Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul has been re-released nationally as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. Thanks to the MUBI streaming service I got a chance to watch again one of the great works of the New German Cinema that I last saw when first released in 1974. The film remains as extraordinary and – sadly – as urgent and relevant in 2017 as it was in 1974. Fear Eats the Soul is, without doubt, a masterpiece: a blistering social and psychological examination of racism that has a tenderness rarely found in Fassbinder’s work. In addition, the idea of a film which treats the sexuality of a sixty year old woman in so matter of fact and sensitive a manner unfortunately remains as startling now as it was four decades ago.
The woman in question is Emmi, a widow who works as a cleaner. She’s old enough to have been in the Nazi party (‘Everyone was … or almost everyone.’), but, despite the fact that her father hated foreigners, she married a foreigner – a Polish Ostarbeiter who stayed on after the war. ‘My parents said, Emmi, this’ll come to no good. Because he was a foreigner, you see?’
Emmi explains all this to Ali, a garage mechanic from Morocco. She has met Ali in a local bar frequented by immigrant workers – the gastarbeiter who help fuel the German economic miracle. On her way home after work and to get out of the rain, she goes into the bar and shyly orders a coke. ‘I pass by here every evening and hear that foreign music, she tells the barmaid. ‘What language are they singing in?’ ‘Arabic,’ answers the barmaid.
One of the Arabs comes over and asks her to dance. Emmi is surprised. ‘What, me? Dance?’ ‘Yes. You sit alone. Sad. Not good sitting alone.’ This tall, elegant and polite man is soon revealed to be Ali. He’s from a little town in Morocco. ‘Very nice, but no work.’ He’s been in Germany for two years: ‘Much work.’ ‘Me, too. Half of life consists of work.’
Ali isn’t really Ali – that’s just what Germans call him. ‘What’s your real name?’ asks Emmi. ‘El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha,’ he tells her. After their dance and another drink, he offers to walk her home. Emmi, lonely and eager to talk, invites him up to her apartment for a coffee.
They talk, sharing details of their lives. Ali, who must be about twenty years younger than Emmi, reveals that he lives in a distant part of Munich with five friends from work: six of them in one small room. ‘Three beds here, three beds there,’ he says. ‘But six men in one room, that’s inhuman,’ exclaims Emmi.’ ‘Arabs not human in Germany,’ Ali responds. And here Fassbinder slips in a detail that makes his film just as relevant in 2017. Emmi tells Ali it wasn’t always like this, to which he responds: ‘But since catastrophe in Munich, not good,’ referring to the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games.
Soon Ali has missed the last tram home. Emmi says he can stay the night in her spare room: ‘Because you have such a long way, and there are six in a room, and because you’re nice. It’s just that…an old woman like me…’ ‘You not old woman. You good. Big heart,’ Ali insists. Emmi is overwhelmed and bursts into tears: ‘Why cry?’ says Ali. ‘Because I’m so happy and so full of fear, too.’ Fear isn’t good, Ali insists in his broken German: ‘Fear eat the soul.’
These exchanges,with their pared-down, but very natural dialogue, propel the narrative rapidly forward and make the swiftly-blossoming friendship between Ali and Emmi completely believable. Emmi must be one of cinema’s finest characters. A little dumpy, and worn by the years, she is revealed as resolute and resistant to conformity, her inner light suggested by the bright, patterned dresses which she wears. In telling Ali that her father hated foreigners and yet she took for a husband a despised Polish slave-worker, she reveals that she knows what intolerance is like, but sees past such prejudices. Instead, she recognizes the instant bond she and Ali tenderly share. Both are modest, simple, and non-judgmental individuals.
Emmi is played by Brigitte Mira, in her first and finest performance for Fassbinder, while Ali’s role is taken by El Hedi ben Salem, himself a Moroccan whose eight of nine acting credits were all in Fassbinder films and who, at the time, was also in a relationship with the filmmaker.
Fassbinder dashed off Fear Eats in Soul in just 15 days in 1974, it on a shoestring between the big-budget productions Martha and Effi Briest. The story was inspired by All That Heaven Allows, the 1955 Douglas Sirk film starring Jane Wyman as an older woman who falls in love with her young gardener (Rock Hudson). Fassbinder always insisted that he made Fear Eats the Soul just to fill the time between bigger pictures, but it may be the best of his forty-odd films, alongside The Marriage of Maria Braun and Merchant of the Four Seasons.
But Fassbinder intends this to be more than a sentimental tale of love overcoming prejudice. When Emmi first walks into the bar, Fassbinder holds for a long moment a shot from Emmi’s perspective of all the others at the far end of the bar rigid and motionless, staring at her. The shot emphasises the gulf between Emmi and the rest, and Fassbinder repeats this setup frequently in the film, emphasising the isolation of its protagonists. And as Emmi and Ali climb the stairs to her apartment, Fassbinder has staged an exchange between two of Emmi’s female neighbours that warns of the hurt to come:
Mrs. Kurowski’s got a foreigner up there.
A black man?
Well, not that black, but pretty dark.
She’s not really German herself. With a name like Kurowski! What are things coming to?
The first part of Fear Eats the Soul, depicts the couple’s growing isolation after they get married. Emmi’s sons and daughter, neighbours, fellow workers, and the local grocer all turn against her. Their prejudice, and the emotional pain inflicted on Emmi and Ali, are powerfully and simply delineated. Yet amid the sadness, Fassbinder emphasises the possibilities Emmi and Ali create when they find each other. To say that a film about racism and prejudice has moments of beauty may seem strange, but there is beauty in Fear Eats the Soul, much of it arising from the performances of Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. Mira portrays Emmi with vivid and affecting touches: her resignation, her intelligence, the mixture of stubbornness and hesitancy with which she faces her life, and the fundamental optimism implied in her graciousness toward other people.
Throughout the film, Fassbinder employs a series of simple framing devices to reinforce the isolation of his characters – from other people and each other – shooting them either framed by doorways, windows or the metal banisters of a staircase, or in a wide shot that reveals the emptiness around the couple, usually in a moment of closeness. The most striking example of the latter technique comes when they sit at an outdoor cafe, marooned in a sea of yellow tables.
There is a clear turning point in the film after the couple return from their honeymoon, and Fassbinder adds depth to his study of the social and psychological destructiveness of racism. After they return home, the couple find, as Emmi had hoped, that everything around them is different. The racist grocer realises that in driving Emmi away he lost a good customer at a time when his business is having to compete with the new supermarkets. Emmi’s son (played with loathsome realism by Fassbinder himself), previously so enraged by his mother’s marriage that he had put his foot through the screen of her TV, returns with apologies – and to ask for her help with child care. The neighbours, who had been scandalized by the couple’s relationship, now greet her amiably and wonder whether she could share a bit of her basement storage space.
There is something deliberate about they way in which Fassbinder presents all of these people as being motivated by self-interest. It’s as if he’s suggesting something that has seemed to become apparent since Europe’s migrant crisis, the terrorism, and the referendum result last summer: Isn’t this what progress, moving to a more tolerant society actually means? That people’s inner natures don’t change, only their behaviour?
Even more troubling is how Fassbinder pushes this a stage further to reveal how the attitudes of Emmi and Ali towards other people and each other are rapidly deformed. Emmi, whose fellow cleaners had formerly ostracized her, now bonds with them against a new victim of prejudice – a recently arrived Yugoslavian woman.
The couple buckle from within, pressurised by the oppression from without, opening up fractures that result from the imbalance of power between the two of them. Emmi begins to order Ali around, and in one sickening scene gets him to display his muscles to her friends from work. In this way Emmi panders to the racial stereotype of the sexually vigorous black man, whilst at the same time Ali proceeds to exploit the same attributes by half-heartedly resuming sexual relations with the barmaid (though there’s also a loneliness there, too: she cooks a more satisfying couscous than Emmi).
(Spoiler imminent) In the end, Fassbinder leaves open the question of whether their relationship will survive. A scene unfolds which reveals the extent of Emmi’s clear-sightedness and non-judgemental character. Ali has admitted that he has been seeing the barmaid, but Emmi responds:
You’re a free man. You can do what you like. I know how old I am. I see it in the mirror every day. I can’t keep you from doing things. But when we’re together, we must be nice to each other. Otherwise life’s not worth living.
Ali responds: ‘I don’t want other woman. I love only you.’ ‘I love you, too, replies Emmi. ‘Together we’re strong.’ At that moment, Ali collapses in pain. He is rushed to hospital with what turns out to be a perforated ulcer, brought on by stress – a complaint common among immigrant workers, his doctor explains. In the final shot the cling to each other, broken but – for now at least – together.
In a review of Fear Eats the Soul, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote this:
‘After seeing Douglas Sirk’s films I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression,’ Fassbinder wrote in a memorable essay in 1971. The fact that he wrote ‘best’ instead of ‘worst’ is entirely characteristic of his bitter misanthropy, which relishes the traps and suffering of his characters even as it implicitly lodges protests against them. Sadomasochistic impulses are at the heart of most of his films, and the tricky task of squaring those impulses with some kind of attack on sociopolitical oppression is what has often makes it difficult to come to terms with his work politically. Yet Fassbinder’s provocative statement about Sirk is another seductive formula that doesn’t work once one tries to apply it to Ali … because the love between this couple is virtually the only thing that this film chooses to show positively and without a trace of sarcasm. […] For all his hatred of humanity, Fassbinder really loves his unlikely couple, and I think we wind up remembering this heartbreaking pair long after we’ve forgotten the plot or the argument.