As noted in an affectionate commentary track by Fassbinder's friend and fellow director Wim Wenders, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is Fassbinder's undisputed masterwork, a critical and box-office triumph that fulfilled Fassbinder's goal of creating a "German Hollywood melodrama" in the tradition of his director-hero, Douglas Sirk. Beautifully shot by Michael Ballhaus (who advanced to brilliant collaborations with Martin Scorsese), it stars Hanna Schygulla in her signature role as a newlywed whose missing husband returns in the mid-'50s, just as she's reinventing herself through opportunism, seduction, and blind ambition--a woman, like Germany, determined to forget her miserable past, with explosively tragic results. "BRD 2" is the wickedly satirical Veronika Voss (1982), filmed in black and white (a stylistic nod to German'y's post-war thrillers) and starring Rosel Zech as a faded film star-turned-morphine addict making futile attempts to revive her career. Set in 1957, Lola ("BRD 3," 1981) is Fassbinder's homage to Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, and stars Barbara Sukowa as a cabaret singer and prostitute who, like Maria Braun, is for sale to the highest bidder--in this case a straight-laced official (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who discovers the high cost of ignorance.
Taken together, these films form an impressively coherent vision, compassionate and yet brutally honest, unsentimental, and provocatively critical of post-war Germany. In the established tradition of the Criterion Collection, extensive supplements explore the depth of Fassbinder's achievement. Three commentaries, each with their own uniquely personal and/or critical perspective, are among the finest Criterion has ever recorded. Interviews with Schygulla, Zech, Sukowa, and many of Fassbinder's closest collaborators pay latter-day tribute to Fassbinder and his extended family of on- and off-screen talent, while the 96-minute German TV documentary I Don't Just Want You to Love Me explores Fassbinder's tragically curtailed life and work through abundant film clips and interviews. A filmed 1978 interview with Fassbinder himself--at 49 minutes, the longest ever recorded--offers further insight into the psychology and chain-smoking intensity of a man who burned out from drugs and exhaustion at the age of 37. Along with the collected Adventures of Antoine Doinel, the BRD Trilogy is one of the most impressive DVD sets ever released, and a sparkling jewel in Criterion's crown. --Jeff Shannon