'Enfant Terrible' Paints a Painful Picture of Punk Provocateur Rainer Werner Fassbinder Directed by Oskar Roehler
Starring Oliver Masucci, Hary Prinz, Katja Riemann, El Hedi ben Salem, Jochen Schropp
Published May 17, 2021"Everything is film. Everything," says Rainer Werner Fassbinder to one of his on-set collaborators in Enfant Terrible. For the German filmmaker, actor and playwright, the pursuit of art was totalizing and all-consuming, part of a primal force of creation and destruction. Considered one of the catalyzing forefathers of the New German Cinema movement, Fassbinder garnered a reputation throughout the 20th century both for his prolific creative output — which included 24 plays, two television series, four video productions, three short films and 40 feature films — as well as his penchant for volatile, hedonistic excess.
Directed by fellow German Oscar Roelher, Enfant Terrible attempts to chronicle Fassbinder's whirlwind trajectory with the same slapdash stylistic verve found in many of the filmmaker's earlier works. Beginning in his early 20s, we witness Fassbinder (played with Byronic might by a slovenly, pot-bellied Oliver Masucci) hose down a crowd in Munich's Action Theatre before bullying those around him into a furious slate of low-budget film productions, fuelled by endless cigarettes, rivers of whiskey, casual bouts of sadism, and trips to the bathhouse for midnight queer liaisons. Much of the film plays out like a hallucinatory fever dream, with scenes acted in front of hand-painted theatre backdrops, foreign locations traded in for sound studio recreations, seedy alleyways full of trash used as bedding, and toilets inexplicably placed in the middle of apartment living rooms.
This heightened sense of surrealism works to cast the vision of Enfant Terrible as less of a blow-by-blow retelling of Fassbinder's exploits and more of a phenomenological portrayal of what being there among the daily dose of chaos might have felt like.
Roelher and Masucci attempt to show that Fassbinder was fiercely committed to his one "great love": film. His all-or-nothing approach to filmmaking is only matched by the intensity of his work ethic ("My day has 26 hours") and the fiery passion of his carnal desires. (When asked about his sexual orientation, he quips: "I'm everything, but mostly gay.") Fuelled by substance abuse and a revolving door of sycophants and hangers-on, Fassbinder's bohemian vision eventually begins to take its toll, devouring his personal relationships with frequent collaborators and communal partners: Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) and Gudrun (Katja Riemann), and his doomed paramours Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp) and El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yıldız).
In a 2005 review of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) — arguably Fassbinder's biggest critical success, a film French New Wave legend François Truffaut described as "an original work of epic and poetic qualities" — famed cinephile Roger Ebert recalls seeing Fassbinder in a late-night bar at Cannes for the film's premiere, "always in his black leather jacket, surrounded by his crowd, often scowling or arguing as they tried to please him." After burning the candle at both ends for close to two decades, Fassbinder passed away in 1982 at the age of 37 following a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. Amid his appreciation for the film, Ebert laments the "fatal jolt" to the heart that would end Fassbinder's promising career only a few years later, arguing, "He was a genius. That much everyone admitted."
While Enfant Terrible is certainly convinced of this fact, casual viewers and those not already versed in Fassbinder's sordid history might not be entirely swayed by Roelher's messy portrayal. The film goes to great lengths to paint Fassbinder as equally grand and grotesque, the punk rock provocateur of his age, a one-man army drinking, snorting, screaming, fighting, fucking and filming his way to a promised glory. Yet there's little sign of the potential in his craft present in Enfant Terrible, or any indication to where the visionary director might have taken his art if given the chance. Sadly, these are aspects of Fassbinder's entertaining story that Roelher clearly has zero interest in exploring. (Dark Star Pictures)