It’s hard to imagine that Fassbinder was only 23 when KATZELMACHER was released in 1969; That it was his second feature; and that he’d made it in spite of his first – LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH – being greeted with opprobrium and shouts of ‘Narcissist’ at the Berlin Film Festival. By then, Fassbinder had also written, acted, and produced many plays, including KATZELMACHER, staged at Munich to accompany Jean-Marie Straub’s condensation of Ferdinand Bruckner’s three-act SICKNESS OF YOUTH.
In KATZELMACHER, a gang of young people sit on a railing outside an apartment and shoot the shit; they talk about sex and money, not always truthfully. Sometimes they continue the chat in a park bench, or they move to a tavern. These mainly static scenes are punctuated by mobile shots of two people, usually women, taking short walks towards the camera as the camera pulls back, and talking about their lives as Schubert’s German Dance, Op. 33. No. 7 plays over the soundtrack.
The youth are disaffected, trying to find love, sometimes selling themselves for money, including the men, but mainly judging each other. Halfway through the film, their bored sullenness is pierced to action when a Greek immigrant enters the scene. Soon they begin to whisper that he’s filthy, sex-crazed, one of the women claims to have been molested by him, moreover he’s a communist. All the group’s not-so-latent fascist tendencies are brought to the fore and it all erupts in violence.
KATZELMACHER was filmed in only nine days and remains potent. I was struck by the kiss between men and wondered what seeing that might have meant in 1969. I was also struck by the gendered structures of feeling expressed in the film. Women are constantly slapped around, causally, as if the men had a right to; and the women also take it nonchalantly, as if the men did indeed have a right to exert that violence on them. The Greek guest worker, played by Fassbinder, though indeed a victim, is, as a man, no better than the German ones, starting an affair whilst denying he has a family and children back home. Part of Fassbinder’s success is that the characters work as both social types and as flesh and blood people.
It’s going to be interesting watching these films in order.
For a more extended discussion of the film you may want to look at Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent piece: https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2022/10/the-example-of-katzelmacher/