A Greek from Greece. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969)
by Dimitris Politakis
“It is better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness”
The epigram before the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1969 film Katzelmacher (his second feature-length movie after Love is Colder than Death, of the same year) is attributed to Yaak Karsunke, friend and collaborator of the director.
The sheer ambiguity of this ‘“maxim’” sets the tone for one of the most interesting (and lesser known perhaps) pieces of Fassbinder’s exhaustive filmography. Who is perpetuating the same mistakes to the point of unconsciousness? The amoral, numb, aimless characters of the movie? Certainly. But also everyone else maybe? His compatriots especially, if one considers the postwar trajectory of Germany from the Cold War to our time?
And what is a “Katzelmacher”? Does he live on in different guises shattering the multicultural illusions of the increasingly fragile European Union? “Katzelmacher” is a Bavarian slang term, meaning vaguely “troublemaker,” though a monograph from New York’s Museum of Modern Art insists on a more literal meaning: “cat-screwer”. Fassbinder himself offered both a literal (“little cat-maker”) and a metaphorical explanation (“a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy a great sexual potency”) of the title. The film itself with its deceptive formal simplicity, is supposedly influenced by Marieluise Fleisser’s Bavarian “folk (or meta-folk as we might say in this century) plays.” Fleisser (to whom the movie is also dedicated) was a onetime protégé of Bertold Brecht, and if one insists on finding thematic or stylistic predecessors for the film (on top of those in Fassbinder’s early work in general) one could do worse than look back to the famous German playwright—especially the breaking up of the action into individual tableaux.
That being said, and despite the director’s heavy involvement in the anti-theatre movement (Katzelmacher evolved from a play into a movie), the film is definitely a cinematic event in its depiction of contemporary history in short, tough, ominous vignettes, as well as “typical Fassbinder” in its hostile implications for the (petit) bourgeoisie. The inhabitants of a suburban apartment building gravitate from apathetic inertia to fascistic tendencies as a newly arrived immigrant worker (played by Fassbinder himself, uncredited) reveals their moribund human and social responses.
At the time, Fassbinder outlined the film’s plot in a discreetly sarcastic program note:
“Marie (Hanna Schygulla) belongs to Erich (Hans Hirschmiller). Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) sleeps with Helga (Lilith Ungerer). Peter (Peter Moland) lets himself be kept by Elisabeth (Irm Hermann). Rosy (Elga Sorbas) does it with Franz (Harry Baer) for money. In the back court, in the tavern, in their flats, they meet singly, in couples, as a group, and exchange opinions, become aggressive, get bored, piss off one another, drink. The fact that Helga, who belongs to Paul, gets involved with his friend Erich—or that Peter is getting fed up being bossed around by Elisabeth and works off his anger on the purchasable Rosy, or that Paul sometimes goes to handsome Klaus (Hannes Gromball), or that Gunda (Doris Mattes) is teased because she can’t get anyone—does not make any difference to the isolation of their lower-middle class suburban haunt. That’s what it’s like, that’s normal, everything is as it should be. Only when Yorgos, “a Greek from Greece” breaks into their world and with his ‘no understand’ triggers xenophobia, potency envy, aggression against the stranger, in short, the fascist syndrome, do the men wake up, rouse themselves and beat him up: ‘Things have to be sorted out around here again’.”
Exchanging platitudes as if they were Shakespearean verse
Marie: AND IF IT SHOULD GO WRONG, HOW LONELY EVERYTHING WILL BE…
The characters are constantly passive-aggressive in the most literal sense, with the possible exception of Marie, played by Hanna Schygulla, acting as some kind of reluctant moral compass with an invisible halo above her head, a role she was about to play in later, more famous Fassbinder films.
Franz: CAN’T WE DO IT A BIT MORE? AS IT IF WERE LOVE OR SOMETHING?
Paul: LOVE AND ALL THAT ALWAYS HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY.
Catatonia, sleaze and various kinds of abuse constantly create a looming intensity, accentuated when halfway through the movie, Yorgos appears suddenly like a broken deus ex machina. Initially, he is thought of just a “filthy southerner” until his national identity becomes clear. Unlike the others who find him repellent, Marie seems attracted to his honesty and the way “he looks at you straight in the eyes.”
Peter: HE’S NOT ITALIAN AFTER ALL. HE’S A GREEK FROM GREECE – A GREEK WITH A BIG DICK.
Erich: WE SHOULD KILL HIM. EVEN BETTER—CASTRATE HIM, LAY HIS DICK IN GASOLINE, AND THEN GIVE IT TO MARIE AS A GIFT.
Paul: WE BELONG HERE AND NO ONE ELSE.
Walking down the suburban “catwalk”
The only camera movements in the film are tracking shots of two characters each time they walk down the street, as if on a catwalk, always accompanied by Peer Raben’s (offscreen) performance of Schubert’s German Dance, Op.33 No. 7. Even Yorgos achieves the dubious status of walking down the catwalk with Marie, when the men decide to “let him stay” after his brutal beating, as long as he can be exploited and pay double the normal rent rate. He still seems baffled and confused by everyone’s attitudes, expressing himself with cries about “nothingness” and mindless violence:
NIX, NIX, NIX!
ALLES ALLES, BOOM-BOOM!
Sirk, Godard, Warhol, whatever…
Fassbinder pushes melodrama (he was a well-known fan of Douglas Sirk’s glossy melodramas) to absurd limits—to the point of suffocating fatalism—to show how stereotypical emotional conventions discolour normal situations. His radical mix of snarl and decoration and his unchained Marxist world, which is compressed and delineated, points to Jean-Luc Godard—it is perfectly clear for the viewer where each form, idea and narrative sequence starts and stops, but in films like Katzelmacher, he could also be considered an inheritor of the camp sensibility, kinky rawness, as well as physical and spiritual discomfort of early Andy Warhol. Anti-style is still style, after all. Amid their lower-middle-class defeat, the characters—trapped indefinitely between unrealistic aspirations and a creeping fascist mentality—are not individualised or silhouetted like in Fassbinder’s later, more celebrated films. Anything is possible, but nothing really matters.
The film ends with the following lines:
Marie: IN THE SUMMER, HE’S TAKING ME TO GREECE.
Gunda: AND HIS WIFE?
Marie: IT DOESN’T MATTER. IN GREECE EVERYTHING’S DIFFERENT.