followed his mother’s advice to take up acting and ended up writing plays, performing in them and even directing a few of his own projects. The burgeoning artist also started experimenting with short films but his application to the Berlin Film School was rejected. Although the police closed down the Action-Theatre in 1968, it did not stop Fassbinder who continued to create unusual works of art by forming the famous Anti-Theater troupe.
Influenced by the literary theories of Bertolt Brecht and the enigmatic transgressions of Jean-Luc Godard as well as his French New Wave contemporaries, Fassbinder decided to make his first feature in 1969 under a pseudonym. He was a prolific creator and ended up taking charge of around 40 productions between 1969 and 1982. This was only possible because of his close relationships with his technicians and actors who maintained a clear line of communication with him. “I would like to build a house with my films,” Fassbinder once said. “Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
His early work is characterised by the experimental spirit of Godard as well as a self-conscious evaluation of the cinematic medium. Fassbinder’s first projects like Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague were well-received by critics but they eluded the understanding of most audience members. That’s why the films that are still appreciated by many newer viewers are the ones that came later. His most well-known works include the 1974 project Ali: Fear Eats the Soul which provides a brilliantly incisive commentary on the pernicious nature of social prejudices and marginalisation. Fassbinder also explored homoerotic themes in other acclaimed films like In a Year with 13 Moons and Fox and His Friends.
“About half the early films were ‘about’ my discoveries in the American cinema; in a way they transplanted the spirit of American films to the Munich suburbs,” Fassbinder revealed in an interview. “The main thing to be learned from American films was the need to meet their entertainment factor halfway. The ideal is to make films as beautiful as America’s, but which at the same time shift the content to other areas. I find the process beginning in Douglas Sirk’s films, or in a film like Hitchcock’s Suspicion where you leave the cinema feeling that the marriage is an impossibility.”
Fassbinder passed away at the young age of 37 due to an overdose caused by a lethal mixture of cocaine and barbiturates. His legacy has been complicated by allegations of homophobia and sexism in his works by some critics. Conservative figures rejected him for his association with the Left while Marxists denounced him for his criticisms of left-leaning intellectuals and their manipulations. However, it remains an undeniable fact that Fassbinder was one of the greatest German filmmakers of the 20th century. His masterpieces continue to inspire newer generations of filmmakers and he is still remembered by many for his powerful utilisation of cinema to unsettle the status quo.