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Film Review: ‘Enfant Terrible’ — The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Fassbinder

Perhaps not as well-regarded by today’s generation as he was during his 1970s heyday, the late director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was an important — if galvanizing — figure in German cinema. He finally gets to have his say in this stylistic biopic, and anyone familiar with his work will appreciate Enfant Terrible, a frequently messy but impassioned film.

It opens with Fassbinder (Oliver Masucci) making mincemeat out of the members of Munich’s Action Theater, who scoff at his intention to direct a play in the most avant-garde way possible. There, he encounters actor Kurt Raab (Harry Prinz). Their first meeting is not civil. While Raab mocks Fassbinder’s unorthodox staging ideas, the director tells Raab that he’s too old for the part. Something finally clicks between them, however, and they become lifelong compatriots and sometime lovers.

Andy Warhol (Alexander Scheer) meets Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Oliver Masucci) in Enfant Terrible (Dark Star Pictures).

Fassbinder tells Raab that he intends to start making films, and in short order he is making his debut feature, Love is Colder Than Death. But when it premieres, it is jeered at by audiences and critics alike. The director is humiliated, but even more determined to become world famous as he puts his distinctive stamp on the language of cinema. What follows is a whirlwind tour of the director’s career highlights, including the Cannes prize-winner, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and his final film, the hallucinatory Querelle.

Along the way, we are introduced to others in Fassbinder’s circle, including El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz), star of Ali and who also become one of his lovers and Ulli Lommel (Lucas Gregorowicz), who became a director himself, mostly of trashy low-budget horror. There’s a character referred to here only as Martha (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) who seems to be the director’s favorite actress, Hanna Schygulla. Perhaps the filmmakers avoided using her real name to avoid any potential legal trouble, as she is the only survivor of Fassbinder’s cadre.

Fassbinder’s voracious sex drive and increasing addiction to drugs and alcohol are also depicted here. He snorts enough cocaine to make a cow explode, and then loudly demands valium so that he can create. Between his rages and sadistic taunts, we also catch glimpses of his vulnerability — but not very frequently. Massuci does fine work here, portraying him as a lustful vulgarian whose carnal pursuits are as intense as his artistic ones. He’s a pot-bellied, slovenly satyr who always has one hand on his crotch and a cigarette between his lips.

Director Oskar Roehler stages the film in wildly stylized settings. Often, the backgrounds are merely painted flats, and Enfant Terrible takes radical tonal shifts to remind viewers of Fassbinder’s early, out-of-control work.

Currently playing in limited release, Enfant Terrible will be available on demand and on DVD June 15.

Kurt Gardner

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