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Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection vol.2

December 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Fear Eats The Soul
cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salim, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, and Karl Scheydt

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

93 minutes (15) 1974
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
"Happiness isn't always fun."

""Fear not good. Fear eats the soul," says a character in Werner Reiner Fassbinder's extraordinary 1974 film Fear Eats the Soul (aka: Angst essen Seele auf); and like the film itself, it is a wonderfully simple statement delivered in an unadorned straightforward manner. It also provides - in the opinion of this humble reviewer - possibly the best film title of all time.

Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is an ageing widowed cleaner who stops in at a bar one evening on her way home from work to shelter from the rain. She passes the bar every night, and has always been intrigued by the foreign music she hears playing inside. Inside the bar, Emmi is first met with hostile glances - particularly from the gloriously insolent blonde barmaid (Barbara Valentin), who seems to despise Emmi's age and veneer of respectability for reasons that never quite become clear ("Working nights," she says at one point "really takes it out of me." And apart from her haggard fading looks, she also means that her spirit is being sapped by her lifestyle.)

Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a migrant Moroccan worker who lives in a room with five other men, asks Emmi to dance because he is dared to do so by his fellow Arab drinking buddies, but when the couple take to the floor a strange bond is formed. Ali offers to take Emmi home, and once there she invites him up for coffee ostensibly because it is still raining but really because she is so alone that she cannot bear to let him leave. He stays the night; it is a long walk home and he missed the last tram. That night Ali cannot sleep - his mind, he says, is full of strange thoughts. He enters Emmi's room and as they talk he absently begins to stroke her arm. It is a powerfully tender moment, and manages to say so much with only the use of sparse dialogue and tiny intimate gestures.

The couple go on to forge an unlikely relationship, despite their racial differences the fact that there is a gap of at least 20 years between them. This turn of events is met with resentment and bitterness from all quarters, including Emmi's children. They marry almost accidentally. Emmi's friends turn against her; her family disown her. She is barred from the local shop, and even her workmates ignore her, treating her as a social pariah. The couple are at peace whenever they are together, but the spiteful prejudices of others start to push a wedge between them. Emmi unconsciously begins to use Ali as a trophy (putting him on display and asking her houseguests to feel his muscles) and Ali is drawn back to the bar, and the ruined barmaid who offers him couscous (his favourite meal, which Emmi will not cook) and a space in her bed.

The composition of shots is wonderful throughout the film, and many scenes are framed in doorways, giving a sense of impermanence to events. Even if the characters in a scene are at ease, the fact that we see them through a doorway implies that whatever equilibrium they might have gained is only temporary and could leave their lives at any moment.

There is an outstanding scene set in a restaurant "where Hitler used to eat." Emmi has always wanted to dine there, so after their hasty civil marriage ceremony she takes Ali inside. She doesn't quite know what to order and settles for the most expensive things on the menu - including cream of lobster soup and caviar ("good for love, but I don't believe that"). Struggling with the difference between steaks cooked rare or medium, Emmi allows the waiter to advise her. Then, when the waiter vanishes, she remarks upon how confusing these things can be when one isn't used to them. She knows, Ali knows, the audience know, that she means so much more than just the menu in a fancy eating-place. As the camera slowly pans away (through yet another doorway) and the couple sit in utter silence, the only sound you can hear is perhaps that of your heart breaking for these desperately ordinary people.

After they return to Berlin from a short break, people's attitudes seem to have changed towards them, but this is only on the surface. The shopkeeper wants her back as a customer because he is losing trade to the supermarket. Her neighbour requires the use of Emmi's space in the cellar to store her son's belongings. Emmi's son needs her as a babyminder because his wife is returning to work. Emmi displays a world-weary acceptance of people's hidden motives, and we can almost feel her sorrow at the compromise she makes by acting as if everything has gone back to normal.

Some reviews I've read complain about the ending of the film - claiming that it feels like a tacked on happy note. I disagree: the ending is simply yet another reminder that nothing lasts; everything is subject to change. Despite the doctors curing the stomach ulcer that forces Ali to collapse, they say that he'll be back in six months with another. It's a common thing with foreign workers - the stress gets to them. Emmi swears that this will not happen, but we doubt her ability to prevent it.

Brigitte Mira is mesmerising, giving one of the greatest and most subtle performances I have ever had the pleasure to watch. She ceases being an actress and becomes this old lady; quietly yearning for so much more than life has ever offered her. El Hedi ben Salem's talents are more limited, yet he still manages to convey Ali's sense of dislocation and we believe that he has fallen in love with a woman so much older than himself. Some of his dialogue is brilliantly and heartbreaking simple and is helped enormously by his stilted delivery as the character continually struggles to express himself in a language that is not his own.

Fassbinder shot this film in something like 15 days, between other projects, and instead of feeling rushed and cobbled together, the films feels like the director had so little time that all he filmed was the truth. With scalpel-sharp honesty, it's subtle, understated, and achieves a sense of beauty and pathos without ever having to resort to cheap sentiment. Fear Eats The Soul might have its roots in melodrama (Fassbinder cites a major influence as Douglas Sirk), but its clarity of vision transcends this and produces a vision of such clarity that it aches. I'll end this review as it began, with the downbeat motto that appears before the opening credits: "Happiness isn't always fun."

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