It’s been a while since we’ve had a new Coen Brothers film, but there’s some of the Coens’ sizzling comic energy in Enfant Terrible, a German film about a terrible guy.
Meet Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who makes his fellow crazy German auteur Werner Herzog seem like Mitt Romney.
In addition to being terrible, Fassbinder, who died of advanced debauchery at a predictably early age, was a bit of an enfant cruel and an enfant ridicule. Played to the hilt by Oliver Masucci in director Oskar Roehler’s film, he is a snarling gay demon in a black motorcycle jacket, with a bare belly hanging over his waistband and a bushy handlebar mustache framing the cigarette in his mouth. Swilling Cuba Libres, shooting scenes with a hand down the front of his pants, barking madness at his cast and crew, Fassbinder comes across as a sort of arthouse Ed Wood, forever demanding that his cinema be pure and real, which in practice meant punishingly dull and just plain punishing for the actors. If the master thought it would give some edge to his pretentious left-wing films to have an actor get repeatedly belted in the face, then that’s what happened. Naturally, Fassbinder was hailed as a towering genius of the German New Wave, but I’m not sure his reputation can withstand the frequently hilarious barrage of cinematic mockery that Roehler unleashes.
From his beginnings in avant-garde theater — one of his big ideas is to spray the audience with water, another is to stage a play “very slowly, almost statically” — Masucci’s Fassbinder acquires a company of terrified sycophants (one of them is basically Renfield) who move with him into filmmaking at the end of the Sixties. A scene in which actors portraying torch-bearing Ku Klux Klan members wait patiently while another actor fusses with a door that won’t open because it is merely painted on the scenery typifies the Fassbinder approach: high-pitched, low-budget drama fraught with absurdity. After his first film, Love Is Colder Than Death, gets booed at a Berlin film festival, he declares, undaunted, “Next year we will make seven films!”
Fassbinder’s life was his art and his art was his life and they were both campy and swinish, from the Munich commune where he lived with a toilet in the middle of the living room to perhaps the purest distillation of his gonzo style, 1976’s Satan’s Brew, which is one of five films of his available to stream on HBO Max. Hacking his way through one rotten movie after another with cries of, “You’re banned from entering the set, unless we need you as an actor, loser!” or the more plaintive, “I HATE CHICKENS, YOU UNDERSTAND,” Fassbinder is adorably perverse. After he bullies a married (and perhaps not even gay) black man into sex, then casts him in his movie Blacky, he orders the poor schlump to do a scene while being dragged 50 yards behind a motorcycle driven by “Barbel, our bull dyke.” Encountering resistance, he bellows, “All right Henry, get me another negro!” Then he insists that every man in the show should have a woman’s name: “He calls himself Mary now,” someone remarks. “You’re Emma Potato.” He picks up a muscular Moroccan laborer named Salem in a bar in Paris, casts this non-actor in a movie about prejudice, 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and then dumps him. (The real-life Salem later stabbed three people and hanged himself in prison, acts which Enfant Terrible hints were downstream of his mistreatment by Fassbinder.)
The second half of the film could have been trimmed a bit, particularly in the scenes where it wanders away from its Boogie Nights excesses toward serious political issues such as terrorism, which preoccupied 1970s Germany as it did 2000s America. Roehler seems not to know what to do with Fassbinder’s non-terrible films (e.g., Ali), the warm reception of which shocked even their maker. Going from outlaw to celebrity puts the filmmaker in some hilarious situations: In New York, Andy Warhol invites him to a photo op, then innocently asks the corpulent chain-smoker, “Do you do any gymnastics, or?”
Fortunately for the film, Fassbinder is such a beast that success doesn’t get in the way of his self-destruction, the comic aspects of which do not escape Roehler. “I like when I hit rock bottom,” Fassbinder says with a snarl. Drunk and coked to the earlobes, his beer gut hanging out of his bathrobe, he screams at an underling, “You disgust me with your booze and cocaine!” Most of Fassbinder’s films were not very good, but he did leave us with this unforgettable motto, which he delivers after being beaten by a bodyguard for suggesting a Mafia guy’s girlfriend is a hooker: “Someone has to be the a**hole.”