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On effect vs. intent of alienation in ‘Katzelmacher’

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Victor Ragsdale, Susi Arguello, Davis Leonard, Gracie Goheen, Josh Peterson and Elliott Bomboy in “Katzelmacher.” (Photo courtesy of Frank Chen)

The “Katzelmacher” program loudly proclaims the following on the second page of the program:

Katzelmacher: A derogatory epithet for an immigrant worker (usually Italian) implying sexual promiscuity and aggression.

In this TAPS production, katzelmacher acts not only a piece of terminology for the context of the play but also as a thematic source for the narrative. The production itself was aesthetically beautiful, the performances youthfully and fantastically angsty enough, and the play itself relatively clear in its intent, but beyond the presence of a katzelmacher, what more exists? Maybe I’m demanding too much of a play that already is so bare-bones in its attempts to create a sense of audience separation in order to discuss its themes. “Katzelmacher” itself may have been effective and its historical relevance well-shaped, but I came out feeling like I just craved more.

Directed and translated by Matt Stone (Ph.D. candidate in TAPS), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Katzelmacher” follows a group of loosely connected adolescents in 1968 Munich who find an outlet on which to place their personal struggles by pinning it all on a Greek guest worker who arrives but does little to actually inflame their situation. We’ve got Marie (Susi Arguello ’20), the disillusioned girl who falls madly in love with Jorgos, the guest worker, and Franz (Elliott Bomboy ’18), who pays Ingrid (Davis Leonard ’19), the girl who dreams of being a singer, in exchange for sex. For the most part, one could almost say that “Katzelmacher” is made up of a series of closely associated vignettes. Elisabeth (Lillian Bornstein ’18) and Bruno (Julio Chávez ’18) rarely interact with the other characters, instead isolated in the upper left corner of the stage in their home. Klaus (Adi Chang ’19) appears only in three scenes, acting as a sexual outlet for Paul (Josh Petersen ’19), the aggressive and closeted strong-headed boyfriend of Helga. Gunda (Gracie Goheen ’20), the somber and constantly verbally abused friend of the group acts as a sort of comedic relief, while Helga (Evie Johnson ’20) interacts most closely as a supporting role for Paul and Marie. Nevertheless, the production is still thoroughly an ensemble play as the characters’ lives intersect, if not for the sake of Fassbinder attempting to fabricate a reason for all of the individual narratives to appear in the same play. I would hardly even venture to say that the characters were truly friends, as they spend a long time arguing and standing in silence, only sharing the same atmospheric and work spaces.

Fassbinder himself was heavily influenced by Brecht’s concept of, Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect,” which is closely connected and grounded to Russian/Soviet literary theorist Viktor Shklovksy’s concept of “defamiliarization” or “estrangement” (often also commonly associated with science fiction). Defamiliarization itself, for those who may be unfamiliar to the term, is a state in which audience members or viewers are purposefully distanced emotionally from a situation or are presented with common concepts in such unusual ways that they are forced to reconsider and critically analyze their preconceived notions. Brecht (and thus Fassbinder), in this manner, took this and brought it to the characters themselves, preventing audience members from thoroughly identifying with the characters, thus attempting to force viewers into thinking more deeply and analytically about the play and associated themes themselves.

Fassbinder’s attempts at this definitely show through. Audience members are given little to no exposition or background on any of the characters — who are rarely smiling or happy in a conventional context — and instead must sit through a few grueling moments of silence. Stone centers his production of “Katzelmacher” around concepts of tedium and fantasy, and the play certainly doesn’t shy away from either of them. Tedium in particular as a theatrical technique is particularly effective in “Katzelmacher,” as the boredom and everyday fatigue of the characters was apparent, while the escalation of the characters’ beliefs that Jorgos is somehow plotting against them and directly ruining their lives rapidly gets more and more vivid. As someone who regularly reads the Director’s Note and other information enclosed in the program before shows, I was provided with this well-needed context — but other attendees may not have been as fully-informed. Certain moments of tedium, such as the beginning of the play, when the group sits and plays cards in a bar, didn’t further inform me of the plights of any of the characters. This moment — almost identically repeated at the end of the play — acted as a bookend, being one of the few moments when almost all the characters are together in one place, but still failed to effectively hammer the point home. A presence of tedium and disaffectedness of the lower classes, yes, but what more?

The historical relevance and direct parallels are blindingly blatant — pinning blame on Jorgos for no apparent reason is clearly a reference to the political climate today (as Stone rightfully explains in the program), and the disgruntled nature of the characters is not unlike many of the working class. Thankfully, even while tedium was very effectively achieved, I still somehow felt closely attached to many of the characters (which I often do like to find when I’m consuming any form of narrative art). Does this mean that the play was ineffective? Not necessarily, but it leads me to a couple remaining questions. Is a desired effect actually effective if audience members either (A) must be explained the creator’s intent beforehand in order to understand it (thus potentially running the risk of being falsely led into understanding it through description rather than experience) or (B) understand the intent but are never fully affected by it (thus potentially running the risk of attempting to find flaws in the artistic mission)? Or, are these points both entirely irrelevant altogether? Instead, does it solely depend on an audience member’s reaction, no matter the prior context?

I don’t know the answer to this. As a theatermaker myself, I struggle with this question in my own work, and it is by no means of a fault of “Katzelmacher” that it didn’t magically solve all of my creative problems or fulfill them in any way. Maybe that lack of feeling anything, really, is what “Katzelmacher” aimed to achieve — I’m not sure. But even if that lack of emotion by the end is actually what “Katzelmacher” was trying to achieve, was the effect actually effective if the audience doesn’t realize that it was actually the desired effect? Then again, is that lack of informed viewership actually part of the desired effect? We could spend days going around in circles trying to solve this metatheatrical chicken-and-the-egg problem. Nevertheless, even with shows that I don’t quite understand or come out of not entirely able to process, I still want to feel something. “Katzelmacher,” in a way, was almost too perfect — the pristine set design, the carefully-timed lighting changes — maybe we’re trained to even make our imperfection perfect.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Olivia Popp '21 is a self-proclaimed TV junkie who previously served as Managing Editor of Arts & Life for two years. She has covered shows for Tell-Tale TV and TV Fanatic, and she enjoys writes about all things film, TV, theatre, and entertainment. Currently, she is abroad in Germany, which is why you might find her writing about an eclectic collection of content. Contact Olivia at oliviapopp 'at' stanford.edu with TV recs or new flavors of barbecue sauce (truly!). Find her on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.