Katzelmacher” wasn’t the first movie by Rainer Werner Fassbinder I ever saw—that would have been “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” for which I bought a ticket at the 1973 New York Film Festival. (As I wrote last year in a piece on Fassbinder’s American reception, I recall enjoying “The Bitter Tears” while at the same time being distracted by the action around the screen right exit in Alice Tully Hall. After half an hour it was like happy hour in a Western saloon. The door was swinging open and banging shut, as people fled in droves.)
“Katzelmacher” (a pejorative slang term for “trouble maker”) which had its first New York showing at the New Yorker Theater as part of an unprecedented three month retrospective in the spring of 1977 that included seven premieres, was, however, the movie that most impressed me with Fassbinder’s genius. I began reviewing films for the Village Voice that fall and, when invited to contribute a year-end 10 Best List, ranked “Katzelmacher” number one. (You can find the list here.) Given that Jean-Luc Godard’s “Numéro Deux” came in second, I think that I was making a point—although I can’t be sure because until I began screening Criterion’s new five-film “Early Fassbinder” box I hadn’t actually seen “Katzelmacher” for a second time.
Revisiting “Katzelmacher” was in a way a double viewing. I was watching the movie now, looking for what I saw in it then. From the perspective of 2013, “Katzelmacher” is not the best movie of 1977, nor even one of Fassbinder’s masterpieces. (“Beware of a Holy Whore,” also included in the Criterion box, seems at least as strong, as do “Effi Briest” and “Jail Bait,” two movies that also premiered at the New Yorker back in the day.) What struck me now—and also then, I imagine—was “Katzelmacher”’s radicalism.
A true troublemaker, Fassbinder attacks his material head-on and, without apology, in washed-out, black and white 16mm. Each scene, save for an intermittently recurring promenade dolly shot, is a single, unmoving camera set-up. The narrative, a sort of brutish, anti-clever Seinfeld episode, concerning a gaggle of Munich slackers that ends, more or less, with them beating up the sullen Greek guest-worker who finds himself in their midst and who, in a brilliantly self-reflexive ploy, is played by their own famously demanding director.
In the context of 1977 and the avant-garde film scene to which I belonged, as well as the burgeoning punk aesthetic, “Katzelmacher” appeared at once cinematically raw and conceptually sophisticated, an example of both underground and structural filmmaking, an excitingly desultory Warholian reading of Brecht. The actors were not so much acting as having their being and quoting their lines—although even then Hannah Schygulla in a micro-mini projected a charisma that set her apart.
I don’t think it registered on me that “Katzelmacher” was only Fassbinder’s second feature but I must have been aware that he was 24 when he made the film—not much younger than I when I first saw it. Youth, his and mine, was surely a factor. The reason why I ranked “Katzelmacher” ahead of “Numero Deux,” James Benning’s “11×14,” and Robert Bresson’s “The Devil Probably” (not to mention Luis Buñuel’s swan song “That Obscure Object of Desire” which wasn’t even on my list) was an appreciation for and affirmation of Fassbinder’s insolence.