Enfant terrible. Cinema Tussaud

16 June, 2022

Oskar Roehler’s Enfant Terrible won’t have an easy life in Romania. Films like this one, gestures of biographical fetishism, akin to surrendering oneself into the hands of a legend, are first facing their own ilk, the fans, the accomplices of fetish, the delicate connoisseurs who, like a hit song, become all the more valuable the more airplay they get. And Roehler penned the biography – an experimental one – to none other than R.W. Fassbinder, maybe the most popular unknown director in Romanian cinephilia. Had it been a film on Bergman, Godard, Antonioni, Fellini, or even Pasolini, things would have been a tad different. Yet the chief agitator of the New German Cinema had no place in the Romanian Cinematheque, nor in local cinema books, and the few screenings, theater adaptations, and even one stray ambitious translation couldn’t have made sense of his meteoric career, impossible to decompose in stand-alone parts: cinema, theater, and malaise. Even so, as I wrote last year when Transilvania Film had announced that they were distributing the film, one needs but a simple cursory gaze at the local cinematography to find the shortcut that Enfant terrible can use to reach the heart of the Romanian audience – Radu Gabrea’s A Man like EVA (1984), his West-German biopic shot shortly after the German filmmaker’s death from a drug overdose (1982). Anyway, I’m not beating the drum for Enfant Terrible as a film in itself, but for the cause that I’m ascribing to its arrival to Romanian screens. 

All cinephile considerations aside, Roehler’s endeavor just seems more pretentious than others. We know that Fassbinder lived and worked his life until they became one and the same; nothing new for an artist, even considering that the unimaginable speed with which he passed from one film to the other set his bio-filmography apart, maybe the false impression that mathematically speaking, each title was about the four to six months that preceded its premiere. Of course, one cannot explain the act of living, nor the act of filmmaking mathematically, since nothing is simple, yet the illusion of having power over the life and oeuvre of another has something of the banal charm of worldly nonsense. Roehler guesses at our temptation at mastering a ferocious character like Fassbinder through factual anecdotes, and it’s not a small one, either.

The reason I’m saying all of this is that Enfant terrible sets about to give meaning to information and to documents regarding its topic in a quite extravagant way: without giving up on chronology, interviews, and everything that has to do with common-sense knowledge on the history of cinema, it’s mostly preoccupied with the public secrets of such a career; and what can be easier to spread, more common than a film? Thus, Roehler retells the life of Fassbinder by using and systematically citing his own moments of cinema, thus inducing the belief that, beyond actors tasked with giving shape, the screen retains gestures, thoughts, and breaths that only belong to the director. Nice, even if a tad outdated: Roehler doesn’t shy away from romanticism, and the figure of Fassbinder, portrayed by the volatile Oliver Masucci, might just awake more than it should, because this is more than a legend of cinema, but also a tainted individual, known for the bestial manner in which he treated his collaborators and lovers of both genders. And the film insists on this as if every professional moment between his theater debut (1967) and that of his final shot (1982) would have a soap opera-like motivation, with someone always dying or returning, with intense love stories, fame, success, and money, loathing and bankruptcy, perfectly calibrated with the grave and slightly crazy-looking portrait of this dysfunctional family consumed alive by its own patriarch, whose supreme victim is none other than himself. It’s just that while I’m looking at the film I start to feel awkward since it invites a tacit approval of a reproachable causality: art – isn’t it so? – calls for human sacrifice, and the playful device of filmography as biography, although innocuous at first sight, reaches a stoplight after a drive that’s already quite short, hastened by the temptation of naturalizing artistic genius as a black hole of sorts, humanely.

But let us forget about the obvious. Not that such statements wouldn’t have their rights and righteousness, but it’s not the type of film that ends, once it has been begun.

So, Roehler wants to talk about Fassbinder in Fassbinder quotes, thus suggesting a more pure form of biography, like Gertrude Stein, when she wrote the fake autobiography of her partner, Alice B. Toklas, or like how Andrei Ujică, who edited the Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu out of his endless appearances in front of cameras manned by others. But the two hold on so easily precisely because, despite their work with fixed, finite, documentable, human subjects, the authors left little space for imaginative speculation, something that one cannot say about Enfant Terrible. Erstwhile because of its obviously constructed decor, with painted walls and cardboard doors, which can easily fondly remind one of a film like Querelle (1982), but that doesn’t say much to me, aside from a given desperate feeling that wants to show, again and again, where the paternity of the endeavor lies. That embodiment of death in the figure of the Grim Reaper, which the filmmaker-protagonist sees twice along the course of the film, just like its neon-lit BDSM club scenes, is amongst the many moments of free respiration where Roehler loses his breath, adding more suffocation to a project that is already lacking in gusto.

What I liked and remembered about Radu Gabrea’s film is exactly the way it executes its reenactment of Fassbinder’s presence and distills it within its own sensibility. To see Eva Mattes cross-dressing, running around with a slightly dumb attitude on a field, and then whispering a pagan prayer on hermaphrodite creatures – it’s infinitely more precious than this Oulipo cinema of self-constraints, turning itself into a Tussaud cinema, a wax figure museum, dutiful in its attempt to recreate at large, yet still aware that it’s the bastard child of representation, that details slip between its fingers.

One could make hundreds of films on Fassbinder, since his life was simply so alive and so – especially – abyssal. But if the story is always the same, that of the enfant terrible, then I’ll always prefer to go back to one of his own films than to one about him. It’s a shame he didn’t shoot his autobiography, he would have loved to provoke it to the extreme. To quote a line in the film, “otherwise nothing happens”.

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.