Born in 1945 in Bad Wörishofen, Fassbinder lived with his mother in Munich after his parents divorced when he was five. Part of the postwar generation weaned on American culture and German historical amnesia about the Nazi years, he spent his youth at the movies and became a fan of Hollywood, particularly German émigré Douglas Sirk's glossy 1950s melodramas. After high school, Fassbinder applied to the Berlin Film School -- and was rejected. Undaunted, he began making shorts and joined Munich's underground Action Theater troupe in 1967 as an actor, writer, and director; he formed his own company, the Anti-Theater, in 1968. Applying the theater ethos of working collaboratively with a stock company of actors and technicians, Fassbinder and the Anti-Theater began making feature films in 1969, with the gangster movies Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, as well as a stylized film adaptation of his play Katzelmacher, about a foreigner's effect on a group of rootless young Germans. Revealing his cinematic influences early on, The American Soldier (1970), the third in Fassbinder's gangster trilogy, was a pastiche of American film noir, and Whity (1971) was a Western. Fassbinder's nascent interest in examining the lives of ordinary people in realistic settings, however, also emerged in his neorealist comedy drama about a middle-class man who inexplicably kills his family, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970).
After an unsatisfactory film adaptation of Marieluise Fleisser's play Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971), the original Anti-Theater troupe dissolved due to tensions satirically chronicled by Fassbinder in his reflexive film Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). He did, however, continue to work with a stock company of actors throughout the rest of his career. Taking advantage of the various funding sources available in Germany, he formed his own production company, Tango Film, and made The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), a bleak story of a working man's loveless marriage and alcoholic death. A blend of melodrama, garish style, and harsh realism that became Fassbinder's signature, The Merchant of Four Seasons was a critically hailed success in Germany. He followed it with the overtly theatrical The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Though set among working-class teens, Jail Bait (1972) similarly revealed the dangerous effects of romantic illusions and social mores.