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Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection vol.1

January 2008 SITE MAP   SEARCH

cast: Hanna Schugulla, Lilith Ungerer, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Elga Sorbas, and Doris Mattes

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

86 minutes (18) 1969
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
"It's better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones... to the point of unconsciousness." It seems a straightforward enough quote that opens this early Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, but can the subtitles be trusted? Shot in a brittle light on black and white 16mm, Katzelmacher is a story of disparate (disaffected) German youth, an idiot class, a lowest common denominator invention of the director. It is a warning to the new generation of Germans not to, in their boredom, fall into the mindset that 40 years before led the country into the blackest episode in 20th century history.

It's 24 years after the war and most of the cast of characters have yet to reach that number of years in age. They have lived in the aftermath but it is never the same as the reality. Reared in an atmosphere of guilt, rage or denial, they are deficient, meandering and riven with ennui, awakening only for occasional jabs of sex and violence. They loiter in a small radius, banister, bar and home, and criticise one another incessantly. It's a pared-down existence, of simple interests and the most rudimentary thought processes. They are mentally derelict, inherently selfish, a village of simpletons, their conversations largely comprised of statements of the bleeding obvious. Paul and Helga, and Erich and Marie, are the two couples in the group, the women victim to schoolgirl romanticism, the men casually brutal and uncaring. Money and money alone is important to most of the group as only money betters lifestyle, and here I am using their language of simple multiplication, bigger is better, more is better.

The only legitimately earning member of the group is Franz, who gifts Rory 20 deutschmarks every time they have sex. She commands him not to share this transactory detail with anyone else, which he immediately does. The others brand her a desperate whore and Gunda uses the information to pursue her for the return for some loaned money. The hypocritical Paul and Erich get angry when they are unable to persuade their own girlfriends to prostitute themselves in order to improve their own standards of living. Paul instead casually prostitutes himself with Klaus. Fassbinder casts himself as a Greek economic migrant, and Marie, who has had a sickener of Erich treating her roughly with frequent cuffings, becomes drawn to the foreigner, and she drops Erich.

Rumours spread of the Greek's bigger 'dick'. The Greek rooms and boards with Elizabeth to the chagrin of her other lodger, or is it Elizabeth's husband, it's never clear. Gunda tells a lie about the Greek having tried to assault her in the park. Others exaggerate the non-encounter further into an episode of rape. Neither the rape accusation nor Maria's romantic attentions towards the Greek have any bearing in the reason for the men eventually beating him up. He is simply doing better than them, a foreigner with the temerity to walk on their German pavement. They expect him to return home and he probably will, though Marie might yet leave with him. They expect the language barrier to be a problem, but it is no less restricting than that of her unimpressive usual company.

Nobody greets one another. They merely move into frame, find the railing, pose, and avert eyes. There is paucity in the set dressing, a skeletal existence of tables and chairs. No ornamentation. Marie is not the only romantic character but she is the only reasonable one. Her spiritedness, however, is still on the side of lank. She is the symbol of hope in this sorry bunch though no brighter than anyone else in this pantomime of idiots. They stand silently, or play cards without a word, fidgeting and changing seats. They are unsettled, too simple to solve the mystery of their own frustrations. Though they dress like the budgeting swinging Londoners, in terms of kerygma they are the antithesis of those other youths. They transfer their prejudices and traits onto others. They are doomed and deserve to be.

Subtitled by Peter and Waltrant Green, the dialogue has been toned down so that the allegory has been dulled and the characters more feckless. The German youth did not repeat the errors so why warn them now, appears to have been the blundering decision. I don't know if the softening was conducted with the best of intentions but you can't also not help but read it as nervousness and cowardice on the part of Juliane Lorenz who runs the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, only that way might she mend her thinking.

Mark the difference in the dialogue between Helga and Gunta following the beating up of the Greek: "He must go." ... "Yes." ... "We need a bit of order here." On its original English release this was translated as: "He has to go." ... "Exactly." ... "Order must be re-established." A rekindling of nazi ideologies at its most thoughtless and thuggish level is spelled out the earlier version. We cannot fault Arrow Films on this, as it is unlikely the RWF Foundation would offer both options. It concerns one that the power held by the Foundation, if practiced in this way across the restoration, could completely rewrite the director, his tone and the messages.

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