Katzelmacher: Fassbinder’s Cinematic Beginnings

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most infamous play, Garbage, The City, & Death (1975), is a kind of revisionist cabaret assault on the audience.  By that point, Fassbinder had extended his creative aspirations beyond the tutelage of Jean-Marie Straub, and had mastered the reflexive political filmmaking sensibilities of Jean Luc Godard, with a healthy dose of Brecht’s self awareness and artifice tinting his theatrical works.  Despite the mature themes and prowess with which Fassbinder instilled into Garbage, The City, & Death, what remains one of his greatest works on both the stage and in the cinema is Katzelmacher (1969).

Katzelmacher is as simple in its execution as Garbage, The City, & Death is complex, designed to replicate the Bavarian “folk plays” of Marieluise Fleisser (to whom Fassbinder dedicated the piece).  Katzelmacher originated as a play at the end of Fassbinder’s hey-day with the AniTheater, and the dissolution of his association with Jean-Marie Straub.  Fassbinder’s film adaptation of Katzelmacher occurred just four months after completing his film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), during a period in his career when the full potential of the cinema was still beyond his grasp, and his films were still stylistically fused with the AntiTheater.  Within a year, Fassbinder would begin his experimental period, drawing heavily from the films of Godard, but in 1969, his approach to film was still very much indebted to the works of Straub.  Given Fassbinder’s budgetary restrictions and artistic limitations of the time, Katzelmacher represents Fassbinder’s most successful and fascinating exercise in the film medium.

On the stage, Katzelmacher can best be described as minimalist in terms of its set and lighting designs.  The play itself is set in a singular location in which all of the action (the action itself consisting of mostly dialogue) takes place.  From this fixed setting, the residents of an apartment building in a Bavarian suburb pass judgment and exhibit hostility toward a Greek immigrant worker.  The characters taunt and transgress against the Greek, while some, in a twist of ironic hypocrisy, are simultaneously endeavoring to seduce or exploit the Greek.

Fassbinder’s presentation of prejudice and exploitation articulates a contemporary fear of foreigners; that immigrant workers were taking all the jobs, that they would delude the German culture.  The particular theme of Katzelmacher pertaining to the corruption of German culture (manifest in all its brutality when the Greek is severely beaten) is played up to great effect to recall the circumstances through which the Third Reich rose to power some thirty-five years earlier.  Fassbinder’s career is marked by a thematic trend of drawing comparisons between the German cultures he experienced and that which allowed the Nazis to come into power.  In almost every case, when Fassbinder employs this tactic, it is a cautionary method, tinged with a sense of historical awareness.  Not surprisingly, such a mode of thematic operations was not easily received by the general German public, let alone when presented in such an “in your face” approach as that employed in the production of Katzelmacher.  Keep in mind that the actors articulating Fassbinder’s harsh diatribe were positioned against a brick wall set facing out across the stage to the audience.

To transition Katzelmacher successfully from the stage to the screen, Fassbinder wrote entirely new scenes that had only been referred to in the original stage version.  These scenes take place mostly within the apartment building itself, in the rooms inhabited by the film’s characters.  These scenes allow the film audience to engage the characters in a more intimate setting, providing a greater insight into their behavior and moral contradictions.  Film can do this in a way the theater cannot, where devices such as the close-up, and the POV shot articulate visually the sub textual experience of a character.  Fassbinder’s grasp of these methods is not entirely developed in Katzelmacher, but one could argue that it is for the better.  Katzelmacher’s exhibition of filmic principles is as limited as those in Love Is Colder Than Death, but benefits from these limitations because it was at one time a stage play, and not an attempt at a genre picture as its predecessor had been.  In this case, when Katzelmacher utilizes film tactics, it is to punctuate issues and circumstances, making the overall piece far more aggressive than its counterpart while never losing the subtlety that would force the audience to withdraw from the cinematic experience.

The long takes that define the visual dialect of Katzelmacher (with the exception of two tracking shots that book-end the film) provide the groundwork for Fassbinder’s successful evolution from stage director to film legend.  Long takes, or shots, in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder develop in leaps and bounds over the course of the next decade, from the pans and tilts employed in Whity (1970) to the long and terrifically elaborate tracking shot that commences the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s minimalism suits the early films of Fassbinder, Katzelmacher in particular, it becomes more than evident that by the time Fassbinder directs Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1969) he is prepared to expand his cinematic vernacular.

What is most surprising in Katzelmacher is Fassbinder’s sense of dramatic rhythm as it pertains to the editing of the film. Almost every scene exists as a single shot, of which there are eighty or so, each with duration of about one minute.  Though the film is stagnant with camera moves, the lengthy shots of the film maneuver across the screen to a definite beat.  This not only signifies a rapidly building tension between the native residents and the Greek, but an understanding of the needs of a mainstream audience.  Jean-Marie Straub’s work in film at the time are heavily encumbered with long shots, sometimes lasting over three minutes, that prevent Straub’s films from finding an economically viable demographic.  Fassbinder manages to balance his “art-house” credentials with commercial possibilities, a creative move that caused a number of his oldest supporters to turn from him.

Forty-three years later, now that Fassbinder has passed and his position in the cinema is unshakable, it is becoming more and more difficult to access his early films within the context in which they were produced.  The lengthy shots and self-aware performances of his players are not easily digested by most audiences and present an almost insurmountable problem to American audiences.  In America, access to Fassbinder’s AntiTheater work (scripts, notes, etc) is almost non-existent outside of the occasional Fassbinder biography.

-Robert Curry

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