-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
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
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.