Born in Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Fassbinder was raised by his mother after his parents' divorce in 1952. He left school in 1962 and held various jobs before making his first short films in 1965 and 1966. In 1967 he formed a commune of actors, including Hanna Schygulla from Germany, which became the 'antitheater' group in 1968. The ensemble performed in Fassbinder's plays and in the feature films he adapted from these stage works, notably Katzelmacher (1969; slang term used pejoratively to refer to workers from foreign countries), the story of a Greek immigrant persecuted by his German neighbors.
Most of Fassbinder's later films, which often starred Schygulla and Fassbinder himself, were based on his own screenplays. They include Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972), widely praised for its realistic treatment of lesbian love; Angst essen Seele auf (1973), an unusually optimistic account of the love between a Moroccan immigrant and a middle-aged cleaning woman; and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1978), which sets the story of a woman's life against the background of postwar West Germany (now part of the Federal Republic of Germany). Fassbinder also made film adaptations of novels, such as Effi Briest (1895; translated 1967), by German author Theodor Fontane, in 1974; Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929; translated 1931) by German author Alfred Döblin, in 1980, for television; and Querelle de Brest (1947; translated 1966), by French author Jean Genet, on which Fassbinder's 1982 film Querelle is based. Fassbinder died of a drug overdose.