Fassbinder’s second feature continues his minimalist and spare direction, this time centering on a group of xenophobic, good-for-nothing friends.
Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1969 | Germany | Drama | 89 mins | 1.33:1 | German
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity
Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Lilith Ungerer, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Elga Sorbas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Plot: The intolerance of a circle of financially and sexually frustrated friends reaches a boil when an immigrant labourer moves into their block.
Source: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Eclipse DVD)
It’s interesting to me to see how one of my cinema heroes, R.W. Fassbinder, first started out as a filmmaker. Katzelmacher is his follow-up to his feature debut Love Is Colder Than Death (made in the same year), an unusual gangster movie that is by turns stylish and spare. In comparison, Katzelmacher is less stylish but perhaps sparer in its approach to filmmaking.
Fassbinder’s early minimalism is laid bare for all to see (sometimes there is only a white wall as mise-en-scene) in this story centering on a group of German friends whose pastime is to hang around the sidewalk in front of their apartment block.
These are good-for-nothing friends, and worse, they are painfully xenophobic, a theme that eases into the narrative by virtue of Fassbinder himself, who plays a Greek man renting a room in that same block as he finds work in Munich.
Xenophobia was a problem (and still is) back in the late 1960s, and Fassbinder sought to tackle this ‘fascism in the streets’ that was widespread during the time. (In fact, the title ‘Katzelmacher’ is a derogatory term for a foreigner from the Mediterranean.)
The film was shot in only nine days.
Apart from xenophobia, the film is also a strong indictment of young 30-somethings with seemingly no purpose in life—a man lives off his increasingly annoyed wife; a woman gets money from sex, even from her husband; various romantic relationships are tested.
The sidewalk becomes a common refuge of sorts, as these characters loiter with a cigar in hand, gossiping about their friends (until they become distracted by the arrival of the aforementioned Greek man).
Fassbinder’s static camerawork frames them as a group, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in trios, sometimes more… such that when characters finally exit the shot and leave someone behind to take that last few puffs of the cigar, we get a sense of sheer loneliness facing these folks despite the day-to-day companionship.
Succumbing to ennui and despair, Fassbinder’s characters occasionally get their own reverie—in the form of a tracking shot accompanied by a piano excerpt by Schubert. Even that bliss is short-lived as Fassbinder cuts abruptly back to the din of life.