Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lilith Ungerer
A group of friends who are frustrated – sexually and financially – spend their days sitting at cafes, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, gossiping, and having affairs with each other. A Greek worker, Jorgos, moves into the area and rents a room from Elisabeth, one of their friends. They become upset by his presence and rumors circulate about his sexual prowess and Communist principles. The group’s romantic dreamer, Marie, falls in love with him, while the others begin to plot violence.
A sexual slur referring to foreign workers, particularly those from the Mediterranean, “Katzelmacher” is the subject around which this film revolves. Though Jorgos is not present for the majority of the movie’s running time, what he represents to the German characters is more important than his individual identity. This second feature from Fassbinder, based on his own play of the same name, is the first of his “bourgeois” films, which all focus on the dull trauma of middle-class life. Katzelmacher in particular examines fascism on a daily level and hints that the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust may be that hatred and intolerance has not disappeared, but simply found more mundane mask.
As with all his early films, particularly the previous Love is Colder Than Death, the characters are flat and emotionless. They seem to be somnambulists in a state of inertia where they are unable to act or think on their own, merely react to their environments. The boredom and slowness of daily life is seen as repressive and claustrophobic to these very ordinary twenty-something. Their boredom and frustration leads to violence, which is initially depicted as mild and routine. Characters are emotionally or physically abusive with no obvious consequences. The mild domestic violence and prostitution that occurs is more disturbing than similar scenes in Love is Colder Than Death. When a would-be thug slaps his prostitute girlfriend in the first film, it is not a particularly surprising act and is within the bounds of the world of fantasy violence adopted by the characters. Here, it is far more jarring that bourgeois young adults engage in prostitution – both men and women – hit their partners for minor annoyances, and have a conversation discussing the easiest way a man can hit his girlfriend to cause an abortion.
The scene of the men beating Jorgos is surprisingly pathetic, an act that is disturbing not because of the degree of violence, but because of Jorgos’ innocence and ignorance (Fassbinder himself appears in this role and is utterly charming) and the suddenness with which they attack him. The act is not really premeditated, but the prejudice, xenophobia, and hatred has been there all the time, boiling under a surface of calm civility. In this way, Katzelmacher introduces nearly all of Fassbinder’s important future themes. There is violence inherent in a repressive society, which all of his “bourgeois” film are concerned with. Despite only a few films with overt references to the Third Reich, nearly all of his movies suggest that the legacy of hatred and intolerance from WWII had not disappeared, despite post-war peace and prosperity. This hatred is also mirrored on the individual level with cruelty and manipulation as the key factor in close relationships in Katzelmacher (and Fassbinder’s later films).
And yet, the most horrifying thing about Katzelmacher is that these characters are all presented as normal. Like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” in reference to Adolf Eichmann, these characters reflect the the tedium inherent in normative social interactions – instead of zoning out in front of the television, they sit at cafes and gossip about friends and neighbors; they have affairs and complain about their romantic partners. The group includes many of Fassbinder’s regular cast of performers, including his star, Hanna Schygulla, as the lovely Marie. Though she seems to be innocent and romantic, she is also exploiting Jorgos for the exotic fantasy he and his homeland represent. Irm Hermann (The Merchant of Four Seasons) is supremely disdainful as Elizabeth, another character who is charmed by Jorgos -- because he pays rent on time, unlike her needy boyfriend.
Katzelmacher continues Fassbinder’s early trend of confrontational filmmaking meant to challenge with seemingly every frame. It’s not my favorite of his early works, but still comes recommended. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains many of his similarly-styled early films, including Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.