Katzelmacher (1969)

OK, here we go. This is classic early Fassbinder. Very stylized, theatrical, rhythmically slow, didactic. Gorgeous. Excruciating. Did I say slow? Great stylistic motifs. Lovely music, self-consciously foregrounded (never used invisibly to merely cue emotion). Beautiful flat, frontal framing. Luminous black and white. That fabulous ensemble cast. This would have made a great play (and, who knows, maybe it did?).

I love this movie! In many ways of course it’s a sketch for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul—same basic premise, in which a naïve and oddly virile gastarbeiter (played by Fassbinder himself) is persecuted by xenophobic Germans in the community he moves into (“invades”?)—except for one simple, trusting woman, Marie (Hanna Schygulla) who’s not like the others, who breaks ranks with her nasty, ignorant peers and falls in love with the stranger and endures mockery and rejection as a result. It’s a very simple story, but no less satisfying for that.

This one really works, in ways that Love Is Colder Than Death does not, quite, for me. Whereas the loner gangster story of the (only slightly) earlier movie felt a little forced, or borrowed, here Fassbinder has found a story he seems more comfortable with: the small mindedness and pettiness, selfishness and cruelty of his fellow citizens, Good Germans all, who are galvanized into solidarity against the threat of the Other in their midst. An old story, but one with special resonance, presumably, in a New Germany which had not yet even begun to broach let alone come to terms with its Nazi past. (Resonance too of course in a story told by an openly gay man in a country which had only a generation before interned homosexuals in concentration camps.)

But maybe I’m not putting this in the right terms. Maybe it’s not that Katzelmacher tells a story RWF is “more comfortable with.” Maybe its just an easier story to tell — it relies on already established images and types we’re all familiar with. Whereas RWF has no set of stock images or vocabulary or motifs that an audience could be relied on to connect with to tell the story of Love Is Colder Than Death. Because it’s not just an outsider love story, it’s a gay love story, and how do you tell such a story in Germany in 1969?  Hence the reliance on the gangster theme. To be gay is to be an outlaw, outside of established or sanctioned morality. I haven’t really explored this idea (it just came to me), so I don’t know if it floats yet. But I think it’s worth pursuing. I’m thinking maybe there’s a connection between Love Is Colder Than Death and Querelle maybe?  I don’t know. Anyway we’re still at the beginning of a career here in 1969 here—Querelle comes at the very end.

OK, so back to Katzelmacher. It’s interesting too because, while Jorgos is clearly the sympathetic center of the movie, he isn’t actually all that sympathetic. He is really pretty two-dimensional—there is no hint in the movie of any real depth or complexity of character. He is sympathetic because he is innocent and persecuted—with those big sad eyes in that soft round face he is more like an abused dog than a protaganist. Similarly, Marie is sympathetic only inasmuch as she loves Jorgos. She never really says why she loves him, beyond sensing gentleness and honesty in his eyes, or citing the fact that he is different from the others. Before she loved Jorgos she was in deep, abject love with one of the local thugs (who goes on to goad the other locals into finally attacking Jorgos). She’s really just a fool for love.

Maybe in this respect the movie anticipates not just Fear Eats the Soul but also some of the more extremely melodramatic of Fassbinder’s later movies, such as The Stationmaster’s Wife or In a Year with 13 Moons or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. These are movies in which pure emotion trumps character, which I venture to say we’re getting a glimpse of already here, in 1969, in a movie about xenophobia and racism.

But maybe there are no characters in Fassbinder movies, only types? I suspect we’ll come back to that.

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