In some respects, you could argue Rainer Werner Fassbinder was ahead of his time. He was helming ambitious limited long-form television projects like World on a Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz long before everybody and their cousin wanted to work with HBO. However, in other respects, he was very much of his time, especially when it came to conspicuous drug use, self-destructive sex, and kneejerk leftism. He left an impressive legacy of cinema and scandal for his close associates to reflect on in Annekatrin Hendel’s The Fassbinder Story (trailer here), which screens as part of KINO! 2016, the German Film Festival in New York.
Fassbinder was part of a generation of German youths who somehow missed the Wall cutting through the city of Berlin, but thought the Red Army Faction ought to be free to kill and maim people as they pleased. He was also a man of intense appetites that fueled his art, but also took him to some very dark places. He had a dominating personality that convinced many of his early cast members to perform in his films somewhat against their wills. He was also either gay or bisexual, depending on which lover you asked.
That sexual ambiguity and voraciousness is definitely echoed in many of his films, but not all of them. In fact, World on a Wire gets comparatively short shrift, even though it anticipates many of the themes and motifs of the Matrix trilogy way back in 1973. Clearly (and somewhat understandably), Hendel is more concerned with films that have high personal, autobiographical significance for Fassbinder, like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, starring his then lover El Hedi ben Salem, who would soon come to a tragic end.
Frankly, it is dashed difficult to avoid the scandalous and the salacious when taking stock of Fassbinder, because the boundary between his private life and his art was unusually porous. Hendel scored long, in-depth interviews with nearly all of his surviving collaborators, including thesps Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Margit Carstensen and fellow directors Volker Schlöndorff and Wolf Gremm. Unfortunately, key figures like Salem, Karl Scheydt, and Kurt Raab are no longer with us. The absence of Fassbinder’s ex-wife and early muse Ingrid Caven is rather conspicuous, but the participation of Juliane Lorenz, his longtime editor and late-in-life partner supplies more than enough awkwardly revealing moments to compensate.