Katzelmacher (1969)

7 05 2020

When I was in grad school five years ago, one could easily earn quick brownie points with a professor by saying something like “the personal is political” or “love is a political act.” There’s nothing especially untrue about either of these statements, but the fact that they regurgitate tenants of second wave feminism should have led to more skepticism. I’ve thought about the popularity in such phrases since diving back into the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Someone could callously open an essay about the filmmaker with such a vague and overwrought maxim, but they would be doing a great disservice to the filmmaker. In Fassbinder’s world, politics do not serve as the foundation to a readable moral center. Instead, our political climate shapes and informs our own understanding of the world and our actions. This, to me, is a far more accurate depiction of reality. Such as sensation is hard to achieve, and it requires an extremely attentive viewer. Fassbinder achieves it in Katzelmacher.

Erich and Marie are lovers, but they seem bounded more by convenience than by enthusiasm. The couple lingers in the promenade of their apartment complex. They are joined by an equally inert cast of neighbors including the gossip prone Dunda, an even more apathetic non-couple in Helga and Paul, and Franz. Franz splits his time between the group and visiting Rosy, a sex worker with aspirations of celebrity. Franz may or may not be in love with Rosy, but he still has to pay for her affections. The group’s silence is punctuated by pints and cigarettes, and only ever interrupted to gossip about their neighbor Elizabeth who rents a room to Peter, her frustrated former lover. Greek immigrant Yorgos arrives with little to no command of the German language. He gives the group a new conversation piece.

I have always thought fondly of this early Fassbinder. My memory of it was basically “mean-spirited Ozu.” It is a domestic drama, character-driven, mostly static, and shot in the academy ratio. I’ll add that they both lived lives of debauchery and solitude towards the end of their careers and then end the comparison there because there is little to no evidence that Ozu’s work ever crossed Fassbinder’s purview. Instead, the likely inspiration is Straub-Huillet whose influence was perhaps a bit more pronounced in Fassbinder’s previous film and debut Love is Colder than Death. The evolution from that film to this one is fascinating. Both are ice cold, but he trims even more fat here.

Love is Colder than Death is, to me anyway, a better-looking film than Katzelmacher. It’s a very gut level reaction but I think the earlier film’s wider canvas works better with this grainy, black-and-white DNA. Fassbinder often presents “unbalanced” long shots in the first film. A shot will start with a character on the edge of the frame, as if they’re about to be squeezed out by the imposingly white backdrop. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio offers them some mobility, of which is often taken advantage. As much as people like to chop up Fassbinder’s career into section, I think such lovely compositions serve as the foundation for the much more complex and stunning sequences in works like The Third Generation and In a Year of 13 Moons, which would provide inspiration for Tsai Ming-Liang’s uniquely austere efforts. He had to walk before he could run, and Love is Colder than Death is the more technically compelling film.

The canvas shrinks in Katzelmacher and the characters have little to no mobility. Most sequences resemble static tableaus. When our group of characters meet up in the parking lot of their apartment complex, they are positioned side-to-side and look head-on at the camera, as if posing for a photograph. The work of Terrence Davies is an instructive comparison, but as his subjects are wont to sing or bicker, Fassbinder’s crew lingers in oppressively apathetic silence. For many, this is a demanding exercise. Disconnect a sequence from this film from the entire experience and it will seem preposterous, but Fassbinder is expertly building something here. The slow rhythm gives way to one of the film’s greatest moments: Yorgos’ arrival. Prior to his arrival, the group acceptance of conversational dead air is rivaled only by their thirst for alcohol. Conversational inquiries sometimes take as long as 30 seconds to receive their return volley and when they do it’s something remarkably vapid. Yet, when they first meet Yorgos, their patience crumbles instantly. Their questions sharpen to interrogation and Yorgos’ inability to respond is met with irritation instead of sympathetic patience. Fassbinder’s formal strategy pays off in offering a moment that is both ugly (as it hints at the underlying xenophobia that bubbles to the surface) and deeply humorous. Such sensations would clash much more awkwardly in the hands of anyone else, but their bizarre harmony here offer Fassbinder’s unique and special ability to depict the ever-contradictory nature of the world.

Unfortunately, such moments offer less attentive viewers the justification to label Fassbinder as mean-spirited. Hell, I had done so myself in the past. I can maybe accept describing him as a cynic, but anything more negative suggests the viewer has lost the plot entirely. While some marvel at Fassbinder’s most popular work Ali: Fears Eat the Soul for its uncharacteristic warmth, it suggests to me that they were never that attentive as viewers. I understand such a claim, but that film is not particularly different than the rest of the filmmaker’s world. To Fassbinder, we are grounded and informed by the conditions of our reality. As it is, he seldom presents us with someone without faults. But even those “moral faults” are part of our conditions. The apathetic tenants of Katzelmacher are not the architects of xenophobia, but they do exist in the world where it exists and this, they participate in it. They do so in varying degrees, but no one is ever innocent. Dunda spreads gossip about Yorgos, Marie falls in love with him, and the men in the group ambush him in violence. This “climatic” scene is followed by a private conversation between Elizabeth and Peter. She scolds him but she does not mouth a moralistic correction, but instead vocalizes the more realistic response: quiet tolerance of society’s most deeply ingrained prejudices. “You didn’t have to help him, but you could have just walked away.”


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