Katzelmacher (1969)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Katzelmacher is a strange, dark comedy of sorts which takes place on street corners and in bedrooms.  The characters of this film, a series of disgruntled husbands and wives, discuss little more than money and sex.  One of the people in this odd group is a prostitute, though the way she talks about sex is no different than the others.  It is almost always referred to as if a transaction, loveless and obligatory.

These characters are surly and insecure, something revealed much more clearly with the arrival of a Greek man named Yorgos.  He is quiet, kind and speaks little English, so little in fact that in one scene two men openly speak of castrating him while all three of them share a few beers.  It’s not until later in the film, when the unhappy men beat Yorgos up does the Greek man realize they held any ill-will against him.  Even in the end he doesn’t comprehend where such fury came from.

Yorgos moves in with one of these married couples because they need the extra rent money.  The husband is against it while the wife is practical, saying they need the money and only a foreigner would pay for such a small room.  Because his room is still in the process of being painted, Yorgos will share a room with that disgruntled husband.  He’s the one who, as a result of his taking offense at this new roommate, will visit the prostitute in an act of petty revenge.  When he gets too aggressive with him she will kick him out, then make fun of him to her friend.

The film is told through many a repeated shot.  The camera often shoots flat against a particular background, and in the case of the interiors, these backdrops are blank and overbearingly bland.  On the street corners the real locations add enough texture to the world to make it feel real to some degree, but these interior locations, whether actual apartments or a stage, suggest these characters are devoid of any interior life.

 

We will hear them discuss marital problems of others, we will watch the prostitute insist she’s been contacted by a television agent (while her friend is suspicious), and we will watch several women flirt with Yorgos before making up stories about how he shouted at her or, as the story evolves, how he raped her in public.  These stories are repeated by the other characters as if they were fact.

A couple of these vignettes are quite funny.  In one the man who shares a room with Yorgos explains how well-endowed Yorgos is, and none of the other man can respond except with concerned silence.

Katzelmacher, being a comedy, makes sure to mock these characters and show where their hatred comes from.  We don’t see much of the broader world, and in some sense it might as well not exist.  The characters here live in their own bizarro Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  We never see beyond their street corner, and even when we are in that location we never see what lies beyond their immediate environment.  The setting is cold and austere, as if it can only breed contempt and contemptuous characters who have nothing better to do than to think of ways to torture people who aren’t like them.

Up Next: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Sunshine (2007), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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