Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin
Emmi, a lonely older woman, happens to stop in a bar to escape a down pour. There she coincidentally meets Ali, a Moroccan working in Germany. His friends tease him that he should ask her to dance, which he does. They strike up a conversation, despite Ali’s limited German, and a surprising friendship. Ali walks her home and, due to the rain, she invites him to stay in a spare room. This quickly turns into an affair and soon a marriage, to the dismay of her neighbors, coworkers, and children, all of whom turn hostile, even violent. A broken-hearted Emmi suggests they go on vacation to be alone together and that things will improve when they return. Surprisingly, they receive better treatment – primarily because Emmi’s family and friends have ulterior motives – but she finds herself treating Ali poorly and their marriage crumbling.
Undeniably one of Fassbinder’s first masterpieces, Fear Eats the Soul is also one of his sweetest works, both tender and accessible in a way that many others were not. It is also his first true foray into melodrama. While I’ve read other reviewers describe this as a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, it is far more homage than adaptation. It retains the central relationship – an older woman and a younger man of a different social class – while contains many themes Fassbinder explored throughout his career: loneliness and isolation, emotional cruelty, and prejudice. The racism, I’m sad to say, has not aged a day, which makes the film feel oddly un-aged. The stares that accompany the mixed race relationship (and one with an age discrepancy) would unfortunately not be all that out of place today – neither would the appalling comments about Arabs. Ali – this is not even his name, but a nickname given to him because he is an Arabic foreign worker – is described as dirty, stupid, and alien. It’s suggested that he is probably carrying a bomb, and lives like an animal, rather than a man. The nicest thing said about him is that he’s sex obsessed, which doesn’t seem to be true.
Ali’s relationship with Emmi seems implausible on paper, but Fassbinder makes it completely understandable. They are both desperately lonely and ignored by most of society. Many of Fassbinder’s characters possess sexuality outside the norm – gay, bisexual, transsexual – and though Emmi and Ali are heterosexual, they are certainly an exception. Their relationship reminded me a lot of American black comedy Harold and Maude (1971), where an aged concentration camp survivor and a depressed young man fall in love to the utter dismay of his family. This is one of Fassbinder’s most effortlessly absorbing films, one that emotionally involves the audience in nearly every scene and makes the viewer complicit in Emmi’s struggle to remain independent or bend to the pressure to become more xenophobic from family and friends.
Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem are absolutely wonderful in the film and help make it so compelling. Ben Salem was not a professional actor, but his natural stillness and stiffness is used to great effect. He was Fassbinder’s lover at the time, though their relationship was apparently tumultuous, leading to ben Salem stabbing a number of men (not fatally) in a Berlin bar just before the Cannes opening of Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder helped him to flee the country, though he was eventually imprisoned in France and hanged himself. Fassbinder didn’t learn about this until years later – during the production of Querelle, just before his own death – and decided to dedicate that film to ben Salem.
A number of Fassbinder’s regulars also appear in supporting roles, including Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Fassbinder himself, Karl Scheydt, and Lilo Pempeit (Fassbinder’s mother). Irm Hermann plays Emmi’s adult daughter, while Fassbinder is her abrasive son-in-law; this pairing was perhaps intentional, as Fassbinder and Hermann were involved in an abusive romantic relationship that lasted several years. Fiction and biography overlap in many ways in this film. Mira suffered from prejudice during her childhood, as her father was a Russian Jew and the family had to hide from – and collaborate with – the Nazis. Fassbinder dealt with something similar, because his mother eventually returned to Soviet Poland to the horror of their family.
In terms of visual style, there are distant elements of Fassbinder’s first film, Love is Colder Than Death, but Fear Eats the Soul is proof of his development. While the stillness of the early works is staged, tableaux-like, here it is utterly natural, a blend of realism and melodrama. The camera is relatively stationary, and Fassbinder’s filmmaking tricks are very subtle. Vivid primary colors contrast the drab grays and browns of poverty and isolation. As with Merchant of the Four Seasons, the domestic spaces are cramped, restrictive, and tightly framed, a place of either intimacy, or claustrophobia.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes with the highest recommendation and is one of Fassbinder’s most powerful works. This story of prejudice, emotional cruelty, and loneliness has a rare hopeful ending compared to most of Fassbinder’s other films. The camera fades out on Emmi clutching Ali’s hand, while he lies in a hospital bed suffering from a stomach ulcer – something he could recover from, or something that will eventually kill him. This beautiful film provides a deceptively simple message about love and happiness, one that transcends typical melodrama to leave behind something richer, more painful, and utterly transformative. Pick up the excellent Criterion release, or watch it on Hulu.