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New Release Review [BFI Player] - ENFANT TERRIBLE

enfant terrible review
Biopic of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Oskar Roehler

Starring: Oliver Masucci, Hary Prinz, Katja Riemann, Felix Hellmann

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My main complaint with biopics is how dull they tend to be. Artifice is always more exciting than reality, surely that is why art exists? And as narratives which are necessarily tied to the unstructured longueurs of ‘real life’, biopics which marshal several subjectively representative incidents into a causal, palatable plotline seem beside the point. Imagine a biopic about Quentin Tarantino (man works in video store) or Scorsese (kid has asthma)! Oskar Roehler (director) and Klaus Richter’s (writer) Enfant Terrible, however, is a biopic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. God Fassbinder. The producer of 44 films and television dramas in 15 years, notwithstanding the many plays he directed for theatre and the various essays he penned at the same time. You’d think he’d be too busy with making stuff to be getting on with the business of life, but no. Various deeply felt relationships (both male and female) were loved and lost, notoriety in the German press abounded, and a persistent excitement of controversy surrounded Fassbinder (conservatives were shocked by the content of his films, while certain gay audiences were likewise offended by the representation: Fassbinder DGAF and delighted in provocation). Bohemian, driven, obsessed, acutely fecund; he is everyone’s Platonic ideal of a film director. All of this before dying, at 37, in the most Fassbinder way imaginable: overdosing on cocaine and barbiturates. Biopic? This is the stuff of legend.

enfant terrible review

Roehler and Richter’s film is a potted history of Fassbinder’s work on his productions and his processes of creativity, with the maestro’s relationships providing a narrative through line. This is the correct approach to representing the director, as with his haphazard habit of falling in love with some bloke or another and working it so they could be cast in his films (regardless of whether they had an acting background or not) life and art were inextricably entwined with Fassbinder.


Hindsight is the blight of all biography, so perhaps inescapably there is a frenzied sense of doom to the pacing of Enfant Terrible as Rainer picks up muses G√ľnther Kaufmann (Michael Klammer), Peer Raben (Markus Hering) and the ill-fated El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz, playing a person who, when he broke up with Fassbinder, ended up stabbing three people and having to be smuggled out of Germany by Rainer and pals: you just don’t get that level of thrilling outlaw energy with other filmmakers), and gets fucked, smashed and invariably heartbroken.

enfant terrible review

As Fassbinder, Oliver Masucci is, of course, amazing. He is the model of Rainer, and imbues his character with a sweltering, mercurial energy. He is compulsively watchable, playing Fassbinder as someone who is arrogant, cannily aware of his own mythology- prone to one liners such as ‘this whole life is a risk’- but also fatally vulnerable (exactly like, I suppose, a terrible child would behave).


Contextualizing the performance, the mise-en-scene of the film is suitably synthetic and stagey, with poppy colours and paper sets striking a balance between vivid pantone and imagery, and a visual homage to the static camera and theatricality of Fassbinder’s earlier films. There is something decidedly claustrophobic about the storytelling, with Masucci stomping the sets like a caged animal, furious with lust and creativity, appetites that lead to his recurring isolation.

enfant terrible review

Although the domestic abuse of Irm Hermann is skirted over, this is no hagiography. Fassbinder seems like an absolute nightmare to hang out with. Enfant Terrible strives to explore this volatile personality, and the relation between art and artist. In contrast to a sequence where idealised anal sex is breathtakingly filmed by Fassbinder, we see the director on the business end of an irl bumming, the camera close up on his face. He looks nonplussed, as if he isn’t enjoying the sex, as if the procurement of it, much the same way as filmmaking, is something he is naturally compelled to do, in the same way that dogs bark or fish swim.

This idea is central to Enfant Terrible, that experiencing and representing human existence in all forms is what the artist helplessly does (it helps that the film presents pre-AIDS cruising as darkly thrilling and in itself an aestheticized scene, with its leather coding and baker boys) allowing the film a universal relevance beyond the subject. Nonetheless, the film inexorably builds to the production of Querelle, a fitting epitaph for the director, and substantiation that Enfant Terrible’s heart belongs to Fassbinder and his audience, who find specific meaning in the films’ sordid love stories and tentative violence: ‘I'm on the brink of a shame from which no man ever rises. But only in that shame will I find my everlasting peace’.

Enfant Terrible is on BFI Player and in US cinemas now.



2021 movie reviews