Fassbinder's second feature film, Katzelmacher (1969), is a tour de force of stark visual beauty and ambiguous but riveting characters. The DVD transfer from Wellspring is pristine.
Shot in just nine days on a shoestring budget (DEM 80,000, then US $25,000), Katzelmacher explores the rootless but circumscribed lives of a group of young working class people in a Munich apartment complex. Violence lies just below the surface, as we see when a Greek "guest worker" named Jorgos (played by Fassbinder) moves in and becomes involved with one of the women, Marie (played by the great Hanna Schygulla, who appeared in half of Fassbinder's films). The men's increasing hostility towards the "Katzelmacher" (a Bavarian sexual slur for a foreign laborer), coupled with the immigrant's incomprehension, leads to the film's powerful climax. The film won several prestigious awards (the substantial prize money financed Fassbinder's next projects) and decisively established its 23-year-old writer/director/actor - and editor (using his pseudonym of "Franz Walsch") - as a rising star of German cinema.
While stylistically austere, like his other early films, we can already see Fassbinder's trademark interplay of social criticism and melodrama. And although he based Katzelmacher on his original play, he uses purely cinematic - visual and sound - means to explore his inarticulate but richly-drawn characters. Fassbinder takes visual cues from such then-recent works as Godard's My Life to Live (1963) and Bergman's Persona (1966), yet his film feels wrenched from life, not made up from earlier works. The severe images (bare walls, bare lives, and sometimes bare bodies) viscerally convey not only the world which these people inhabit but their deepest natures.
Despite, or perhaps because, of its relentlessly minimalist style, the film achieves a compelling momentum. Each scene is done in a single continuous shot; some go on for several minutes, others are just one quick, evocative image. Throughout there is no camera movement, except for a series of brief, formally identical tracking shots which punctuate the film. Even then, the camera maintains an even distance as it pulls straight ahead of two people walking in parallel, further emphasizing the flat space which confines them.
As the picture lulls you along with its extended use of dialogue, delivered in a flat manner by people who almost never look each other in the eye, suddenly a man will strike his girlfriend. And she will let him. He may recently have given her money in exchange for sex (the divisions between love and casual prostitution are blurry, and include both hetero- and homosexual varieties). A moment after the slap, their impassivity returns.
The bland surfaces (emotional, architectural, cinematic) and mundane conversations conceal, but barely contain, a violence waiting to erupt. Jorgos discovers this at the climax, when the "real Germans" beat him for bringing "difference" into their little world. But Katzelmacher is much more than a tract about the still-relevant issue of xenophobia. Since Fassbinder lets us uncover at least some of the reasons for that violence, we are not simply clicking our tongues in disgust at these slack "tough guys" and their "girls;" we are able to understand them. We see, more clearly than any of the characters, their inability to communicate, even as we feel their profound longing to connect.
Even at this early point in his career, Fassbinder is an artist who can transform such raw, painful, and deeply personal material into a visually arresting film, which is at once fiercely unsentimental and tender.