“My day has 26 hours,” says Rainer Werner Fassbinder to a lover in this biopic. But even an extra two per day could hardly explain this director’s superhuman work rate, with dozens of movies, TV dramas and plays over a 20-year career in the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with nonstop emotional and sexual chaos, overeating, over-drinking, over-shouting and massive cocaine intake. Fassbinder was one of the few directors – or creative artists, full stop – who was a genuine bohemian, a sensualist, an anarchist and a real “disruptor”, a term that in our blander age applies to business gurus and political advisors.
Oskar Röhler has created a heartfelt and appropriately awestruck portrait of the bleary Byron of the German new wave, but it’s a bit of a one-note portrayal: a fierce but aggressive study of Fassbinder, played by Oliver Masucci. Röhler covers Fassbinder’s career in an epic series of frenzied scenes, rehearsal room confrontations, press conference flounces and bathhouse hookups, presented on theatrical and stylised sets.
Masucci and Röhler portray Fassbinder as an inspired creative sadist with his cowering cast and crew, treating them mean and keen, and forming passionate attachments to rough trade guys that he put in his movies and then cast aside, with tragic results. In this film, it’s an aggressively dysfunctional approach that depends on mounting a continuous display of defiant browbeating – and an escalating intake of booze and coke, which resulted in Fassbinder’s fatal heart attack in his late 30s.
In some ways, the toweringly outrageous film-maker that Röhler imagines here is the male version of the woman he mythologised in his excellent breakthrough movie No Place to Go: the socialist grande dame Hanna (based on the director’s mother), who is devastated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fassbinder is not devastated in any sense; he is fanatically productive, although towards the end the terrible cost is (belatedly) shown. He behaved appallingly towards El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz), the Moroccan man he had sex with in a Paris club and cast in his great film Fear Eats the Soul from 1974. The same goes for Armin Meier (Jochen Schropp), the former butcher whose unhappy life partly inspired his Fox and His Friends (1975).
This film vividly conjures up the shabby, cigarette-ashy world: the West Germany of radical chic and revolutionary paranoia. Röhler interestingly conveys the absurdity of sex, with men standing around in very unsexy underpants – although the theatrical situations are sometimes absurd, in ways that reminded me of the plays of Ernie Wise. There is not much about the softer side to Fassbinder, or about his Sirkian sympathy for female characters and female stars, who are not much more than ciphers here. But it that gives you a good idea of what a nightmare he must have been to work for, and the 24/7 tumult that drove his work. Fassbinder was the nearest an auteur came to punk rock.