ENFANT TERRIBLE is an energetic, timely and fitting biopic of the notorious, provocative and iconic German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Making a film about the life and death of Rainer Fassbinder – a filmmaker so impossibly prolific that culture critic Ian Penman referred to the postwar cinematic landscape of West Germany as the “Fassbinderrepublik” – seems a bold undertaking. After all, Fassbinder is as much an iconic character as he is an iconic filmmaker. He embodied the distilled essence of his time and place. He was both the product and in part the creator of a sociopolitically turbulent and rapidly evolving postwar Germany, riven between the old establishment haunted by its all-too-recent nazi past and the radical, revolutionary and thoroughly modern liberal movements swelling up from the ranks of the young. He was an incendiary political and artistic firebrand hellbent on challenging authority and living irrevocably far beyond the boundaries of genteel society. Openly bisexual and with a voracious sexual appetite, he also represented and promoted a proud and progressive sexual attitude. He exuded and deftly wielded a certain kind of grotesque Tom of Finland leather daddy sexual magnetism and committed many a wanton and depraved act of lust to celluloid. While the sheer volume and complexity of his body of work leaves much to be unpicked and understood by today’s audiences, the essence of his provocative, anarchic and debauched character and tragic personal life is easier to decipher.
That Fassbinder was both a powerful destructive and creative force is abundantly clear in ENFANT TERRIBLE. However, director Oskar Roehler manages to wrest the film from becoming a one-note biopic about the horror stories that have outlived Fassbinder himself.
ENFANT TERRIBLE might have served as a scathing exposé of Fassbinder’s addictions, capriciousness, and sadomasochistic tendencies had they not been a matter of public record for some decades. Instead, ENFANT TERRIBLE is more apposite to today’s conversations surrounding misogyny, toxic masculinity, groupthink, accountability and the abusive personal relationships of the famous and idolised. ENFANT TERRIBLE unflinchingly presents the grim reality of the power politics and desperation to accrue cultural capital rife in the personal and professional relationships of famous artists and those aspiring to that status.
In giving attention to the beleaguered, oft-abused people that became caught in Fassbinder’s enigmatic and powerful orbit, ENFANT TERRIBLE draws attention to the great and bitter irony which haunts many of the radical political and cultural movements of the seventies. Despite purporting to be custodians of a new, more progressive, liberated, even utopian age, the people who created and followed them often succumbed to tyrannical and abusive leadership, regressive practices and self-destruction. ENFANT TERRIBLE captures the tone of the tensions, claustrophobia, darkness and paranoia of the seventies and early eighties, but also its dynamism and irreverent ingenuity.
ENFANT TERRIBLE makes no excuses for Fassbinder. It doesn’t raise suspicions that an evangelistic Roehler idolises this man as an auteur of unparalleled genius and impact, although that may be true. It doesn’t attempt to make us feel that we sympathise with or understand the motivations behind this enigmatic but domineering and destructive behemoth. However, it does capture the powerful incendiary energy that characterises Fassbinder as a man and as a creative. It conveys the maelstrom of inspiration, rage, cruelty, lust and love unrelentingly vying for control of the man with a sensitive sincerity.
It would be easy to criticise ENFANT TERRIBLE for perpetuating the stereotype of the abhorrent but gifted genius. But ENFANT TERRIBLE simply depicts the madness of magnetism and power too well and possesses too much of the same charm and momentum that helped make Fassbinder the European cinematic Titan that he is. Roehler has created a film that is fascinating not just for its treatment of a divisive character but for its uncanny resemblance to Fassbinder’s theatrical style of filmmaking and references to his playwright past. ENFANT TERRIBLE sits pleasantly in the limbo between an ambitious stage production and a stylised feature film. It is in perfect harmony with Fassbinder himself, existing in a heterotopic space somewhere between private reality and provocative public performance.