Along with the better-known Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen was a major diva of New German Cinema's most prolific and arguably most important talent, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Tall, slender and seductive, with huge, lovely eyes, Carstensen could crinkle her wide and sensuous mouth into either a delicate sneer or an arc of desperation. She acted in over a dozen Fassbinder films in the 1970s; as with much of his company, she often played people brought down low by social circumstances and their own passions. At other times, though, she played sly and slinky types, sometimes bitchy and hysterical, but almost invariably insinuating.
Carstensen began acting in Fassbinder films in 1970, in both the historical drama "Die Niklashauser Fahrt" and the ensemble piece "The Coffee Shop". Although she worked with directors such as Ulli Lommel in his "M"-like story of a serial killer, "The Tenderness of Wolves" (1973), the mid-70s were Carstensen's peak period with Fassbinder. As with many who acted regularly for the moody genius, she had a signature role. One of Fassbinder's best-remembered films, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972) was at once a stylized exercise in Brechtian emotional distancing, a campy lesbian catfight and a uniquely potent study of emotional humiliation. Carstensen, donning a series of outlandish wigs and gowns, held the film together with a virtuoso turn in the title role, a sardonic, demanding clothing designer who gets her comeuppance, abasing herself completely when she falls in love with an ambitious model (Schygulla).
Carstensen was for a time thereafter one of Fassbinder's foremost interpreters, continuing in a hyperbolically masochistic vein with her theatrical work in "Martha" (1973), as a self-absorbed but naive woman whose storybook romance goes awry when she is paralyzed and her husband becomes a sadist. Another such role was the homemaker who has a nervous breakdown in "Fear of Fear" (1975), a lesser but typical Fassbinder attack on bourgeois respectability. Similar themes, but a difference performance style, added interest to Fassbinder's odd take on Ibsen's classic play, "A Doll's House". Renamed "Nora Helmer" (1973), the director's TV adaptation maintained a detached, cool tone, mirrored by Carstensen's unusually knowing and slinky work as Nora. Less quiet, indeed deliberately shrill, was her rendition of the nasty gossip Sylvia, always clad in black, in "Frauen in New York" (1977), Fassbinder's TV version of "The Women". She was back to suffering, though, for another comedy, Fassbinder's raunchy and goofball farce, "Satan's Brew" (1976), with Carstensen almost unrecognizable as an abused nerd, complete with bad skin and thick glasses.
Carstensen starred for other directors as well, though a reteaming with Lommel, "Adolph and Marlene" (1976), with its fictional romance between Hitler and Dietrich, was not well received. She wasn't on Fassbinder's list of favorites by the time of their last collaboration, his landmark 15-1/2 hour miniseries, "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980), but her casting as an angel was nonetheless an iconic gesture to her role in his oeuvre. When Fassbinder died, Carstensen's career in films began to slide somewhat. This happened with most of his players: a number of his films, after all, had only been critical or art-house successes. Furthermore, the biggest star of any Fassbinder film was inevitably the director himself. Thus, a versatile player like Carstensen, middle-aged and with a persona often in flux, did not manage quite the international success that the slightly younger Schygulla enjoyed for a couple of years.
Carstensen did, however, act in several films during the 80s, and she performed in other media as well. She worked with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in the French-German co-production, "Possession" (1981) and essayed a supporting role in Agnieszka Holland's WWII-set psychological study of Poles and Jews, "Bitter Harvest" (1985). Carstensen's subtle intensity also brought some balance that same year to "Half of Love", an intriguing but muddled semi-erotic thriller in which she played the leading role of an amnesiac doctor who becomes mixed up with criminals. After some years, Carstensen returned to the screen in "Terror 2000" (1992), a low-budget satirical political spoof done up as a slasher horror film.