‘Enfant Terrible’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder dilemma, and our own
Rainer Werner Fassbinder deserves better than Enfant Terrible. For curious rookies—as well as for longtime enthusiasts—we’d suggest giving Oskar Roehler’s dramatized tribute to the late Fassbinder (1945–1982) a thoughtful, but cursory, look-see—and then spending time exploring the dynamic back-catalog of one of the cinematic world’s most provocative creators.
First, let’s figure out what director Roehler and screenwriter Klaus Richter are trying to tell us. We’re whisked away to the director’s live-theater beginnings, on a stage in Munich, 1967. Tyro whirlwind Fassbinder (played by Oliver Masucci)—a cruel taskmaster at age 21—is flogging his cast and crew through a play with all the trimmings: Brechtian distanciation devices, stylized minimalist settings, harangues and temper tantrums, even trucked-in tomatoes for the audience to throw. Defiance seems to be his trademark.
With only 15 years left to direct 44 feature films, our man is an impatient soul. He’s in love with Hollywood and French gangster pics, the work of filmmaker Douglas Sirk, the the built-in frustrations of the interpretive process and gay cruising, as a prelude to a casting audition or otherwise. Fassbinder’s brutal, lower-class approach to the ironies of human relationships is hard on people, yet a devoted core of actors and craftspeople compete with each other for his favors and have signed on for the long haul. As his notoriety grows and the Cuba Libres flow, the director and his acolytes display signs of serious wear and tear. Worldwide success at film festivals does not seem to bring him happiness—only cocaine and Valium do that.
Actor Masucci, a German TV veteran who once portrayed Hitler, reflects all the crudity, but disappointingly little of the wounded vulnerability, of his subject. Fassbinder is every bit as lovelorn as his neediest characters. Roehler’s drama, however, obviously has more fun with the dictatorial antics. The more Fassbinder’s boot-camp-style movie-shoots heap indignities on his browbeaten underlings, the more we need to be able to glimpse his awareness of his own fatal flaws. The introspection is there, but we have to search for it. In the Roehler-Richter-Masucci portrait, Fassbinder falls into the ranks of such mad directors as Erich von Stroheim or Miike Takashi—enigmatic by nature. From what we know about Fassbinder, self-centered eccentricity alone is not enough.
There are treats for confirmed fanatics. Former Fassbinder cast member Eva Mattes—who herself portrayed an ersatz version of RWF in Radu Gabrea’s A Man Like Eva (1984)—appears as Brigitte Mira, star of Fear Eats the Soul: Ali. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mattes’ earlier impersonation looks more like the real Fassbinder than Masucci’s. Fassbinder’s encounter with Andy Warhol—played by celebrity-impersonator Alexander Scheer—is also perversely ideal: the clash of the unknowables.
Again, potential audiences are warned that Enfant Terrible is pretty much for Fassbinder fans only. He’s an acquired taste, and it’s plain that he doesn’t really care whether viewers “get” his films at first glance. He never makes it easy for us, even in his most accessible movies such as Fox and His Friends, Fear Eats the Soul: Ali and The Marriage of Maria Braun. His propositions can only be taken on his terms; he never reaches down and offers a crutch. One either picks up what he’s driving at—the pugnacious, leftwing dog-eat-dog principle—or gets left behind. In common with his avatar, playwright Bertolt Brecht, the ultra-prolific Fassbinder provides plenty of melodramatic obstacles, to illuminate his social critiques by contrast. Fassbinder is relentlessly anti-middlebrow in the same way he’s anti-middle-class. As British curator Alex Davidson puts it, Fassbinder’s oeuvre is not for wimps.
So, is this filmmaker worth the effort? Of course. As he suggests, “go where the hurt is,” make a turn to the left, and enjoy RWF’s endless festival of alienation. In his own words: “That’s how the world is. Nothing but monsters. Only power relationships, masters and servants. The law of the strongest. All of them are pigs.” Really?