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Creator / Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Fassbinder on the set of Berlin Alexanderplatz.

"What I would like is to make Hollywood movies, that is, movies as wonderful and universal, but at the same time not as hypocritical."

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (31 May 1945 – 10 June 1982) was a German filmmaker, actor and dramatist. He has a name that rolls off your tongue, and can be recognized as so obviously German from the Moon.

It could be said that Fassbinder was to the movies what Punk Rock was to music. His films were a deliberate reaction against the French New Wave, which weren't always cheery but generally tended to be light and filled with some amount of hope. Fassbinder's films of the 1970s and early '80s were set in a Crapsack World of middle-class malaise, working-class flophouses with the powerful always exploiting the weak, and the weak letting themselves be exploited. His was a very bleak worldview with very few moments of tenderness. That said, because the tenderness in his movies is so hard-earned and so qualified, it can be all the more moving.

The main cinematic influences of Fassbinder include Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophuls, Michael Curtiz (albeit not for Casablanca so much as for his Joan Crawford vehicles), Luchino Visconti, Agnès Varda, Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard. He also said many times that he wanted to be for German cinema what Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman were for their own national cinemas. His most famous cinematic influence was Douglas Sirk, whose career and reputation Fassbinder played a major role in reviving. (Before Sirk, his other most famous influence was Bertolt Brecht.) Fassbinder didn't see Sirk's films until a retrospective of his works in 1969-1970. This was the only year in which Fassbinder didn't make films, and after that, he inaugurated his famous art-house take on the Hollywood melodrama that in time influenced the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes among others.

Fassbinder died before he turned 40, but left a great body of work behind. In a career of 15 years, he created 40 films, several theater productions and four miniseries including an epic 14-episode adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. His filmography is vast, varying in style and frequently undergoing Genre Shift. His films had a Myth Arc — the history of Germany since the end of World War II — which he admitted was deliberate. He himself was born three weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany. A running theme in his works, which made him highly controversial in Germany, was that he felt that the post-war Germany wasn't so different from their predecessors. His films gleefully explored the All Germans Are Nazis trope from every side, deconstructing and reconstructing it all the time, stating that the Germans of the post-war generation never truly took responsibility for Nazism and that it fell on his generation to explore the Old Shame.

Fassbinder also had an Enfant Terrible status in Germany, taking an outsider identity as a queer artist and surrounding himself with/casting other outsiders like prostitutes, male and female, as well as transsexuals. His film Fox and His Friends is one of the first to show gay culture as it is, from the inside, with Fassbinder himself playing the lead role. He was also considered a Prima Donna Director on the set, described by some as The Caligula for the pressures and abuses he put on his cast and crew, who nonetheless showed a great deal of loyalty to Fassbinder and continued working with him. Fassbinder's collaborations with actresses Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa helped make them stars.

Fassbinder's hard-drinking and hard-partying lifestyle caught up with him, and he died of a drug overdose during the editing of what turned out to be his last film, an adaptation of Jean Genet's Querelle de Brest.

Selected Filmography

Tropes include.

  • All of the Other Reindeer: A recurring theme in his film which he frequently deconstructs. He believes that mainstream society defines its own identity, by picking on other people. In Katzelmacher, people who live depressed shallow lives in a low-income housing project only get together and become a community by attacking and abusing a Greek Immigrant worker (Played by Fassbinder himself in a Creator Cameo). Furthermore, he notes that even gay communities are filled with Double Standard and are in many ways no different from heterosexual society.
  • All Germans Are Nazis : Fassbinder was especially bold in taking this concept head on, unashamedly exploring it from every angle and deconstructing the trope with attention to context, society and class. For Fassbinder, Nazis or the low-level functionaries who were the vast majority, were mostly Punch-Clock Villain who basically fell to society pressure, family values or were Only in It for the Money and not that different from post-war West Germany. Many of his characters were ex-Nazis or family with connections. He also stayed away from Those Wacky Nazis and Stupid Jetpack Hitler, showing them merely as normal people who enabled great evil because they were Just Following Orders rather than follow their conscience.
  • Bury Your Gays : Gay audiences complained that Fassbinder tended to lean to this, and never portrayed a happy gay relationship. Fassbinder merely justified this as part of his pessimistic view of relationships.
  • Camp Gay / Manly Gay / Straight Gay : Fassbinder was defiantly and flamboyantly bisexual and was one of the first who presented down to earth portrayals of LGBTQ sub-cultures and moreover broke stereotypes by showing many different character types with a lot of variation in roles assigned in relationships. Plenty of Ho Yay and actual gay relationships abound in his films with a lot of Author Appeal.
  • Casual Kink / Bondage Is Bad / Brains and Bondage : also abounds. He was fascinated with all kinds of "Other" in sexual behaviour.
  • Crapsack World : Fassbinder's films are set in post-war Germany after its economic miracle but shows it to be a hollow, ugly society with no values and is absolutely ruthless to people who are outsiders, who are in turn betrayed by other outsiders. It's not a pleasant world to be in if you are different.
    • This arguably applies to Fassbinder's biography as well. Due to the sheer amount of fascinating, chaotic and Heroic BSoD-inducing events, it's joked that his life would've made for a perfect film of his.
  • Darker and Edgier : To European cinema and the 70s as a whole. He brought a harshness in characterization and setting that really defined the post-60s generation.
  • Deconstruction : Of Germany, Middle Class society, movies, entertainment and especially narrative.
    • Fassbinder's films were also critical of sexual politics and "lookism", in that he would deal with the sexuality of characters who society would consider ugly, such as a middle aged woman who enters into an affair with an African migrant worker in Ali : Fear Eats the Soul. His films tended to be fairly democratic and avoided Hollywood glamour.
    • Fassbinder considered himself an anarchist and was highly critical of how people dealt with power, criticizing people for needing group, family or society approval rather than following their own conscience and intellect.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather : Very much so, in all the myriad ways.
  • The Film of the Book : A few of his works are adaptations. Effi Briest, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Querelle stand out especially, but others include Despair, Nora Helmer and World on a Wire, an adaptation of Simulacron-3 (the novel that The Thirteenth Floor is loosely based upon).
  • Foe Romance Subtext : Another theme for Fassbinder is hatred that is a mask for love. This becomes text in Berlin Alexanderplatz a 14 hour epic saga of two pimps and lowlifes who ultimately love each other but Can't Spit It Out.
  • Jerkass : Most of his characters are not nice people. Indeed nice people tend to do more damage and get into more trouble than jerks.
  • Leave the Camera Running : Shots in his movies often linger on doorframes, window frames, and spaces even when characters aren't "doing anything". The director Todd Haynes cited this as an influence on Far from Heaven.
  • Love Makes You Dumb : A major believer of this and a theme of all his films:
    "I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression."
  • Post-Historical Trauma : His movies deal with the trauma of the post-war German generation, dealing both with the violence and fallout of the war, and the ruin of families and their own Old Shame in their parents participating and enabling Nazi Germany and its many atrocities. His film The Marriage of Maria Braun touched on this in particular.
  • Production Posse: Frequently worked with the likes of Gottfried John and Hanna Schygulla.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids! : His general belief is this, people who are naive and ignorant have a Cosmic "Kick Me" sign on their backs and will be put down if they don't wise up, and if they do wise up, they become just as bad as their former enemies.
  • Stylistic Suck : Like his idols, Bertolt Brecht and the Hollywood director and German emigrant Douglas Sirk, his films often had deliberately kitschy settings, lighting and design, and especially fake happy endings which weren't meant to be taken seriously.
  • The Oner: Famous for his long takes and circular 360 degree tracking shots, especially in Martha which manages to suggest Love at First Sight and deconstruct it in a single roller-coaster tracking shot.
    • Appropriately, Michael Ballhaus made his name through shooting for Fassbinder before working with Scorsese, most famously on Goodfellas.
  • Trippy Finale Syndrome / Gainax Ending : The Epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz is perhaps the Trope Codifier or an Unbuilt Trope. Most of the series is a naturalistic and realist look at 20s Germany, the finale is filled with Surreal Horror and Anachronism Stew and features Futureshadowing of the horrors of World War II that will come.
  • Women Are Wiser: Played straight, deconstructed and subverted many times. Women who are smart tend to be very ruthless and pragmatic (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola), they also fall victim to Love Makes You Dumb and their own Freudian Excuse leads them to suffer from Domestic Abuse and many of them don't necessarily have the maternal instinct society expects from them and despite their own oppression become Abusive Parents in turn.
    • Fassbinder noted that what interested him about women, is that where men when they are subjected to the Humiliation Conga tend to loose all their will and become The Alcoholic and The Load, women tend to make their Misery Builds Character. It's more accurate to say that for Fassbinder, Women are tougher in both the good and bad sense, and actresses appreciated him for giving them complex roles that allowed them the same moral ambiguity and complexity given to actors.