When she found him in the early hours of the morning, it seemed as if he was sleeping. Lying on the bed, with an ink-marked script beside him, still dressed, his shoes carelessly kicked off, a television flickering in the corner. The room smelled of smoke and sweat, a table lamp, cigarettes, an overfilled ashtray. It seemed as if he’d fallen asleep as he worked on his latest screenplay Rosa L., a film about the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. He looked pale. An unlit cigarette drooped from his lips, a small trickle of blood glistened from one nostril. For 4 years, Juliane Lorenz had been his partner, she had seen him tired out like this before, falling asleep while working late at night, geed-up by cocaine and alcohol, but this time there was something different. Juliane listened. He was too quiet. When he slept he snored. But now, all she heard - the ticking clock, the television, the hush of traffic outside - was his silence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead.
It’s still hard to believe Fassbinder managed to do so much in his short thirty-seven years of life. That fact he was working on a script at the moment he died, says everything about his dedication to his art. In less than 15 years, Fassbinder made 40 feature films, 3 short films; 4 TV series, 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays. He also acted in 36 productions and worked scriptwriter, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.
Born into a middle class family, his father was a doctor who worked near Munich’s red light district. His mother helped with her husband, and neither had much time for their son. After their divorce, Fassbinder lived with his mother, who worked as a translator but was often absent, hospitalized with tuberculosis. Then, Fassbinder spent his time with neighbors, listening to their life stories or, going on his own to the cinema - he later claimed he saw a film a day during his childhood.
“The cinema was the family life I never had at home.”
His favorite films were melodramas, his favorite director Douglas Sirk, of whom Fassbinder said:
“The important thing to learn from Douglas Sirk’s movies is that on the screen you are allowed to, or better still, supposed to, enlarge people’s ordinary feelings—as small as they may be—as much as possible.”
Fassbinder started writing plays, and read about the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, who had over 1,800 plays attributed to him. This became the gold standard to which Fassbinder aimed his ambitions. At 18, he joined a theater group, and the first hint of his incredible talents and ambitions became apparent.
Within 2 months of joining the Action Theater group, he became its leader. This proved too much for other, older members, who led to the group’s disbandment. Fassbinder then created a new company and drew together a team, or family of actors - Peer Raben, Harry Baer, Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann - who were to work with him until his death.
His first movie was a “deconstruction of the gangster films”, called Love is Colder than Death, it caused considerable controversy at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969, where Fassbinder was jeered and denounced as a “dilletante” by members of the audience. Even so, it established his reputation as a talent to watch, and led on to his next film, Katzelmacher, which was adapted from his stage play. It was the start of his movie career that saw such an unparalleled output. Everything in Fassbinder’s life went towards his film-making. He was often ruthless and allegedly pimped some of the theater group actresses to raise money for his films.
“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
The turning point came in 1971 with the release of The Merchant of the Four Seasons, the tale of a merchant who is slowly destroyed by circumstances beyond his control. the story epitomized Fassbinder’s world view as tragedy. Life was battled out against insurmountable odds, at great cost to its players. Though his films were often described as “bleak”, I never found them less than engrossing, for the theme to all his films is love - the cost love has on us all.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Fassbinder made such unforgettable films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) (adapted form his play); World on a Wire (1973); his first major international success Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of love between an older woman and Moroccan immigrant, played by Fassbinder’s then lover El Hadi ben Salem; Effi Briest (1974); Fox and His Friends (1975); Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975); Despair, his first English film, with a script adapted by Tom Stoppard form the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978), Fassbinder’s bleakest and personal movie, made in response to the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier; The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), which became a breakthrough movie in America; Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a 13-hour TV series adapted form Alfred Döblin’s novel; Lili Marleen (1981), another big budget English movie; Veronika Voss (1982) which was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; and his last major feature, which progressed cinematic narrative in a new and original way, Querelle (1982), adapted form the novel by Jean Genet. Fassbinder had just finished editing Querelle when he died.
The official cause of his death was “an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills”. The cost of his lifestyle and his ambition took too great a toll. Before he died, his body had bloated from an excess of drink, food and drugs, and he once said, he became fat to make it harder to be loved. Fassbinder used his body, as he used chain-smoking, or his excessive drinking, as means to protect and distance himself from others. His sense of being unloved or, of being unworthy of love, stemmed from the parental indifference of his childhood. When he was older, he often treated his lovers and those closest to him badly, testing their loyalty and love for him. Emotionally, Fassbinder was childlike, as he always searched for that imagined lack, which would make him feel loved. It was this, Fassbinder’s own emotional biography that underscored his films.
Thirty years after his death, we can more fully appreciate the scale and quality of Fassbinder’s genius; and see the real beauty of the man who was Rainer Werner Fassbinder.