I wrote to Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Munich, in May 1982, on the back of a small print of one of my portraits of Douglas Sirk. I had an assignment from Portfolio, a soon-to-go-extinct art magazine, to photograph Documenta 7 in Kassel that June, and being quite young, thought it wasn’t unreasonable that after the festival, I could travel in Germany, photograph the Neue Deutsche Kino directors and actors whom I so admired, and try to get a job shooting stills on an upcoming production, although my German was limited to phrases like “alles klar.”
On June 10 (my paternal grandfather’s birthday), a week before I was to fly to Frankfurt, I learned that Fassbinder had died, 37, drug overdose. He had “lived fast” (drugs, alcohol, lots of lovers, enduring and pickups, male and female, although he identified as gay) and worked miraculously, directing more than 40 projects (including the towering, 14-episode “Berlin Alexanderplatz”) between 1969 and 1982. “Burned out” seemed the more accurate cause of death, the expression precisely describing this man as meteor.
That summer in Munich and Berlin (and detouring to Salzburg to photograph Wim Wenders, who would hire me the following July to work on “Paris, Texas”), I steeled myself against my phonephobia, making it possible to begin an ongoing project shooting actors from Fassbinder’s troupe (Kurt Raab, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, Ulli Lommel, Hark Bohm, Hanna Schygulla) and some of his other creative partners (Peer Raben, composer, Juliane Lorenz, editor, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation, and Xaver Schwarzenberger, cinematographer).
The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced a comprehensive two-part retrospective, “Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist,” the most extensive presentation in New York of the great filmmaker’s work since 1997. Part 1 features Fassbinder’s theatrical and television films made before 1974. Part 2, those from the years 1974-1982.
The series (“gangster movies, literary adaptations, and even sci-fi films,” in which the filmmaker “returned obsessively to themes of love, crime, labor, and social and emotional exploitation”) includes all of Fassbinder’s theatrical features, much of his television work, films by other directors in which he starred (Jean-Marie Straub’s short “The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp”), films that influenced him (Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” an inspiration for “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”) and films that were influenced by his work.
“Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 1),” at the Walter Reade and Francesca Beale theaters, opens Friday, May 16, and runs through June 1. A newly restored print of “The Merchant of Four Seasons” will have a one-week run, May 16-23. Part 2 will screen in November, lineup to be announced.