Wednesday, 16 November 2011

We Can Be Heroes

Another final highlight of my recent trip to Berlin was meeting and becoming friends with fashion designer and ex-Blitz Kid Judith Frankland who was the house guest of a friend of mine whilst she looked for her new flat in Neukolln to where she has now relocated. When I went round there, she was sitting at the table with a Berliner Pils and we had a right old time. Anyway, amongst practising our Polari on one another and covering conversational topics such as the brilliance that was Billy Mackenzie, how much we both rate the most recent Depeche Mode 3CD remix set, our mutual friend Julia Fodor and how massively underated are the band Blancmange, she told me about a fantastic sounding new book due out very soon, "We Can Be Heroes".

Basically, it's a collection of photographs taken by Graham Smith who was part of the late seventies/early eighties London club scene and comes with text by Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, Boy George and Steve Strange, as well as "500 pithy quotes from more than fifty of the main faces on the scene." It sounds very much like it will make quite a nice companion to go with Stephen Colegrave and Chris Sullivan's "Punk" book of a few years ago and not altogether in a different vein.

It's one of those books where it only gets published when a sufficient number of people subscribe and, thankfully, they've just met their target in the last twenty-four hours or so. However, you can still get in there to get an initial copy by the looks of things and depending on what you're prepared to pay you can get various packages which could include an invitation to the launch party or even some limited edition signed prints of the images, should you so wish.

Here's the link and a couple of videos:

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Opiates-Kantine am Berghain, Berlin: 26th October 2011 & "Hollywood Under The Knife"

Billie Ray Martin is somebody who never fails to fascinate and who, over the last twenty years or more, has kept reappearing with one project or release after another of invariably high quality and impeccable style. Whether it be her clutch of hits with Electribe 101 which blended a sophisticated electropop with Chicago house beats as the 1980s morphed into the nineties, her powerful dancefloor cover of Throbbing Gristle's "Persuasion" which she produced with Spooky in 1993 (The Chameleon Mix is simply amazing), her monster worldwide hit of 1995 "Your Loving Arms", the 2003 Hot Skates 3000 single "No Brakes on My Rollerskates" (This time the stand out mix is by S-Express man Mark Moore), her "Dead Again" 12" of the same year, "Je Regrette Everything" the track on which she collaborated with DJ Hell in 2005, last year's "Sweet Suburban Disco" single with a brilliant remix by good old Vince Clarke or her more recent reworkings of Cabaret Voltaire's "The Crackdown" and "Just Fascination", anything she releases is guaranteed to be worth sitting up and taking maximum notice of, all combining her richly soulful voice and thoughtfully sequenced electronics which often point cleary towards the dancefloor, albeit somewhat more subtly in some cases more than others. It's no wonder she's been dubbed somewhere as "The Queen of Electronic Soul".

The Opiates, one of her most recent projects, on which she collaborates with the Norwegian musician Robert Soihem, is no exception either and is probably, in my opinion anyway, one of the very best things she's ever done and that's coming up against some pretty stiff competition. They first appeared about three years ago with a four track 10" EP titled "Anatomy of a Plastic Girl" after its lead track and which featured the addictively danceable "Candy Coated Crime" which first drew me in and, like so much of what she does, I presumed after all this time that it had been yet another one-off collaboration in her ever expanding canon. But no: they're back with a new EP, "Rainy Days and Remixes", featuring "Anatomy of a Plastic Girl" remixed by Chris and Cosey, and a full album "Hollywod Under The Knife" which is phenomenal from start to finish. It's barely been out of my player over the last two weeks, doing battle for prime position with the fantastic S.C.U.M. album which can't be praised enough either. Recorded in her city of origin, Hamburg - I wonder if she knows three of my other favourites: Andreas Dorau, Holger Hiller and Felix Kubin.Wouldn't it just be lovely if they were all friends? - and coming accompanied by a sleeve and booklet featuring photographs by swishy Turner Prize winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, the nine tracks (plus an extra, gloriously elongated version of "Candy  Coated Crime") are shining examples of why many people have come to love her, beguiling lyrics populated by a series of isolated, introspective, deluded or downright mad personas and characters over bubbling, pulsing electronics, all this combining, in places quite cinematically, to create gorgeously evocative atmospheres and moods.

On one track "Silent Comes The Night Time", the urban heat is so tangible that one can practically feel it wafting in through the gap in the curtains from the darkness outside and on another "Rainy Days and Saturdays" the feeling of gloomy ennui, the result of an empty day spent alone with no company but self-analysis, is horribly infectious. Elsewhere "Reality TV" is an absolute gem, too, its poppiness and unashamedly brash, astringent synthiness making it sound like the fifth single Yazoo should have but never did release and "Oprah's Book of the Month Club (Part Two)", "Jalousies and Jealousies" and "Anatomy of a Plastic Girl", as is the case with the track just mentioned, weave tales of  rather unsuccessful, hollow celebrity aspirations, as is belied by the album's title and also somewhat obliquely reflected in Tillmann's accompanying images. It's a total masterpiece, albeit one that looks likely to be almost totally overlooked.

When I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to see that they (she) were performing as part of the "Kometenmelodie" club night at The Kantine am Berghain. So, armed with tickets we'd picked up the day before, myself and a companion walked rather confusedly through the pitch blackness of a Friedrichshain night, towards a rather desolate seeming dead-end where we then followed a series of dimly flickering lights across some scrubland, a bit like a secret trail laid out for those willing to put a bit of effort into their initiation, until we reached the quite busy venue hidden in what seemed like an unpopulated rather dead, industrial landscape.

When she first arrived on the quite dimly stage, illuminated mainly by film projections which towered above her, and kicked off procedings with the aforementioned "Reality TV", which also served as one of the encores, too, she had quite long curly hair which came as quite a surprise as I tried to work out when she'd had the time to grow it since I last saw a photograph of her. However, as song number two, "I'm Not Simone Choule", unfolded, accompanied by scenes from Roman Polanski's 1976 film "The Tenant", things became a bit clearer. I'd not previously twigged when I got the 10" single but Simone Choule is the previous inhabitant of Polanski's character's apartment and the person who he slowly becomes in his mind, the wig Ms. Martin was wearing picking up on his transformation and the whole theme of personas which runs through the album, as well as looking a little like the curly mop sported by Isabelle Adjani in the film, although in her case accessorised with googly Sunnie Mann style glasses, as she appeared on the video sceen applauding and encouraging Monsieur Trelkovsky/Mademoiselle Choule as he jumped not once but twice from his high up tenament window onto the glass canopy and hard courtyard below.

Then, off came the wig in the very best Fuggerstrasse tradition - she didn't smudge her lipstick up her cheek, though - and a more recognisable Bille Ray Martin, having called up to the stage anyone else in the room wearing  a wig, completed the set with a much more familiar appearance. Flanked on the right-hand side by Roi Robertson of Mechanical Cabaret, who was providing the musical accompaniment in the absence of Mr.Soihem with the aid of a laptop and a rather covetable little Jen synthesizer, she then worked her way through practically every track on the album, all accompanied by very effective short films, one specially for each track, until the climax in the form of a stunningly long version of "Candy Coated Crime" which morphed temporarily into Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" at one point, our heroine rising more than admirably to the challenge. My companion was beside himself as, in fact, probably was I. It was extremely good. Here's a couple more pictures of her and a couple of clips filmed a few days earlier at London's Bear Pit, which sounds a brilliant place, and the HMV Store on Oxford Street.


Nico, Jacno, Divine & Sleazy

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Andreas Dorau: Hau 2, Berlin - 29th October 2011

Regular readers of this blog will have seen me mention Andreas Dorau on a couple of occasions previously and most noticeably when his latest album "Todesmelodien" was released early in the summer and I posted a rather rushed review with some initial thoughts. They'll also be familiar with the fact that he's someone I think is wonderful and whose career I've followed quite closely for the last couple of decades and more besides. My excitement, then, when I saw that he was playing in Berlin on a Saturday night will come as no surprise. Given that the chances of him ever coming to perform in Britain are so slim as to be practically none, I got straight on the blower to the box office of the Hau 2 theatre in Kreuzberg to bag myself some tickets and then the Lufthansa website to organise some travel.

It was worth every penny, too, as he was absolutely astounding, much better than I could ever have dreamt. Dressed in a dark suit with black tie, funeral attire to pick up the death melodies theme of the album, this outfit also being worn by the jolly drummer and laptop maestro who accompanied him, he was like a hyper enthusiastic dynamo as he danced energetically around the stage, a bit like someone's uncle or best man at a wedding reception, delivering slightly manic renditions of favourites old and new.

There had been an event on prior to the performance, "Plattenspieler", where his mate Justus Köhncke and Thomas Meinecke had been playing some of their favourite tunes to what looked like quite a packed house. When I peeped round the door they were playing Burt Bacharach's "What The World Needs Now Is Love" with the cover of "Portrait in Music" projected on a large screen above the DJ decks. As this overan slightly, it was about twenty minutes past the advertised time of 2200h when a new set of people and a dog - I kid you not; it lay on the floor and watched the show as its owner danced circles around it - entered the hall and within five minutes Herr Dorau and band were on the stage and launching into a version of "Inkonsequent" which must have been approaching double the speed that it is on the album, at least it seemed that way, maybe I was over excited like almost everybody else in the room by the looks of things, Wolfgang Müller's lyrics being delivered much more forcefully and boisterously than in their recorded context. And this set the tone for the bulk of the next hour and a half or so as he followed this with an amazingly lively rendition of one of the highlights of "Todesmelodien",  the electro disco "Und Dann", which almost raised the roof only minutes into the set, the scene resembling and sounding like a crazed acid house happening. Down near the front people were going completely crazy, the manicness of their dancing something I've not seen for a very long time and this only escalated when track number three, an old "hit" "Das Telephon Sagt Du" from 1994's "Neu" album kicked in. Meanwhile, the centre of attention bopped and marched around the front of the stage, all this achieved through the help of a long microphone lead, as he leaned over close towards his audience, first at one side of the stage, then the middle, then the other, practically rasping out the words and letting out cheers of encouragement in a manner which clearly betrayed his post-punk origins and the pleasure he was deriving from playing to such an enthusiastic crowd. He moved so quickly, in fact, only the flickering strobes slowing him down, that it was almost impossible to capture a picture of him that wasn't blurred and here's some evidence.


The rest of the set then comprised most of the livelier moments of the most recent album, highlights being the two lead tracks - I guess they would have been singles in more innocent and better times - "Größenwahn" and "Stimmen in der Nacht", and these were accompanied by "Es War Hell" and "Gehen (Baby Baby)" the second of which had his German fans singing along with such joyous abandon that's rarely seen these days. He's clearly a bit of a hero to quite a lot of people other than moi which begs the question why he hasn't had more mainstream commerical success aside from his 1981 Die Doraus und Die Marinas hit "Fred Vom Jupiter" and 1997's "Girls in Love" which I believe made the top ten in France. This latter track was also included and although partly delivered almost acapella when a lead from the laptops stopped working temporarily it barely mattered as everybody in the room knew how to fill in the gaps admirably. "So Ist Das Nun Mal" from this album also featured favourably, too, as did "40 Frauen" and "Im September" from 2005's "Ich Bin Der Eine Von Uns Beiden". Then, after two encoures, the final song, a surprise in the form of "Nordsee" from his debut "Blumen Und Narzissen" album, perhaps a clue that he was about to disappear back to Hamburg, was performed, the drummer who had looked like he had been having the time of his life swapping his sticks for an acoustic guitar for the finale. It was absolutely fantastic and he must have been completely exhausted by the end of it - I'm feeling a little fatigued just reliving it. It's no wonder he had to disappear at one point for a few minutes, leaving the rest of the band on stage whilst he presumably nipped to the toilet or for some refreshment.

Finally, I must make reference to the stage dressing, too, which consisted of a panelled screen behind the drummer, a banner in front of the table on which the laptops lay, a large canvas suspended from the ceiling and a large cutout in the foreground, all decorated with cartoon paintings of dead musical heroes, again picking up on the idea of "Todesmelodien". At one juncture he tested the audience's knowledge of who they depicted, affirming and/or correcting their suggestions: Karlheinz Stockhausen; John Cage; Nico ("oder Christa Päffgen"), Jacno ("aus Elli und Jacno oder Stinky Toys"), Divine and Peter Christopherson ("aus die Gruppe Throbbing Gristle") featuring amongst them. It all makes such complete sense; four of these feature quite highly in my pantheon, too.


Andreas Dorau - what a brilliant man and what a brilliant concert, one of the highlights of my year, if not my life, if I want to get a bit over the top, which I think I might well do, actually.


Sunday, 9 October 2011

Fassbinder-Veronika Voss(1982)

Fassbinder’s penultimate film, “Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss” (“The Longing of Veronika Voss”) being it’s German title, occupies the middle section of what has come to be known as “The BRD Trilogy”, three films made during the latter part of his career, each focussed on a female lead character trying to make her way in the early years of the new post-war German republic. Each is also a kind of tribute to one of his own favourite films: “The Marriage of Maria Braun”(1978) has been identified as having parallels with “Mildred Pierce”; Barbara Sukowa as “Lola” is a recognisable homage to Marlene Dietrich’s “Blue Angel”; and “Veronika Voss” is strongly reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” in that it charts the decline of a washed-up screen star who proves dangerously fascinating to a younger man. However, Fassbinder’s model for his character has also been identified as being Sybille Schmitz, a highly successful actress in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s who, in turn, became a favourite of Joseph Goebbels. Like Voss, Schmitz found that there was no place for her in post-Nazi Germany and, her career over, she committed suicide in 1955 through an overdose of sleeping tablets, although a year later legal action was taken against her doctor for improper medical treatment. Read on and you will see striking similarities!

The film, set in 1950s Munich, begins in a cinema with Voss (Rosel Zech) watching one of her old films in which her character, a movie star no less, desperately signs away her life and belongings for a hit of the drugs to which she is so obviously cripplingly addicted, this as we see actually being a mirror image of what has become of Fassbinder’s heroine in “real life”. Interestingly, watching the film over her shoulder with great concentration is the director himself, making a Hitchcock-style cameo appearance, the irony being that his life would soon be cut short, too, as a result of the drugs on which he had become increasingly dependent. Anyway, Veronika can only take so much of her former glory and storms out of the cinema in tears. Then, as she stands crying in the rain, a man takes pity and offers her shelter under his umbrella and so begins the film in earnest.

The man, we find out, is Robert Krohm, a sports reporter who soon falls under her spell, both sexually and as a journalist wanting to unravel the mystery that her life has become. Having alighted from the tram and run into the premises of Dr. Marianne Katz, “Nervenärztin” (a lady doctor for the nerves), he is clearly on her mind, too, and in the next scene we see him and his girlfriend being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from her, inviting him to tea later that day so that she can reward his gallantry. During this, their first rendezvous proper and where it becomes apparent that she is deluding herself that her star quality and fame are still what they were in prior decades, she borrows 300 Marks from him so that she can run off and buy a brooch she says she has seen at a kiosk downstairs from their table. Having just got him to admit that he finds her very beautiful and procured the money, she exclaims “When I see something, I have to have it.” The brooch, by the way, gets returned for a cash refund once Robert has left the restaurant. 

Robert, having undertaken a bit of background research, then seeks out Veronika in pursuit of his 300 marks and traces her to Dr. Katz’s clinic where she lives, signing away what remains of her fortune for the opiates she now needs to survive. As he gains admittance and enters, we see that the place has an otherworldly glow of pure whiteness (the film is shot in black and white, anyway) suggestive both of the powder she must have regularly administered and the afterlife into which she has effectively already passed. It soon turns out that Dr. Katz sees wealthy clients privately for their depression, writing out false prescriptions to which they will become addicted and through which she can bleed them dry of all they possess. The elderly Jewish couple, survivors of Treblinka, whom he meets on this first visit to Katz, are also suffering a similar predicament, their antique business slowly being sucked away from them by their slavery to their addiction. Veronika has been gagged behind the scenes for the duration of Robert’s meeting with the doctor and gets a real dressing down once he has left. “Whenever you need something, you should ask me. Understood?” she “reassures” her client in a sinister and threatening manner.


When Robert spends a night with her at the villa near Lake Starnberg, which she tries to pass off as still being her own – she had turned up at his home and demanded in front of his girlfriend that he left with her, right there and then – her desperate state becomes apparent to him as she begins to suffer withdrawal symptoms and Robert the sleuth is fast on the case. He finds out that Dr. Katz is not acting alone but is in cahoots with more official suppliers and decides to expose their racket. Getting his girlfriend to pose as a potential client, she sees Katz and gains the all-important incriminating prescription. However, the doctor’s secretary unearths the plot, the girlfriend is mowed down by a car and the evidence is swapped for a more innocuous alternative. Meanwhile, Veronika is trying to stage a comeback by organising a party where she sings a rather clipped version of “Memories are Made of This” in front of an invited audience. It’s all in vain, though, as Dr. Katz has decided she’s trouble and goes away over the Easter period, leaving Veronika in the clinic without the drugs she so desperately craves. Unable to cope, she makes up her face, overdoses on sleeping tablets – a good supply of those has been thoughtfully left by her bedside – and dies. The film ends with Robert realising the futility of his actions, refusing to do a follow-up article on Veronika’s death because “Journalistically speaking, this case is closed.” Impotent to take on such deep-rooted and institutionalised corruption, he returns crest-fallen to sports journalism.

Part film noir, part Hollywood melodrama, “Veronika Voss” is a delight to the eyes from start to finish and epitomises a degree of sophistication which Fassbinder achieved in the later stages of his career in the BRD Trilogy films, the epic television adaptation of Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and the colour saturated fantasy of “Querelle”. It’s no wonder he finally achieved the recognition after which he so hankered at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival. However, the bite of early Fassbinder films is still there, too, as “Veronika Voss”, like its sister films, is a searing critique of the post-war German miracle in which not all Germans fared as well as others and in which a sort of historical amnesia was necessary in order to move forwards. Veronika Voss, who rode the crest of the wave of the Nazi era, and the Jewish couple, who represent the other side of the coin but who also end up committing suicide when their supply dries up, all end up in the same desperate boat in the new, improved republic where, it seems, a new set of tyrants now inflict a less conspicuous brutality upon the weak than that doled out by their predecessors.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Fassbinder-In A Year Of Thirteen Moons(1978)

During the opening credits of what must be one of Fassbinder’s most brutal yet poignant films, we are told that - “Every seventh year is a moon year. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression in these years. To a lesser degree, this is also true of years with 13 new moons. When a moon year also has 13 new moons, inescapable tragedies may occur. In the 20th century, this dangerous constellation occurs six times. One of these is 1978.” – and whilst this is all being relayed, we are also being introduced to our ill-fated heroine, Elvira (formerly Erwin – played brilliantly by Volker Spengler), who is out cruising leather clones in a riverside park in the half light of the early morning. Money exchanges hands and, as her chosen man unpicks Elvira’s biker drag, he realises that she’s missing the necessary tackle and throws a wobbler, calling over his colleagues who then partially strip her and give her a good kicking, vicious and angry blows being repeatedly directed into her modified crotch. She then crawls away, across a railway line and through some bushes, like a wounded animal, and our first impressions of Elvira as being one of society’s outsiders and as someone whose difference will lead to her eventual downfall are being formed, as we prepare to watch the crash course which will be the last five days of her life.

Fresh from her assault, Elvira returns home to her flat and, thinking she’s alone, she slumps behind the front door, only to then hear the toilet flush and her ex-lover, Christoph, emerge from the bathroom. Within seconds an argument ensues in which the first details begin to emerge about this mysterious character we have been watching for the last five minutes or so. Elvira tells Christof that she has been dressing in men’s clothing again recently and he accuses her of being drunk and hysterical. Then, when Elvira replies that she is simply lonely, continuing to state that “the only thing I did wrong was to yearn for someone to caress me and kiss me,” Christof strikes her, strips her down to her underwear and drags her to the bathroom mirror where he truly begins to vent his spleen. “Look at yourself!” he demands. “Do you see now why I don’t come home anymore? You drink and get fatter and fatter till your face revolts me like a contagious disease, like leprosy.” He then packs his bags to leave for a final time, telling Elvira that she’s superfluous to life, has no brain and that “it smells of putrefaction” when she’s around. Her attempts to make him stay are futile, even when she reminds him that she helped him to rebuild his self-respect when he was at rock bottom. He’s straight out of the door, anyway, Elvira, in a state of déshabillé, hot in pursuit. Moments later, as she sprawls across the bonnet of his car and ends up in a heap in the road, we then meet Red Zora, who is a prostitute and who just happened to be seeing off a regular client as Elvira’s drama spilled out into the street. She runs to her rescue and becomes her companion for much of what remains of Elvira’s life, as together they visit people and places which have been significant to her and through which Elvira attempts to make sense of her troubled past.


Their first port of call is the slaughterhouse where Elvira was once employed and where she has recently reapplied for work, only to have been laughed out the door now that she is a woman. Before their arrival, Zora has questioned this line of employment, saying that she feels that it is “acting against life”. However, Elvira replies, “No, it’s not. It’s life itself, the streaming blood and death. That’s what gives an animal’s life meaning.” A tone is being set. Then, as they weave through one bleeding cadaver after another and, as we witness blood and innards spilling out in this most grotesque scene, Elvira begins to tell her story of how she married a butcher’s daughter, got divorced and then lived with Christof, an actor whose career had been a failure. As the story is calmly told over images of slashed open, dead and dying cattle, the comparison with Elvira’s own inner turmoil is only too clear.

Next, they go to a games arcade where the incessant, jarring sounds and flashing lights create an atmosphere of hellish chaos which, again, is reflective of Elvira’s spiralling maelstrom of a life. In a gorgeously tragic moment, she sinks despairingly against a wall whilst Roxy Music’s “Song for Europe” grows in volume and intensity in the background. What was already a brilliant song takes on a new dimension in this context.

Zora then takes Elvira to see her friend, Seelenfrieda (a name which suggests a soul in peace) for help. He lives in a darkened apartment and seems to have relinquished any contact with the outside world. Over a soundtrack of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”, Alan Vega’s “Heart of Darkness” screams wonderfully complementing the horror which is Elvira’s life, he relates a dream he had in which he’d seen gravestones in a cemetery, the inscriptions on which suggested that those buried beneath them had only lived for short periods of time, years, weeks or even days. When he had asked a nearby gardener why this was the case, he had learnt that this, in fact, represented not their entire lives but the portion of which they lived them with a true friend by their side. His contribution, of course, does not lighten the mood.


As Elvira’s story further unfolds, we find out that she was brought up in a convent and she and Zora pay a visit to find out what truly happened. It transpires that Erwin was a loveable, quiet little boy who was popular with all of the nuns and who also caught the eye of a young couple wishing to adopt. After spending time with them and visiting their home, they began to formalise proceedings, only to find that Erwin was the illegitimate child of a married woman. Her husband had been incarcerated in a prison camp at the time of his conception. Now, back on track with her life, the woman requested that her husband never learn of the child, this in turn leading to the quashing of any adoption plan, as this would require the signatures of both the woman and her husband in order to proceed. She then continues to say that Erwin became seriously ill following this disappointment and was expected to die. However, he emerged alive but a changed character who took to stealing and now inspired hatred rather than love in his Christian keepers.

We also learn from a visit paid to Elvira by her ex-wife (Irene) that she has recently given an interview to a newspaper about her trans-gender experience and how it came about. At the slaughterhouse, Erwin had fallen in love with a work colleague called Anton Saitz who, in turn, had replied flippantly that he would have been more successful were he a woman. However, desperate for love following his childhood knock-backs, Erwin had taken this literally and immediately travelled to Casablanca for the operation, leaving behind the life he had started with his wife and daughter. As a result of the article, Irene is now concerned that Elvira will have inspired the wrath of Saitz who has since become a ruthless and highly successful businessman, firstly through owning a brothel which he ran along the lines of the concentration camp he had lived in as a child and, secondly, through a rather conscienceless line of property development where existing tenants are thrown mercilessly onto the streets. She convinces Elvira that it might be worth paying him a visit to explain and to ask for his forgiveness.

However, high up in his empty suite of offices, dressed in tennis gear and ridiculously re-enacting Jerry Lewis dance routines with his hencemen, Saitz barely remembers Elvira and, when he does, he ridicules her and laughs cruelly at her life. The interview doesn’t bother him either, so long as his name is spelt correctly with an “ai”. He does, however, return with Elvira to her flat where he meets Red Zora and the two start on some heavy petting, completely unmindful of Elvira’s presence across the hallway, chopping off her hair in the bathroom mirror. Seelenfrieda’s dream comes forcefully back into the viewer’s mind at this point, as Zora’s previous concern for Elvira’s well-being now flies out of the window at a sniff of, well, you know what. Schwanz?

In the closing segment of the film, Elvira, now dressed in men’s clothing, pays two more visits, the first to her family who are having a meal al fresco and who seem to be the only ones who truly love her. The scene, although tender in parts, is also very strained as everyone realises it’s too late for their lives to be reconfigured, Elvira’s inability to sit at the same, already full, table as his daughter and ex-wife being a powerful symbol of their irreconcilable rift. Elvira, therefore, departs and now goes to see the journalist who recently interviewed her, in a last bid attempt at finding solace. However, upon the insistence of his wife, he sends Elvira away, saying it is too late to invite her inside their home. Despairing and friendless, Elvira now returns to her apartment. Whilst Zora and Saitz are busy together on the bedroom floor, she takes an overdose and lies down to die beside them. Meanwhile, to a soundtrack of the interview she recently gave, those who she has recently visited (her family, the journalist, the nun) become aware that a tragedy is taking place and - too late was the cry - they all arrive at the flat to find Elvira dead. A Connie Francis tune plays us out but the record gets stuck after a few bars.

Written over a period of three or four days and filmed almost immediately afterwards, in July/August 1978, for many people “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” is Fassbinder’s response to the suicide of his lover Armin Meier with whom he was becoming increasingly estranged and who had taken his own life whilst Fassbinder and his coterie were at the Cannes Film Festival in May/June of that same year. Elvira’s suicide certainly seems to bear similarity with real life occurrences. Also, in a kind of echo of Elvira’s childhood, Meier (an ex-butcher, too) had grown up parentless in an orphanage, being a product of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme, Elvira’s search for and confusion regarding her identity and her need for love, perhaps, also being reflective of uncertainties and needs he, too, must have experienced. Identity is certainly a key theme of the film, with Elvira having experienced two during her shortened life, the outcome being, though, that she was actually left as a kind of non-person who could no longer fit in anywhere:  not amongst the gay men cruising in the park; nor back with her family; in a stable relationship; or returning to her old line of work for which she had the requisite training. Similarly, Anton Saitz, for all his faults, has also been shaped by his background in a concentration camp, as he protects himself from the outside world with the password “Bergen-Belsen” and then, when he is not passing on the brutality with which he was familiar from the earlier part of his own life, he is ludicrously trying to relive the childhood we presume he missed out on through enacting idiotic dance routines. Finally, as with many Fassbinder films, “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” can be read as an allegory, the characters and their individual stories serving only as metaphors for a much broader, universal truth as he, perhaps, saw it. Certainly, many of the scenes which should carry the most emotional charge are executed rather coldly, in a stylised and somewhat perfunctory fashion, heart-rending stories being related in emotionless monotones and often accompanied by highly distracting images, as though Fassbinder were trying to distance his audience from emotional engagement with the tragedy of Elvira’s individual story. He also refuses to let her be a pathetic victim, as the melodrama convention would normally dictate, as she maintains a high level of dignity throughout, even at the times of her worst humiliation. It’s been suggested, too, that by deciding to make the film in Frankfurt, the financial heart of Germany’s post-war economic miracle, Fassbinder was partly commenting on the self-interested and ruthless capitalist society which had grown out of this affluence. With very few exceptions, the characters in this film act out of self-interest when push comes to shove and much of the suffering experienced by Elvira is avoidable and comes as a direct result of the actions of those she has encountered in her life. The overall message seems to be that we’re all doomed, no matter what delusions we use to mask this inevitability. “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” is a brilliant film, even if the plot sounds a little fantastic in places, but it’s certainly not one to watch when you’re feeling a little out of sorts with yourself. Leave it to happier days.

Saturday, 1 October 2011


What’s been described as a film depicting “marriage as a vampire story” begins with unmarried Martha (played by Fassbinder regular of the period Margit Carstensen), in her early thirties and still a virgin, holidaying in Rome with her domineering father who cannot bear to be touched by her. As they climb the Spanish Steps, he suffers a heart attack and dies and, even at this stage, he rebuffs her offer of physical help, snapping, “You’re always wanting to touch me!” Martha, in a panic and confused - it simultaneously transpires that her purse, containing all of their money, has been stolen - then flees the scene and leaves him to the care of a group of layabout hippies. Later, outside the German consul, where she has gone to organise repatriation of the body, as well as the financing of her own carriage home, she has her first encounter with Helmut (Karlheinz Bohm – 14 years on from his role as Mark Lewis in “Peeping Tom” and here embarking on a short period where he was to be quite a significant member of the Fassbinder repertory). What she is unaware of at this point, though, is that this is the man who she will later marry and who will ultimately wreck her life, as well as her sanity. The audience, however, are given a clue to the significance of their meeting, as they circle one another silently and in a dreamlike state before each continuing on their ways, seemingly unaffected and unimpressed.


Back home again in Constanz, ensconced in a bourgeois milieu, Martha is held responsible for the aforementioned death by her alcoholic and drug addicted mother, a woman who also mocks her daughter for being unmarried and left on the shelf. So, for the second time, we see Martha being the figure of abuse for so-called loved ones, her patient acceptance of this behaviour clearly defining her as being possessed of the masochistic tendencies which her name suggests. Martha isn’t, however, without suitors as, shortly after her return, we see her respectable manager at the vast, deserted library where she works ask for her hand in marriage. When she refuses, though, he instantly asks her best friend and colleague the same question and she readily accepts, the rapidity and coolness of this switch indicating early on that Fassbinder may, perhaps, be cocking a snoop at “the sacred institution”.

Shortly afterwards, at a very stilted wedding reception, where Martha’s mother takes the first of the sedative overdoses which will lead to her being sectioned, Helmut turns up as the brother of the groom. He follows Martha, who is clearly distressed by his arrival, into the garden and, from this stage on, their relationship, Martha’s humiliation and Helmut’s intimidation begin, as he grabs her in a violent embrace, but not until he has clarified that he will be moulding virgin clay and then told her, “I don’t think you’re very beautiful and certainly not attractive and charming. You’re too thin, almost skinny. When one looks at you, one can almost feel your bones. And I have the impression your body smells.” If it wasn’t so cruel, this film would be hysterical in places.

During one of their first dates, to a fairground, Helmut insists that Martha rides on a rollercoaster with him, even though she is terrified and tells him that she will be sick. As he smiles and chuckles the whole ride round, she gasps for breath and turns whiter by the minute. Then, as predicted, straight after disembarking, she vomits in a dark corner, unaware of the secreted lovers just a stone’s throw away witnessing her every retch. An early indication of Helmut’s cold and twisted personality ensues when, instead of asking after her well-being, he announces, “Martha, I want you to be my wife,” to which our ill-fated heroine responds, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’ve no idea how I’ve yearned to hear these words.” Instead of embracing her, Helmut then turns coldly away. Could this woman be marrying her deceased father?

It is then on their honeymoon on the Italian Riviera that the torment and erosion of her personality begins, starting seemingly innocuously with Helmut insisting that she has tea and cornflakes for her breakfast rather than her preferred eggs and coffee and admonishing her for smoking too early in the day. When she sunbathes later that day, he tells her “You’ve got such white skin. I’d like you to get a sun tan quickly,” refusing to apply cream to protect her, as she has requested. What then follows is probably the most shocking scene in the film, when the severely sunburnt Martha, who has fallen asleep and deliberately not been woken by her husband, lies unable to move due to her pain. Her suffering, however, serves only to inspire lust and cruelty in Helmut who forces himself upon her there and then on the hotel bed. Now, the domineering sadist has fully surfaced.


Back in Germany, after what she thinks is a wrong turning on their return journey, Martha learns that their wedded life will be spent not in her family home, as she had expected, but in a huge property nearby which Helmut has got cheaply on account of it having been the site of a murder. Then, once inside their new abode, he tells her she is not permitted to have any of her own furniture as it will be out of keeping with the property and that she is only allowed to smoke in the conservatory, a decree we see her obeying immediately after he departs on one of the numerous business trips which keep him away from Martha and the house throughout the week. She, meanwhile, returns to her own place of work only to be told that Helmut has tendered her resignation for her. Trying to keep face, she pretends that she has only gone in to borrow a book and that she has not, in fact, turned in expecting to do a day’s work.

Back at home, now holed-up with nothing to do and no company, Martha smokes, reads and listens to music all day. However, even this is not good enough for Helmut as, when he returns home one weekend with the gift of a record for her, after laughing at her new hairstyle and then demanding the savage sex he expects on tap, he removes her own choice from the turntable, screaming, “Do you listen to this dreadful music? But, Martha, that’s not music. It’s slime! Pure slime!” (It’s not even U2!!) Similarly, wishing to control her reading matter, too, he buys her a book about dam engineering. “You have a whole week to read it,” he tells her. “I want you to understand my work so that I can talk with you.” We later see her memorising huge chunks of text in order to please him.


And on it goes. He tells her he wants her to promise that she will never leave the house, he kills her pet cat and he has the phone disconnected, all before Martha sees the light and decides to flee Helmut’s controlling and increasingly deranged ways. Even now, though, he wins the day and total control of his wife, as the film ends with him wheeling Martha out of hospital, now paralysed from a car accident which occurred as she tried to escape his tyranny. Her one remaining friend and ally, an ex-colleague, has been killed in the same accident. The final shot then shows the doors of the hospital lift closing, indicating that life is over for Martha and that she has no option other than to submit fully to Helmut’s regime.

Many levels of interpretation can be layered onto “Martha”. On the one hand, it can be read as Fassbinder’s reworking of George Cukor’s 1944 film “Gaslight” in which Ingrid Bergmann suffers psychological torment and is driven towards a nervous breakdown by her husband, updating and paying homage to old Hollywood films being one of Fassbinder’s old hobbies. “Ali : Fear Eats the Soul” is essentially Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Knows” transposed onto post-war Germany and many of his other films like “Fox and his Friends” bear resemblance to Hollywood melodramas albeit transferred to an alternative context. At the same time, it can also be seen as Fassbinder’s own childhood revisited and turned into celluloid. His own father (also called Hellmuth, you’ll remember), apparently, had a sadistic, controlling nature and once had the family telephone disconnected in order to sever contact with the outside word, just as Helmut does in “Martha. It’s even a wickedly cruel comedy – some scenes are actually laugh-out-loud funny, especially when she tries to memorise the correct consistency for mixing concrete to please Helmut. Freudian interpretations are possible, too, with regard to a sexual tension between fathers and daughters which leads the heroine to marry a man so similar to the one she watched die at the beginning of the film and who, we suspect, treated her equally cruelly. She is delighted, for example, when, on their honeymoon, Helmut professes to share the same favourite food as her late father (When she prepares it for him later in their marriage, though, he tersely announces that he is allergic to offal and refuses to eat it). Like a lot of Fassbinder films, it also acts as a critique of bourgeois conventions, this time marriage and, at the same time, is partly an emblematic allegory, the kind of cautionary tale you might consider buying as an engagement gift for a friend you can see entering into a doubtful pairing. This is a character called Martyr, after all, who stays with her man and lives in a town called Constance. The heavy rain on her wedding night is highly ominous and then has a coda in the tears we see falling from the eyes of the religious bust which stands immediately inside the portals of their new home. It’s all very reminiscent of an early literary model like "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Faerie Queene". Whichever of these slants you warrant the most weight, “Martha” is certainly a film which is beautifully shot, with sumptuous colours and settings and, therefore, comes highly, highly recommended to you on that level alone. Get yourself down to your local Amazon now!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Fassbinder Introduction and "Katzelmacher"(1969)

Issue 1 of my fanzine "German Bite" included quite a long article about my favourite film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Here's the first part of it. I'll post the rest of it as and when I get a chance, hopefully over the next few days.


“Back to Nature”; “X, Y and Zee”; Sylvester; “Cabaret”; Throbbing Gristle; “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”; Siouxsie and the Banshees; “Down in the Park”/”Are Friends Electric?”; “Sebastiane”/“Jubilee”; “The Marble Index”/“Desertshore”; Sparks; Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and The Bromley Contingent; Suicide; “Here Come the Warm Jets”; Swell Maps; “Pink Flamingoes”/“Female Trouble”/“Desperate Living”; Amanda Lear; Wire; “Yes, Sir I Can Boogie”; “Nag Nag Nag”; “The Blood on Satan’s Claw”; “Ca Plane Pour Moi”; “Plastic Ono Band”/“Fly”/”Approximately Infinite Universe”; Kraftwerk; “A Clockwork Orange”; T.Rex; The B52’s; X-Ray Spex; “No G.D.M.”; “Red Dress”; The Sex Pistols; The Village People; Patty Hearst; Chic; “Je T’aime Moi...Non Plus”; “Psychomania”; Devo; “Nearest and Dearest”/“Not on Your Nellie”; “Groovin’ with Mr. Bloe”; Blondie; “Christopher and his Kind”; The Ramones; “Supernature”; “Bouquet of Barbed Wire”; Pete Walker; “T.V.O.D.”/”Warm Leatherette”; Bowie in his many guises; “The Night Porter”; Essential Logic; many a fantastic Beryl Bainbridge novel; Sheila B. Devotion; “Barfuß im Regen”; The Modern Lovers; Larry Grayson’s Generation Game”; “Being Boiled”/”Reproduction”; “Trash”/“Heat”/“Women in Revolt/Bad”; Giorgio Moroder/Munich Machine/Donna Summer; “Spiral Scratch”/“What Do I Get?”; “Tokyo Joe”; The Red Army Faction; “Daughters of Darkness”; Vice Versa; “Salo”; “Live at the Witch Trials”; “Paris 1919”/“Vintage Violence”/“Fear”; “Death Line”; “The Idiot”; “Mind Your Own Business” ; “Blind Terror”; The New York Dolls/Heartbreakers; “Deep End”; Patrick Hernandez; Zoo Records; The Residents; “Billy Porter”; Chicory Tip; Metal Urbain; Wayne/Jayne County; Noosha Fox; “Cakes in the Home”; “Big Red Balloon”; Subway Sect; “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol : From A to B & Back Again”; File Under Pop/AK Process/AK47; “Black Christmas”; “Disco Clone”; “Produkt der Deutsch Amerikanischen Freundschaft”; “Love Hangover”; “Rock Follies”; “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?”; The Flying Lizards; “French Boy”; The Runaways; The big 5 Roxy Music albums; The Slits; “Rock and Roll Pts. 1 & 2”; “Transformer”/”Berlin”; “Automatic Lover”; Grace Jones’ disco period; Kleenex; Thomas Leer & Robert Rental; “Mouldy Old Dough”; Lori and the Chameleons; Mott the Hoople; “Er Hat Ein Knallrotes Gummiboot”; “Sid Did It”; “Electricity”; “Fairytale in the Supermarket”; “Better Scream”; “See My Baby Jive”; “The Possession of Joel Delaney”; “Let’s All Chant”; “Myra Breckenridge”; “Trog”!! The list could go on forever.

The 1970s were an absolute treasure trove. However, another reason why it was an extremely important decade is because it was the one in which Rainer Werner Fassbinder, German Bite’s favourite director by an absolute mile, made 33 of his 43 films, before his life was tragically shortened as a result of an overdose in 1982. Now, like the above list, there’s so much to say about Fassbinder that this article could go on forever. So, GB has decided to give just a small insight by focusing on four of his films from different stages in his career and, who knows, if we run to future issues there could possibly be even more on the way. But, first, some biography for those who don’t know a great deal about this “drug-crazed German faggot” as the “Time Out Film Guide” so homophobically refer to him in their overview of “Querelle”. Naughty, Naughty, Time Out Film Guide!! While we’re on the topic, too, they could have also been a little more careful with their phrasing when talking about our very favourite film, “X, Y and Zee”. People can be terrible parrots, you know, especially when aping snippets of American English to impress the gang.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born on 31st May 1945, directly at the end of WW2, give or take a few weeks, into a middle class, semi-intellectual family living in Bad Wörishofen, a spa town in southern Bavaria. His father, Hellmuth, was a medical practitioner, and would-be poet, and his mother, Lieselotte, who went on to star in several of his films, worked as a translator. They named their son after the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and brought him up in a household where toys and comics were, apparently, forbidden and where paying guests also lived on the premises. However, all this changed when Fassbinder was six years old and his father left home, the young Rainer and his mother relocating to Munich, the city with which he is most associated. Here, living in an area which at that time was known for its prostitutes, pimps and immigrant workers, Fassbinder’s worldview, aesthetic and sexuality began to take shape, American films from the 1930s and 40s also having a significant influence upon his development, as his mother sent him off to the cinema regularly so that she could spend time alone with her younger boyfriend. She was also absent for quite long periods due to her suffering from tuberculosis and, if stories are correct, Fassbinder was for much of the time a street child, responsible for his own well-being and development. He ended up going to a Steiner school, too.

By the time he had left school, minus his diploma, Fassbinder was writing poetry, plays and short stories, as well as mixing and doing odd-jobs in related circles and, as a result, the original core of what has been called “The Fassbinder Group” began to form, starting with Irm Hermann (the first of “Fassbinder’s Women”, star of his first short film “The City Tramp” and someone who would go on to appear in a good proportion of his films over the next ten years or so). Three other important figures also appeared around this time, Hanna Schygulla, who he chose for the lead part in his second short “A Little Chaos”(1966) and with whom he worked on and off throughout his career, Peer Raben who acted in many of Fassbinder’s films, as well as composing the music for the majority of his oeuvre, and Kurt Raab who worked on 31 of his films, either as an actor or production manager, often as both.

And so it was in this milieu and with this coalescing group of people that Fassbinder began to direct for the theatre, some radical reworkings of plays by Brecht, Sophocoles and Büchner and some compositions of his own, including one Artaudian piece which dealt with the actions of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, “Preparadise Sorry Now(1968)”, all performed in the run-down Action Theater on Munich’s Müllerstrasse. Interestingly, a regular audience member at the time was Andreas Baader whose sidekick, Horst Söhnlein, was using the theatre’s back room as a bomb factory and, as the two left equipped to burn down department stores in Frankfurt and to kickstart the activities of the Red Army Faction, they smashed up the place, in turn providing the impetus for the next stage of Fassbinder’s career, his own theatre company, The Antitheater, München, who went on to serve as production company for his first feature length film “Love is Colder Than Death” in early 1969.

Over the next twelve months, Fassbinder would write and direct nine full-length films, setting a precedent for the next decade or so, during which he was almost superhuman in his prolific creativity and during which he became one of the stars of the New German Cinema (see also Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog et al), as well as one of the most respected and, ultimately, successful directors of the period, achieving many accolades en route. At the time of his death, having just won The Golden Bear at The Berlin Film Festival for “Veronika Voss” and with probably his most known and successful film “Querelle” about to be released, he stood poised for major international success. However, the personality which was to produce so many films of such intensity and at such an intense pace was also to be the one which would lead to his untimely end. Fuelled by years of cocaine, alcohol and sleeping tablet abuse, stories abound of Fassbinder smashing up motor vehicles, treating hotel rooms with the same kind of disregard as hedonistic rock stars of the period and becoming a well-known habitué of New York’s notorious leather bars such as The Anvil, The Spike and The Mine Shaft – his leather jacketed look, mirrored aviator shades and faded jeans from the latter part of his life certainly bring Robert Mapplethorpe and his gang to mind. His career was also peppered with a series of tempestuous love affairs, mainly with men (including two who committed suicide) but others with women in his circle – he married one of his leading ladies, Ingrid Caven, in 1970 – such that his biography has become almost synonymous with his output. He was even absent from his own funeral, by the way, his body still being examined for traces of narcotics at Munich’s city morgue, as mourners accompanied his empty coffin to the grave.

But, now we’re descending into gossip so let’s look at those four films, as promised, shall we?

Katzelmacher(1969) – Fassbinder’s second feature length film, arriving pretty hot on the heels of “Love is Colder Than Death”, was a development of an earlier stage play that he had written for his Antitheater group and this is highly evident in the stylised, often static tableaux-like scenes which make up the film. For the title, meaning “the little cat maker”, he adopted a derogatory term which was applied to immigrant guest workers in Germany at the time, supposedly as a result of their uncontrollable and indiscriminate breeding habits and their ability to sire larger litters of children than the average domestic male, and the film, consequently, represents Fassbinder’s first attempt at tackling the theme of racism, which he then did most famously in “Ali : Fear Eats The Soul”(1974) and also in the less well-known “Whity” of three years earlier.

In the opening scenes, we meet a cast of characters who live and socialise in a block of flats in a lower middle class neighbourhood of Munich but who don’t really seem to like one another very much or have a great deal to do during their leisure time, apart from stand around in silence, gossip maliciously, turn on one another from time to time or sleep with people behind (or in front of) each other’s backs. First, we see Marie, played by Hanna Schygulla who sports a mini-dress and bubble perm, being picked up from the shop where she works by her boyfriend, Erich. Then, we cut to a passionless bedroom scene where a bored looking Paul and Helga undress unexcitedly and perfunctorily, helping one another with the more tricky bits, as if this is a worn-out, meaningless routine. A few scenes later, we return to the bedroom where Helga now clings onto Paul’s leg whilst he dispassionately gets redressed. He knocks her face with his knee, as he slips into his shoes, before violently pushing it away and rushing out the door saying, “Put it on the bill, baby!” Meanwhile, in another apartment, Elisabeth and her man, Peter, are eating a tense, practically silent meal. When we cut back to them a minute or two later, she has left the table and, as she exits the room, she tells him that he must sleep on his own from now on. “Let’s talk it over. Please,” he says and she replies, “Don’t touch me.” Their dialogue is wooden and impotent like so much in the lives and interactions of these people. Tensions might be high but their expression is stilted and ineffective, to say the least, almost as if Fassbinder is doing a bit of a Brecht on us here and we’re watching an emblematic demonstration of their lives rather than the real thing, the point also being that their existences and aspirations are bland in the extreme.


Over the next half an hour or so, we find out more about the gang through the playing out of a series of recurrent set pieces. In one of these, different combinations of characters lean against a railing by their flats, often in silence or occasionally uttering words of spite or mischief making. At other times, they go to the local tavern where they play cards, for the most part, in silence and, every now and again, a different pairing walks the same stretch of car park, always at the same pace, engaged in some form of catty or dissembling dialogue. The camera never moves during any of these scenes, which, combined with the cold contrast of the film’s grey tones, gives a sense of dull yet claustrophobic boredom.


What also emerges during these scenes is the latent violence which lies beneath all that they do, most noticeably in the way that the men view and treat their women. Very early on, we hear Erich state, “I’m damn thirsty. Bring me a beer,” whereupon Marie resignedly holds out her hand for the money she will need to go and get it. Soon afterwards, Helga says to Paul, ““Why do you have to go around with that guy? It’ll come to no good.” His response, other than to first tell her to “shut your trap” is to whack her on the head, a blow she accepts with barely a wince. Similarly, when Marie is non-committal to Erich’s cool suggestion that they marry, as she lies naked on the bed, she is served several blows to the head so that she can think better in future. He later tells her that “I’m important in your life and no-one else.” Most shocking, though, is the advice that he gives on occasion to Paul regarding Helga. When Paul claims that, “All we ever talk about is marriage,” Erich’s solution is to “Punch her in the face and then she’ll soon shut up.” Later on, when she declares herself three months pregnant, Erich, who is also screwing Helga on the side, declares, “Punch her in the belly or throw her in the Isar.” Meanwhile, the women compete with one another in pretending to have the perfect relationship, as Marie asks Helga, “How’s your guy?” before going on to state, “Mine’s sweet. When he touches me, I really feel something.” Not to be outdone, Helga lies, “It’s the same with me and my one.” Oh, really, my dears?

The sex they all have is as stilted, meaningless and unsatisfying as their social intercourse, an element played out by the inclusion of the film’s first outsider character, Rosy, who seems to stay perpetually in her flat, alone and dreaming of entering into a career in modelling or film. That is, unless she has visitors, female members of the group, round to snoop and bitch, or the men who place money on her table, either a loan or a gift, for which she exchanges a sexual response. Her main “client” seems to be Franz who leans against her naked yet unmoving in one scene. He asks her, “You do enjoy it, don’t you?” To which she replies, “I don’t understand anything about that. I have to live, that’s all.” Sex as a transaction seems to be something that’s completely everyday amongst these men as, in addition to his visits to Rosy, Paul also has Klaus on the go. Every time they part and a future rendezvous is planned, Klaus dips his hand into his inside pocket for cash.

Although she has her uses, Rosy’s non-conformity poses a threat to the group and they view her with contempt. Erich says to Paul, for example, “She has a mind of her own. That’s not good,” whilst the women for whom she, perhaps, poses the greater threat are more severely censorious. Gunda’s evaluation of the situation is that, “It ought to be reported. A person like that shouldn’t be free to mix with us.” However, the heat is taken off Rosy by the arrival of Jorgos, played by Fassbinder himself, who the group instantly recognise as a foreign gastarbeiter. He is renting a room from Elisabeth who gets him to temporarily double-up with Peter whilst his own room is being decorated and this is where his troubles begin when Peter sees him naked and reports back to the others. He has a better build than any of the German men, he tells them, and his extends down to his Schwanz (use your imagination), as well. As these men, who are impotent on all levels, even including planning lucrative futures, hear the news, they look crest-fallen and angry, whilst the women’s curiosity is piqued.

Passing him in a children’s playground one day soon afterwards, Gunda now asks him how he likes Germany and then speculatively, we guess, asks him if he has found love yet. Unable to fully understand, he eventually grasps that she means “fucky-fucky” before mournfully conceding that he has, in fact, not. The two part politely, although Gunda then runs to the gang and tells them that he has thrown her to the ground, shouting “fucky-fucky” at her and that she has been lucky to escape. Within minutes, the story is that he has raped her in a children’s playground. Rumours also fly about his landlady, as we hear that she apparently stripped herself naked and called for him to go to her one night, Jorgos returning to his own room three hours later looking completely exhausted. There are even rumours that he is a communist as Greece, apparently, is full of them.

The final straw, though, comes when Marie, now split from Erich, begins to pal-on with Jorgos. Even though he cannot speak German as well as the other men, he can use what little he does understand to make poetic phrases, such as “Eyes like stars.” She also says that, “He always looks you straight in the eye,” something she could never expect from the others. This is all too much, though, and it is Erich who decides, “It ought to be forbidden. Something must be done,” before the men, like a group of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, give him the good hiding they feel he so richly deserves. In an echo of events from thirty years or so earlier, Gunda then says, “It had to happen. He was walking around as if he belonged here...We need a bit of order here.” Whilst Elisabeth, who has borne the brunt of their social exclusion, is double-edged when berating her partner for his involvement: “You didn’t have to take part. That wasn’t necessary. If you hadn’t done anything to help, OK...but taking part!” The event, though, seems to be somewhat cathartic for the community, as resigned to the fact that Jorgos will not be leaving, they look on the bright side. Foreign workers, they realise are good for Germany as they raise production levels and the money stays in the country. Elisabeth is now viewed as a shrewd business woman as she can charge more than the going rate for her spare room as foreigners are more desperate and are a bit stupid. She is even planning to get a false wall built in her flat so that she can move another one in.

At the end of the film, two of its chief characters, Erich and Marie, both have a journey to look forward to, his into the army and hers to visit Jorgos’ homeland. On a metaphorical level, though, Fassbinder seems to be, perhaps, suggesting that all young German’s stand at a similar fork in the road, either to take the route of perpetuating Fascist aggression or to seek out a more egalitarian society where people do not belong to one another and no attempt is made to police their behaviour. As it stands, at least in this social grouping, in spite of us seeing a new post-war generation of young adults, the attitudes which led to the rise and initial success of National Socialism are still prevalent. “Katzelmacher” even begins with a quotation from German writer and actor, Yaak Karsunke: “It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.”

Saturday, 3 September 2011


Exciting times are finally upon us in Leeds after what seems like an eternity of having no local bands about whom to become even vaguely enthusiastic. I've lived here for over two decades now and, in my view, those who can even be included in the marginally passable bracket are probably countable on the fingers of one hand ( I quite liked Mr. Peculiar, Sharron and Burgers if anyone remembers any of them and The Real Losers and Sexy Burglars were good, too, while they lasted). On this, like every other level, Manchester, Glasgow or Liverpool Leeds is not and never will be, even though it foolishly likes to think it's in the running from time to time.

Anyway, it's with great pleasure and pride that we can now shout from the rooftops about the adrenalin rush which is Rent Boys (more of whom very, very soon when they release their new single "Shoot Your Shot" on German Bite Records) and the more recently formed Sniffs who, after only two gigs, the most recent at The Hide and Seek Club last Saturday and their debut only a few weeks prior to that, have already got all the right tongues wagging. An extremely elegant duo who formed less than a year ago and who have only just recorded their first demos, they're no doubt set to cause quite a sensation over the coming months as word spreads and their following grows. 

Their sound is very sixties inspired - think girl groups like The Shangri Las at their most ballsy or The Whyte Boots' "Nightmare" or the tougher end of Lori Burton's solo output - but this is then refracted through all manner of clever gadgetry such as Kaoscillator, vocoder, occasional drum machine and a beautifully compact Roland SH-101 to give it an avant garde, space age and other--worldly edge. Meanwhile, layers of brittle guitar are looped through numerous pedals so that they build and repeat throughout to provide a foundation which smultaneously gestures towards  both surf and someone like PIL whilst never aping either. Last Saturday, I overheard two youngsters talking earnestly behind me and, having seen two people using electronics, they were rather glibly likening what they were hearing to Suicide and Silver Apples but, although I'm sure it's all in there in the brew somewhere, to make a direct comparison of this kind would be very misleading indeed. Someone else said they brought The Fall to mind and there is a bit of "Kicker Conspiracy" somewhere in the vocal delivery, I concede, but that's about as far as it extends. In actual fact, I think I can safely stick my neck out and say that their, as yet still rather chaotic, swoosh is truly unique and this is why it's so obviously going to have to catch on.


Exciting indeed! Next weekend they'll be up on stage again playing songs from their repertoire with titles like "Nous Sommes (Les Sniffs)", "White Jaguar", "Macho Bravo", "Good Girl", "Black Glass Floor" and "Big Bastard Biker Boys". This time they'll be in Newcastle, though, supporting the brilliant  Monochrome Set at The Star and Shadow Cinema and I for one shall be there. May I recommend that you are, too.

STOP PRESS: I've just been sent a link to where you can listen to a couple of their recordings. Plus, I found another photograph of them, this one from their Hide & Seek Club gig last weekend.