Fassbinderbased his second feature film on his stage play from a year prior, and it shows. Nearly every scene frames two to five characters against a plain backdrop – the front of an apartment building, the bare wall of one of the rooms inside, a table at the local tavern – where they alternately snipe at each other, spread rumors and ugly gossip, and talk haltingly, with blank expressions, about not very much.
There’s a biting, satiric edge, and a visceral anti-racist undertone (shared with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, the only other Fassbinder I’m familiar with), but it’s kind of a slog. A repeated visual theme – a couple (by the end of the film, nearly every permutation has been included) walking through the courtyard to the sounds of a stately piano, like they’re walking down the aisle or in some sort of ritual procession, helps break up the minimalist tedium – but it’s a suffocating vision of insularity, xenophobia, sexism, casual violence, and economic malaise. I admired the film but I didn’t enjoy it.
The plot, such as it is, can be summarized very quickly. A group of young Germans, with little to do, no jobs, and not much hope, hang out and talk shit about each other. They are frustrated economically and sexually – the film definitely implies these two things are related on a fundamental level.
Their aspirations are minor: a quick buck, the promise of an acting career based on a photo shoot, a marriage or, failing that, some affection. In their restless ennui, they pass the time by passing judgment on each other, and each one is a hypocrite: the girl who trades sex for “gifts” of money is scorned, for instance, while it’s implied one of the tough guys is doing the same for out-of-town men. Each of them looks for any opportunity to distinguish and elevate their own compromises under oppressive conditions from those of the others.
Satire or not, these are unpleasant folks to be around.
Eventually, one of the residents takes in a lodger, a Greek laborer (played by Fassbinder), and the gossip shifts into high gear. The logic of the film’s structure indicates that all the simmering resentment that had previously circulated through the group now has an external outlet in this simple, uncomprehending Other. He sleeps naked! He is “better built,” as his unwitting roommate puts it! (How so, someone asks? “His dick,” he answers, as though what he meant wasn’t clear already.) He’s a cunning communist! He assaults German women, maybe! These allegations also sit right alongside their opposites – that Greeks don’t bathe and are undesirable, that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, and so forth. Since all these characters do is talk, his lack of German fluency renders him a cipher, and they can make of him whatever their free-floating resentment requires.
It culminates, as you’d expect, in an act of violence. But nothing much changes. In fact, Fassbinder’s final fuck-you gesture in Katzelmacher (“Cat fucker,” incidentally, which Wikipedia informs me is pejorative Bavarian slang for foreign workers) is to close on a note rendering even that violence perfunctory and meaningless.
Aside from the one character making money from renting rooms, these people are not economic agents in their own lives – they just sort of inhabit a world where things happen which they can’t control, and even scapegoating and violence do nothing but underline their powerlessness. All that’s left is to stew about it, try to find someone, close at hand, to blame, and talk shit on an apartment stoop, and dream of an escape that no one really thinks is coming.