Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

"An excellent introduction to his nihilistic but strangely poetic worldview."

Dead from a drugs overdose in 1982 at the age of 37, Fassbinder continues to inspire devotion and controversy in equal measures, and the latest releases from the Fassbinder Foundation (the fact that he’s got one is some indication of his impact on German and European cinema) go a long way to explaining why.

He was the enfant terrible of the Federal Republic’s blossoming arthouse film scene in the Sixties and Seventies, but was a relentless and acerbic critic of the society he saw around him, exposing the dark underside of the country’s postwar economic miracle. Katzelmacher, his second feature, is an excellent introduction to his nihilistic but strangely poetic worldview.

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It opens with a series of short, brutally effective scenes depicting the lives of a group of young Germans on a modern but bleak-looking estate in Munich. We learn very little about their jobs or backgrounds, but their personalities are analysed in microscopic detail, and the picture that emerges is a very unedifying one.

Basically, there’s hardly a sympathetic character in sight. The men are either slobbish dullards or sexist brutes, whose random violence against their girlfriends is all the more shocking for the way it is accepted as routine and unavoidable. The women fare little better, a quartet of fashionable but bored gossips, constantly dreaming of escape via fantasies inspired by ‘the movies’ or American rock music.

Their aimless conversations take place against a backdrop of sterile, whitewashed apartments full of cheap furniture and the concrete walkways outside. Worldess scenes where the characters pair off and walk along the main street to jaunty music offer a strangely surreal break in the action, but in fact only emphasise the gulf between the characters’ modern, liberated self-image and their conservative, conformist reality. Dietrich Lohmann’s black and white camerawork creates a memorably stark vision of urban isolation, and the dialogue is a believable mixture of would-be cool aphorisms and childish bickering. But there are undoubted longeurs as the film unfolds at a snail’s pace and the viewer may be tempted to bid farewell to the whole unlovely pack of them.

Virtually the only narrative developments are when one of the men becomes a rent boy, and soon after a Greek immigrant, Yorgos (played by Fassbinder himself) takes up lodgings with one of the women, Elisabeth (Irm Herrmann). He is viewed with hostility and suspicion by almost everyone from the outset (Katzelmacher is unflattering Bavarian slang for a foreign worker), which intensifies when he begins a relationship with her friend Marie (Hanna Schygulla, who would become a muse in Fassbinder’s later career). The others spread fabricated stories about Yorgos, including a rumour that he has attacked and raped Elisabeth. Eventually the boys gang up on him and give him a beating. It’s typical of Fassbinder’s acerbic worldview that, shocking though the scene is, they don’t even make a particularly good job of it.

The lasting impression is of a glimpse into lives which will never change, and a society as a whole still prone to demonising and persecuting the outsider.

It’s powerful, well-made stuff that will be welcomed by Fassbinder completists and undoubtedly offers a good introduction to his work. But it’s also the kind of film that gives plenty of ammunition to the ‘all foreign cinema is just annoying people sitting around talking’ brigade – and should definitely come with a Government gloominess warning.

Reviewed on: 13 Nov 2007
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The aimless lives of a group of young Germans are disrupted by the arrival of a Greek immigrant. Out to own now on the RW Fassbinder Commemorative Collection: Volume 1.
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Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Hannah Schygulla, Lilith Ungerer, Irm Herrmann, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Peter Moland

Year: 1969

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: West Germany


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