Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Wellspring DVD
Another one of Fassbinder’s early “a stranger comes to town” pictures, Katzelmacher tells the story of what happens within a group of aimless young men and women when a Greek immigrant (played by Fassbinder) rents a room in their cheap tenement. Deemed a “katzelmacher” (literally, “ladle-maker,” but also a derogatory term for a foreign worker) by the group, the immigrant is wary of them, but is also eager to fit in. The women of the group variously find him charming, attractive, or repulsive, but the men all despise him and are threatened by him. The men beat him up one day, hoping that he will leave and that everything that has changed since his arrival will return to normal, but he stays only to be exploited in more cruel, less physically violent ways.
Like Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Fassbinder uses the basic plot device of the arrival of a stranger into a social crucible to explore relationships sexual, romantic, political, and economic. The way events unfold seems almost scientific in its predictability, yet the film still holds your attention because these people, ciphers that they are, are still fascinating. Each one has their own opinion of the outsider and their own way of dealing with him. For his landlady, he represents someone new to exploit financially. For the other women, he represents someone new to exploit sexually or perhaps just someone new to try out their boring old tricks on. For the men, he represents a threat not only to their sexuality because the women seem more interested in him (in various ways) than they do the other men, but also (in a less explicit manner) to their livelihood and their ethnic identity. Unlike Pioneers, however, the outsider stays and, it is assumed, is swallowed up into the society.
Katzelmacher plays out as a very formally and emotionally controlled work, almost Kubrickian in its visual detachment from its subjects. Fassbinder and his cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann use cool black and white and almost always frame the group of friends in pairs or lined up en masse against the wall outside their building or sitting at a table in a tavern. There are almost no close-ups in the film, and shots are often held long after the scene has played out. The visual control and technique is surprising considering that this was only Fassbinder’s second feature film.
Fassbinder loved to repeat themes from film to film. Katzelmacher is the first of his films to take a tightly knit, almost incestuous group of people, add a foreign element, program a sexual and emotional roundelay, and wait for the fireworks to start, but it is not the last. He would go on to refine and redefine this theme, focusing on other variations or on another figure of interest, sometimes turning the focus in on himself and his friends as in Beware of a Holy Whore, the self-indicting account of the making of his earlier film, Whity. For those looking to figure out what the hell Fassbinder was all about, this is an excellent starting point.