Author’s note: a slightly different version of this essay first appeared in the booklet for Arrow Films’ “The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection”, which came out in March 2016. You can – and should! – buy this wonderful release from Arrow’s website.
After making his sole science-fiction film (1973’s World on a Wire), Rainer Werner Fassbinder shot the glorious Fear Eats The Soul in September 1973 in fifteen days on a miniscule estimated budget of 260,000 DM. It went on to become one of the following year’s most critically acclaimed films, winning the International Critics Prize at Cannes, and effectively propelling Fassbinder, then aged just 28, beyond national treasure status and into the global auteur stratosphere.
Fear Eats The Soul is a heavily — and openly — influenced film which transcends its references to feel entirely fresh. After adapting Marieluise Fleisser’s play Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1928) for television in 1971, Fassbinder, who maintained a hectic schedule across cinema, TV and theatre, took an eight-month sabbatical from filmmaking. According to Fassinder’s biographer Ronald Hayman, during this time the director became acquainted with Hollywood melodramas, and fell in love with the female-driven films made by German émigré Douglas Sirk for Universal-International in the 1950s: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959).
These films were stylish, audience-friendly and unabashedly emotive, yet used such surface attractions as a way to broach potentially spiky social issues like class, racism and sexuality. It’s no surprise that the fiercely political Fassbinder — who also carried an irrepressible penchant for torrid drama in both his artistic and personal lives — was a fan. He was especially moved by All That Heaven Allows, in which the love affair between an affluent widow Cary (Jane Wyman) and her hunky young gardener Ron (Rock Hudson) is looked upon with disgust by her children and jealous neighbours alike. For Fear, Fassbinder took, and widened, the age gap between the lovers, and introduced a new racial element. (All That Heaven Allows has since been used as a template for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven .)
Fear Eats The Soul also has roots in an earlier Fassbinder film. 1970 thriller The American Soldier (1970) features a scene in which a hotel maid, played by the director’s frequent collaborator Margarethe von Trotta, recounts the bleak tale of Emmi, a cleaner from Hamburg, who met Ali, a Turkish worker, in a bar, and married him shortly after. The story has a baroquely disturbing denouement: Emmi is found strangled, with the letter ‘A’ from a signet ring imprinted on her throat. In the time between writing this scene and filming Fear, Fassbinder relented on the cruelty of this conclusion: there is, mercifully, no such violence in the latter film. He also updated the setting to Munich; and made Ali Moroccan rather than Turkish, to reflect the nationality of his leading man.
Fear Eats The Soul is one of its director’s most astringent critiques of postwar German life: an acute diagnosis of the spiritual and physical cost of society’s failure to learn from past sins. It tells the story of the unlikely romantic relationship which sparks between two lonely outcasts: Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a widowed but spirited sixty-something cleaner who has been all but abandoned by her self-absorbed, grown-up children; and the eponymous Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a ruggedly handsome, considerably younger Moroccan gastarbeitar given to glumly pondering the limited role for many immigrants in German society: “German master … Arab dog,” he laments, in touchingly halting German, near the beginning of the film
After a brusque, whirlwind courtship, Ali moves in with Emmi, and they soon marry as a means to circumvent the spectre of Ali’s possible eviction. Yet even before Emmi bravely comes clean about her new relationship to her nearest acquaintances (she doesn’t really have any “dearest”, so to speak), she has already been forced to endure spiteful anti-immigrant rhetoric from her icy cleaning colleagues, who spit invective like: “They’re stingy, unwashed pigs. They have only one thing on their mind: women”, and “They live over here at our expense. You only have to read the papers.”
Her female neighbours, meanwhile, are portrayed as curtain-twitching, flamboyantly racist harridans. Assuming that Emmi’s surname, Kurowski, belongs to her, rather than her late Polish husband, they deride her as a clueless foreigner. Emmi is, in fact, a native German who once belonged to the Nazi party. (Not incidentally, Mira shares some life experience with Emmi: her father was Russian Jewish immigrant whose heritage the actress had hidden in order to survive Nazism. She even collaborated by acting in Nazi propaganda films for a short time.)
While it is reductive and clichéd to describe art focused on social issues like racism and xenophobia as “timely” or “as relevant now as ever” — do such intractable problems ever really go away? — it is nonetheless disquieting to view Fear Eats The Soul in a contemporary climate of rising far-right politics and its stealth codification into mainstream media. There’s no significant difference between the rhetoric employed by Emmi’s small-minded colleagues, and that of, say, British tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins who, in a Sun column in April 2015, described migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans” without a hint of official censure. Neither are a far cry from the viciously exclusionary wording of the 25-Point programme explicated in Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Program of 1920 (“Any further immigration of non-Germans must be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans who have entered Germany since August 2, 1914, shall be compelled to leave the Reich immediately.”)
As Fear Eats The Soul proceeds, we see in painful detail how such sentiments translate into real-life terms. Almost as soon and Emmi and Ali marry, their union is smothered under a chloroform cloak of systematic prejudice and discrimination. One of Emmi’s children is so disgusted by the news that he kicks in her television, an act of petulance that would be comical were it not so vile. Her heinous son-in-law (played by Fassbinder himself, replete with a disgustingly droopy moustache) seems to be personally offended that a relationship across such a dramatic age gap could ever be conceived. Emmi is ostracised by her colleagues. In a particularly galling scene, Ali is refused service by a local shopkeeper who claims he cannot understand what he is saying (although the man later admits to his wife that he was lying). He then bars Emmi when she attempts to challenge him. Such is the totality of the venality visited upon the pair, it’s no surprise that it starts to turn inward on them. Emmi can’t help but reify her colleagues’ prejudices when they let her back into their circle at the expense of a young Yugoslavian immigrant worker, while the inscrutable Ali is driven into the arms of another woman, barmaid Barbara (Barbara Valentin).
Over 93 crisp minutes, Fear Eats The Soul constitutes an unusually sustained study in stark contrasts. It’s at once shabby and glamorous; boldly colourful and breezeblock bleak. For instance, it opens with the high-flown tones of an Arabic song (“Al Asfouryeh” by Lebanese chanteuse Sabah) ringing out on the soundtrack, its exotic beauty juxtaposed with a distinctly quotidian image: a static shot of a rain-slicked pavement at night, filthy puddles aglow with reflected green and red neon lights from passing cars and the streetlamps above. Like so many spectacles conjured by Fassbinder over his too-brief but prolific career, these opening seconds are simultaneously beautiful and dismal; moreover, they function as a perfect tonal analogue for the ensuing narrative. Accompanying this bewitchingly contradictory concoction of sound and image is a deadpan epigram which flashes at the foot of the screen: “Happiness is not always fun”. By the time the end credits roll, the viewer may justly wonder whether these words constitute the greatest understatement in cinema history.
Throughout, Fassbinder layers a hugely emotive story with a remarkably affectless sheen, and surgically removes all traces of sentimentality. Consider the brutal editorial ellipses which rob the viewer of the chance to be present at the pair’s lovemaking, or even at their marriage ceremony. They approach the church, there’s a hard cut, and suddenly they’re outside again. No fuss, no fat, just the visual imparting of necessary information, and a stark reminder of the implacable march of time.
Stylistically, the film strikes a delicate balance between archly Brechtian and punishingly real. Take, for instance, the occasion of the putative couple’s first meeting. Emmi takes shelter in a bar on this grotty, sodden evening: she’s been compelled to enter on hearing the strains of “Al Asfouryeh” — so that’s where the music was coming from. Inside, she is met by glares from a (mostly Arabic) group of friends, plus barmaid Barbara, all of whom fall silent and static upon her arrival. Fassbinder shoots the group, from Emmi’s distant point of view, as a still-life tableau, all tightly-coiled postures and questioning expressions. The brazen artifice of the image is counterbalanced by its heightened, affective charge: as the group stare, the viewer is made to feel deeply the isolation coursing through Emmi.
Fassbinder constantly employs variations on this composition in scenes set in houses, restaurants, and, memorably, an outdoor cafe decorated with daffodil-yellow chairs. It’s here that Emmi finally snaps at her silent tormentors, but they don’t respond to her at all: they simply continue to gawp at the odd couple, dumb and hateful. As Reverse Shot‘s Chris Wisniewski astutely observes, this visual schema proves troubling for the viewer: “We are always complicit in that gaze, and we are always invited to judge Emmi and Ali, as we do everyone else, on the basis of race, class, and age, and in so doing, we are asked to ignore the overwhelming evidence of human goodness.”
And yet, despite Fear’s portrayal of German society as a seething pit of bigotry and censoriousness, it retains precious slivers of hope which pierce the clouds of despair with an almost shocking clarity. It’s hard for the viewer not to be jolted by the understated kindness displayed by Gruber (Marquard Blohm), the son of Emmi’s landlord and the one character who sees no problem whatsoever with the relationship. He seems to represent the Platonic ideal of goodness in German society, and his presence is proof that Fear isn’t wholly misanthropic. Meanwhile, though Ali ends the film stricken by a stress-induced stomach ulcer, and he may not even ultimately survive, Emmi is there by his side. Against all the odds, she hasn’t given up, and neither has Fassbinder.
Speaking of Ali, Fear Eats The Soul has a tragic postscript. Early in the film, Ali reveals his full name to be El Hedi ben Salem m’Barek Mohammed Mustafa — this was also the actor’s real name. According to Viola Shafik’s documentary My Name Is Not Ali (2012), he met Fassbinder at a Parisian cafe in 1972. Shortly after he became enmeshed in his director’s free-floating, sexually-charged creative ensemble, and ultimately became his lover for a time. After completing Fear, and struggling to deal with his feelings of jealousy towards Fassbinder, ben Salem stabbed three people in a Berlin bar, claiming they had made racist remarks to him. He then went to his director, reportedly saying, “Now you don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’ve gotten rid of my aggression.” Fassbinder helped ben Salem to flee the country, and covered for him at the Cannes Film Festival, where audiences were surprised by his absence. A few years later, ben Salem was captured and imprisoned in Nimes, France, where it is alleged he hanged himself, although competing reports suggest that Salem died of a heart attack while in prison, during a football match, aged 40 in 1976. Either way, knowledge of this sad context makes Fear Eats The Soul an even more unbearably poignant experience.