Who was this giant of cinema, this at once diffident and arrogant workhorse of a filmmaker, Fassbinder? He was self-destructive, gay, antigay, versatile (he learned just about every trade associated with the cinema), he was terribly vexing and charming, all at once.
Trying to pigeonhole him is a fool’s errand (he covered his trail, eluded categorizing). He dominated the melodramatic genre, in all its shades, from the flamboyant to the more subtle forms of it. Fassbinder, who authored an excellent paper on Douglas Sirk, was a filmmaker of the verb, too. Actors in his screen and TV films were made to speak with a distinct elocution, their performance a pas-de-deux that combined apparent coolness and controlled emotion.
He grew up in Munich, went to an experimental school, became a journalist and directed his first film in 1965, “Der Stadtstreicher” (16 minutes). He joined an experimental theater troupe, the Action Theater, in 1967, then founded the Anti-Theater, becoming its main programmer. During that time Fassbinder put on plays by Chekov, Ibsen and Sophocles. He worked for the radio, for awhile, then turned to making films for television, in 1971.
All told, he directed some forty films in a thirteen-year span. Some of his work, directing films made for television like “Potzdammer Platz,” included fourteen episodes of ninety minutes each. This formidable rebel was one prolific filmmaker.
The Institut Lumière in Lyon has organized a retrospective of Fassbinder’s work, starting Friday, that coincides with the re-release of several of his films by the France-based Carlotta label. Some fifteen films will be shown, from “Ali: fear eats the soul” to “The marriage of Maria Braun” and “The bitter tears of Petra Von Kant.”
“R.W. Fassbinder Rétrospective,” Institut Lumière, Lyon, France (more information), May 4-July 1.