Nothing is More Bourgeois than Being Afraid to Look Bourgeois

By Robert Chilcott

katzelmacher-reiner-werner-fassbinder.jpgKatzelmacher, 1969

Whether under the illusion that they are free, or that they are actually free without realising it, Fassbinders’ early bourgeois critiques pick up the mantle that Godard abandoned after Weekend, its disaffected characters, post 68, being passed the baton of urban alienation and realising that the revolution was not all it was cracked up to be.

In Katzelmacher (1969) his second film, a group of layabouts sit around a courtyard railing. They fuck and borrow money from each other, bitching about those out of earshot. Like the static camera, they don’t go anywhere. They preen and try too hard not to look cool, wallowing in their dead-end existence, resistant to happiness, with little or no smiling. However much they desire individuality, the camera frames them in compositions of uniformity. “It is better to make new mistakes than to repeat old ones until the mind goes numb”, an opening quote tells us, yet Fassbinder knows that these doomed souls will never listen.

why-does-herr-r-run-amok-reiner-werner-fassbinder.jpgWhy Does Herr R Run Amok?, 1969

An outsider appears, a foreign worker - Jorgos the Greek, played by Fassbinder himself. His arrival disrupts the groups ennui, showing them to be not so bohemian after all. Despite their awareness and self-loathing about the German past, their petty xenophobia cannot contain its contempt for this “filthy, dirty communist who never washes”. One girl, Gunda, claims that he looks at her funny, and Chinese whispers turn to cries of rape. Another, Marie, played by Hanna Schygulla, is appalled and ever so slightly intrigued. The men drink with him, and as he can’t speak German they discuss chopping his dick off whilst he raises his glass in a gesture of friendship. Order is restored as Jorgos is eventually beaten up. “He had it coming”, say the girls, “the way he stares at people”, as these contemptuous band of outsiders assert their fascist heritage. Marie, now in love with this chaotic little tramp, hopes her ‘cock-artist’ will take her away. "Germany cold, Greece nice".

In Fassbinders’ fourth feature of 1969, Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, the narrative is transposed to the milieu of the office and the family. Herr R (Kurt Raab) is settled down, a neat side parting and a three piece suit, and works as a technical draftsman designing Esso hotels. As he leaves his office his three colleagues tell each other bad jokes, but he hangs back as he doesn’t know any. His identity is disappearing and his waistline expanding. He and his wife meet her old schoolfriend Hanna for a drink. Hanna maintains a youthful appearance and dresses differently – she is free and therefore doesn’t appear to do anything.

why-does-herr-r-run-amok-reiner-werner-fassbinder-4.jpgWhy Does Herr R Run Amok?, 1969

Fassbinder is both critical and sympathetic towards Herr R’s fate. In an early scene he goes to a record store to buy a 45 single for his wife, but doesn’t know the title so has to hum it. The vacant teenage shopgirls make little attempt to hide their condescending laughs at him, though he doesn’t seem to notice or care. Society can only be cruel. Back home he and his wife reminisce about their courtship, a genuine moment of warmth and compassion, but in Fassbinder’s world this is short lived, happiness is no fun and love is colder than death. Tenderness soon gives way to dislocation and alienation. At a miserable Christmas lunch his workmates discuss who will get a promotion – everyone else talks but Herr R is hardly there, with even the camera leaving his presence until last. In a meeting with the schoolteacher, he and his wife don’t really know how to deal with the information that their son is inattentive and lacks concentration, an irony lost on them.

The cracks quickly begin to show. The neighbours, like the petty minds of Katzelmacher, bicker and gossip that Herr R is getting fat. His wife becomes more critical, telling him he has no feeling for art and berating him for spoiling his chances for promotion at an office party by giving a lacklustre speech that bores his boss and a drunken passed-out colleague. Unlike the stylised, locked-off mise-en-scene of the previous film, here the camera creeps around the characters in long organic takes, queasy with discomfort at the banality of their routine existence.

beware-of-a-holy-whore-reiner-werner-fassbinder-2.jpgBeware of a Holy Whore, 1970

A check up at the doctor’s office informs Herr R that quitting his 40-a-day smoking habit will rid him of his headaches, but it’s a psychological cure he really needs. An attempt to catch up with his old schoolfriend is met with boredom and derision from his wife, yet he remains oblivious and escapes into the anecdotes of desperate nostalgia. Finally, unable to hear the TV over the mindless chatter of his wife and a neighbour, he takes a candlestick and... runs amok. His co-workers still can’t understand what his driven him to such an act. Surely he’s no different to them?

During the making of Whity, his 7th feature, it became apparent that the utopia of his anti-theater group had broken down, the dream no longer possible. Whilst he had held onto his identity, unlike poor Herr R, at what price was this freedom, and was the ideal really worth anything? However likeminded his troupe of misfits were, whatever common cause had brought them together, it was now tearing them apart. A group, by its very nature, needs a leader, or in Fassbinders terms, a dictator - the control has to be the responsibility of one, thus any such co-operative ceases to function as a ‘collective’.

katzelmacher-reiner-werner-fassbinder-2.jpgKatzelmacher, 1969

In Beware of a Holy Whore (1970), a feature film about the making of a feature film, the commune has well and truly imploded. The gang have escaped the suburbs of Katzelmacher, sidestepped the 9 to 5 inertia of Herr R… and attained the ‘dream’ of filmmaking, but they are just as listless as their earlier parallel selves and still sit around and play cards, bored, trapped in a foreign hotel waiting for film stock, and the director, to arrive. Talking self-referential uber-text to its narcissistic extreme, Hanna Schygulla plays Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Constantine plays Alphavilles’ Lemmy Caution, and everyone else plays each other, with not-so-thinly veiled allusions to their real-life relationships.

Visually languid but psychologically violent, the film closes with a quote from Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kruger, which, to paraphrase, illustrates the groups dilemma. Consumed by the inhumanity of the filmmaking process, or at least the methods of Fassbinder, whilst at the same time trying to portray humanity (without ever feeling part of it), they’ve become too dependent on the tyranny of the director, unable to resist his sadism. The film within the film turns out incredibly beautiful, yet it’s a brutal journey before arrival, and the destination is a world which doesn’t really exist.

Robert Chilcott is a writer and filmmaker. He lives in London.