Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a pioneer of New German Cinema. Admired abroad but often reviled at home, he died 25 years ago at the age of 37.
Fassbinder still inspires deep passions
After a chequered career as a film-maker, actor, producer, theater manager, composer, editor and cameraman, the enfant terrible of New German Cinema died suddenly in 1982.
The 25th anniversary of his death has been overshadowed by a bitter battle over the Fassbinder Foundation. This was set up by his mother, Liselotte Eder, and taken over by his wife, Juliane Lorenz, after she died. Although many agree that the Fassbinder estate would be in chaos without her efforts, others resent her exclusive control over his body of work.
Last week, around 25 of Fassbinder's former colleagues -- including actors, directors and producers -- demanded Lorenz resign and the Fassbinder oeuvre be donated to the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin.
The love and loathing evident in the current debate also characterized Fassbinder's life.
With his trademark leather jacket and rugged appearance, he was a rebellious and contradictory figure. Openly homosexual, he married twice; his first wife Ingrid Caven acted in his films, while Juliane Lorenz worked as his editor.
Accused by his detractors of being anti-Communist, male chauvinist, anti-Semitic and even homophobic, he completed 44 films between 1966 and 1982. Fassbinder might have tirelessly cruised the bar scene by night, looking for sex and drugs, but he always maintained a flawless work ethic by day.
Juliane Lorenz (l) with Fasbinder's favourite actress Hanna Schuygulla
Actors and actresses recount disturbing stories of his brutality toward them, yet his films demonstrate a deep sensitivity to social misfits and a hatred of institutionalized violence. In this respect, he had much in common with his personal hero, German-born Hollywood legend Douglas Sirk.
"The important thing to learn from Douglas Sirk's movies", Fassbinder once remarked, "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."
Juliane Lorenz can testify to the gentle side of Fassbinder's nature.
"Deep inside, he was a very soft, a very emotional man," she said. "At the same time, he could be very radical, and sometimes he overextended."
A film a day
Fassbinder was born into a bourgeois Bavarian family in 1946. His father was a doctor and his mother a translator. In order to have time for her work, his mother frequently sent him to the movies, a practice that gave birth to his obsession with the medium. Later in life, he would claim that he saw a film nearly every day and sometimes as many as three or four.
At the age of 15, Fassbinder defiantly declared his homosexuality. Soon after, he left school and took a job.
He studied theater in the mid-1960s, but unlike the other major directors of the New German Cinema, including Werner Herzog (photo) and Wim Wenders, Fassbinder acquired an extensive stage background that is evident throughout his work. In his films, Fassbinder often took on the role of composer, production designer, cinematographer, producer and editor.
However, success was not immediate. Fassbinder's first feature length film, a gangster movie called "Love Is Colder Than Death" (1969), was greeted by catcalls at the Berlin Film Festival. He scored his first domestic commercial success with "The Merchant of Four Seasons" (1971), a moving portrait of a street vendor crushed by betrayal and his own futility.
It was big budget projects such as "Lili Marleen" (1980) (photo) and "Lola" (1981) that finally brought the international success Fassbinder yearned for. But his greatest success was "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978) about the rise and fall of a German woman in the wake of World War II.
A workaholic till the end
West German film director Rainer Fassbinder (center) holds the "Golden Bear" he was awarded for his film "Die Sehnsucht Der Veronika Voss" during the "Berlinale", Feb 23, 1982.
The film made Fassbinder a household name in much of Europe, but especially in France, said Francois Numer, who together a Fassbinder retrospective at the world-famous Centre Pompidou in 2006.
"In France, Fassbinder was a shock for many people," Numer said. "On the one hand, people took offense at the scandals surrounding him. But then again, it was the first time for a German producer to command such a prominent role on the European film circuit."
On the night of June 10, 1982, Fassbinder took an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills. When he was found, the unfinished script for a version of "Rosa Luxemburg" was lying next to him. So boundless was his drive and creativity that, throughout his downward spiral and even in the moment of his death, Fassbinder never ceased to be productive.