Rainer Werner Fassbinder died 30 years ago after a life of astonishing highs and lows. The dynamic filmmaker's reputation abroad often eclipses how he is remembered at home in Germany.
The 30th anniversary of an artist's death is often marked by an editorial in a newspaper, maybe a review of his work in a scholarly journal, and discussions online. Things are different when it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died on June 10, 1982.
The acclaimed film director has generated a significant echo in the media long before the anniversary of his death. Museums, cinemas and stages have all taken up his work with renewed zeal. Retrospectives both in Germany and abroad are showing his films, and multiple books have appeared in recent weeks that deal with Fassbinder.
A cult director abroad
So how does one explain all of the attention? People in Germany associate Fassbinder with the most successful years of German post-war cinema. And in many European countries, but also in the US in particular, the director's name has become absolutely synonymous with this period of German film. Independent and art movie theaters on the East Coast of the US have a particular weakness for Fassbinder. And the world's most important film festival in Cannes has been looking for years for the "new Fassbinder." Fassbinder's fame is even partly responsible for film nation France's almost criminal neglect of its eastern neighbor when it comes to awards.
Fassbinder was a workaholic - he completed over 37 films in just over a decade
The mighty shadows Fassbinder has cast on all directors for 30 years haven't just made things difficult for fellow filmmakers of his generation. His reputation affects up-and-comers perhaps even more. Tom Tykwer, Roland Emmerich, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Wolfgang Petersen: They've all had commercial success, including at the Oscars, but they do not live up to Fassbinder in popular opinion abroad.
Fassbinder's personality and life have taken on mythical dimensions, and there's good reason for that. In fact, there are two reasons that Fassbinder has achieved such lasting renown.
For one thing, the director's wild life has made him a legend. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's all too short life was a veritable explosion of creativity, resulting in dozens of films. The years between his debut "Liebe ist kälter als der Tod" (Love Is Colder than Death) in 1969 and his final film "Querelle" in 1982 saw the completion of no fewer than 37 films.
How was that possible? It's an especially interesting question when one considers that many of his films, despite their scandals and artistic achievements, were not commercially successful. The director also could not count on a well-functioning studio system like those in Hollywood or France. Although Fassbinder - in contrast to many of his colleagues - was open to the medium of television, he was never a favorite of the German establishment and got little financial support.
Fassbinder wrenched these 37 films from his body in the truest sense. Alcohol, drugs, especially cocaine, tablets, little sleep, uninterrupted shoots that went to the very limits - these were his constant companions right from the beginning of his career. Today, one would have to say that the biggest surprise is not the number of films he was able to finish. It is truly astonishing that his body managed to survive for 37 years. His wild, dynamic and short life has contributed much to the Fassbinder mythos.
Chronicler of German history
The second reason that the filmmaker has become Germany's preeminent filmmaker, at least when it comes to international opinion, was summed up recently by biographer Jürgen Trimborn: "The particular fascination with Fassbinder is that he - much like Balzac in his 'Human Comedy' - tried to represent the entirety of recent German history and present society in his films.
"With 'Despair,' for instance, he made a film that takes place before the rise of the Third Reich. With 'Lili Marleen,' we see a career in the Nazi regime, and films like 'The Marriage of Maria Braun' and 'Lola' are devoted to the period just after the war," continued Trimborn. "With 'Germany in Autumn' and 'The Third Generation,' he took up the themes of political radicalization and terrorism. So he was always there on the pulse of the times and tried to use his films to comment on current social developments. He was in many respects really a film visionary."
Fassbinder was awarded the Golden Bear for his movie "The Yearning of Veronika Voss"
The lives and works of artists are often mixed unfairly, but with Fassbinder, the two realms are inseparable. His films can scarcely be interpreted without understanding the man who was in the director's chair. And the man who - not coincidentally - often acted in his own films cannot be imagined without his work. Fassbinder had his films permanently in mind; he lived within them. With his actors and team members, he moved from one shared residence to the next. He would spend days and weeks on set when he wasn't off spending his nights in Paris, New York or Frankfurt.
The phenomenon of Fassbinder is, indeed, incomparable in German post-war cinema. In other countries, that's surprisingly better understood than in Germany.
"A German critic once wrote that you don't have to explain to anyone abroad who Fassbinder is, but in Germany, you're now forced to," Jürgen Trimborn wrote in his biography.
Author: Jochen Kürten / gsw
Editor: Neil King / Kate Bowen