Produced by Peer Raben
With actors Hanna Schygulla, Lilith Ungerer, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Elga Sorbas
available on DVD in the US and Germany
Katzelmacher documents life in a seemingly lifeless Munich and the sudden arrival of a Greek worker, played by Fassbinder himself. The majority of the film consists of inert sequences in which the townspeople sit around and gossip about one another. The lack of camera movement contributes to the static feeling pervading each character’s life, in which nothing much happens and nothing much changes day to day.
The foreigner from Greece, Jorgos, does not arrive until halfway into the film. He rents a room in the apartment of a young married couple, Elisabeth and Peter. He walks into town with his back to the camera, creating a sense of alienation. His presence in the town generates immediate dislike as well as gossip about who might be sleeping with him. The men feel threatened by his presence and the sexual discourse surrounding Southern men.
The town’s attitude toward Jorgos only shifts, once the residents learn of Elisabeth’s financial exploitation of Jorgos – overcharging him for rent. They applaud her for her business savvy and Elisabeth makes plans to divide up her husband Peter’s room to squeeze in another foreigner to earn more money.
Fassbinder explores a similar theme in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in which acceptance of foreigners comes through exploitation of them. Ali is looked upon as an exotic and useful tool; his muscular build is perfect for lifting heavy boxes. Jorgos is taken advantage of because the townspeople consider him stupid – interesting, and slightly puzzling, is how Fassbinder does not provide Jorgos with any characteristics that would make the viewer believe otherwise. Jorgos speaks little, looks blank for the entire film, and keeps his head down (usually, to stare at breasts). Fassbinder does not provide a very positive image for the foreigner in a film which purports to criticize German xenophobia.
However, Jorgos is the only character who is supposedly doing honest work in the film (though it is never shown) in order to earn a living and make money for his family back in Greece. The other townspeople all talk of improving their lives and pursuing their dreams, but to do so, they feel they need more money – some resort to prostitution or attempt to plan some illegal operation, but mostly their lives remain just as they are. Peter sits around and lets Elisabeth earn money for the both of them, although the method she chooses is the exploitation of others. In comparison, simple-minded Jorgos appears to be more moral and hard-working than most of the other characters.
Katzelmacher is a film which centers around a small German neighborhood where the constant concerns are money and other people’s lives. Jorgos enters, causing some disturbance, and yet it seems the threat of the foreigner has mostly been neutralized by the movie’s end, and Jorgos is absorbed into the ceaseless ennui of the town.
by Christine Chou