Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes.

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER died a little over thirty years ago, aged thirty-seven, with—conservative estimate—something like a zillion films, telefilms, and TV serials to his name. The frenetic pace that Fassbinder set for himself, kept up through a diet of booze, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals, didn’t help to prolong his life, and when he finally OD’d, he dropped dead with the bit between his teeth, his bulk splayed across notes about a projected film on Polish-German Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg.

The market value of Fassbinder’s brand has not diminished since. At Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Fassbinder retrospective, “Romantic Anarchist,” a preshow slide advises you to “Go on a Fassbinder Bender”—a shopping spree, that is, to celebrate a trenchant critic of consumer society. You can go home with a Fassbinder limited-edition tote bag—it accessorizes nicely with the Cinemetal T-shirt emblazoned with the word FASSBINDER in the Metallica logo—and at the adjacent Indie Food and Wine café, you can get a “Satan’s Brew” craft cocktail, named after a 1976 Fassbinder movie which was dedicated to Antonin Artaud, and which featured Volker Spengler as a halfwit with a passion for fucking houseflies.

Part of Fassbinder’s enduring appeal is certainly the cult of personality. In slouch hat, soiled leather, and what looks like a pasted on beard, he has the deportment of a butch beer-and-pretzels brawler from Bavaria, while his films betray the feminine soul of an aesthete. (Wearing drag, former Fassbinder actress Eva Mattes plays a thinly-disguised version of the director in Radu Gabrea’s 1984 A Man Like EVA, which postulates his hermaphroditic nature.) Fassbinder’s style is both florid and austere; his outsized oeuvre is surly, rowdy, uncouth; his gauche death entirely of a piece with his fatalistic work. But if the Fassbinder brand survives, it’s because his art is exactly that: a brand; one that sears to the touch, and leaves its mark on you. Who can see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), for example, and think about sex, love, and class in precisely the same way afterwards?

The first part of FSLC’s bifurcated Fassbinder retro opened last Friday, and it will continue through June 1st. The second part, covering the period from 1975 to 1982’s swansong Querelle, is incoming for November. The lineup for Part One includes seventeen films by Fassbinder, most presented on 35 or 16 mm, beginning chronologically with his 1969 Love Is Colder than Death, and ending with 1974’s Effi Briest, the only noteworthy works made in-between that are missing from the lineup being his TV miniseries Eight Hours are Not a Day and his 1973 telefilm Jail Bait. (MoMA played a print in 2007—maybe if you ask nicely they’ll screen it for you.)

Love Is Colder… is a menage-a-trois between ex-con lowlifes, quite at home in the grotty suburbs of Munich. It features Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, and the director’s frequent muse Hanna Schygulla. She and Lommel also star in Effi Briest, a tony period piece adaptation of Theodor Fontane’s fin-de-siècle novel which, due to its subject matter and stature, has been called a German-language Anna Karenina. Effi Briest took the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival only five years after Love Is Colder… had debuted to jeers. Fassbinder had come very far very fast, and he would go further still, but the period covered in the first part of “Romantic Anarchist” shows the years of his most remarkable, sustained development.

Fassbinder had the aspect and soul of a peasant, but was born into a cultured family in Bad Wörishofen, Bavaria, in 1945, shortly after the unconditional surrender of Germany. He would later speak of a neglectful upbringing, claiming that he came up “almost without parents,” growing on his own “like a little flower.” (His mother, billed as Lilo Pempeit, would later appear in a number of his films—she’s Effi’s mother in the Fontane adaptation.) Twenty-year-old Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the newly-founded German Film and Television Academy in Berlin reveals that he had been a remarkably busy autodidact, hip to Proust, Brecht, Beckett, and Godard, whose influence on Fassbinder’s early work is highly apparent. (The schematically-tracked shoplifting cruise through the ultramodern supermarket in Love Is Colder… scored to Der Rosenkavalier comes to mind.) Fassbinder’s application was nevertheless rejected, and so he instead took a backdoor approach to filmmaking, joining the experimental Munich action-theater and, in a matter of months, imposing his leadership on the group, which was rechristened as Anti-Theater (antiteater). Throughout his life, Fassbinder found it remarkably easy to impress his will on both people and organizations, and the operation of intrapersonal power dynamics, in which larger societal patterns of repression are reproduced privately, is a crucial factor in every film that he made.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Effi Briest, 1974, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 141 minutes.

Anti-Theater members provided the core personnel for Fassbinder’s early films, including Schygulla, his peerless composer Peer Raben, and Kurt Raab, who starred in 1970’s domestic torture chamber-drama Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Like the same year’s The Niklashausen Journey, Herr R. is credited as being co-directed by Michael Fengler, for at this point there was still some pretext of Anti-Theater being a collectively rather than despotically-run organization. But Fassbinder played the lead in 1969’s wrenching breakthrough Katzelmacher, from his own coup de théâtre play, and the communal ideal couldn’t long endure the domineering personality of its most famous member. The clash between counterculture Utopianism and the practical exigencies of the picture business is at the center of Fassbinder’s 1971 backstage comedy Beware of a Holy Whore, a retelling of the making of his Whity (also playing) earlier in the year, with a tantrum-throwing Lou Castel as Fassbinder’s on-screen stand-in.

Peopled with shrill adult adolescents, Beware of a Holy Whore is a wholly mature work—but not to be satisfied by repeating his early successes, the little flower kept sprouting. FSLC’s four-film “Fassbinder and his Friends” sidebar highlights a key catalyst to his development—alongside works by Fassbinder’s followers (Lommel, Todd Haynes, François Ozon), Lincoln Center will screen All That Heaven Allows (1955), a representatively coruscating melodrama by the German-American émigré director Douglas Sirk, and a film which Fassbinder drew heavily from for his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder credited his encounter with Sirk, during a rare lapse in filmmaking activity after the completion of Beware of a Holy Whore, as the inspiration for a new approach to his work. Fassbinder belonged to an orphaned generation of German filmmakers, their artistic “fathers” largely discredited by collaboration with Hitler’s regime, and in Sirk (née Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg), Fassbinder found the role model he’d been looking for. With Sirk’s influence in mind, Fassbinder would force a confrontation between the catalog of twentieth-century European modernist theatrical conventions and their cinematic parallels, which he had heretofore been working through, and the unabashed emotional appeal of the Hollywood melo. “I think I go further than [Brecht] did,” Fassbinder would tell an interviewer in 1977, “in that I let that audience feel and think.” Self-evident as this formula may seem, dissolving (rather than solving) that still-prevalent false dichotomy is among the most revolutionary acts of a career that was almost entirely ornery and uncooperative. (By the release of 1979’s The Third Generation, the Communists may have come to loathe Fassbinder more than the capitalists—but that’s another story.)

Fassbinder’s “new” style debuted with 1971’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, and continued through such works as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a five-act bout from a Fassbinder stage play written contemporary to his Sirk conversion, in which an under-my-thumb arrangement between a haughty lesbian fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) and her grifter girlfriend (Schygulla) is gradually inverted. The break between early and middle periods isn’t so clean as convenience would have it, however, and what we “know” about Fassbinder can only be further complicated by FSLC’s screening of scarcely-seen works, such as 1972’s Bremen Freedom and 1974’s Nora Helmer. The brittle-but-unbreakable Carstensen stars in both: In the former, an adaptation of Fassbinder’s play about an eighteenth-century Bremen housewife who poisons her extended family and friends in order to liberate them, she plays the murderess Geesche; in the latter, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she has the title role. With Herr R., they share a vision of hearth and home as a nest of vipers, while both incorporate alienation effects which we might not associate with Fassbinder’s middle-period work: Bremen Freedom’s rear-projection backdrop, a dream of escape, or the textured lap dissolve close-ups that climax Nora Helmer.

“Rest,” says Geesche, “that is death”—and so it was for Fassbinder. His films outlined the invisible prisons in which all of us live, while he locked himself up in his own maximum-security model, and threw away the key. Fassbinder toiled incessantly to gain a modicum of freedom, and in doing so was yoked to his work. Of his ferocious productivity, the director famously said that he would like to build a house with his films, but his effect on film culture was more like that of a wrecking ball. We will be sorting through the debris for a long time to come.

Nick Pinkerton

“Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist: Part One” runs through Sunday, June 1st at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.