10 Essential Rainer Werner Fassbinder Films You Need To Watch

R.W. Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder emerged in the late sixties to become one of the most prolific and influential filmmakers of what would become known as New German Cinema. Fassbinder was born in 1945 and like other filmmakers of his generation, including Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders, he dramatically altered the cinematic landscape by telling stories about postwar Germany that focused on its economic, social and political issues problems faced and the power dynamics between individuals. 

Fassbinder, more than any other major European art film director, so consistently privileged the language of theater and transposed it to the cinematic medium– effectively constituting a new film idiom. Moreover, Fassbinder’s specific employment of theatrical language and performance allow for a complex exploration of identity and identification.

Before Fassbinder turned his attention to film, he was involved in Munich’s theater community and later formed his own group called the “Anti-theater.” Thus it is not so surprising that Fassbinder’s passion and involvement with theater informs the basis for his entire stylistic and intellectual approach to filmmaking.

However, the strategic decision to synthesize two distinct representational “languages” must be considered not only as an aesthetic or formal choice but also a political one—one which refuses to affirm the traditional view that designates theater and cinema as rivals.

Like the theater revolutionary writer and theorist Bertolt Brecht, Fassbinder once remarked that even though his films often end on an unhappy note, what film scholar Richard Dyer termed “left-wing melancholy,” his goal was to encourage viewers to reveal the mechanisms of how society works in order to enable them to enact change in their own lives, rather than succumb to intellectual passivity.

He does this through his use of theatrical conventions, for example—stylized poses and gestures, non-naturalistic acting, diction, and utterance—which reveals simultaneously the structure of power that operates within social, political, and interpersonal discourse. Fassbinder merges the illusionist power of film language with a modernist theatrical language. Without stifling identification with the heroines and social outcasts he often represented, he allows audiences the opportunity to think and feel.

As an auteur, Fassbinder created a visually and imaginatively rich film repertoire that melds Hollywood melodrama and Brechtian distanciation to great effect.


10. Querelle (1982)

Querelle (1982)

This was Fassbinder’s final film; it was released not long after he died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 37. Brad Davis stars as Querelle, the titular character based on the novel by Jean Genet.

The film loosely follows the plot of Genet’s novel and incorporates passages from it in the form of dialogue, voice-over and quotations from other literary texts that are inserted between scenes. The plot is a meditation on themes that preoccupied Genet such as transgression, homoerotic desire, jealousy and violence.

The film is a significant departure from the director’s previous films in that it employs and exudes a persistent camp aesthetic through its set design and props, dialogue, non-diegetic music, acting and lighting. For example, the unnaturalistic orange and yellow lighting throughout the film suffuses it with a sense of heightened violence and eroticism, just as the props of enormous phalluses contribute to its hypermasculine subject matter and theatricality.

Fassbinder’s interpretation of the 1947 novel deconstructs artificial and socially constructed masculine ideals by celebrating gay male sexuality, yet it also calls into question the very signifiers upon which those ideals depend. In many ways, this film anticipates Queer Cinema by at least a decade and Fassbinder’s swan song suggests new directions the filmmaker might possibly have taken.


9. World on a Wire (1973)

World on a Wire

This was Fassbinder’s only foray into science fiction and combines elements of noir with motifs found in many of the director’s films, including stylized acting, elements of camp, and a fascination with mirrors.

More than any other film, World on a Wire incorporates the mirror as a device to comment on the simulacrum of the world being depicted and raises questions about human identity and subjectivity in the realm of artificial reality. Based on a novel from the early 1960s called Simulacron-3, the book and film predates other cinematic explorations into similar topics: Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Truman Show and many other films about consciousness and altered reality in a landscape of computers, the internet and cybernetics.

While the novel is set in the future, the film is firmly placed in the present as evidenced by the 1970s architecture and set design in Germany at the time. This was one of Fassbinder’s television productions that ensured him a larger audience in Germany than were accustomed to seeing his films in theaters.


8. Fox and His Friends (1975)

Fox and His Friends

Fox and His Friends is a film about a gay man who is a carnival performer. Franz, his real name, gets involved with a wealthy man after he wins the lottery. It is unique in that not only is it a film that depicts the central character as a homosexual, but whose homosexuality is not the concern or “problem” of the narrative.

Fassbinder, who was openly gay/bisexual, was not shy about representing gay characters; however, he refused to focus on them in terms of identity politics. In this regard he is very much like Pier Paulo Pasolini who portrayed homosexuality on the screen but was remiss to deal with it in a direct, political way.

Fox and His Friends is more interested in the way class operates in a capitalist society to oppress the economically underprivileged in order to keep the rich in positions of power. Fox, played by the director himself, is physically and psychologically vulnerable. We see this in the unashamed way Fassbinder allows the camera to photograph him naked as he also did in his film about terrorism, Germany in Autumn.

As in Petra von Kant, the film shows the devastating consequences for those who make themselves emotionally vulnerable to others. The sadism and masochism inherent in most relationships was expressed by Fassbinder in an interview: “Of course, the one who loves, or who loves more, or who is attached to this love or to the relationship, loses out. It has to do with the fact that the one who loves less has more power, sure. To come to terms with…to accept a feeling, a love, a need requires a certain greatness that most people don’t possess.”


7. Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Beware of a Holy Whore falls into the self-reflexive genre of films about filmmaking and similar to such films within that tradition, including Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful and Contempt. What differentiates Fassbinder, and unlike most directors, he was never one to shy away from turning the camera on himself or making references to his own life off screen, both in the movies that he made and in public interviews.

In Beware of a Holy Whore he turns his attention to cinema and filmmaking itself. The scene (above image) where the cast and crew are sprawled over one another on the deck of a ship is visually memorable and figuratively connotes the sycophantic role that Fassbinder fostered among himself and his regular troupe of actors and one that is explored in the film.

The fictional film crew waits in a Spanish hotel for something to happen—inspiration to be found, supplies to be delivered, even the director himself, Jeff, played by Lou Castel (a stand-in for Fassbinder himself). When nothing gets done, the creative energies and petty jealousies are unleashed against each other.


6. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Die bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant

Controversial for some feminist and gay/lesbian groups upon its release, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is one of the director’s more intimate and intensely personal films: Fassbinder said it was his most autobiographical.

Originally written and performed as a play, the film maintains the feeling of watching a staged performance with its five act structure; however, unlike many of the filmmaker’s earlier movies, the camera is more dynamic and fluid as it captures both foreground and background space and follows the movements and close-up expressions of the all female cast.

The narrative delves into themes of love, desire and power in relationships among the principle characters Petra, her lover Karin and Petra’s assistant Marlene. As Petra tells Karin, “I think people are made to need each other, but they haven’t learned how to live together.” It is this observation that is at the dramatic heart of the film.

Fassbinder doesn’t spend time focusing on the sexual identity of the protagonists, who might be lesbians or bisexuals, but instead he traces the malleable forms of desire as each woman becomes self-aware through another, but not before playing the role of both victim and victimizer.