In Robert Katz’s biography Love Is Colder Than Death, Michael Fengler recalls seeing the young Rainer Werner Fassbinder walking the streets of Munich with a book in his constant possession. That well-thumbed novel was Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, a book that Fassbinder had discovered as a teenager and one that had an enormous impact on his life; a book that penetrated “my head, my flesh, my whole body and my soul,” as he described it. After re-reading the novel some years later, he said that “it became clearer and clearer that an enormous part of myself, my behaviour and reactions, almost all of what I had thought was me, the me-ness of my existence, was nothing more than what Döblin had described in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Without realising it, I had, quite simply, made Döblin’s fantasy my life.”
In 1978, Fassbinder was offered the chance to bring Döblin’s fantasy to life in a television adaptation of his beloved novel. He was 33 years old, and had been directing films for barely a decade, but he already had almost forty credits – consisting of shorts, features, TV-movies and serials – to his name. His astonishing work rate was fuelled by a seemingly insatiable artistic hunger and whatever drugs he could get his hands on, and now he was approaching the apex of his career. When he found himself with a few months free before production on Berlin Alexanderplatz could begin, he decided to squeeze in a “quickie,” The Marriage of Maria Braun, which turned out to be his greatest commercial success. He was now being handed an enormous budget (the biggest in the history of German television, at the time), 15½ hours of broadcasting and unlimited freedom to present a deeply personal take on Döblin’s work. The wunderkind of German cinema was about to make his magnum opus.