There’s nothing terrible about Oskar Roehler’s loving tribute to legendary German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder; in fact, this is about the best film imaginable on the subject. That’s because, together with screenwriter Klaus Richter, Roehler has come up with a film in which the subject is a perfect match for the style. Enfant Terrible has the look and feel of a Fassbinder film, and that’s what gives it tremendous power. All that said, if you don’t know who Fassbinder was, 135 minutes of this won’t help, but if you’re already tuned in to self select, Enfant Terrible really delivers the dramatic goods.
Oliver Masucci is a good decade older than Fassbinder when he died in 1982; that’s not a problem here, since we’re not looking at a photo-realistic story, but one in which there’s dramatic licence. Like some of Fassbinder’s films, much of the backgrounds are staged, and the sets are paper and cardboard, but this has the bonus of blurring the on-screen and off-screen dramas. ‘This is film not theatre’ Fassbinder says, and Enfant Terrible understands not to play up the background details but to let the corrosive central drama sing.
The story will be familiar to cineastes. Fassbinder is rubbished initially by critics and financiers, but despite working with cast members from the Horrors of Spider Island, the director has the last laugh as his career takes off and he ends up winning the Golden Bear of Berlin. ’Everything is film’ he notes, and this whole film is dedicated to recording the messiness of his creative process. Today’s film-making is sanitised in comparison; Fassbinder drank, snorted coke, slept with his cast, paid off prostitutes, and never looked back, even when cast members commit suicide on his birthday. Fassbinder didn’t care about a safe and secure workplace; he wanted to go to extremes, and succeeded; ‘I always go where it hurts,’ he concludes.
As a biopic, there’s lots of meat on the bone, but also attractive trimmings; we see him meet up with luminaries including Jack Palance, Marlene Dietrich and Andy Warhol, while Freddie Mercury and Franco Nero cross his path tangentially. There’s time to explore Fassbinder’s relationship with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who went on to create much of Scorsese’s best work. And we even see the moment that Fassbinder conceives of 1974’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a key text alongside Fear Eats the Soul.
‘This isn’t an anti-authoritarian kindergarten!’ yelps the director on another rage-quest; there’s a tragedy and a comedy in Masucci’s performance that is entirely successful in evoking the spirit of the great, if flawed man. Those squeamish about sex and drugs should stay away, but Enfant Terrible works as a provocation, and when you’re telling the story of a provocateur, that’s the perfect combination. A great big shrug from the general public, perhaps, but Enfant Terrible is a tremendous way to celebrate the rise and fall of one of cinema’s most iconoclastic talents.
Enfant Terrible can be viewed on the link below in the UK, and screens as follows in the US.
May 7 – LA for Laemmle NoHo (physical)
May 14 – Laemmle (virtual) includes New York
May 14 – Cleveland Cinematheque
May 14 – VIFF Film Society Vancouver
May 20 – San Diego FilmOut
May 28 – New Orleans, Zeitgeist Film Center (Physical)
June 23 – Goethe Pop Up Cinema, Seattle
and many more to be announced!
ON DEMAND AND DVD JUNE 15
Thanks to Dark Star Pictures and October Coast for access to this film.