Katzelmacher – Fassbinder makes his first “bourgeois” film. (film review)

When Fassbinder called Katzelmacher his frist “bourgeois” film (it was made in August 1969 over nine days and is his second feature ever made) word has it he called it that because it is a film conceived against real life rather than other films. The first film he made, Love is Colder than Death (a film I loved) was routinely booed at festivals and did very poorly – even for a debut. It was a noir thriller, a gangster film. This time, Fassbinder makes something more in line with his hero Godard’s contemporary films – and the film is a smash hit.

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Both the films are extraordinary, but there is no doubt Katzelmacher is an exceptional film. The multiple themes of ennui, decadence of wealth, racism, sexism, and the destructive impact boredom has on small minds is as cutting edge today as it was in 1969. It’s a shocking film, where men casually discuss beating their pregnant girlfriends as a solution to getting rid of the baby and burning a man whose race they don’t care for (in front of him, careless because he doesn’t properly understand the language) and women receive beatings as easily as they call each other sluts and make up dangerous gossip merely to pass the time. It’s a world as brutal and vicious as a war zone. For some, it is just as physically dangerous.

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The film has Godard dripping from it, but it is so undeniably Fassbinder (Fassbinder is a far more visceral filmmaker while Godard is more cerebral) that he gets away with the Godard influence. Stark walls, scenes bare of much scenery, short sharp dialogue, long pauses, up close faces shot in profile against a head facing a camera etc.  These are all being used by Godard around the same time, but Fassbinder grounds them into something terrifyingly real. The apartment block Fassbinder chose could be anywhere – hell it looked like the one my grandparents lived in when I was a child. Young people sitting around bitching about each other in short sharp sentences translate across country and time.  A seething hatred underneath an appropriate social “niceness” that reminds one of Facebook and Twitter. Fassbinder has this over Godard. This film makes Godard seem a victim of his passion for philosophy in a way Fassbinder was never subject to.

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The immediate source of Katzelmacher is a forty-minute play of the same title written by Fassbinder and co-directed by him and Peer Raben to round out a program with Jean-Marie Straub’s radical ten-minute condensation of Ferdinand Bruckner’s three-act Sickness of Youth that was presented by Fassbinder’s Action-Theatre group in Munich in April 1968, featuring many of the same actors Fassbinder uses here (Hanna Schygulla, Lilith Ungerer, Irm Hermann, Rudolf Waldemar Brem and Fassbinder himself).  (that sentence is taken verbatim from the essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the inner sleeve of the Modern Masters edition).  I haven’t seen the play, but I have read from the Rosenbaum essay and from other sources that Fassbinder changed the film in subtle but significant ways in order to change it for the screen.  He removed a Church scene, and with that a strong critique of religion from the play.  And yet in adding frontal shots of the group of young people, he lifts the film into a timelessness that the play didn’t have – being a critique of a specific time and place.

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In this way, it occurred to me while watching Katzelmacher, Fassbinder achieves something Eric Rhomer was never able to achieve. I have an uneasy relationship with Rhomer because of his Catholicism which I can see oozing from every frame. Rhomer seems to be critiquing the sexual revolution of the 1960’s with films such as My Night at Mauds (a film I have great passion for) but his rigid belief’s about men and women prevent a timelessness that should occur in his narrative. Again, Fassbinder is able to achieve something a French New Wave predecessor couldn’t, in that his queer perspective gives the perfect criticism of the violence that seethed beneath the so-called sexual revolution. Gay love wasn’t “free” yet. Fassbinder shows us clearly here, that heterosexual love isn’t “free” either. Fassbinder knows the two freedoms can’t happen independent of each other.

Most of the sporadic and punctuated dialogue occurs in mini aphorisms, usually between couples in their apartments as a part of broader domestic disputes or as gossip in public among the group. Lines like: “He is he, and I am I”; And anyway, you still owe me money”; “Love and all that always has something to do with money”; “Order must be re-established”; and the last line of the film, “In Greece everything’s different.” These lines are often punctuated with terrible violence.

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Chillingly, the camera is static for every one of these scenes except for the scenes where people will walk down the driveway of the building, presumably fearless of “the gaze” that will inevitably attract some form of violence, be it sexual attraction, ugly gossip or a beating. In these moments the camera faces the walkers moving before them as if they were models walking down a runway or “actors” being filmed in a scene. These walkers are usually women, usually in pairs, though at one point the unlucky Greek walks and another point three women will walk. These scenes have space, gossipy dialogue, are all about “the gaze” (which is both the camera and “the gaze” of the fellow occupants) and are “performed” to the sound of Peer Rabens off-screen piano playing Schubert’s German Dance, Op.33 No. 7.

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The daily tragedy of the lower-middle-class is not able to rock the people out of their isolation and loneliness. It doesn’t matter that lovers are unfaithful, that people have bitter struggles over money or that men are regularly beating their women. This state is called normal and it is all business as usual. It is only when someone different is among them, a Greek man, that racism gives rise to action. It is when the Greek appears with his “no understand”, his rumored large genitals (Potency envy) and ease of employment that aggression toward the stranger rises up, revealing the basic building blocks of fascism. As the men say after they beat him up, “Things have to be sorted out around here again.”

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One of the keys to the helplessness of the locals is the fact that they have nothing.  A repeated theme is “belongs to” which comes out repeatedly in the dialogue. As one of the women says after the Greek is horribly bashed, “It had to happen, he was walking around as if he belonged here.”  All these people have is their value as citizens because they are isolated and poor, but have high expectations of what life owes them – in short the curse of the lower-middle class. Fassbinder is never tempted to make a martyr of our victim either.  When the Greek happily discusses his wife and kids back home, he is quick to forget them when he starts his affair with Marie. When she questions his loyalty, he dissolves into “no understand”. In this way his characters may be stereotypes, but what makes this film exceptional and Fassbinder himself so brilliant is that the characters still manage to pulse with the freshness and faith of the “real”. If lines and behaviors are stereotypical, characters never are, and it is this that allows Fassbinder to make his points with so much clarity, beauty and strength.

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