I don't know how it could have happened, but I got through 35 years of movie watching and had never heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder until this year. I recently rented "The Marriage of Maria Braun," and, based on that film alone, he deserves to be in the pantheon of great auteurs.
First, the film is luscious in its use of color. It begins with the washed out colors of 1945 and ends with the saturated colors of the 1950s.
Second, although it is an allegory for the birth (and eventual spiritual death) of West Germany, Maria's character is three-dimensional and interesting, and we care about her.
Third, it is bookended beautifully. I have read that all films have a good beginning and a good ending. It's the rest that makes a great film. As aphorisms go, this one is accurate just enough to be considered true. Even if the rest of the film were dull (which it isn't), the opening marriage scene and the ending cigarette lighting scene alone would make it a classic film.
I have not been as excited about a directoral find since I "discovered" Kurosawa.