Katzelmacher was a revelation. One of only a handful of Fassbinder films which I had not seen before, it seems among his best, and most challenging, works.
Fassbinder’s second feature film, Katzelmacher (1969) is a tour de force of stark visual beauty and ambiguous but riveting characters. Fassbinder adapted his own original play, of the same title, which he had also starred in on stage. (The theatrical script is included in the anthology Fassbinder’s Plays.)
Shot in just nine days on a shoestring budget (DEM 80,000, then US $25,000), Katzelmacher explores the rootless but circumscribed lives of a group of young working class people. They hang around their dull Munich apartment complex, smoking cigarettes, sipping beer, exchanging banalities, and sleeping with each other – sometimes for money. But violence lies just below the surface, as we see when a Greek “guest worker” moves in and begins seeing one of the women. The men’s increasing hostility towards the “Katzelmacher” (a Bavarian sexual slur for a foreign laborer), coupled with the immigrant’s incomprehension, leads to the film’s powerful climax.
At the time of its release, it won several prestigious awards; and the prize money, which was many times more than the film’s budget, financed Fassbinder’s next films. And it decisively established its 23-year-old writer/director/actor – and editor (although he used his pseudonym of “Franz Walsch,” which he playfully defines in The American Soldier) – as a rising star of the New German Cinema.
While stylistically austere, like his other early films, we can already see his trademark interplay of social criticism and melodrama. And while Fassbinder based it on his original play, he uses purely cinematic – visual and sound – means to explore his inarticulate but richly-drawn characters. He employs visual cues from such recent works as Godard’s My Life to Live (1963) and Bergman’s Persona (1966), and perhaps even Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), but I was deeply struck by the personal vision of this film. It feels wrenched from life, not made up from earlier plays and films. The severe images (bare walls, bare lives, and sometimes bare bodies) viscerally convey not only the world which these people inhabit but their deepest natures.
Despite, or perhaps because, of its relentlessly homogeneous – even static – style, the film achieves a compelling momentum. Each scene is done in a single continuous shot; some go on for several minutes, others are just one quick, evocative image. Throughout there is no camera movement, except for a series of brief, formally identical tracking shots which punctuate the film. Even then, the camera maintains an even distance as it pulls straight ahead of two people walking in parallel, further emphasizing the flat space which confines them.
ImageExcept for a few moments between the immigrant Jorgos (Fassbinder, in a wryly understated performance) and his girlfriend Marie (Hanna Schygulla, who appeared in 20 Fassbinder films), no character ever looks another in the eye and truly speaks with them. Instead, characters talk at, or around, each other. Fassbinder even physically arranges them either in frontal views, or at 90 degree angles to each other. The characters may think that they are having conversations, but we know better. This verbal dislocation is emphasized visually by the literally fragmented shots of characters, who appear to be floating – legless – above their world. The film is one third over before we ever see anyone standing on the ground; and that happens only after Jorgos appears, signaling a momentous change.
As the picture lulls you along with its extended use of dialogue, delivered in a flat manner by people who almost never look each other in the eye, suddenly a man will strike his girlfriend. And she will let him. He may recently have given her money in exchange for sex (the divisions between love and casual prostitution are blurry, and include both hetero- and homosexual varieties). A moment after the slap, their impassivity returns.
At other times, the violence is only spoken about, as in the chilling scene between Erich (Hans Hirschmüller, brilliant in the title role in The Merchant of Four Seasons) and his friend Paul. Although Paul hustles men on the side (his “john” Klaus seems like the nicest and most emotionally stable person in the film), he has inadvertently gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Paul does not want her to have the kid. What can he do? Erich advises him nonchalantly, “Just punch her in the belly or throw her down the stairs. The baby will go.” Paul shrugs, and the two men return to the meandering conversation they were having earlier.
The bland surfaces (emotional, architectural, cinematic) and mundane conversations conceal, but barely contain, a violence waiting to erupt. Jorgos discovers this at the climax, when the “real Germans” beat him for bringing “difference” into their little world. But Katzelmacher is much more than a tract about the still-relevant issue of xenophobia. Since Fassbinder lets us uncover at least some of the reasons for that violence, we are not simply clicking our tongues in disgust at these slack “tough guys” and their “girls;” we are able to understand them. We see, more clearly than any of the characters, their inability to communicate, even as we feel their profound longing to connect.
ImageWe see, more clearly than any of the characters, that Katzelmacher’s world is not only one of bland monotony but of people’s inability to communicate – even as we see, and feel, their profound longing to connect. Fassbinder’s greatest, and most disturbing insight, is of the violence which results from these self-trapped lives.
Even at this early point in his career, Fassbinder is an artist who can transform such raw, painful, and deeply personal material into a visually arresting film, which is at once fiercely unsentimental and strangely tender.