In 1974, the young but already acclaimed German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, released a remarkable new film, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf; also known as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul], which was as daring as it was prescient in its treatment of the reception of foreigners and particularly Muslims in Germany. The film features an unusual relationship that develops between Ali, a Moroccan guest worker in his late 30s, and a 60-year old white German widow from a working-class community by the name of Emmi. A chance meeting between the two blossoms into love, but, as lovers have often found out for themselves, others won’t let them live in peace. A younger man with a much older woman is a phenomenon that continues to be rare in most societies; some people are even likely to find such a relationship abominable. However, what most offends Emmi’s daughter, son-in-law, friends, and co-workers is that she shares her bed with a Moroccan immigrant. The canard that foreign workers—many, though by no means all, of them Muslims—are “dirty” is repeated in Elli’s former circle of friends and workers; and, as societies are wont to do with women who show any degree of sexual independence, Elli is soon condemned as a “whore”.
In Germany, given the enormous burden of its history, the question of xenophobia is of paramount importance. Germans have striven over the years to contend with their past, and it is certainly unnecessary to recount their myriad efforts to acknowledge, and atone for, what transpired under National Socialism and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian state. In recent years, even as most European countries have been shockingly indifferent to the fate of refugees who have attempted to made their way into Europe from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Germany has been generous in opening its arms to this—as it sometimes represented—flotsam and jetsam of a surging humanity. In comparison with every other country, in and out of Europe, Germany has certainly been salutary in its reception of refugees. Nevertheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now openly voiced in most countries of Europe, and that has taken the form of virulent forms of racism and discrimination, is now being heard in Germany as well. Far-right parties had been making inroads in Germany over the last twenty years, but their sentiments have thus far not been shared, at least not in public, by the majority of Germans. However, yesterday morning’s newspapers carried a report that, perhaps in submission to growing public animosity towards Muslims, whose otherness is symbolized to many people most distinctly by the veiling practiced by many Muslim women, Chancellor Angela Merkel had indicated that the use of the hijab in Germany will henceforth be severely curtailed.
Quite apropos, then, of all this, it is perhaps fitting that last evening I should have had occasion to see Fassbinder’s comparatively little-known film, Katzelmacher, released as part of a set of five DVDs of his early films in Criterion’s Eclipse series. Fassbinder shot this film, in black & white, over a period of nine days in August 1969 and was able to release it just two months later. The word, “Katzelmacher”, is said to be Bavarian slang for “foreigner”, though the word has also been rendered as “trouble-maker”; and Fassbinder himself is said to have elaborated upon it thus: “a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy great sexual potency.” The film centers on a group of young friends in one of Munich’s neighborhoods who appear to have largely aimless lives: their conversation centers on financial woes and gossip about who is sleeping with whom. There isn’t much camera movement: the film moves between a few different locations, among them a street where they gather for conversation, a run-down restaurant, and a few “domestic” apartment interiors. In keeping with this bare-bones cinematic minimalism, necessitated to some degree by the small budget with which Fassbinder was working, is the use of recurring tracking shots of pairs of the principal characters strolling down a street where they are the only pedestrians. The men are abusive to their female sexual partners, slapping and hitting them at will as it seems, and it would be far too much to speak of men having respect for women; indeed, scarcely anyone seems to have any respect for anyone else, and the women bitch about each other. There is no laughter, no joy, no humor. One woman, Rosy, engages in a form of prostitution, charging even her boyfriend for sexual favors.
What disrupts this pattern of living is the sudden appearance of Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself), a Greek guest-worker who takes up residence in the apartment of Elisabeth, which she shares, though not with any great pleasure, with her live-in boyfriend, Peter. By the late 1960s, when Katzelmacher was released, there were over two million foreign guest-workers in West Germany, from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Morocco. As in the case of Japan, the wartime machinery in West Germany was in the aftermath of the war diverted to industrial production, and by the late 1950s the economic resurgence of West Germany was such as to generate a huge demand for foreign workers. Jorgos is first taken for an Italian; he is then discovered to be “a Greek from Greece”. Soon, the rumor is circulating that Elisabeth is sleeping with Jorgos; though the rumor is without any foundation, the implication in part is that Jorgos is without any morals. Any such insinuation, as Fassbinder suggests, would be comical if it were not (as it eventually turns out) dangerous, considering that none of the other characters can even remotely be viewed as a paragon of the virtuous and morally upright human being. Peter, who does not take kindly to being reminded by Elizabeth of his sheer worthlessness as a man capable of any degree of financial autonomy, loses no time in suggesting to this motley group of rather pitiful specimens of bourgeois middle-class life that the Greek is muscular, of better built, and larger than any of them—more particularly, in the region of the genitals.
Some might suppose that it is sexual envy that feeds the anger and resentment of this circle of young friends. However, though anti-immigrant feeling may feed on predictable anxieties, such as the notion, now being widely trumpeted in Trump’s America, that immigrants “steal” jobs, xenophobia needs no such rationale and can live off a great many others rumors and anxieties. For the young women and men in Katzelmacher, vindictiveness towards immigrants is something like a sport; for no apparent reason, Jorgos is constantly taunted as a “communist”. Greece, in fact, was under the rule of a military junta from 1967-1974, and thousands of communists were hounded, killed, and exiled to remote Greek islands. The only person who stands by Jorgos is Marie, whose boyfriend, Erich, is a particularly vicious and violent hoodlum of sorts; but her affection for Jorgos, far from saving him, makes him a target of attack by Erich, Peter, and others. Jorgos is beaten up badly; he is tempted into returning to Greece.
The film ends with Marie and her friend Gunda strolling down a street, hands held together, and exchanging these words:
Marie: In the summer, he’s taking me to Greece.
Gunda: And his wife?
Marie: It doesn’t matter. In Greece everything’s different.
The anti-immigrant narrative now sweeping through the US and much of Europe has nowhere to hide and nothing to say for itself: it is pathetic, farcical, and tragic as much for immigrants and refugees as it is for wealthy host societies who have apparently still not learned to live with difference and understand what constitutes hospitality and ecumenism. The bold minimalism of Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher brings us closer to the emptiness that lies at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiments.