OK, so I broke the only rule I’d set for this damn project before I even got going: I watched the first two movies out of order. Love is Colder Than Death (feature film #1) is available on Netflix, surprisingly enough, but Katzelmacher (#2) is not. Not available on DVD anywhere, it seemed — not on Amazon, not on Amazon UK, not on Netflix, etc. So when I found it at Le Video, not just on VHS but actually on DVD, I had no choice but to grab it (and sit on it for 3 weeks before finding time to actually watch it — an expensive rental!) and then watch it before Love is Colder Than Death, which I’d already had from Netflix for a couple months. (By now it should be clear who paved the road to hell with whose intentions . . .) I’ll still discuss these in chronological order, however, at least for now.
Right. So Love is Colder Than Death is very young, i.e., the work of a young, totally audacious force-of-nature kind of talent — which makes it compelling if not great. Utterly beholden in style to the French New Wave–the opening titles dedicate the film to Eric Rohmer and Jean-Marie Straub, among others, but if forced to pick, I’d say this film owes more to Godard than to anyone else. (OK, the framing and stylized acting probably owe as much to Fassbinder’s work in theater [“Antitheater”] as to the Nouvelle Vague, but overall the film really feels imbued with French New Wavery, right down to the music, which is pure Delerue—even if it isn’t, in fact, Delerue’s music.) There’s a gorgeous moment when the gangster, Bruno, is introduced, which is more Godard than Godard: totally stylized, frontal, with music so bold, so unabashedly gorgeous, as to intrude on the smooth unfolding of any narrative, too foregrounded to be semi-invisible-extra-diegetic narrative enhancement (for those who remember such high-fallutin’ concepts—apologies to those who do not). The character meets the camera’s gaze full-on, for far longer than is comfortable for anyone, in a manner not seen since the New Wave (and no, Orlando does not count.) And as with any too-long frontal shot of Anna Karina, its goal seems to be to make you fall in love with the image of the character played by the actor (it’s never the character you fall in love with in these movies, always an image, if you know what I mean).
But I get ahead of myself. Like Breathless, to which I maintain this film owes way more than it lets on, this is an outlaw saga, semi-tragic while at the same time kind of Brechtian in its detachment. Fassbinder, round-faced, Mongol-eyed, plays Franz, naif and cut-throat at once, a petty criminal and pimp who refuses to work for the local crime syndicate, despite their threats and strong-arm tactics. If I followed the movie correctly, the syndicate sends a hit-man (or something) after Franz, they hit it off, Franz’s number 1 girl (played by Hanna Schygulla–already, in 1969! so young!) sort of falls for Bruno but ultimately distrusts him, and calls the cops at the last minute while they’re en route from a heist (lucky for her, as Bruno was planning to kill her). I think. Does it matter? The story is hard to follow and, as mentioned, it’s so stylized you never really know how much attention you’re supposed to be paying to it anyhow. I honestly don’t know what happened exactly — or rather, I know what happened, but I’m not quite sure why or how. What I do know is that the chemistry between Bruno and Franz stops the narrative in its tracks—and that, precisely, is the point. (At least I think so. This is Fassbinder, who was no more shy about his own sexuality in 1969 than he was in 1982.)
I should add that the film is gorgeous in its b&w austerity and establishes several trends that will become very well established in Fassbinder’s later films: the primacy of emotion over other aspects of character (which are not developed, anyway); the primacy of emotional reality over plot (although, as in Breathless, here the plot is exaggerated and overblown, culminating in grandiose and stylized gunplay); the distillation of action and dialogue into archetypal characters (or are they prototypes, if they don’t already exist in the collective unconscious?). You get the idea. But this is way too much to infer from 1 movie out of 44.