Feb 1, 2013


Dramatically different in theme to his first feature-length film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) aka Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, but similarly marvelously minimalistic (comprised mostly of extended still shots and a sterile and dispiriting mise-en-scène) and brazenly bleak (despite being shot in a stylistically discordant, over-exposed manner) in its aesthetic, Katzelmacher (1969) aka Cock Artist – the second feature film by German New Cinema master auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder – would prove that the director behind that cinematic work had already developed a complex weltanschauung long before he became a well respected and equally scandalous figure in the Teutonic cinema world. A film version of an Anti-Theater play he had written and staged a year before that was quite successful on a local level, Fassbinder assembled Katzelmacher over the course of a mere nine days and released it only three months after the premiere of Love Is Colder Than Death, the film which enabled the filmmaker to earn almost a million marks in prizes and state subsidies, which would lead to nine more feature-length films in the next 12 months and numerous wrecked cars by Günther Kaufmann (Fassbinder’s black Bavarian boy toy at the time). As Fassbinder’s best friend/composer Peer Rabin stated in an interview, Fassbinder, “was the first to introduce cinematographic elements into stage productions. Katzelmacher was the first major movie adaptation of a play in which actors from Action Theater performed. It was practically an adaptation of the play we had done on stage, with the same cast…Katzelmacher has a style of its own. As a movie it represented something entirely new for the screen.” The film would also be the first in a lifelong career obsession of cinematically assaulting the petite bourgeoisie, thereupon tearing at the most delicate and sensitive underbelly of the middle-class’ superlatively superficial soul. Starring Fassbinder in the lead role as a Greek who comes to the Fatherland in search of work, but finds himself at the center of a battle of the embittered under-sexed (and, in some cases, over-sexed) sexes, Katzelmacher gets to the root of the latent racism of young kraut degenerates who are neither sexually nor materially content, thus channeling their angst-addled hostility on an easy target; a destitute foreigner who does not understand the vernacular of the people hurling hysterical insults at him. As a sort of minimalistic avant-garde proto- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) minus the naked melodrama and warm kaleidoscopic colors that would dominate Fassbinder’s later films, Katzelmacher provides more than enough proof, at least where Fassbinder is concerned, that artistic talent is innate and cannot be developed and that a true genius only needs to refine his craft and maintain his will. 

 The emotionally and sexually stagnant world of Katzelmacher is a patently pathetic place full of unhealthy, useless and abusive relationships based on a damning degree of dependence and co-dependence. Beauteous babe Marie (Hanna Schygulla) is owned by bloated Erich (Hans Hirschmüller), a physically abusive fellow of an unappealing slob-like tawny appearance; semi-sadistic Elisabeth (Irm Hermann) – a queen bitch with a lazy eye – keeps decidedly degenerate Peter (Peter Moland) as a virtual slave because he hates working even more than he hates his lady; rosy-cheeked Rosy (Elga Sorbas) passively prostitutes herself to Franz (Harry Baer), and Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) screws Helga (Lilith Ungerer) because he has nothing better to do, thus making up a relentless realm of lower middle-class monotony, misery, misanthropy, and mild melodrama. When Greek foreigner worker Jorgos (Rainer Werner Fassbinder in an uncredited role) comes to town, these sad and mostly sedentary post-teenage (but perennially adolescent in their ample and aimless angst) Teutons unite for once in their seething yet senseless hatred of the mild-mannered Mediterranean man from the South. Only Maria – a lonely lady who finds a kindred spirit in the swarthy (although no more swarthy than her ex-beau) Southern foreigner – finds it in her heart to accept Jorgos, so much so that she begins to fall in love with him and vice versa, despite the fact he already has a family back home.  After all, according to Maria, the fact that Jorgos is a family man does not matter because, "Everything's different in Greece," or so she assumes. Elisabeth is also slightly more civil to the geeky Greek because he rents a room from her and acts as a source of cash flow, so as to make up for the unpaid rent of her deadbeat boyfriend. Assuming he is Italian for a number of days before actually discovering he is Greek, the German males of the group first begin developing a hatred for Jorgos after one of them seems him undress and notices that “his dick” is “better built” than their own, thus developing jealously against the exotic primitive. It also does not help that their girlfriends use Jorgos as a tormenting tool of jealously against the exceedingly emasculated men, thus further fueling the flame of race-hate and their ever swelling sexual inadequacy. Going against the grain of the German boob bourgeois, Maria refutes her friends' dubious claims regarding Jorgos, claiming that she can tell by his eyes that he is a decent person, so their relationship only gets all the more intimate when the Greek tells her she has “eyes like stars.” First making the preposterous claim that Jorgos raped one of the uglier girls, their hatred is turned up another notch when a rumor is spread that the Greek is a communist because, after all, “Greece is full of communists.” The male members – none of whom work thus have maximum idle time to seethe with hostility and capricious contempt – pretend to be friends with the friendly but unwitting foreigner and even openly chat about castrating the German-illiterate man right in front him, giving him a toast with their glasses not long after proclaiming their perverse plan. Naturally, the group’s hatred finally reaches its zenith and they inevitably attack a rather surprised Jorgos, who cannot make sense of the cowardly collective act. Despite its rather determinedly disgusting and depressing subject manner, Katzelmacher works best as a brazen black comedy of the anarchistic avant-garde sort. 

 Although being a breakthrough for Fassbinder in terms of its critical and monetary success, it seems the filmmaker would grow to hate the film as he listed it, as well as two of his other early cinematic works – Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) aka Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? and Jail Bait (1973) aka Wildwechsel – in a list he made of “The Most Disgusting” (which also included works by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his ex-collaborator Michael Fengler) of the German New Wave for a “Hitlist of German films” that was published in 1981. Indeed, while nearly immaculate in its minimalistic direction and stark yet sardonic melodrama, Katzelmacher seems like a rather minor cinematic effort when compared to similarly themed later works like The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) aka Händler der vier Jahreszeiten and especially Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) aka Angst essen Seele auf. Considerbly influenced by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, theatre/films of Jean-Marie Straub (Fassbinder initially wrote Katzelmacher to fill up time for the filmmaker’s 10-minute-long staging of an adaptation of Ferdinand Bruckner’s Sickness of Youth), and the theories of German communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Katzelmacher was created at a time before Fassbinder mastered his own filmmaking craft yet the formative cinematic work still displays the unmistakable essence of a born-genius. Portraying the young German bourgeois as a group of self-loathing losers suffering from sexual impotence and latent Nazi tendencies, Katzelmacher is a potent peek at Fassbinder at a time when he still bought into libelous Marxist lies, especially in regard to the ‘authoritarian personality,’ that he would later, to some extent, renounce in films like Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven (1975) and The Third Generation (1979) by portraying the same sort of far-leftists as narcissistic hypocrites and imbeciles who are worse than the people they claim to despise. After all, even if the characters of Katzelmacher were to join some sort of fascism movement, it would end rather abruptly due to their pathetic, nihilistic attitudes and total lack of work ethic because, although they may be the grandchildren of Uncle Adolf, the Führer had fallen before teaching them some tough love and discipline. 

-Ty E

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