Rainer Werner Fassbinder (19461982) has been called all of those things, and more. The 41 feature films he made in his 14-year career dramas, thrillers, romances, comedies, literary adaptations, even science fiction and a Western are provocative in the fullest sense. They make us feel deeply, even as they allow us to contemplate the nature of society, ourselves, and even cinema (which Fassbinder, tongue in cheek, calls "a holy whore"). There are images of ravishing beauty, performances of unparalleled depth, and often stories of isolation and longing which continue to move, and provoke, audiences around the world.
This evolving Website focuses on Fassbinder's films through DVD — and now Blu-ray — releases, and includes an introduction to his life and works, as well as several resources. The sidebar to the right lists his complete filmography, with links to my reviews of all of his films available on DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to exploring each film's characters, themes, dramatic structure and use of visual and aural style, I place them in the contexts of both Fassbinder's body of work and his eclectic range of inspirations, from cinema, theater, literature, history, music, and the visual arts.
Fassbinder on BLU-RAY & DVD: As of September 2013, three-fourths of his pictures are on disc, including all of his "Top 10 of My Own Films" and many of his greatest works. Although there had been no new Region 1 Fassbinder releases in four years (!), since 2007, the Criterion Collection has released Fassbinder's only science fiction film, World on a Wire, in both Blu-ray and DVD, on 2/21/2012. World on a Wire is a 1974 two-part television mini-series, based on US author Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel about virtual reality run amok, Simulacron-3 (it was remade as the 1999 feature film, The Thirteenth Floor, directed by Josef Rusnak and produced by Roland Emmerich [Independence Day]). In 2011 Olive Films released his 1978 film based on Vladimir Nabokov's thriller Despair (this is the first Fassbinder Blu-ray, also on DVD — released 11/15/2011): at last we have available on disc all of Fassbinder's "Top 10 of My Own Films". Despair is also notable for the exceptional performance by legendary actor Dirk Bogarde (Victim), and its screenplay by the preeminent Tom Stoppard (plays The Coast of Utopia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; films Brazil, Shakespeare in Love) — this is one of Fassbinder's few English-language pictures. Olive Films has also brought out Fassbiner's powerful 1976 television drama, I Only Want You to Love Me (released 6/7/2011); shot by Fassbinder's (half of his films), and later Martin Scorsese's (Goodfellas, The Departed), extraordinary cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. In addition, the Criterion Collection released in August 2013, through their Eclipse label, a collection of Early Fassbinder, containing five groundbreaking pictures (that had been previously distributed by Wellspring, all of which I have reviewed here): Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore.
PREVIOUS Release: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) in a 7-disc set from the Criterion Collection (that also includes Phil Jutzi's original 1931 film version). ALSO: The Third Generation (1979), Fassbinder's farce about bumbling terrorists; and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), one of his best early films (I have written the liner notes for this DVD). U.K. News: Arrow Films has acquired the Region 2 distribution rights to 19 Fassbinder pictures; I've written the essays included with Arrow's releases of The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and The Marriage of Marriage of Maria Braun.
KDVS 90.3 RADIO INTERVIEWS: I am honored to have been the guest of Richard Estes, host of the KDVS 90.3 FM program "Speaking in Tongues" at the University of California at Davis, for two interviews, one in December 2010, and a second in April 2011. Click here for the complete December 10, 2010 show — Mr. Estes's introducion to the Fassbinder segments begins at 2:10. We looked at a representative selection of four or five of his 41 pictures, including his first feature, 1969's Love is Colder Than Death, two key "middle period" works, The Merchant of Four Seasons and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and a popular late film, 1981's Lola (a reimagining of von Sternberg's and Marlene Dietrich's classic The Blue Angel). We also touched on Fassbinder's mordant political satire, 1979's The Third Generation. Our focus was on Fassbinder's artistic and cultural insights that remain relevant today, 30 years after his death.
New to Fassbinder? Try beginning with The Merchant of Four Seasons, one of his most powerful and acclaimed films. It both reflects the more theatrical/abstract early pictures (Katzelmacher) and anticipates the emotionally- and politically-charged melodramas (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Wellspring's DVD also includes perhaps the most probing Fassbinder documentary, Life, Love & Celluloid, by filmmaker Juliane Lorenz, who also edited Fassbinder's last dozen films and heads the Fassbinder Foundation.
At Jim's Film Website, I've also created sites dedicated to two other prodigious filmmakers/artists: Pier Paolo Pasolini, who influenced Fassbinder, and Derek Jarman. I hope you enjoy this Fassbinder site. If you have any questions or comments, email Jim. Below you will find:
- Introduction to Fassbinder his life and works, including both theater and film
- Fassbinder's complete theater credits
- Fassbinder's complete film credits
- Fassbinder's principal crew & cast members
- Fassbinder's own "Top 10" Lists
- Fassbinder links
- Fassbinder's films on DVD
As Fassbinder once remarked: "I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope that in the end it will be a house." It is.
Here is a brief overview of the prodigious career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: actor, theater director and impresario, playwright, screenwriter, production designer, cinematographer, editor, composer, producer, director one of the most boldly original filmmakers of the last half century.
PLEASE NOTE: All stills (presented in their original aspect ratios) are for non-profit, educational use only and are © the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born May 31, 1946 in the small Bavarian town of Bad Wörishofen (some sources list the year as 1945). His father, a physician, and mother Liselotte, a translator (later cast in many of his films), divorced when he was five.
Fassbinder described his childhood as lonely, and to give his mother time to work he frequented the movies, seeing as many as four pictures a day. He attended public and private schools in Augsburg and Munich, but dropped out at age 16. Although self-taught from this point on, Fassbinder acquired a prodigious background not only in international cinema but in literature, the visual arts and all forms of music, from classical to rock. He always had a special affinity for ironic elements. Fassbinder worked at various jobs, and in 1967 joined Munich's Action-Theater. (Here is a complete list of Fassbinder's theater credits.)
Two months later he become the company's leader, when it reorganized under the name of the Anti-Theater (antiteater). The troupe lived and performed together, staging avant-garde adaptations of classics by such dramatists as Sophocles and Goethe, as well as Fassbinder's 14 politically trenchant original plays, including Anarchy in Bavaria (1969 — photo). His first work, Katzelmacher (Bavarian slang for 'foreign worker'), premiered in April 1968. The next year he wrote, directed, starred in, and edited the film version, which won five major awards and established him as an important new filmmaker. (Here is a complete list of Fassbinder's film credits in all areas of production.)
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). Strongly influenced by playwright Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect" and French New Wave cinema particularly Jean-Luc Godard (1965's Pierrot le Fou, 1967's Week End) his first films are stylistically austere with complex narrative forms, although we can already see his trademark interplay of melodrama and social criticism. The eleven pictures from his Anti-Theater period include a loose trilogy of highly-stylized gangster pictures, comprised of 1969's Love is Colder Than Death (his debut feature film) and, in 1970, both its visually and dramatically stunning sequel, Gods of the Plague, and the unnerving The American Soldier; 1970's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, in which a professional man goes on a murderous rampage; 1971's bizarrely revisionist Western, Whity, and the film which satirizes its on-location production, the semi-autobiographical Beware of a Holy Whore, which Fassbinder considered his best film. Although critically praised, none of these early works connected with a wide audience; only now are they gaining in popularity. (Here are full credits for Fassbinder's principal crew & cast members.)
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 pictures as many as four or five per year with astonishing rapidity, and to come in under budget. This allowed him to compete successfully for the government grants needed to continue making films.
It was at this time that Fassbinder and other young German filmmakers including Volker Schlöndorff (1966's Young Törless, 1979's The Tin Drum), Wim Wenders (1974's Alice in the Cities, 1976's Kings of the Road), and the extraordinary Werner Herzog (1972's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) founded the New German Cinema (Das Neue Kino). Arguably, it was the most important, and influential, film movement since the French New Wave a decade earlier. New German Cinema was born out of practical necessity rather than a shared artistic vision. German cinema, once preeminent (Murnau, Lang, Lubitsch), had been decimated by the Nazis, who forced all of the best filmmakers to flee abroad. (Here is a brief sketch of pre-Nazi German history, cinema and GLBT life.) Germany's cataclysmic defeat in World War II, and its subsequently being split into West and East, effectively destroyed its film industry.
In 1971, Fassbinder and other leading young directors and screenwriters created an independent distribution company, the Authors' Film-Publishing Group (Filmverlag der Autoren). Combined with government film subsidies and additional television network funding, a new generation of German filmmakers at last could create their first pictures, and establish a vitally diverse national cinema. Fassbinder's, Wenders', and Hezog's films could hardly be more different in style and theme. As Wenders recalls (on his fascinating commentary track to the DVD of The Merchant of Four Seasons), they all shared cast, crew, and technical advice, helped each other get their films financed and distributed, even hung out in the same Munich bars. But they "never talked about aesthetic or political goals."
Fassbinder's first major commercial success came in 1971 with The Merchant of Four Seasons, the poignant story of a fruit peddler's search for a meaningful life. This is one of his best and most revealing films, since it not only touches on many of his major themes (the search for love, the hollow "victory" of financial success, the many forms of exploitation), it has scenes which reflect his earlier, abstract manner even as it looks ahead to his later lushly melodramatic style (influenced by Douglas Sirk's 1950's Hollywood films). It was followed by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Stunningly shot in one ornate apartment (and featuring an eclectic soundtrack: The Platters and Verdi), this is Fassbinder's exploration of power dynamics among a group of lesbians... and, by extension, any people. Fassbinder was reviled and theatres picketed for his misogyny. But before making that judgment, consider how many complex, dynamic women are at the center of his films (and see the revealing documentary, "The Many Women of Fassbinder," included on the DVD of The Merchant of Four Seasons).
His international breakthrough came after two more years and six pictures, including the stylistically breathtaking Martha with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Despite social ostracism, an elderly cleaning woman finds love with a Moroccan mechanic half her age played by Fassbinder's lover, El Hedi ben Salem in this stunning homage to Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. It won the International Critics Prize at Cannes and was acclaimed by critics everywhere as one of 1974's best films (Vincent Canby raved that Fassbinder was "the most original talent since Godard"). That same year he directed Effi Briest, a masterful period piece from Theodor Fontane's classic novel (one of Fassbinder's few literary adaptations, although its theme of societal repression has always been at the heart of his vision).
He next made such important works as 1975's Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder plays a down-and-out gay carnival worker who wins the lottery and is exploited by his new "friends," both hetero- and homosexual) and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (a gentle, elderly woman's life is thrown into chaos after her husband goes what today we would call "postal"). In 1976 came two flamboyant pictures, Chinese Roulette (a satricial gothic thriller centered on a diabolical "truth game") and Satan's Brew (Fassbinder's first out-and-out comedy, in which a modern would-be writer believes he is a reincarnation of the gay nineteenth century poet Stefan George).
It was around this time, 1977/78, that Fassbinder saw both the disbanding of his theatrical and film "family" and his greatest international acclaim. There were enthusiastically received retrospectives of his work in several major cities, and he worked with talent from the U.S. and Britain, and with budgets vastly greater than any he had had previously, in such productions as his first English-language film, Despair (1978), from acclaimed playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, starring Dirk Bogarde. This is sometimes considered the third of Fassbinder's three periods.
Even as enthusiasm for Fassbinder grew around the world, his films made little impression on German audiences. In his own country he was better known for his television mini-series, including the 15-1/2 hour masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz (from Alfred Döblin's novel about the rise of Nazism), and courtesy of the tabloids his notoriously "decadent lifestyle." His films constantly offended one group or another, since he tackled such volatile social issues as national self-deception, state-sanctioned violence, racism, terrorism, and sexual politics. He was accused of being, at various times, anti-German, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Communist, anti-Feminist, and anti-Gay.
But 1978's The Marriage of Maria Brown finally brought Fassbinder the big hit he had sought for so long, despite the fact that its portrayal of German life from World War II through the repressive 1950s was no less ironic than in many of his other films. It was the first part of his BRD trilogy (BRD stands for the Bundesrepublik Deutschland the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany). It was followed by 1981's satirical Lola (loosely inspired by von Sternberg's 1930 classic, The Blue Angel) and 1982's Veronika Voss (a stylized black-and-white film based on the life of an actress who had been forgotten after being a starlet for the Nazis).
In the final years of his tragically brief career, Fassbinder made both small-scale, personal films, such as 1978's In a Year With 13 Moons (about a transgendered woman searching for identity and love – he wrote, produced, directed, designed, shot, and edited this film himself to help deal with the devastating pain of his lover Armin Meier's suicide), and big-budget extravaganzas like 1981's Lili Marleen (an over-the-top World War II story about the woman who recorded the double-edged Nazi anthem of the title). Another of his best late films, and one that is particularly relevant today, is 1979's The Third Generation, a black comedy about the twisted lives of wannabe terrorists, that also exposes how big business and government benefit from a climate of fear.
By 1982, when Fassbinder made his last picture, Querelle (shot in English, from the edgy novel by Jean Genet), he had been living on an obsessive schedule for years: at dawn doing rewrites for that day's shooting, morning rehearsing, afternoon filming, evening editing, night writing the next script... not to mention socializing whenever possible. He was found dead on June 10, 1982 at the age of 36 with the cause reported as heart failure resulting from the interaction of sleeping pills and cocaine.
But today, more than ever, there is widespread interest in his work. At last we are beginning to catch up with Fassbinder's immense, enduring achievement, which speaks as much to our time as it did to his own.
- Fassbinder's Own "Top 10" Lists
- Resources at This Site Theater & Film Credits, More
- Resources at Other Sites
An oustanding book for appreciating Fassbinder's thoughts on film, both his own and other directors', the arts, politics, and himself, is The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing. Among its many insights, you'll find over a dozen of Fassbinder's eclectic "Top 10" lists which range from film to literature and music, and even include soccer players! compiled a year before his death. Here are just two of his lists, with films as he ranked them:
Fassbinder's "The 10 Best Films"
"The Top 10 of My Own Films"
- Fassbinder's complete theater credits
- Fassbinder's complete film credits as director, writer, actor, editor and more, on both his own and others' films
- Fassbinder's principal crew & cast members with whom he worked frequently throughout his career
- Fassbinder's own "Top 10" Lists two of his many lists from the book Anarchy of the Imagination, which collects his essays and interviews
- Fassbinder is on my lists of both 10 Favorite Filmmakers and Outstanding GLBT Filmmakers
- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, and The Merchant of Four Seasons are on my list of 50 Great Films by GLBT Directors
- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is on my list of 10 Best Films about Romance
- Beware of a Holy Whore is on my list of 10 Best Films about Filmmaking
- Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends, and In a Year With 13 Moons are on my list of 50 Outstanding GLBT Films
- "Franz Walsch trilogy" Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, & The American Soldier is on my list of 10 Best Films about Crime
- In a Year With 13 Moons is on my list of 10 Best GLBT Films
- The Merchant of Four Seasons is on my list of 10 Best Films about Business
- Satan's Brew is on my list of 10 Best Films about Writing
- Whity is on my lists of 10 Best Film Westerns and 10 Outstanding GLBT Film Westerns.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation leading the international movement for the appreciation of Fassbinder's vital legacy, the site offers material in both German and English, including an informative newsletter. The Foundation is headed by Juliane Lorenz, who edited all of Fassbinder's late-period films, and who made the exceptional documentary about Fassbinder, Life, Love & Celluloid (included on The Merchant of Four Seasons DVD)
- Fassbinder Retrospective, presented by The Fassbinder Foundation and Wellspring in 2003 at New York City's Film Forum, contains excellent brief introductions to several of his films, plus other resources
- "Fassbinder, and Fassbinder/Peer Raben" Roger Hillman's insightful study of Fassbinder's use of sound and music; at the Screening the Past site
- "Fassbinder Dark Angel" Gary Morris's vivid essay on the filmmaker; at the Bright Lights Film Journal site
- "Great Directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder" Joe Ruffell's excellent overview highlights a few representative films; at the Senses of Cinema site
- "Holy Whore: Remembering Rainer Werner Fassbinder" Jim Tushinki's moving account of his passion for Fassbinder's films
Below are links to my ongoing series of Fassbinder reviews. I look at the film and its place in Fassbinder's body of work, as well as the DVD's special features. I have highlighted as Essential Fassbinder, a select number of his best and most representative works.
- Essential Fassbinder. "The City Tramp" is an exceptional work on all levels. Both of these first two Fassbinder films establish several of the themes, as well as the visual and dramatic strategies, which he explores in his 41 feature-length films. NOTE: Both of these two rare shorts, "The City Tramp" and "The Little Chaos," are included in excellent transfers as part of Wellspring's Masterworks Edition DVD of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, along with other supplementary material.
Love is Colder Than Death (1969) Fassbinder's 1st film
- Fassbinder's debut feature, in which he also stars, is a stark, powerful crime drama that introduces many of his major themes; it is connected to Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier.
Katzelmacher (1969) Fassbinder's 2nd film
- Essential Fassbinder. A visual and dramatic tour de force about the effects of a Greek immigrant on a group of working class people.
Gods of the Plague (1969) Fassbinder's 3rd film
- Essential Fassbinder. Powerful, visually stunning, yet dramatically understated film noir; a sequel to Love is Colder Than Death, it also looks ahead to The American Soldier.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) Fassbinder's 5th film
- Essential Fassbinder. One of Fassbinder's best, and most provocative, early films is about a white-collar worker who goes on a murderous rampage.
The American Soldier (1970) Fassbinder's 6th film
- Revisionist film noir about a Viet Nam vet, returned to Germany, who becomes a paid assassin for renegade cops; a loose continuation of Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague.
The Niklashausen Journey (1970) Fassbinder's 7th film
- Ambitious but uneven experimental film which collides medieval with modern Germany.
Rio das Mortes (1971) Fassbinder's 8th film
- Two friends try to raise money to go to South America's Rio das Mortes region in search of hidden treasure.
Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971) Fassbinder's 9th film
- Young German recruits ("pioneers") arrive in Ingolstadt to build a small bridge by day and to carouse by night, changing the lives of several local women and men.
Whity (1971) Fassbinder's 10th film
- A wildly iconoclastic Western, at once entertaining and deeply disturbing.
Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) Fassbinder's 11th film
- Essential Fassbinder. This autobiographical satire is one of the most probing and hilarious films about filmmaking, and a pivotal work in Fassbinder's career.
The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) Fassbinder's 12th film
- Essential Fassbinder. Deeply moving tale of a fruit-peddler searching for love and meaning in his life.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1973) Fassbinder's 13th film
- Essential Fassbinder. Operatic emotions and astonishing visual design joined in a study of desire and power. The Wellspring DVD also includes both of Fassbinder's rare short films, "The City Tramp" (1966) and "The Little Chaos".
Martha (1973) Fassbinder's 18th film
- Essential Fassbinder. One of Fassbinder's most stylistically and dramatically brilliant films, this is the story of a woman who escapes a domineering father only to find herself married to a sadistic husband; based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (author of Rear Window).
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) Fassbinder's 19th film
- Essential Fassbinder. Poignant, beautiful and political story of a middle-aged cleaning woman who marries a young Moroccan immigrant, and how they deal with bigotry.
Effi Briest (1973) Fassbinder's 20th film
- Essential Fassbinder. One of his greatest, most universally acclaimed, and complex films, it explores the consequences of betrayed love.
Fox and His Friends (1975) Fassbinder's 23rd film
- Poignant story of a gay carnival worker who wins the lottery, and suddenly finds many new 'friends;' the only starring role which Fassbinder played himself.
Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) Fassbinder's 24th film
- Essential Fassbinder. At once a deeply compassionate portrait of a widowed housewife and a scathing satire of her exploitation by the media and political factions.
Fear of Fear (1975) Fassbinder's 25th film
- Powerful, vividly-designed psychological drama about a housewife descending into madness.
Chinese Roulette (1976) Fassbinder's 27th film
- Hypnotically stylish gothic thriller with a wicked twist of social satire.
Satan's Brew (1976) Fassbinder's 28th film
- Essential Fassbinder. Caustically hilarious, multi-layered farce about a womanizing writer who imagines himself the reincarnation of an actual nineteenth century gay German poet, Stefan George, and tries to live the role with disastrous results.
The Stationmaster's Wife (1977) Fassbinder's 30th film
- Wickedly poignant, visually rich film about the extra-marital affairs of a bored and lusty small-town woman, and what happens when her husband finds out.
In a Year With 13 Moons (1978) Fassbinder's 32nd film
- Essential Fassbinder. His most intensely personal film he wrote, directed, produced, designed, shot, and edited it about a transgendered woman's search for identity and love.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) Fassbinder's 34th film
- Essential Fassbinder. An ambitious woman uses her beauty and intelligence to make a fortune during Germany's "economic miracle" of the 1950s, in this ironic riff on Mildred Pierce.
The Third Generation (1979) Fassbinder's 35th film
- Essential Fassbinder. A bumbling gang of radicals kidnaps a powerful industrialist, unaware of many hidden agendas.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) Fassbinder's 36th film
- Essential Fassbinder. Epic about a hapless German everyman struggling to survive in the years after World War I.
Lola (1981) Fassbinder's 39th film
- A seductive cabaret singer concocts a plan to achieve success in 1950s Germany; Fassbinder's homage to von Sternberg's classic The Blue Angel.
Veronika Voss (1982) Fassbinder's 40th film
- A sportswriter becomes obsessed with a faded and forgotten starlet of the Third Reich, in Fassbinder's unique variation on Sunset Blvd.
Querelle (1982) Fassbinder's 41st film
- Essential Fassbinder. Fassbinder's controversial last film is a luridly experimental adaptation of Jean Genet's novel about the tragic adventures of a sailor turned smuggler and murderer.
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