▶ Enfant Terrible is streaming at BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival from Wednesday 17 to Sunday 28 March.
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The aspects of constraint, submission and entrapment that run through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s scathing social critiques find a bathetic kind of resonance at a time when none of us can get out as much as we’d like.
This adds an extra layer of piquancy to Enfant Terrible, Oskar Roehler’s new Fassbinder biopic, which plays this month at BFI Flare. Although it reached German cinemas days before pandemic restrictions first came into effect, the picture has a lockdown feel: it was filmed on evidently artificial and enclosed studio sets with painted backdrops, in a Brechtian mode evoking Fassbinder’s final picture, Querelle (1982).
The intensity suits a life that was intensely prolific, propulsive and combustible, and the feature is built around an appropriately monumental performance by Oliver Masucci. Best known for playing Hitler in Look Who’s Back (2015) and Ulrich in the Netflix series Dark (2017-20), Masucci is some 15 years older than Fassbinder was when he died at the age of 37, but convinces as a man who crammed far more into his years on earth than most, tortuously probing links between love, violence, power, money, addiction and attention, on and off screen.
“He was everything,” says Masucci. “He was looking at society from lots of perspectives – through a microscope and through a keyhole, looking at his own commune of actors that he lived with and writing it all down. He was on this reckless search for love – a tragic search because he never really finds it and it costs the lives of two of his lovers. He was an absolute monster but he really lived his art. He wasn’t a poseur, he had no filters. An extreme character. Germany still has a huge problem with him. They’re not proud of him. They still can’t honour him.”
Masucci says this lingering ambivalence impacted the production’s resources and production style. “We shot it in the end like Fassbinder did, very cheap, very fast, no rehearsals, no covering shots, no repeating takes, 12-hour days. We shot chronologically, too. It started very theatrical, bare lighting, then as [Fassbinder] goes from theatre to movies it gets more atmospheric, more realistic because we found out while shooting how to light the sets better.”
This mode informed Masucci’s passionate performance – as did the consumption, at Roehler’s suggestion, of three wheat beers before each day’s shooting, in addition to hours of careful make-up. In preparation, Masucci studied Fassbinder’s own performances and interview footage, noting his swagger. “He acted like a young Marlon Brando, with the leather jacket, hand in the pocket. I think he was imitating him, trying to show off.”
Masucci also took notes from those on set who had themselves worked with Fassbinder. “They said he stank, he didn’t wash, he was always scratching his butt and putting his hands down his shorts, scratching his balls. And he had this very high laugh – hee-hee-hee-hee! – that can be very cruel” – although, Masucci notes, this also made for an intriguing contrast with his earthy physicality.
To approximate Fassbinder’s body type, Masucci gained 25kg. “It makes for a totally different physics. You move different, you breathe different, everything takes more effort. There was one scene where I thought I was having a heart attack; I had to put up my left hand and hold my heart because it was hurting. I lost the weight again quickly.”
All this engendered some fellow-feeling for his subject. “At the beginning, I didn’t have so much empathy but I became more and more empathetic to him,” Masucci says. “The process was so intense, I couldn’t even think what I was doing. Sometimes I had to go behind a curtain and cry for 10 minutes and I wasn’t even sure where this emotion was coming from.”
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Originally published: 17 March 2021