Fortunately, his legacy is less subject to the kind of melodrama that marked his life. The Pacific Film Archive's retrospective offers a strong sampling of Fassbinder's breakthrough blend of theatricality (he was a key player in the German "anti-theater" movement), class critique, and absurdist humor. In Fox and His Friends (1974), a haute queen destroys a sweet but unsophisticated working-class homosexual (played by Fassbinder), stealing his lottery winnings and trying to mold him into a gilt-edged mirror of upper-class values. A remake of Douglas Sirk's cutting 1950s drama All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) shows the brutal response of family and community to a lonely 60ish white widow who marries a muscular young black Moroccan. Fans of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven will find this an intriguing (and surely superior) variant of Sirk's masterpiece. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1971) is a stylized study of a lesbian love triangle that takes place in one of the most suffocating of cinematic spaces -- the self-consumed title character's dreamy, hermetic designer home.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Fassbinder's biggest popular success, tracks the rise of a self-made woman (Hannah Schygulla) as a metaphor for the resurgence of Germany after World War II. This riveting portrait skewers both a character and a culture, with Maria's climb to power based on a complex web of cruelties and deceits. German history again gets trounced in Veronika Voss (1982), a harrowing exercise in paranoia starring Rosel Zech as a former Third Reich star whose comeback is sabotaged by a sadistic female doctor who drugs and imprisons her.
Fassbinder, whose influence flows richly through the work of Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, François Ozon, and other luminaries of independent cinema, distilled the best elements of his sources -- Brechtian theatrics, Artaud, Hollywood studio gloss, classical narrative, and a gay sensibility that wasn't ghettoized -- into a body of work that still resonates. More than simply a critic of the prevailing order (though he was that), Fassbinder was equally wary of the right and the left in his search for larger truths. Reviled as misogynistic, anti-German, even anti-Semitic, Fassbinder loved his losers. He's been called the heart of the New German Cinema. That heart stopped when the director died of an overdose of whiskey and drugs on June 10, 1982, slumped over an editing table, at work to the end.