Of the three major postwar German filmmakers — Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — the latter presents the most fecund material for a biopic.
A gay man in a time when it was dangerous and transgressive to be one, Fassbinder was also a drug addict, an alcoholic and a workaholic, completing more than 40 films, two television series and 24 plays in less than two decades before flaming out, from a cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates, at 37. He lived as hard as a diamond and as fast as a sidewinder, and with arguably as much venom.
This is the Fassbinder — cruel, petty, insatiable, paranoid — that emerges in Oskar Roehler’s Enfant Terrible. The emphasis here is on the English terrible as much as the French terrible. Roehler’s is an approach so far from hagiography that it veers into idol assassination.
A quote from Jeanne Moreau, in Fassbinder’s 1982 swan song Querelle, opens the film, anticipating its subject’s self-destructive nature: “Each man kills the thing he loves.” When we meet Fassbinder, it is the late 1960s, and he is seen bullying his way to the top of the Munich Action-Theater and planning his first feature film, Love is Colder Than Death. The casting of the 52-year-old Oliver Masucci to play the filmmaker, who was then in his mid-20s, is a calculated decision: Fassbinder, overfed on life’s indulgences, always looked twice his age.
Treating Fassbinder’s professional ascent and personal downfall as intertwining strands of DNA, Roehler offers a linear and painful portrait of rot and megalomania. Offering Fassbinder as a fading archetype of the sadistic genius behind the camera, Roehler revels in the psychic and emotional shrapnel that are presented as inextricable from the filmmaker’s masterpieces. Roehler compresses Fassbinder’s fertile career into 134 minutes of tyranny and extortion, in which his subject abuses and exploits everyone who enters his orbit.
In his first encounter with actor Gunther Kaufmann (Michael Klammer), Fassbinder pleasures himself in front of the man. On the set of Whity, in which Kaufmann, who is Black, would star, Fassbinder makes the actor do his own stunts, including being dragged by a stagecoach until the streaks of blood on his back resemble the lash marks of a tortured slave. He settles personal vendettas by humiliating actors onscreen, and any pushback yields draconian punishments. By this movie’s account, his torrents of abuse led to the premature deaths of two of his lovers and onscreen collaborators: El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) and Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp).
But what of the director’s great legacy of cinema? Roehler is clearly a student of Fassbinder’s films. Though favoring more camera coverage than Fassbinder, he shoots Enfant Terrible with a referential — and reverential — palette of oversaturated color, lurid lighting and expressionistic artifice. And if you hunt for it, you can see how Fassbinder’s ugly and tortured life informed his art, with its fierceness and suffering and unpeeling of the buried onion layers of the human condition.
But this presupposes a viewer’s familiarity with Fassbinder’s corpus. In Enfant Terrible, Fassbinder’s films are essentially an afterthought. True, Roehler places us inside the shoots of Colder Than Death and Whity, but both have the amateur vibe of Ed Wood productions; only a brief re-creation of a scene from Veronika Voss presents Fassbinder’s work in an artful light.
There is little acknowledgement here of his revisionist approaches to the melodrama, Western and sci-fi saga; to his innovations in long-form television; and to his extraordinary direction of women, most of whom barely register in Enfant Terrible’s running time.
Instead, we see only the monster. Anyone being introduced to Fassbinder’s work through Roehler’s biopic would be so thoroughly repulsed as to avoid his films — a great disservice indeed. Perhaps this is the latest example of our cultural erasure of shades of gray. Granted, Woody Allen’s sins are too fresh, too obscene and, until recently, too unchecked. Must we cancel Fassbinder, too?
ENFANT TERRIBLE. Director: Oskar Roehler; Cast: Oliver Masucci, Hary Prinz, Katja Riemann, Felix Hellmann, Erdal Yildiz; Distributor: Dark Star Pictures; Not Rated;
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