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Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946-1982)


Controversial and prolific German director and playwright, who attracted attention with his politically committed and disillusioned stage plays and films. Most of his plays Fassbinder wrote between 1968-1971 for his own "anti-theatre" in Munchen. Among the best-known of his films are The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Berlin Alexanderpatz (1980), which was adapted for television from Alfred Döblin's novel, and Effi Briest (1974), based on Theodore Fontane's novel.

"To show the narrative on film is like the author telling a story, but there's a difference. When one reads a book, one creates – as a reader – one's own images, but when a story is told on screen in pictures, then it is concrete and really "complete" One is not creative as a member of a film audience, and it was this passivity that I tried to counter in Effi Brief. I would prefer people to "read" the film. It's a film which one cannot simple experience, and which doesn't attack the audience... one has to read it. That's the most significant thing about the film." (Fassbinder in Fassbinder, edited by Tony Rayns, 1976)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born in Bad Wörishofen into a bourgeois family. Soon after his birth, his parents, Dr. Helmut Fassbinder and Liselotte Pempeit Fassbinder, moved to Munich. When he was five, his parents divorced, and his father moved to Cologne. Fassbinder was raised by his mother, who worked as a translator. She was hospitalized in 1950 with tuberculosis, and later on, when she spent long periods in the hospital, Fassbinder was looked after by his relatives, friends, and neighbours.

Fassbinder attended Munich's Theresiengymnasium and then the St. Anna Gymnasium, a boarding school in Augsburg and the Realgymnasium. While attending a night school, he lived with his father in Cologne in the early 1960s. In his youth, Fassbinder started to attend movies compulsively. After dropping out of school, he worked in odd jobs, traveled in France, and visited brothels in North Africa.

Before entering the Fridl Leonhard drama school, where he met Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann, Fassbinder took private acting lessons from Max Krauss, a director. He failed the State Examination for Actors, but his play, Just One Slice of Bread: Dialogue for an Auschwitz Film, shared a third prize in a drama competition at the Junge Akademie in Munich. Fassbinder's enrollment at the Berlin Film School was turned down after a week of entrance exams. In 1967 he made a second unsuccesful attempt to enter the school. This time, he wasn't even allowed to take the test.

His acting career Fassbinder began in a fringe theatre in Munich. Peer Raben and some other members of the Action-Theater, which he had joined in 1967, worked off and on with Fassbinder until his death. When the Action-Theatre closed, Fassbinder established an "antitheater." In 1969 he wrote three plays, made four films, and acted in several films. After a relationship with Günter Kaufmann, an actor, he married the actress and singer Ingrid Caven, one of his leading ladies; they divorced in 1972. Pre-Paradise Sorry Now, Fassbinder's play from this period, was based on an actual murder case, committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the English moors. In Bremen Freedom, also based on historical events, a woman systematically eliminates the men and women who are on her way.

In the late 1960s Fassbinder started to work with the cinema under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, but also American gangster movies and the work of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Raoul Walsh fascinated him. Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) was a crime film, which connected everyday oppression people experience with criminal actions. "What you are left with when you've seen this movie isn't that six people were murdered, that a few deaths occurred, but that these were poor people who didn't know what to do with themselves, who were simply plopped down as they were, and weren't given the option - no, let's not go too far here – who simply don't have any options." (Fassbinder in The Anarchy of the Imagination, 1992)

During his most prolific period between 1969 and 1976, Fassbinder made theatre productions in Munich, Bremen, Bochum, Nuremberg, Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. In additions, he did four radio plays, and took roles in other director's films, including the title part in Volker Schlöndorff's Brecht adaptation Baal (1969). Sometimes Fassbinder appeared under the pseudonym Fitz in his own films as well as those of others. Brecht's influence is seen in a number of Fassbinder's works, among them Effi Briest, in which the director's aim was to create in the spirit of Brecht's "alienation effect," a distance between the audience and what is happening on the screen. "Through that built-in 'distance,' the audience has a chance to discover its own attitude to society," Fassbinder explained.

In 1971 Fassbinder established Tango-Film Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Its first film was The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), starring Hans Hirschmüller, Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla. From the beginning of his career, Fassbinder operated with a group of close friends. "The cinema was the family life I never had at home," he once said. Fassbinder's friends characterized the director 'lunatico', irresponsible, ironic, mean, and very generous. In his first film Fassbinder used the name Franz Walsch – referring both to Raoul Walsh and Franz Biberkopf, the central character of Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz – the director first read the book when he was fourteen. Fassbinder's mother was in his second amateur short. She later acted in many films under the name of Lilo Pempeit and began in 1971 to oversee the financial affairs of "antiteater" and "antiteater-X-Film", which Fassbinder had created in 1969.

After breaking up with Kaufmann, Fassbinder began a relatioship with El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohamed Mustafa, who acted in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). The film was inspired by Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955), starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Fassbinder had met Salem in Pari – he was ten years older and had a wife and two children in Morocco. Armin Meier, a former butcher, was Fassbinder lover  from 1974 to 1878; he committed suicide in their joint apartment by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The film In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) was dedicated to Armin Meier's menory. In 1978 Fassbinder began life with the film editor Juliane Lorenz.

Fassbinder's scripts were unpolished, the dialogue mannered, the camera set-ups static, and the décor sparse, but the impact of the scenes was spellbinding. Though Fassbinder's production schedules were furious, he took his work seriously, and was devasted when he failed to receive the main prize for The Marriage of Maria Brown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1978. Veronika Voss won the Golden Bear at the 1982 Berlin Festival but often Fassbinder's films provoked hostile reactions among cinema audiences. As a creator of social melodramas he owed much to Douglas Sirk, who made in Hollywood enjoyable and personal films from ridiculous scripts. But in contrast to Hollywood cinema, he preferred unhappy endings.

Much of Fassbinder's work was financed by television. The most famous among his over 40 full-length films are The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lola (1981), Veronika Voss (1982), and fourteen-part television film Berlin Alexanderplaz (1980), Fassbinder's masterpiece. Between 1977 and 1979 Fassbinder directed three of his most personal films, that touched his own problems and the situation in Germany, when terrorism was rising. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul told the story of Ali, a garage mechanic from Morocco, and a lonely widowed cleaning lady, Emmi, who is much older than he. Despite the hostility that surrounds them, they marry and face the racial and other prejudices. Ali tells Emmi that "fear eats the soul" is an often used Arab phrase. The actor himself died in 1982 in a prison, where he hanged himself. Deutchland im Herbst (1978) showed how terrorism grows from disappointments in private life. In einem Jahren mit 13. Monden (1978) focused on the transsexual Erwin/Elvira; it was a desperate cry in life when death in the only solution. In Die Dritte Generation (1979) a computer sales man finances a group of terrorists. Fassbinder's own opinions about terrorism were ambivalent – he knew Holger Meins and Horst Söhnlein, both members of the RAF and showed understanding to their political goals but criticized armed violence. In general, political scandals were not the material of his films, but the dialectical relationship between oppressors and oppressed.

Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz was Balzacian in its scope – a fifteen-and-a-half-hour epic, made for German television. Alfred Döblin's famous novel had been performed as a radio play some years earlier, in 1976. The story traced the life of Franz Biberkopf, who tries to lead what he thinks is an honest existence. He is surrounded by thieves, whores, pimps, killers, and Nazis. Elisabeth Trissenaar, Hanna Schygulla, and Barbara Sukowa were his girlfriends, the elegant score was by Peer Raben and cinematography by Xavier Schwartzenberger.

Fassbinder dealt with relations that are based on violence, falseness, and oppression. He saw New Germany heartless, materialistic and intolerant. Although he was homosexual, he is perhaps best remembered by his fascinating female figures. Hanna Schygulla became Fassbinder's diva, whom he put up on a pedestal and who rose into world fame like Marlene Dietrich rose from Josef von Sternberg's films. Women were for Fassbinder symbols of different social, political and ideological situations. Veronica Voss, Lola, Maria Braun and others reflected his view that women are ruled the men and their values. According to Fassbinder, the stronger exploit the weaker,  and "love is colder than death." 

Fast living and fast working Fassbinder died of drug overdose in Munich, at the age of 36, on June 10, 1982, in his apartment in Clemensstraße 76. He was completing the cutting of Querelle, based on Jean Genet's play and dedicated to El Hedi ben Salem. Set in an artifical Brest harbour milioeu, the story tells of a French sailor who discovers his true homosexual nature in an infamous whorehouse. This film was rejected even by Fassbinder's admirers and marked symbolically the end of the most experimental period of the German cinema since the 1920s. At the time of his death, Fassbinder was working on an adaptation of a novel entitled Cocaine and a life of Rosa Luxemburg.

For further reading: I Fassbinders spejl by Christian Braad Thomsen (1975); Fassbinder, ed. by Tony Rayns (1976); 'Reading the Writerly Film' by William R. Magretta in Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, ed. by Andrew S. Horton and Joan Magretta (1981); Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Filmemacher by Kurt Raab and Karsten Peters (1982); Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Christian Braad Thomsen (1983); Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ed. by Peter Jansen and Wolfram Schütten (1983); Die Anarchie der Phantasie, ed by Michael Tötenberg (1986); Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Plays, ed. by Denis Calandra (1992); The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder et al (1992); Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture by Jane Shattuc (1994); Fassbinder's Germany by Thomas Elsaesser (1996); Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film As Private and Public Art by Wallace Steadman Watson (1996); Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Juliane Lorenz (2000); Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Juliane Lorenz, Laurence Kardish, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders (2002); Fassbinder: The Life And Work Of A Provocative Genius by Christian Braad Thomsen (2004)   


  • Der Stadtstreicher, 1965 (short film)
  • Das kleine Chaos, 1966 (short film)
  • This Night, 1966 (short film)
  • Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, 1969 (Love is Colder Than Death; starring Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla and Katrin Schaake) 
  • Katzelmacher, 1969  (starring Hanna Schygulla)
  • Fernes Jamaica, 1969 (script, short film, dir. Peter Moland)
  • Götter der Pest, 1969 (Gods of the Plague; starring Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta and Harry Baer)
  • Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?, 1970 (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?; co-directed with Michael Fengler, starring Lilith Ungerer, Kurt Raab and Lilo Pempeit)
  • Rio das Mortes, 1970 (TV film, based on an idea of Volker Schlöndorff, starring Hanna Schygulla, Michael König and Günther Kaufmann)
  • Das Kaffeehaus, 1970 (TV film, based on Carlo Goldoni's play, starring Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven and Hanna Schygulla)
  • Die Niklashauser Fart, 1970 (The Niklashausen Journey; TV film, starring Michael König, Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen)
  • Der amerikanische Soldat, 1970 (The American Soldier; starring Karl Scheydt, Elga Sorbas and Jan George)
  • Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte, 1971 (Beware of a Holy Whore; starring Lou Castel, Eddie Constantine and Marquard Bohm)
  • Pioniere in Ingolstadt, 1971 (Pioneers in Ingostadt; TV film, based on the play by Marieluise Fleißer, starring Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer and Irm Hermann)
  • Whity, 1971 (starring Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla and Katrin Schaake)
  • Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, 1972 (The Merchant of Four Seasons; starring Hans Hirschmüller, Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla)
  • Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, 1972 (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; starring Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla and Katrin Schaake; Las amargas lágrimas de Petra von Kant, TV series 2000, dir. Manuel Armán)
  • Bremer Freiheit, 1972 (TV film, starring Margit Carstensen, Wolfgang Schenck and Wolfgang Kieling)
  • Wildwechsel, 1972 (Jailbait; TV film, based on the play by Franz Xaver, starring Eva Mattes, Harry Baer, )
  • Acht Stunden sind kein Tag, 1972-73 (Eight Hours Are Not a Day; five-part TV series, starring Gottfried John, Hanna Schygulla and Luise Ullrich) 
  • Fru Geesches frihed, 1973 (TV film, based on Fassbinder's play, dir. Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt)
  • Welt am Draht, 1973 (World on a Wire; TV film, starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin and Mascha Rabben)
  • Martha, 1973 (TV film, inspired by the short story For the Rest of Their Lives by Cornell Woolrich, starring Margit Carstensen, Karlheinz Böhm and Barbara Valentin)
  • Nora Helmer, 1973 (TV version of Ibsen's play Et Dukkehjem)
  • Angst essen Seele auf, 1974 (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem and Barbara Valentin)
  • Fontane – Effi Briest, 1974 (based on the novel by Theodor Fontane, starring Hanna Schygulla, Wolfgang Schenck and Ulli Lommel)
  • Wie ein Vogel auf dem Draht, 1974 (short film)
  • Mutter Küsters Fahrt zum Himmel, 1975 (Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven; starring Brigitte Mira, Ingrid Caven and Margit Carstensen)
  • Angst vor der Angst, 1975 (Fear of Fear; TV film, starring Margit Carstensen, Ulrich Faulhaber and Brigitte Mira)
  • Faustrecht der Freiheit, 1975 (Fox and His Friends; starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel and Karlheinz Böhm)
  • Schatten der Engel, 1975 (Shdow of Angels; dir. Daniel Schmid, based on Fassbinder's play Garbage, the City and Death)
  • Chinesisches Roulette, 1976 (Chinese Roulette; starring Anna Karina, Margit Carstensen and Brigitte Mira)
  • Ich will doch nur, daß ihr mich liebt, 1976 (I Only Want You to Love Me; TV film, starring Vitus Zeplichal, Elke Aberle and Alexander Allerson)
  • Satansbraten, 1976 (Satan's Brew; starring Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen and Helen Vita)
  • Bolwieser, 1977 (The Stonemaster's Wife; TV film, based on the novel by Oskar Maria Graf, starring Elisabeth Trissenaar, Kurt Raab and Bernhard Helfrich)
  • Frauen in New York, 1977
  • Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1978 (The Marriage of Maria Braun; starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch and Ivan Desny)
  • Eine Reise ins Licht, 1978 (Despair; based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, screenplay Tom Stoppard, starring Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, Bernhard Wicki, Volker Spengler)
  • Deutschland im Herbst, 1978 (Germany in Autumn; documentary)
  • In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, 1978 (In A Year of 13 Moons; starring Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven and Gottfried John)
  • Die dritte Generation, 1979 (The Third Generation; staring Eddie Constantine, Hanna Schygulla and Volker Spengler)
  • Berlin Alexanderlatz, 1980 (based on Alfred Döblin's novel, starring Günter Lamprecht, Dragomir Stanojevic-Bata Kameni, Claus Holm, Hanna Schygulla)
  • Lili Marleen, 1981 (starring Hanna Schygulla, Giancarlo Giannini and Mel Ferrer)
  • Lola, 1981 (starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Mario Adorf)
  • Theater im Trance, 1981 (documentary)
  • Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, 1982 (Veronika Voss; starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate and Cornelia Froboess)
  • Querelle, 1982 (based on Jean Genet's play, starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero and Jeanne Moreau)


  • TONYS FREUNDE, 1967 (dir. by Paul Vasil)
  • DER BRÄUTIGAM, DIE KOMÖDIANTIN UN DER ZUHALTER, 1968 (dir. by Jean-Marie Straub)
  • ALARM, 1969 (dir. by Dieter Remmel)
  • AL CAPONE IN DEUTSCHEN WALD, 1969 (dir. by Franz Peter Wirth)
  • BAAL, 1969 (dir. by Völker Schlöndorff)
  • FREI BIS ZUM NÄCHSTEN MAL, 1969 (dir. by Korbinian Köberle)
  • MATHIAS KNEISSL, 1970 (dir. by Reinhard Hauff)
  • SUPERGIRL, 1970 (dir. by Volker Schlöndorff)
  • VARGASMEKNING, 1973 (dir. by Uli Lommel)
  • I BERLIN HARLEM, 1974  (dir. by Lothar Lambert)
  • SCHATTEN DER ENGEL, 1975 (dir. by Daniel Schmid, based on Fassbinder's play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod)
  • ADOLF UND MARLENE, 1976 (dir. by Uli Lomml)
  • DER KLEINE GODARD, 1977 (dir. by Helmuth Costard)
  • BOURBON STREET BLUES, 1978 (dir. by Douglas Sirk, Hans Schönherr, Tilman Taube)
  • KAMIKAZE, 1981 (dir. by Wolf Gremm)

Plays as director:

  • LEONCE UND LENA, 1967 (written by Georg Büchner)
  • DIE VERBRECHER, 1967 (written by Ferdinand Brucker)
  • ZUM BEISPIEL INGOLSTADT, 1968 (written by R.W.F. and Marieluise Fleisser)
  • KATZELMACHER, 1968 (written by R.W.F.)
  • AXEL C. MAARTMAN, 1968
  • MOCKINPOTT, 1968 (written by Peter Weiss)
  • ORGIE UBUH, 1968 (written by Alfred Jarry)
  • AJAX, 1968 (written by Sofoklen and R.W. F.)
  • DER AMERIKANISCHE SOLDAT, 1968 (written by R.W. Fassbinder)
  • CHUNG, 1968
  • DIE BETTLEROPER, 1969 (written by Fassbinder, based on John Gay's play)
  • PREPARADISE SORRY NOW, 1969 (written by R.W.F.)
  • ANARCHIE IN BAYERN, 1969 (written by R.W.F.)
  • DAS KAFFEHAUS, 1969  (written by R.W. F. and Carlo Goldoni)
  • WERWOLF, 1969 (written by R.W.F.)
  • DAS BRENNENDE DORF, 1970 (written by Lope de Vega and R.W.F.)
  • PIONIERE IN INGOLSTADT, 1971 (written by R.W.F. and Marieluise Pleisser)
  • BLUT AM HALS DER KATZE, 1971 (written by R.W.F.)
  • LILIOM, 1971 (written by Ferenc Molnar and R.W.F.)
  • BIBI, 1973 (based on Heinrich Mann's work)
  • HEDDA GABLER, 1973 (written by Henrik Ibsen)
  • DIE UNVERNÜFTIGEN STERBEN AUS, 1974 (written by Peter Handke)
  • FRL. JULIE, 1974 (written by August Strindberg)
  • GERMINAL, 1974 (written by Yaak Karsunke, based on Emile Zola's work)
  • ONKEL VANJA, 1974 (written by Anton Chechov)
  • FRAUEN IN NEW YORK, 1976 (written by Claire Boothe Luce)

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