Taking a position of superiority over a person who is being flagrantly racist or xenophobic is a defensive move. It’s not about keeping your head high, but about feeling that you have the power in the situation, which can be gained by acknowledging the individual’s stupidity and complete lack of originality. Even seemingly prescient racist “political” theories — the Great Replacement, for example — are founded on ideals that are as unoriginal as common stereotypes. This is what Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his own radical way, was getting at with his 1969 film Katzelmacher: the banality of it all.
“Katzelmacher,” a Bavarian slang word, pulls up a few translations with a simple search. Jonathan Rosenbaum lays out most of them by quoting different sources, including Fassbinder: “trouble-maker,” “cockmaster,” “cat-screwer.” Fassbinder’s definition was “a foreigner, especially someone from the South [of Europe?].” But another translation can be found on a handful of language websites, which say the word means “dego” or “Eyetie,” two racial slurs usually aimed at Italian people. I prefer this translation, because then the title of Fassbinder’s film becomes a direct joke at the expense of its characters. They are a sad bunch: a group of young people who pass the time with vapid conversations, dull sex and meaningless gossip. All but two have steady work, so that leaves the rest to loiter outside an apartment building in Munich. They occasionally suggest going for a beer, and then all stare at their drinks in silence, waiting for someone to say something negative about whoever is missing from the table. The first half of Katzelmacher plays their pointless existence on a loop, at least until the “Italian” arrives. The character, portrayed by Fassbinder, is actually from Greece, but the locals ignorantly make an assumption about his ethnicity.
“It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” This quote introduces Katzelmacher, credited to Yaak Karsunke, German author and friend of Fassbinder. It’s as true and as simple as it needs to be. The style of the film is similarly economical: stark white skin on stark white backgrounds. Not only are the characters boring, but the world they inhabit is just as dull. It’s no wonder they all look so miserable. Before having sex, they remove their clothes with the same dispassion as removing trousers to use the toilet. “Can’t we do a bit more?” one of them says: “As if it were love or something?” They see their world exactly as it is on the screen. A majority of them are happy to carry on and not look beyond the bland exterior, not knowing that it is rotting their souls. But a handful do crave “love or something.” Fassbinder’s choice to cage them in such dreary settings is effective, with fancy camerawork and lavish production designs disposed of in the name of a style that is perfectly aligned with his thematic intentions.
Given the mundanity of the characters’ lives, it’s not surprising how wickedly xenophobic they become. Of course, these prejudices don’t come from nowhere, but it’s the quickness with which they start espousing xenophobic/racist clichés that speaks to Fassbinder’s strict style. They have nothing better to do. One by one, every well-worn offence is added to the list of reasons why they despise this man, Jorgos, who is living with a couple, Elizabeth (Irm Hermann) and Peter (Peter Moland), that resides in the apartment block all the characters seem to share. Elizabeth, a businessperson, has hired “the Greek” and gives him a room in her apartment. He has to share a room with Peter, who has been demoted to the spare room after too many bitter arguments. The couple’s relationship is instrumental to how the other group grow more hostile towards Jorgos. Elizabeth is successful, but she doesn’t mix with the others; Peter is a fool, living off his partner’s success. Peter is tired of having to share a room with a foreigner, and so he decides to stir up some hate while his impressive other half is out making the money.
As soon as Jorgos appears, the locals are intrigued by his difference. “It’s strange having someone like that here,” says one of the women. The joke is that he looks no different to them; the fact he doesn’t speak their language is the trigger. “What a stupid expression,” they say. Contrary to everyone’s monotonous tone, conflict escalates and the accusations become extreme. With no appreciation of how it might reflect their own inadequacy, the men start discussing Jorgos’ penis and the threat it poses. His penis is actually caught up in two separate indictments, both of which are untrue, but one lie amplifies the other. A rumour starts to circulate that Jorgos and Elizabeth are having sex (once for three hours, they say), and Peter does nothing to stop the rumors from spreading, sick of sharing a room with the foreigner. He even encourages the speculation by talking about Jorgos’ large penis, claiming he has seen it. Jorgos is also charged with raping one of the women, Gunda (Doris Mattes). However, Fassbinder makes it clear that neither story is true by showing the viewer what the characters don’t see. There was a strange conversation between Jorgos and Gunda, but it ends as awkwardly as it begins. And Peter probably has seen Jorgos’ penis, but nowhere near Elizabeth. These accusations are laughably predictable. The virility of the unwanted foreigner is a typical focal point for the average xenophobe.
But amidst all the dissatisfaction and mindless hatred are moments of relief. Scattered throughout Katzelmacher, there are brief, almost identical vignettes, where two characters walk together down a path, with the same saloon piano jam from Peer Raben accompanying their lacklustre conversations. These small scenes are unusually stylish and beautiful. The penultimate vignette has Jorgos and Marie (Hanna Schygulla) walking arm in arm. Marie is one of the gang, but she has left Erich for Jorgos. She believes that he is innocent of everything. Another character, Rosy (Elga Sorbas), dreams of being famous. She’s seen singing in her room, possibly to herself, and not particularly well, but it’s heartfelt.
It’s easy (and fun) to be facetious about the characters’ ignorance, but this can only take the conversation so far. Before they give Jorgos the beating that Katzelmacher has been leading up to, a scary scene in a local bar demonstrates how cruel the mind can become when hatred is its only stimulation. Jorgos, Paul and Erich, perfectly framed, sit quietly drinking their beers. Paul and Erich, empowered by the language barrier, begin describing what they will do to their unsuspecting drinking partner. They agree that Jorgos smells, because people in Greece probably don’t wash. But their conversation suddenly turns violent. They talk about mutilating Jorgos. It’s a disturbing scene, and it is crucially played with little emotion. It could be that they don’t really believe what they are saying and are just feeding off each other for their own amusement. Maybe, given the opportunity, they would fulfill their darkest instincts. Fassbinder leaves the latter question unanswered because Katzelmacher would then become something quite different, and the humour so vital to its treatment of xenophobia would be spoiled.
Mark Seneviratne is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.