Could a Rainer Werner Fassbinder become a star filmmaker today?
That’s a question that comes to mind in the scruffy, seamy but accurate portrait of him that emerges from “Enfant Terrible,” director Oscar Roehler’s film biography of the wunderkind of the New German Cinema of the late 60s and ’70s.
Mercurial, narcissistic, impulsive and violent, he used and abused — sometimes physically –actors, colleagues and lovers alike. #MeToo would have nailed him to a tree, although one can picture him laughing maniacally as it happened.
He worked impressionist-painter fast, filming his symbolic, sometimes sloppy melodramas in mere days, writing and directing as many as seven films in a year, plowing through TV series the same way.
And he wasn’t overly fond of editing. His movies and especially his epic 14 episode/15 and a half hour TV adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)” are often as famous for their epic length as their sometimes overtly-theatrical explorations of bourgeois, fascist-at-its-core Germany, homosexuality, violence and loneliness.
The digital era might have given Fassbinder a more modest, “viral” version of the niche he enjoyed in his heyday — a festival and critical darling, subsidized, celebrated abroad and infamous at home.
The fact that his name rarely comes up these days speaks volumes, too. Werner Herzog is the most famous among that class of German filmmakers, living long enough to become beloved.
Oliver Masucci, who played Hitler in the dark farce “Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da),” makes a riveting Fassbinger, another raving, tirade-prone tyrant, bullying everything in his path.
We meet him — already paunchy and wearing the leather jacket, biker boots and walrus mustache that became his trademark — just as he stages the coup that allowed him to take over Munich’s Action-Theater troupe in 1967. He makes his fellow thespians into film actors and slaps the actress meant to be his muse, Hanna Schygulla (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) because he’s too arrogant to have ever learned how to stage-slap.
“This is FILM, not theatre,” he grouses (in German with English subtitles). Then he tells “Martha,” as she’s called here “One day, I’ll make you famous.” He kept that promise.
“Enfant Terrible” tracks, with indifferent thoroughness, the 15 years that followed; the politics that inspired the terrorism of the era, the communal living arrangements that kept Fassbinder surrounded by the actors, designers, producers and others whom he used and abused to crank out 50 or so films and plays during that time.
He began in the avante garde, imitating Brecht and his hero, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The “Enfant” cites Welles and 1950s melodramas-with-a-message icon Douglas Sirk as his influences, and eventually, that’s where his cinema turned.
Masucci’s Fassbinder only shows vulnerability with the male and female lovers he often seduces with film role offers — the Afro-German Gunther (Michael Klammer), the Tunisian-born El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz), star of his breakout film, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” among them.
Even they would be bullied and abused, in time. A couple ended up killing themselves.
He throws Hitlerian tantrums — a comparison born of the shared bug-eyed, spitting excesses and harshness of their language — threatens most everybody he works with, none more than his closest collaborators.
“I like to provoke,” he confesses. “Otherwise, nothing happens.”
And he tries to shrug off the fame, when it comes, recognizing that his very personal art is what matters even as he has the last laugh on those who dismissed him at first.
“You have to go where it hurts. I always go where it hurts. In life and in films.”
Director Roehler (“Punk Berlin 1982”) concocted the story with screenwriter Klaus Richter and makes no attempt at showing us a simple chronology of Fassbinder’s life and career. We see snippets of an early film created and shot, and glimpses of “Ali,” “Lola,” “Whity” and others as they’re being made.
We meet a few of the lovers, see his defiantly omnivorous sexuality and his notoriously “out” visit to New York in the late ’70s, cruising the gay bars as a famous and unapologetic international film figure.
And we’re treated to the sight of his self-destruction, the drug abuse that took center stage in the last years of a life lived with zero self-control.
Masucci’s intensely charismatic Fassbinder, bathed in cigarette smoke, working “26 hour days” even before the cocaine and barbiturate addictions that took over later, looks like walking death the moment we meet him. That lets “Enfant Terrible” reinforce the suspicion that Fassbinder is more famous for his excesses than his films, 40 years after his death.
Herzog may be the Grand Old Man of the New German Cinema. Outside of older film buffs, who still talks about Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, Wolfgang Petersen and Volker Schlöndorff today?
But only Fassbinder, leather-loving, Village People-inspiring “bad boy,” the ’70s cinema’s “Enfant Terrible,” has inspired a pretty good/true-in-spirit biopic, one that takes us back to an ugly era and one of the uglier artistic success stories of from it.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, sex
Cast: Oliver Masucci, ,Lucas Gregorowicz, Jochen Schropp, Katja Riemann Anton Rattinger, Michael Klammer and Erdal Yildiz
Credits: Directed by Oskar Roehler, script by Klaus Richter. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 2:15