Rainer Werner Fassbinder died at age 37, having crammed no fewer than 40 feature films, an epic miniseries (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”) and two dozen plays into his brief but intense time on Earth. He was, by all reports, the “enfant terrible” that this so-titled, Cannes-selected, COVID-deferred biopic makes him out to be, although director Oskar Roehler focuses rather heavily on his boorish misbehavior, while taking his genius far too much for granted. For those who don’t know Fassbinder’s oeuvre going in, the movie plays like a litany of grievances more than ripe for a culture thirsting to scrub and forget the achievements of rule-bending artists.
As an industry-wide reckoning expands from convicted rapists to bullies and belligerent bad actors (à la David O. Russell and Scott Rudin), Roehler’s portrait of Fassbinder could easily be interpreted as a decades-late indictment of the German auteur’s misconduct, which ranges from provoking journalists at press conferences to extinguishing a cigarette on an actor’s arm. And yet, “Enfant Terrible” comes from a place of affection, featuring a thundering, transformative performance from Oliver Masucci (who played Hitler in 2015’s hit satire “Look Who’s Back”) as the larger-than-life figure, handlebar mustache, prominent potbelly and all.
Bypassing the usual strategy of examining the subject’s formative experiences or childhood, “Enfant Terrible” dramatizes outrageous anecdotes that have been widely reported for years by the company of collaborators who regularly endured Fassbinder’s outbursts. Why tolerate such behavior, you ask? That’s easy: They sincerely believed in what they were creating together. The question screenwriter Klaus Richter contends with here is how such a brilliantly creative spirit as Fassbinder could have coexisted alongside such a destructive impulse. The abusive young artist not only died of a drug overdose but drove two of his most significant lovers, El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) and Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp), to suicide.
That’s a complicated paradox to unravel, especially as “Enfant Terrible” confines itself to the years of Fassbinder’s career, starting with the moment, at age 22, when he commandeered Munich’s politically confrontational Action-Theatre and spun off his own Anti-Theater company in its place. Dressed in leather and slouching against the wall with a cigarette, the version of Fassbinder introduced here doesn’t look a day under 50, and that’s a problem in a film that seems fixated on the burnt-out, heavy-mileage figure he would become, but is incapable of representing what a prodigy he was at the clean-shaven, baby-faced start — the “enfant” aspect of his persona, who had the courage in his early 20s to take charge and the compulsive work ethic to make good on his ambitions.
Fassbinder shakes things up in the theater, ordering his actors to address themselves from opposite ends of the stage in intimate scenes, and even turning a water hose on the audience at one point. But what he really wants to do is direct movies, and his cocky self-confidence — openly bisexual, though the movie elides his straight affairs, disguising early wife Ingrid Caven under a pseudonym — succeeds in seducing future stars (in the Warholian sense) and financiers alike.
“I’m everything, but mainly gay,” the character (who takes to calling himself “Mary”) tells closeted actor Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz), the first collaborator to enter his orbit — and the one on whom the film puts the greatest demands. Most of the ensemble bear a fair resemblance to the actors they’re playing, both physically and in their mannerisms, like Hanna Schygulla stand-in Frida-Lovisa Hamann (identified here as “Martha”). Salem was too distinctive-looking a man to be easily matched, but Michael Klammer makes a striking Günther Kaufmann, the Black lover — and awkwardly stiff actor — whom Fassbinder continued to use (and abuse) until his final film, “Querelle.” That movie’s impressionistic lighting and hyper-artificial sets strongly influence “Enfant Terrible” DP Carl-Friedrich Koschnick (who also channels Xaver Schwarzenberger’s striking work on “Lola”) and production designer Oskar Roehler (going so far as to use hand-painted theatrical sets, like the recurring lobby/bar clearly inspired by “Beware of a Holy Whore”).
By eschewing realism in his aesthetic, Roehler can arguably get away with using the much-older Masucci in the lead role (a choice not unlike 60-something Willem Dafoe playing Vincent Van Gogh or Pier Paolo Pasolini), though it’s less than ideal, failing to represent how vulnerable Fassbinder could be early on. Instead, he appears here as a greasy, gut-thrusting slob from the get-go: Masucci semi-obscenely presents his stomach like a metaphorical phallus, wielding it proudly throughout, as when he challenges a jealous, switch-blade-wielding Salem with it at a bar. Even more distracting, the film serves up kitschy cameos by such contemporaries as Andy Warhol and Freddie Mercury.
“Enfant Terrible” often depicts Fassbinder as a monster — which grows exhausting as the movie stretches well past the two-hour mark, spiraling into drug abuse and his ultimate self-destruction — but acknowledges how sensitive he was as well. Capable of crying in front of his own films, the director was known for being easily moved, represented here in a scene where he’s moved to (bitter) tears by a rejected transvestite. But he became increasingly flamboyant as his fame grew, dressing in leopard-print suits and snorting Tony Montana-size piles of cocaine.
Fueled by Cuba libres and barbiturates even while on set, Fassbinder was obviously a complicated personality, and that comes across loud and clear here, though the movie assumes that audiences share Roehler’s respect for the prolific auteur, and that’s a mistake. “Enfant Terrible” is filled with references to Fassbinder’s oeuvre, which should delight his fans but will fly right past most viewers, who’ll be left trying to contend with the enigma of why so many gifted people allowed themselves to be hurt and humiliated by him.
The man had much the same power over his circle that a cult leader does — and that’s been evident in the decades since his death, as the real-life people represented in this film publicly shared the stories that comprise it, invariably making excuses for Fassbinder’s behavior. Dense and ultimately more unpleasant than not, the movie concludes with this run-amok tyrant lying dead and alone, as so many biopic subjects do — but the story didn’t end there, as so many RWF doc portraits reveal, even if there’s no easy way to depict how his company forgave his antics and upheld his legend.