by Kit Wienert
Before Rainer Werner Fassbinder became identified with the New German Cinema in the 1970s, he worked in theater directing and writing plays between 1967 and 1976. Though he was an avid film amateur growing up, he was drawn to the possibilities of live theater in the mid 1960s through the influence of Hanna Schygulla, whom he had met in an acting class.
In 1967, a friend recommended Fassbinder to replace an injured actor in a production by a small Munich company, the Action-Theater. The Action-Theater was one of many "cellar" theaters around Germany that worked outside, and often in opposition to, the highly subsidized state theater system. The agenda of the Munich Action-Theater was overtly political and intentionally disruptive in keeping with the counter culture of the 1960s.
Influenced by Julian Beck's Living Theater in New York, the Action-Theater subscribed to the idea that social and political structures should be challenged on all fronts, with the arts leading the charge. But for whatever reason -- the volatility of group dynamics, the egos of charismatic personalities, or the era's intense mix of political fervor and youthful conviction -- factions soon formed after Fassbinder joined the troupe.
The split occurred between those aligned with the original company leader, Söhnlein, who felt that political theater should translate directly into political action, and those led by Fassbinder, who believed that the plain of ideas and artistic expression was an ample arena to challenge norms, question custom, and effect change.
These divisions came to a head when Söhnlein took his game to the streets, literally, and was arrested in the spring of 1968 for torching commercial properties in Frankfurt. After initially attempting to keep the Action-Theater afloat, a small group that included Fassbinder dissolved the struggling company and immediately formed the Anti-Theater that summer.
A prodigious few years of stage productions followed at the Anti-Theater as Fassbinder's creativity blossomed through free and wide-ranging experiments in dramatic form and expression. It was during this time that he developed and deepened relationships with key company members who also worked as principal actors and technicians in his continued filmmaking.
Fassbinder soon became known and sought after. His talents were increasingly recognized and rewarded with invitations to write for and direct at other theaters around Germany until, in late 1969, he was offered an artistic directorship with the Bremen state theater. The bounty and variety of jobs continued into the 1970s.
At the same time that new creative and monetary paths were opening to him for his stage craft, Fassbinder was writing and directing movies, so that one art form fed and influenced the creations of the other. In 1971, his original script of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was produced as part of an experimental theater festival and was immediately followed by a Petra screen adaptation, which he filmed in 1972.
During this highly productive period from 1967 through 1976, Fassbinder developed his ideas about drama and performance into a coherent aesthetic that closely examined the individual life within the structures and confines of the social or cultural group. He used the complementary arts of theater and film to inform each other until, in 1976, he decided to devote his time and energy to only making movies. From 1976, he worked solely in film and television until his death in 1982 at age 37.