Friday, October 27, 2006

The young people in Katzelmacher get all revved up for another exciting day of life.

Blogging Fassbindrer, Part II: Katzelmacher and Gods of the Plague

Katzelmacher, the second of four films Fassbinder made in 1968, tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar way.

A group of bored, aimless, mostly young people who focus all their anger and frustration on Yondo, a young Greek immigrant. He's working, they're not, and besides that he's foreigner -- here to take our jobs, take our women, and infect our country. These are young people whose lives are withering away to nothing, and they need a scapegoat, just as Hitler's masses did nearly 40 years before.

What's different is the style, which sets it apart from any conventional story of homegrown hatred. Fassbinder was quickly and boldly developing his visual technique; experimenting with it, trying out for size new ways of looking at the same thing. Here he employs two signature shots that he returns to repeatedly over the course of the film, one static and one moving. Stasis: this listless group of youths lean against a railing in front of an apartment house, often saying nothing, waiting endlessly for something to happen or someone to say something. Movement: a seemingly random pair, opposite sexes or both, walk dreamily toward the camera talking, as soft processional music plays.

Are these stuck in the same dull little town forever -- and is getting away only an active unfulfilled dream, much as it is with anyone mired in the status quo? Yondo, played by Fassbinder, a Greek immigrant worker who can barely speak German is harmless, good-natured, and in need of a friend, but to this group he poses a threat simply because he's their midst, and these folks don't like anyone interrupting their woeful malaise. He is accused of being Communist, ugly, a rapist, filthy; the least attractive girl in the group claims he molested her.

These are people who are old before their time; they are like a lot of old men and women who are just waiting for the end, although they still have a good 50 years to go. Sometimes an uncomfortably long time will pass as no one says anything. Finally, someone says "I'm going to the tavern" and the others follow, no doubt grateful that at least someone has pointed them in the only direction they could possibly take.

Here or at the tavern or in their spare, sad little apartments, they talk, smoke, gossip, and insult each other with the same sluggish energy; occasionally one of the guys will slap his girlfriend, who will weep, wail, and get over it. Then it's back to nothing as usual.

The only excitement life has to offer them involves either sex, which tends to be quick and meaningless, or money. At least one of the young women in this circle, Rosy, occasionally prostitutes herself to get by, usually with one of the guys. This brings a slight reproving look from the hypocritical others, but not much, as morality in general tends to be regarded as a burden to be shed of.

These West Germany couples look back to the young men of Fellini's I vitelloni, who are also facing the end of their youth, and forward to the punks of London in the late 1970s, listening to "God Save the Queen" -- so bored with their lives that they become numb.

Gods of the Plague is another crime film homage on the order of Love is Colder Than Death, and frankly I can't say much more about than that I loved the opening credits: a man and woman dancing to a country song as the words scroll across the bottom of the screen.

Otherwise, there are times when I found myself wondering just what the movie was about. The plot, again, isn't much -- a guy who gets out of the joint and is quickly pulled back into the old life with a job involving the robbery of a supermarket -- but it's the mood that really gets you: Germanic despair at its most lush. There is something about despair that is cultural -- Fassbinder's despair is not Bergman's despair. Bergman is wintry and cool; Fassbinder is fleshy and smelly.

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