Enfant Terrible

 

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An enfant more terrible than any thought up by Jean Cocteau.

 
Enfant Terrible

  

Rainer Werner Fassbinder died as long ago as 1982 but in recent times he has been in the news again in unexpected ways. Last year we saw Nicholas Wackerbarth's 2017 movie Casting, an underrated work that derived from the 1972 Fassbinder classic The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and now comes Oskar Roehler's ambitious Enfant Terrible, a biopic about Fassbinder. How you respond to it will largely depend on what you are looking for: in a perfect film one finds style and content blending perfectly, but in this case it is possible to regard the style as positively triumphant while questioning the tone of the content.

 

What is beyond doubt is that Roehler and Klaus Richter (the latter sole author of the screenplay but sharing the credit for the story with Roehler) have together done a great job in finding a way to cover virtually the full length of Fassbinder's career. The film starts in 1967 when he was about to choose cinema rather than theatre as his chief interest and continues through to his death. Fassbinder may have been no more that thirty-seven when he died but he had made over forty films (as an on-screen title puts it at one point 'One year and seven films later'). Consequently, a detailed over-all biopic would be impossible in a single feature film and it might have been thought that Roehler and Richter would have been better advised to pick out one particular period in his career chosen for its insights into his character. Instead they have opted most successfully to select some key years in chronological order retaining a sense of flow and development despite the jumps in time.

 

This approach necessarily has to reflect the fact that not everything can be included, but more unexpectedly it also means that not everyone who played a major part in Fassbinder's life puts in an appearance. In particular, Ingrid Caven, Im Hermann and Hanna Schygulla are left out and I assume that the female most prominently seen - an actress named Gudrun (Katja Riemann) - is something of a composite figure. In contrast most of the men in the Fassbinder circle do feature with particular emphasis on Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz), Ulli Lommel (Lucas Gregorowicz), Günther Kaufmann (Michael Klammer) and the two men who as lovers meant most to Fassbinder, the Moroccan El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) and Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp). Yildiz lacks the on-screen charisma of Salem, but most of the casting is very adroit and none more so than that of Oliver Masucci who, despite being much older than Fassbinder ever became, captures the nature and manner of the man remarkably well. 

 

There is also another area in which this film triumphs. Roehler is more than the director being credited also as the production designer and that is key to the project. He has set out to tell the story in a manner that echoes many of Fassbinder's own films in which naturalism is replaced by a degree of artificiality but one that ensures that the stylisation stops short of making the action feel unreal. Aided by the colour photography of Carl-Friedrich Koschnick, Roehler creates a look that is brilliantly maintained and stands as a tribute to Fassbinder's own work.

 

But, if the style to be found in Enfant Terrible is great, the treatment of its content is questionable. Indeed, some might even query the choice of subject matter here. However talented Fassbinder was, it is undeniable that he was the most unpleasant of men and, being a biopic of his life, this work is all about him as a man. Quite what drove him is more than the film can uncover, but it fully reveals him as a gay man who was determined to be a controlling figure and who, while angry if he felt he was being used, never hesitated to use others and to abuse and humiliate those around him. His appalling treatment of these people is not hidden in Enfant Terrible but, even if at times they chose to stay close to him to share in his limelight, we need to feel for them in what they endured. Yet Roehler's film is lacking in any sense of that. It is almost as though Fassbinder has seduced Roehler sufficiently to encourage a tone that remains superficial. We may see Fassbinder as a sociopath but he nevertheless dominates Enfant Terrible in a way that keeps us at one remove from concerning ourselves with his victims. It is entirely in keeping with this that of the two suicides that form a part of this story neither is shown on screen. While Fassbinder was a horrifying figure, he was also underneath it all a tragic one, but that is not really where this film wants to go.

 

Judged as a surface piece, this film has much to offer even if one cannot altogether ignore the issue of how useful it is to study Fassbinder's life-style at length when what is of value is what he achieved as an artist, something that can be referred to here but not shown. Had the film been able to explain Fassbinder more, to make us understand just what drove him and why he could be so heartless then making the man and his life the chief focus would have been of value. But Enfant Terrible is not that movie. Even so, much in it deserves applause and it is worth adding a footnote relating to its most tender moments. These come in the few scenes that feature the great German actress Brigitte Mira who starred for Fassbinder in one of his best works, 1974's Fear Eats the Soul. The role of Mira is played by the splendid Eva Mattes who back in 1983 took on a male role when she played Fassbinder himself in another film about his life, A Man Like Eva. For Mattes that was strange casting but a definite success and now here she is again, this time bringing out the warmth of Brigitte Mira quite admirably. It's a rare touch of humanity in a film which is devoted to portraying convincingly a man who was a monster but which never transcends that to enable us to understand the deeply flawed human being underneath.

 

Available on:

https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-enfant-terrible-2020-online

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Oliver Masucci, Hary Prinz, Katja Riemann, Erdal Yildiz, Jochen Schropp, Lucas Gregorowicz, Michael Klammer, Anton Rattinger, Frida-Lovisa Hamann, Felix Hellmann, Simon Böer, Eva Mattes.

 

Dir Oskar Roehler, Pro Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott and Markus Zimmer, Screenplay Klaus Richter, from a story by Klaus Richter and Oskar Roehler, Ph Carl-Friedrich Koschnick, Pro Des Oskar Roehler, Ed Hansjörg Weißbrich, Music Martin Todsharrow, Costumes Peri de Bragança.

 

ARTE/Bavaria Filmproduktion/X-Filme Creative Pool/BayerischerRundfunk-BFI Films.
134 mins. Germany. 2020. Rel: 2 April 2021. Cert. 18.