Born in 1945 in Bad Wörishofen, Fassbinder lived with his mother in Munich after his parents divorced when he was five. Part of the postwar generation weaned on American culture and German historical amnesia about the Nazi years, he spent his youth at the movies and became a fan of Hollywood, particularly German émigré Douglas Sirk's glossy 1950s melodramas. After high school, Fassbinder applied to the Berlin Film School -- and was rejected. Undaunted, he began making shorts and joined Munich's underground Action Theater troupe in 1967 as an actor, writer, and director; he formed his own company, the Anti-Theater, in 1968. Applying the theater ethos of working collaboratively with a stock company of actors and technicians, Fassbinder and the Anti-Theater began making feature films in 1969, with the gangster movies Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, as well as a stylized film adaptation of his play Katzelmacher, about a foreigner's effect on a group of rootless young Germans. Revealing his cinematic influences early on, The American Soldier (1970), the third in Fassbinder's gangster trilogy, was a pastiche of American film noir, and Whity (1971) was a Western. Fassbinder's nascent interest in examining the lives of ordinary people in realistic settings, however, also emerged in his neorealist comedy drama about a middle-class man who inexplicably kills his family, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970).
After an unsatisfactory film adaptation of Marieluise Fleisser's play Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971), the original Anti-Theater troupe dissolved due to tensions satirically chronicled by Fassbinder in his reflexive film Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). He did, however, continue to work with a stock company of actors throughout the rest of his career. Taking advantage of the various funding sources available in Germany, he formed his own production company, Tango Film, and made The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), a bleak story of a working man's loveless marriage and alcoholic death. A blend of melodrama, garish style, and harsh realism that became Fassbinder's signature, The Merchant of Four Seasons was a critically hailed success in Germany. He followed it with the overtly theatrical The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Though set among working-class teens, Jail Bait (1972) similarly revealed the dangerous effects of romantic illusions and social mores.
After two TV dramas about stifled wives, Martha (1973) and an adaptation of A Doll's House, Nora Helmer (1973), Fassbinder adapted Theodor Fontane's 19th-century novel Effi Briest for the screen in 1974. Critically hailed as another artistic triumph, Effi Briest has come to be considered one of his best films. 1974 became an even more crucial year in the Fassbinder's career with the release of Fear Eats the Soul. Remaking Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955), Fassbinder transformed the central couple into a frumpy older German woman and a young sexy Arab to explore the complex role social enmity plays in sustaining the relationship. Winner of the critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Fear Eats the Soul earned Fassbinder his first taste of international attention as one of Germany's new generation of intriguing directors. His next film, Fox and His Friends (1975), brought more approbation. Starring the director himself as lower-class lottery winner Fox, Fox and His Friends compassionately and intelligently exposed how the assumedly outsider homosexual subculture was just as subject to middle-class aspirations and cruelty, reaching a wrenching conclusion in a refined, marble-cold subway station.
Despite Fassbinder's burgeoning international reputation, some of his subsequent work met with official disapproval at home. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) had a potentially incendiary story about the political and media exploitation of a killer's kindly widow, which got the film rejected by the Berlin Film Festival. His deliberately outrageous and anarchic black comedy Satan's Brew (1976) met the same fate. Fassbinder summarily flouted his bad-boy reputation by returning to his controlled, somber view of loveless relationships in I Only Want You to Love Me (1976).
Polishing his style and creating even more structurally complex narratives as the 1970s went on, Fassbinder used his increasingly mobile camera work to create a multi-layered study of the emotional distance between the members of a profoundly dysfunctional upper-class family in Chinese Roulette (1976). His international standing as well as his visual and thematic concentration on identity, mirrors, and the turmoil masked by clean, hard, crystalline surfaces was further emphasized by Despair (1978). The (relatively) big-budget, English-language adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel was scripted by Tom Stoppard and starred Dirk Bogarde. Fassbinder turned the protagonist's wish to escape his wealthy Weimar Republic life by murdering his apparent double into a journey through the man's insane, elaborate delusions of role-playing and split identities. Despite Despair's credentials, though, Fassbinder's return to a more explicitly German psychological environment in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) produced his greatest international success. A historical allegory about the postwar Economic Miracle via the experience of Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla's resourceful Maria, Maria Braun moved toward reclaiming a troubled period in German history within meticulously recreated settings, layered with Fassbinder's mirrors, curtains, and shadows, and became his most popular film at home and abroad.
Though less accessible than Maria Braun, In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) continued to burnish Fassbinder's critical standing. Made shortly after the death of his longtime companion Armin Meier, In a Year of 13 Moons unflinchingly explored the loneliness of an abandoned transsexual, rendering her fractured identity through a collage of sounds and mirrored, divided spaces. Fassbinder also bucked commercial imperatives, losing government funding, with his terrorist story The Third Generation (1979), a verboten subject since the 1977 rash of terrorism chronicled in the New German Cinema omnibus work Germany in Autumn (1978).
Returning to his explorations of German history in the early '80s, Fassbinder finally realized his dream of adapting Alfred Doblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1980. A monumental TV series running more than 13 hours, with a two-hour coda released in the U.S. as a 15-hour feature, it became his crowning achievement. Berlin Alexanderplatz's interrogation of the 1920s working class through the benighted everyman Franz Biberkopf became a compelling suggestion for the roots of Nazism, as well as a superbly acted, engrossing human drama. Fassbinder then took on the Nazi period itself with Lili Marleen (1981), a melodrama about a cabaret singer in World War II Germany. Completing the postwar triptych begun with Maria Braun, Fassbinder's Lola (1981) put a different spin on an ambitious woman's upward climb, while the prize-winning Veronika Voss (1982) reimagined Sunset Boulevard (1950) in detailing a faded, Nazi-connected movie star's descent into drug addiction in the 1950s. He went back to more personal work with his derided Jean Genet adaptation Querelle (1982), but, after years of drug-fuelled productivity, Fassbinder died from an overdose that summer. Rather than fade away, however, retrospectives of his work in subsequent years have continued to bolster Fassbinder's critical stature.