Fear Eats The Soul



Angst essen Seele auf aka Ali – Fear Eats The Soul : (West) Germany 1974 : Rainer Werner Fassbinder : 92-4 mins

With time on his hands in between major projects, the ever-industrious Fassbinder churned out a ‘quickie’ remake of a film by one of his favourite directors, Douglas Sirk. All That Heaven Allows (1956), scripted by Peg Fenwick, is a classic evocation of Eisenhower-era social repression in middle-class America: respectable middle-aged widow Jane Wyman (then 41) scandalises her family, friends and neighbours when she falls in love with her free-spirited gardener, Rock Hudson (then 30). The third cinematic version of the story is Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, which nods to Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1958, itself a remake of John M Stahl’s 1934 original) by making the gardener black – Haynes eliminates the age-gap factor by casting Julianne Moore (then 41) and Dennis Haysbert (then 47) in the key roles.

Fassbinder diverges from Sirk and Haynes by setting his tale in ‘the present’ – mid-seventies Munich, in the aftermath of that city’s blood-spattered Olympics. Prefiguring Haynes, he introduces a racial element – Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is white, her lover (later husband) Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) is one of the gastarbeiters (‘guest workers’) invited to Germany to solve the post-war shortage of manual labour. As in the other versions, the central coupling horrifies onlookers – widow Emmi is snubbed by her neighbouts, ostracised by her family and colleagues, and is refused service at her local store. But she’s a stubborn sort, and has a history of experiencing (mild) prejudice after marrying a Pole. Perhaps keen to expiate the guilt of her Nazi-party membership, Emmi refuses to be broken down – her determination is a key factor in the film’s major divergence from All That Heaven Allows: an ambiguous denouement which, by Fassbinder standards, can be described as a happy ending. Then again, the film does open (even before the titles) with a stern motto which reads : ‘Happiness isn’t always fun.’

Fassbinder plays down the class aspects emphasised by Sirk and Haynes: Emmi is, like Ali, a manual worker – a cleaner. Instead, he dramatically widens the age-gap: it’s hard to tell Ali’s age, but he’s probably in his mid-30s. Emmi is in her sixties – and it’s this, rather than the racial ‘barrier’, which emerges as the biggest threat to their relationship. Emmi does her best to satisfy Ali’s carnal needs, but he doesn’t seem entirely satisfied and seeks further ‘entertainment’ with the younger (but spectacularly hard-faced) barmaid (Barbara Valentin) at his local pub – though from what we’re shown their lovemaking is stilted to the point of inactivity.

That’s rather more than we see of Emmi and Ali, however – there’s a brief scene early on with a cut that strongly implies sex, but nothing at all after the pair get married (they emerge from the register office to a bleak scene of rain and slagheaps). We see even less of Mira naked than we do of ‘octogenarian’ Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, which was severely bowdlerised by the nervously prudish Paramount. This feels like a rare mis-step by Fassbinder – it’s as if he’s as averse to the physical aspects of Emmi and Ali’s relationship as the character he plays, Ali’s bigoted son-in-law Eugen.

It’s also hard to know exactly how to take the Bavarian boorishness Eugen represents, and which is shared by the vast majority of the characters on view – is this an accurate mirror of 1974 Munich reality, or a deliberately caricatured exaggeration? Sad to say, much of Fear Eats the Soul remains all too topical today – the Olympic terrorism incident seems to have altered the atmosphere in the city towards immigrants: “They’re all Arabs, you know – with bombs and all that” confides a neighbour to the (long-haired) policeman she’s summoned to break up a party in Emmi’s flat, a line that quite jarringly prefigures the paranoid aftermath of September 11th.

The few people we see who tolerate Emmi and Ali’s marriage seem to be motivated primarily by financial imperatives – her son only starts talking to her when he realises he can’t afford a babysitter. Those hostile to Emmi’s choice of partner are presented as stiff, cardboard figures, shockingly close-minded in their prejudices. As usual, Fassbinder‘s approach is deliberately stylised, melodramatic and mannered, with several instances of characters stiffly intoning their lines as they sit in fixed tableaux, often surrounded by spectacularly ugly instances of mid-seventies clothing and furniture – vile dcor for vile thoughts, indeed.

15th December, 2002
(seen Cineside, 8th December)

by Neil Young
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