Rainer Werner Fassbinder (occasional pseudonym: Franz Walsch), born on 31 May 1945 in Bad Wörishofen in the Allgäu, grew up with his mother in Munich as the only child of his parents after their 1951 divorce. In 1961 he dropped out of school before graduating and moved to Cologne. In 1963 he returned to Munich, where he took acting lessons for three years. In 1966 and 1967, he applied to the newly founded German Film and Television Academy Berlin – and was rejected both times. Despite these rejections, he produced the short films “This Night”, “Der Stadtstreicher” (The Tramp) and “Das kleine Chaos” (The Little Chaos) in 1966/67, as director, author and actor.
In 1967 he began working with Action Theatre, an independent theatre troupe in Munich, first as an actor, later as a director and author. In 1968 he wrote and directed his first play, Katzelmacher. The same year he founded the “antiteater” together with Hanna Schygulla, Peer Raben and Kurt Raab. In 1969, the self-taught director presented his first full-length feature film with Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death). The drama about a small-time pimp who falls in love with a contract killer celebrated its premiere at the Berlinale, but was coolly received by both audience and critics. With the film adaptation of Katzelmacher, he achieved his artistic breakthrough at the Mannheim Film Festival that same year: Fassbinder received numerous prizes, including two German Film Awards, and was celebrated in the feature pages as a “German film prodigy”. In addition to his stubborn artistic originality, he also garnered attention in the early years of his career for his extraordinary productivity: In addition to his theatrical and radio work, he shot twelve films between 1969 and 1971, including: Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) and Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons), for which he was awarded two German Film Awards (Best Director and Best Film, respectively).
In 1971, Fassbinder founded his own production company, Tango Film, and was co-founder of the Filmverlag der Autoren film distributor. During his early career, Fassbinder often combined the method of Andy Warhol's “Factory” – working with actors, cinematographers, musicians and set designers with a relatively fixed staff – with the stylistic representations of folk dramas, melodrama and gangster film. The result was films with a very personal quality that were unique in their form in the German film scene.
Fassbinder based Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) on the melodrama All That Heavens Allows (USA, 1955) by his favourite director, Douglas Sirk. Brigitte Mira plays a cleaner who falls in love with a Moroccan migrant (played by Fassbinder's partner at the time, El Hedi Ben Salem) and then experiences the hostilities that their racist environment creates. At the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Angst essen Seele auf was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. With the black and white film adaptation Fontane Effi Briest, also from 1974, he experienced one of his greatest popular successes.
In addition to German “stars of old”, such as Karlheinz Böhm, Brigitte Mira and Barbara Valentin, which he cast in unusual roles, Fassbinder worked for the first time with international stars on the films Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976) with Anna Karina and the Nabokov-adaptation Despair (1977) with Dirk Bogarde. He made clear political statements with his 26-minute episode contribution to the joint project Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) and the terrorism farce Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation, 1979).
Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979) became one of his greatest successes at the box office, and garnered him the award for best director at the German Film Awards. The film also opened a trilogy that centres on three very different women: Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla) emancipates herself from all attempts by males to dominate her in post-war Germany; Lola (1981) is about a prostitute (Barbara Sukowa) who witnesses corruption and cronyism in a 1950s town; at the centre of Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982) is a morphine-addicted former UFA star (Rosel Zech). It was awarded the Golden Bear at the 1982 Berlinale. In between, Fassbinder shot another film about an extraordinary woman, Lili Marleen (1981), which follows the life of Lale Andersen.
Having successfully worked in television many times over the course of his career – including on the unusual family series Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight Hours Don't Make a Day, 1972) – he took on a 13-part (plus epilogue) TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1979, in parallel with his above-mentioned cinematic works. Aired in 1980, the main roles in the mini-series were played by Günter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf and Barbara Sukowa as Mieze. Although it was produced for television, Fassbinder paid no attention to conventional serial dramaturgy, the aesthetic limitations of the small screen and TV audience's viewing habits. The TV epic split the critics at the time but it's now considered to be one of the director's masterpieces.
The gay melodrama Querelle (1982), based on a novel by Jean Genet, was Fassbinder's final film, and he wouldn't live to see its premiere at the Montreal Film Festival in August 1982: On 10 June 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in Munich of a heart failure caused by a mixture of sleeping pills, alcohol and cocaine, at the age of only 37.