Rainer Werner Fassbinder defies an easy introduction. The German director left an indelible mark on world cinema during a tumultuous yet prolific career, which was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 37.

Fassbinder was a troubled, troubling and troublesome individual. He was an incorrigible agent provocateur whose staggering productivity went hand in hand with the escalating chaos of his life. This tension between discipline and excess is now the subject of a biopic. Enfant Terrible, which is streaming at this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, charts Fassbinder’s highs and lows, both personal and professional, with suitably histrionic style.

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We first meet young Rainer (Oliver Masucci) in 1967. He’s a bullying director of experimental theatre, one who seems to delight in torturing both his cast (with verbal and physical abuse) and his audience (with a fire hose). But the burgeoning artist, stifled by the limits of his medium, craves the emotional and formal expanse of the cinema.

Fassbinder is portrayed here as an avid cinephile. He routinely name-drops directors, actors and films (often to the baffled non-recognition of his collaborators). His stated and single-minded goal is to become a canonical film auteur. 

We follow Rainer from his Godard-influenced beginnings (Love Is Colder than Death, 1969), through his first brushes with international productions (Whity, 1971) and international success (Fear Eats the Soul, 1974). Then on to the cocaine-fuelled and paranoia-addled productions of his late career, such as Veronika Voss (1982) and Querelle (1982). 

But, ultimately, Enfant Terrible is less interested in Fassbinder’s process and more concerned with the off-set mayhem that he both created and endured. Far from a hagiography, the film’s clear reverence for Fassbinder as an artist is balanced by its portrayal of this titan of New German Cinema as narcissistic, childish and often downright monstrous – especially where love and sex are concerned.

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

The film details several of Rainer’s torrid love affairs in punishing fashion. These include his flings with stock company members Günther Kaufmann (Michael Klammer) and Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp), as well as the breakout star of Fear Eats the Soul, El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz). 

We see Fassbinder treat all three men appallingly, but the more mutually destructive dynamic between Rainer and El Hedi is given special attention. In its depiction of their courtship and ‘romance’, Enfant Terrible draws parallels between Fassbinder’s life and art. At one point, it recreates Fear Eats the Soul’s barroom slow dance. But director Oskar Roehler’s uncompromising treatment of El Hedi, his capacity for mania and violence, also stands in stark contrast to Fassbinder’s decidedly more idealised on-screen vision of the man he loved.

While Enfant Terrible doesn’t have a great deal to say about the particulars of film craft, it is very much indebted to Fassbinder’s own aesthetic sensibilities. In a similar fashion to the recent Redoubtable (2017), Michel Hazanavicius’s take on Jean-Luc Godard, here Roehler has lifted some of his subject’s own cinematic trappings. As was often the case with Fassbinder, here the blocking of scenes has an affected quality, with performances that shift between calm and hysterics. 

Querelle (1982)

Enfant Terrible is also entirely studio-bound, with airless sets, painted backdrops and non-naturalistic lighting. These are reminiscent of Fassbinder’s own taste for such distancing devices, in films such as Querelle, though he typically paired such techniques with a level of visual grit that’s missing in Roehler’s film. Much to Enfant Terrible’s credit, this is a fairly gentle evocation as opposed to an outright cinematic impersonation. 

Fassbinder’s tempestuous inner life was never far from the surface of his films, but he never went for a straightforwardly confessional style. “I found a way to approach autobiography less onanistically”, Fassbinder explained in 1974, “to find out what I could say about myself that could be more universally valid.”

For example, his 1978 film In a Year of 13 Moons was informed by the suicide of his partner Armin Meier. But rather than address that experience in a straightforward fashion, Fassbinder tackled it more obliquely. He crafted an unrecognisable narrative – a jilted trans woman struggling to deal with overwhelming rejection – to muse on suicide and mourn his love. 

In this respect, Roehler’s choice to relate Fassbinder’s story straightforwardly while also making use of Fassbinder-esque techniques is both prudent and subversive. It almost suggests an imagined filmic autobiography – a prospect the man himself would surely have baulked at.

The most worthwhile biopics of creative people have a symbiotic relationship with their subjects, engaging them in a kind of intertextual exchange. While Enfant Terrible is not a perfect film, it is one with the capacity to deepen and complicate our understanding of both Fassbinder and his films. It’s a hard-hitting, sometimes jaw-dropping depiction of a man who could seemingly only function when he was creating, and then only barely. 

In turn, it also concedes that Fassbinder’s dysfunction and self-sabotage deeply informed his filmmaking. Enfant Terrible neither condemns nor condones this ultimately untenable artistic process – it simply lays it bare.

Enfant Terrible is streaming at BFI Flare from 18 to 28 March 2020. A collection of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder are also available to watch on BFI Player.

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