Austere, fragmented, and minimalist, Katzelmacher captures the inert lives of a group of aimless, financially struggling apartment dwellers on an anonymous residential city street. The film opens to an implicit shot of one of the residents, Erich (Hans Hirschmüller), parked alongside a grocery store, biding idle time in his car as his lover Marie (Hanna Schygulla) closes shop for the evening. It is an insightful glimpse of interminable silence and existential waiting that defines the lives of the residents as they attempt to escape from the inertia of their daily existence through anonymous sexual encounters, alcohol consumption, rumor mongering and, on occasion, lapses of domestic violence. Erich’s friend (and occasional, enabling accomplice to his ill-conceived, money-making schemes), Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem), continues to rendezvous with his possessive and literally clinging lover, Helga (Lilith Ungerer), despite her increasingly desperate attempts to pressure him into commitment and marriage. In another household, a stern and independent woman, Elizabeth (Irm Hermann), struggles to salvage her failing relationship with her abusive, indolent lodger, Peter (Peter Moland) who treats her contemptuously, but refuses to vacate the apartment. A young, aspiring actress, Rosy (Elga Sorbas), resorts to prostitution in order to make ends meet, and even exacts payment from her devoted lover, Franz (Harry Baer), who accedes to her financial demands with the unrealized hope of eliciting an affirmation of mutual affection from her. A bored and sexually frustrated neighbor, Gunda (Doris Mattes), waiting for her absent lover to return, occupies her time by indulging in idle gossip with other tenants in front of the apartment building – a familiar neighborhood routine that is disrupted when a reticent, inscrutable immigrant worker named Yorgos (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) becomes a lodger in Elizabeth’s apartment.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder creates a spare, atypically muted, and relevant portrait of alienation, ennui, and xenophobia in Katzelmacher. The film was adapted from the first play written by Fassbinder – a companion feature to Jean-Marie Straub’s reductive, ten minute stage adaptation of Ferdinand Bruckner’s three-act play, Sickness of Youth (1926) for the underground Action Theater, a theater ensemble later re-organized as the Anti-Theater under Fassbinder’s oversight. Profoundly influenced by the radicalism of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, a creative ideology to deconstruct traditional stage convention and redefine dramatic arts as a medium for social change, Fassbinder distills the narrative into a disjunctive assembly of deliberately formalized, episodic long takes, primarily in medium shot, that retains observational distance and critical objectivity: the constant seating re-arrangement at a local bar as the neighbors play a card game; Rosy’s dissociated musical performance; the incongruous introduction of piano accompaniment as people promenade down the street; the repeated incidents of unprovoked violence. By presenting the pervasive and insidious nature of estrangement and dispossession, Katzelmacher serves as a brutal and compelling reflection of socially tolerated inhumanity and marginalization.
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