Running from Monday 27 March – Wednesday 31 May, BFI Southbank’s major Fassbinder retrospective will celebrate the constantly controversial and fearless filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, arguably post-war Germany’s greatest director. This extensive retrospective will feature most of the great auteur’s huge body of work, with 40 features, shorts and TV series, from gangster movies to melodramas, social satires to queer dramas. Fassbinder is perhaps one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century; his first 10 features were astonishingly made in less than two years, and he went on to make another 30 by the time he died young at 37. A fearless artist who knew no taboos, Fassbinder combined scathing social criticism with profound psychological insight.
A highlight of the season will be a special screening of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) on Wednesday 29 March; the film was the greatest critical and commercial success of Fassbinder’s career, and the ‘German Hollywood film’ he’d longed to make. We will welcome the film’s star Hanna Schygulla and Editor Juliane Lorenz, who is also President of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, with whom the BFI has partnered with for the season, to discuss working with post-war Germany’s most prominent and controversial filmmaker. Another highlight of the month will be a UK-wide re-release of Fear Eats the Soul (1973) on Friday 31 March; playing on extended run during the season, this bold reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows was Fassbinder’s international breakthrough. The season will include an introductory talk Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Wunderkind, Iconoclast, Star by Martin Brady (King’s College London, GSSN), a Fassbinderian Politics Study Day and The Bitter Tears of Fassbinder’s Women: A Symposium. There will also be a Fassbinder collection available on BFI Player+ from 31 March, comprised of 10 of his best-loved films including Fear Eats the Soul (1973), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Fox and His Friends (1974). BFI and Arrow Films, who will be distributing the re-release of Fear Eats the Soul, have also worked together to make a number of the films available across the UK in new DCPs.
Fassbinder drew inspiration from the French New Wave and, later, from the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and others. Alongside the season, BFI Southbank’s regular Big Screen Classics series will showcase some of these films; Fassbinder’s Favourites will include Sirk melodramas All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959), pioneering French New Wave films Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) and Le Signe du lion (Eric Rohmer, 1962), as well as Hollywood classics such as All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953).
After having failed to get into film school Fassbinder decided to turn to the theatre where in 1967 he met Ursula Straetz, Peer Raben, Harry Baer and Hans Hirschmüller, who all become frequent collaborators; alongside actors Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann with whom he was already friends, they formed the ‘Anti-Theater’ company under Fassbinder's direction. A charismatic presence in many of his own films, Fassbinder stars in his debut feature Love is Colder than Death (1969) as a petty criminal whose desire for freedom is undermined by his emotional needs. This will screen alongside The City Tramp (1966) Fassbinder’s earliest surviving film, inspired by Eric Rohmer’s Le Signe du lion, and The Little Chaos (1967) described by the director as ‘a gangster film that ends well.’
Brutal and poignant, Fassbinder’s adaptation of his own play Katzelmacher (1969) is still shockingly resonant, while Gods of the Plague (1969) is a melancholy thriller in which Fassbinder captures the late 60s Zeitgeist – its uneasy blend of bohemian dreams, bourgeois aspirations and subversion of the Third Reich. Fassbinder’s first film in colour Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1969) is particularly dark– a black comedy of manners, shot in a wintry Munich. Fassbinder’s fifth feature in only 10 months Rio das Mortes (1970) is surprisingly light-hearted and funny and was quickly followed by Whity (1970), an idiosyncratic western set in the American South of the 1870s. Following the defeat of the German student movement in 1968, Fassbinder considers whether revolutions are inevitably doomed to failure The Niklashausen Journey (1970.
Beware of a Holy Whore (1970) is choreographed like a ballet to music by Peer Raben, Donizetti and Elvis and is a gorgeous ode to filmmaking, warts and all. The glorious re-working of Hollywood noir The American Soldier (1970) opens with the return of a German-American Vietnam veteran and soon-to-be contract killer, to the Munich of his youth. Fassbinder was much inspired by Marieluise Fleisser, a protégé of Brecht in the 1920s and in Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1970) he updates her brilliant, scandalous play about the impact of a newly arrived army regiment on the sexually frustrated young women of a small Bavarian town. Wonderfully written, acted and directed, The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) is a heart-rending tale that was Fassbinder’s first venture into popular melodrama; it was followed by the intensely autobiographical The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) featuring a brilliant all-female cast, including Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla.
Thanks to a new restoration which premiered at this year’s Berlinale, Fassbinder’s controversial five-part TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972) can be seen again at last. Aimed at a mass audience, this entertaining soap opera of working-class life revolves around an extended family of three generations who struggle to balance the demands of the workplace with the pressures of family life. Now splendidly restored, the two-part sci-fi series World on a Wire (1973) is a real revelation – stylistically dazzling, disquieting and hugely enjoyable. Fassbinder’s one foray into sci-fi anticipates Blade Runner and The Matrix, foreshadowing current anxieties around AI and VR. The epic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1979/80) was the result of Fassbinder’s lifelong obsession with Alfred Döblin’s great city novel, bringing to life the twilight years of the Weimar Republic. Fassbinder embraced television as a medium and a platform, from ambitious series to TV-movie melodramas; the talk Fassbinder: Television Pioneer will explore how he exploited TV’s artistic potential, how the funding it offered made his career possible (he would surely be making Netflix series today), and how he seized upon TV as a way of communicating provocative ideas to a mass audience.
One of Fassbinder’s lesser-known masterpieces Martha (1973) is a ruthless dissection of a marriage reminiscent of the work of Sirk, while Effi Briest (1974) is an exquisitely subtle rendition of Theodor Fontane’s great novel of 1896. Way ahead of its time, Fox and His Friends (1974) presents characters who are unproblematically gay. In Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira) is hounded by the press when her factory-worker husband goes murderously berserk after learning of impending mass redundancies. With echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Fear of Fear (1975) is a disturbing account of one woman’s struggle to conform, and deserves to be much better known, while I Only Want You to Love Me (1975) is based on a real-life interview with a convicted murderer and Satan’s Brew (1976) is a hysterical black comedy about a fashionable left-wing poet stricken with writer’s block.
Fassbinder’s first international co-production Chinese Roulette (1976) is drenched in gothic atmosphere, and is deadly assault on the institution of marriage; there will be an event Philosophical Screens: Repression and Release in Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette in which we consider Fassbinder’s spiky, provocative critique of German bourgeois values through a philosophical lens. Bolwieser (aka The Stationmaster’s Wife) (1977) is an adaptation of a novel by Oskar Maria Graf which evokes the hypocritical atmosphere of a small Bavarian town where Nazism is on the rise. Fassbinder’s first film in English Despair (1978) was brilliantly adapted by Tom Stoppard from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel set in 1930s Berlin and starred an exquisite Dirk Bogarde.
The portmanteau film Germany in Autumn (1978) was the collective response of leading German filmmakers to the dramatic terrorist crisis of autumn 1977. In The Third Generation (1979), against the dystopian backdrop of West Berlin, a group of bourgeois activists style themselves as terrorists, although they lack any real political motivation; while very much of its time, this colourful, cacophonous farce speaks urgently to ours. In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) is a devastating elegy for doomed love is dedicated to Fassbinder’s lover Armin Meier, who had recently committed suicide while Lili Marleen (1980) is Fassbinder’s only film set in the Third Reich and chronicles the career of a recording star who wows the troops with her famous hit song while secretly pining for her Jewish lover.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (which in addition to the special screening on March 29, will also screen in May) was the first of three superbly crafted chronicles of the 1950s and was followed by Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982). Lola is a brilliant updating of Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which captures the sleazy vulgarity and sheer vitality of late 1950s West Germany, while Veronika Voss centres on the relationship between a young sports journalist and an ageing movie star who cannot accept that her career is over. Fassbinder’s documentary about the 1981 World Theatre Festival in Cologne Theatre in Trance (1981), is an immersive montage of avant-garde performances. Fassbinder’s final film Querelle (1982) is an adaptation of one of his all-time favourites, Jean Genet’s homoerotic novel about a beautiful, opium-dealing sailor on shore leave.
Completing the season are three documentaries looking at the life and work of Fassbinder. I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me – The Filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Hans Günther Pflaum, 1992) is an engrossing overview of Fassbinder’s astonishing career. Commissioned by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation to mark what would have been the director’s 70th birthday, the new documentary Fassbinder (Annekatrin Hendel, 2015) features some previously unseen material and aims to introduce Fassbinder to a new generation. Fassbinder: To Love without Demands (2015) by Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen, one of the most perceptive commentators on Fassbinder’s work who enjoyed an enduring friendship with the filmmaker, is an intimate portrait suffused with tenderness towards its subject. Neither a polemicist nor an ideologue, Fassbinder remains an extraordinary artist whose passion for truth-telling is now more important than ever.