“The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979)
The first in Fassbinder’s BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy, which deals with three different women making their way in a post-WWII Germany, the script went through several hands and drafts from Fassbinder's original unrealized TV project "The Marriage of our Parents". Fassbinder was already working on the script for the epic "Berlin Alexanderplatz" when shooting began on "The Marriage of Maria Braun" and he continued to shoot during the day and work all night on the script for his next project. Rumour has it to sustain this work schedule Fassbinder consumed large quantities of cocaine, and this was the main reason the film went over budget -- Fassbinder’s biggest but still under a million USD. Of course this caused problems with his financiers, producers and crew, causing rifts in many of his long-term creative partnerships including those with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and producer Michael Fengler. Making “The Marriage of Maria Braun” was probably not the greatest period in Fassbinder’s life, but the film turned out to be one of his most successful and fulfilled his desire to make a German equivalent of a Hollywood movie. Starring Hanna Schygulla as Maria (she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress in 1979), a woman whose relationship with her husband, Hermann is constantly thwarted by circumstance - or rather desire, pride and greed which inevitably leads to violence, cruelty and destruction. Fassbinder paints a picture of an insatiable and unfeeling Germany, its inhabitants (the survivors) are damaged goods, both morally and emotionally warped from their experiences. Like any good Hollywood film it ends with a big explosion - like any good Fassbinder film the meanings and motives behind it are open-ended. [A]

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980)
Yes, we've seen it. Yes, all of it. Yes, it's glacially slow in places, and admittedly hard work. And yes, it's absolutely worth doing at some point in your life. Fassbinder's 14-part, 930 minute made-for-TV (but theatrically released in the U.S.) epic has a fearsome reputation, entirely deserved (particularly the impenetrable, fitfully brilliant, occasionally eye-rolling epilogue), mostly because it's arguably as close to a novel as cinema's ever gotten. A straight translation of the plot would have been far shorter, but Fassbinder, a rabid fan of the 1929 source material (by Alfred Doblin), digresses and dwells, stretching and repeating tiny, intimate moments, with trademark long, unbroken takes, in a way that slowly brings you into the psyche of protagonist Franz Biberkopf (an astonishing performance by Gunter Lampretcht), and indeed, the psyche of a nation in turmoil (hindsight obviously gives Fassbinder permission to use Biberkopf as a metaphor for interwar Germany, adding up to arguably one of his most political films. And of course, it always feels like a Fassbinder film, particularly in his tinkering with his hero's relationship with Reinhold (Gottfried John), which gains all kinds of homo-erotic undertones absent from the novel. More than anything, however, it's a tragedy; an ex-convict, desperate to go straight, just can't escape. An old story, to be sure, but one that's never been told with as much detail. There are amazing moments throughout, and awful ones, none more so than in that epilogue, which sees Fassbinder essentially deconstruct (aided by Lou Reed and Kraftwerk tracks) the thirteen hours you've just sat through. It's both infuriating and intoxicating, and a fitting capper to the whole whopping saga. File it with "War and Peace" and "Infinite Jest" as something to catch up on during a long holiday or prison sentence: you'll certainly not regret it. [B]

"Lili Marleen" (1981)
The insurmountability of social barriers, and the war between private desire and public image are staples of the Sirkian melodrama Fassbinder emulated throughout his latter career. So as a backdrop, Nazi Germany, an oppressively totalitarian state in which private lives were often forfeit to the political machine, and racial, gender and national barriers were not just reinforced, but codified into an ethos that permeated every aspect of life, must represent some sort of melodrama jackpot. Strange, then, that "Lili Marleen," a WWII-era tale of the forbidden love between a German nightclub singer and a Swiss Jewish conductor, should end up such an unengaging affair: the pieces are all there, and the onscreen emotional register ranges from the peaks of ecstasy to the depths of suicidal despair, as one might expect, and yet, we never feel much of anything at all. Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla's performance as the central Willi is part of the problem, coming off as oddly schizoid - her reactions, while fittingly overwrought, are often inappropriate to the point of incomprehensible. And without the kind of tragic empathy the great heroines of this genre manage to engender, it's hard to care for the pragmatic, self-absorbed, narcissistic Willi (we're not even sure she'd be morally opposed to Nazism if it didn't keep her from her lover) especially when the very thing that makes her famous is her rather underwhelming rendition of the titular song. The film is not bad, exactly, its lush costuming and dewy soft-focus photography hit the mark, and there are moments of sudden, weird surreality (the drunken sequence in the luxurious white house, a uniformed Nazi arriving on stage via a slide) that perk things up immeasurably. But there are also times when these experimental forays don't pay off (the interminably returned-to scene in which Willi's lover is tortured with incomplete snatches of the song endlessly repeated, layers unintentional irony on top of intentional as we, the audience, pray for the damn thing to stop too) and ultimately nothing can distract from the emptiness at the film's heart. It's where a real woman, or at least melodrama's exaggerated version of a real woman, and someone we can care about and become involved with, should be. [B-]

"Lola" (1981)
Fassbinder's fetish for exquisitely staged Sirk-ian melodrama, an obsession for at least part of his career, is well-documented, so if one wants to see the picture that likely lathered up Fassbinder the most (and was probably also an influence on Todd Haynes' similar Sirk proclivities), it's the lush, candy-colored and sumptuous-looking "Lola." Another BRD trilogy film set in post-World War II West Germany, the film stars Barbara Sukowa and the great Armin Mueller-Stahl ("Night on Earth," "Eastern Promises"), and centers on a pious building commissioner looking to eradicate the corruption taking place within the business of local construction entrepreneur (Mario Adorf). Gradually gathering evidence against his prey, the straight-arrow man then meets and eventually falls in love with the titular Lola (Sukowa). Consequently, he’s shocked to learn that she’s a prostitute and cabaret singer in a local brothel. Not only that, she’s the plaything of Schukert, the crooked construction magnate he’s trying to topple. While he now possesses all the ammo he needs, Mueller-Stahl's Von Bohm fails to reconcile his righteous duty with his lust for the fetching woman, instead falling prey to seduction and soon, to the temptations of money and power. In Fassbinder’s absorbing morality tale, we watch a honorable man become the very vile thing he attempted to fight against. A darkly, yet subtly satiric nod to the persuasive charms of capitalism, as usual, Fassbinder feels no need to underscore or underline the obvious, we watch this beautifully-shot fall from grace and any judgement is our own. [A]