Monday, September 28, 2009

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats The Soul)

“if .. depressing circumstances are merely reproduced in a film it simply strengthens them. Consequently the dominant conditions should be presented with such transparency that one understands how they can be overcome.”[1]

From the hysterics of Martha, Fassbinder now switched to a quieter but no less incisive mode for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), one of his most accessible and ostensibly conventional films, and the one most directly inspired by the Sirk retrospective of 1970. It is a loose remake of All That Heaven Allows, in which Jane Wyman’s middle-aged widow takes up with her young gardener Rock Hudson to the horror of all around her, translated through the story told in The American Soldier of an old cleaning lady who marries a Turkish gastarbeiter. As in Katzelmacher, the foreign worker (now a Moroccan, played by Fassbinder’s lover, El Hedi Ben Salem M’Barek Mohamed Mustafa) serves as a repository for the fears, jealousies, insecurities and suppressed erotic desires of the working classes, exacerbated by the “shamelessness” of his relationship with a cleaning woman over twenty years his senior. Fassbinder also changed the ending, in which Emmi is originally murdered by her husband; he is no less clear-eyed about the perils of society, relationships and one’s own short-comings than in his earlier films, but in his bid to create a seductive cinema through which to examine the ways in which “happiness is not always easy” (the film’s prefatory subtitle) he can now allow the audience to hope that it is at least possible.

Fassbinder had in mind the story of Fear Eats the Soul for some time before meeting Brigitte Mira at the Bochum theatre, where he performed in 1972. She was known mainly as a cabaret artist and light actress until this unexpected turn, which won her the German Film Award for Best Actress. Her guileless face was perfect for the first film (and one of the few) in which Fassbidner presents characters with whom the audience can easily identify and sympathise.

“Sirk has made the tenderest films I know; they are the films of someone who loves people, and doesn't despise them as we do.”

“Later I tried to do a remake of what I’d seen in it (Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows) .. but the story is set in a coarser more brutal world” [3], translated to Fassbinder’s own time and experience.

Fassbinder takes for himself the brief role of Emmy’s son-in-law, Eugen. Lazy and abusive, his marriage to Krista (Irm Herrman) is an extreme example of the power structures that are inevitable in any relationship. Also vehemently racist, he is in complete denial and powerlessly inarticulate with regard to his Turkish foreman. Fassbinder had no time for religion, but an occasional prop serves to emphasize his characters’ hypocrisy.

Emmi and Ali meet in a bar where she has taken shelter from the rain. Goaded by a bitter girlfriend, Ali asks her to dance and, touched by her friendliness, he walks her home. Ali paints a sad picture of his position in the workplace (“German master. Arab dog”) but accepts that that is the way things are, that it is better not to think about it (a sin in the Fassbinder universe). They communicate easily and directly, and find they have in common the solidarity of the working class and surprise that the other is takes a kind but genuine interest in them. The deft progression of their conversation makes it natural that Emmi should offer him the spare room. When she wakes the next morning with him in her bed, she is full of joy and full of fear; his broken German lending itself to easily digestible epigrams, Ali tells her that “fear eat soul” (“Angst essen Seele auf”). Her fear is both self-doubt (she weeps at the sight of her aged face in the mirror) and fear of social transgression, primary obstacles to happiness as Fassbinder stresses time and again.

The static tableau of Fear Eats The Soul often freeze the characters in the act of looking and, as ever, there are no looks without judgment. Elsewhere, Fassbinder uses these static images in combination with measured fade-outs to create a rhythm for the film that allows room for and actively encourages contemplation on the part of the audience.

Fassbinder’s distinctive framing of characters in doorways and windows is particularly marked in Fear Eats the Soul. Here Emmy and Ali are framed together as a couple for the first time; elsewhere characters will by isolated by frames masking off more than half the screen or, as in the osteria where the couple stares back at the camera from the back room, framed and isolated as a static tableau for our contemplation.

“The primary need is to satisfy the audience, and then to deal with political content. First you have to make films that are seductive, beautiful, about emotion or whatever..”[4] RWF in mid-1974.

Drinking Emmi’s renowned coffee and eating at her kitchen table becomes a relationship ritual for the couple. Their rupture towards the end of the film is all the more harsh as they sit in their same positions but are no longer able look one another in the eye.

“Human beings can’t be alone, but they can’t be together either.”

Emmi has fallen in love like a teenager, distraught when she cannot find Ali at the bar, but scampering when she sees him waiting outside her apartment, her eyes shining – Fassbinder’s commitment to the glamour of a “Hollywood in Germany” can even find radiant beauty in a 63-year old grandmother. When they decide to marry, however, they find themselves ostracised and scorned by all around them. Emmi’s family react in disgust (her son takes out his frustration on her television set rather than on Ali, exactly as Jane Wyman’s children make her the soulless gift of a television to replace the company of a man in All That Heaven Allows); at work her colleagues will not eat lunch with her, leaving her sitting on the stairs, the camera isolating and imprisoning her behind the balustrade; and the local shopkeeper goes out of his way not to serve Ali. But this is the self-defeating, Brechtian bickering of the working class – the landlord’s son and two young policemen treat them with normal respect; the former remarks that they seem very happy. Emmi’s neighbour replies, summing up the distorted social code: “What’s happiness? There’s still such a thing as decency.”

Emmy’s gossiping and interfering neighbours are the epitome of Germany’s net-curtain-twitchers, but Mrs Kargas spends much of the film observing the stairwell through a cage-like grill on an interior window of her apartment, trapped in her self-constructed and parodic role.

“Sirk’s film is a kind of fairytale. Mine is too, but one from everyday life.”

“In Douglas Sirk movies, women think. I haven’t noticed that with any other director. Usually the women just react, do the things women do, and here they actually think. There’s something you’ve got to see. It’s wonderful to see a woman thinking. That gives you hope.” [7] RWF

The couple celebrates their wedding at Hitler’s favourite osteria and Emmi feels no shame at having been a member of the Party (“almost” everyone else was). The tenets of National Socialism are alive and well amongst the working classes (particularly her cleaning lady colleagues), so invidious that even as good-hearted a person as Emmi accepts them as a normal part of life.

Isolated and adrift by the very happiness they have created, Emmi and Ali are hemmed in by a mass of horizontal yellow bars. The colour is linked to their happiness, most strikingly in the garish shoes Emmi is wearing on the morning after their first night together, and later, in the bright yellow blouse she will wear on return from their getaway to Steinsee.

Beleaguered from all sides, Emmi and Ali plan a retreat. Seated alone in an outdoor café, Fassbinder’s most stylised tableau of onlookers representing the opprobrium of society whose judgmental gaze is weighing so heavily on the couple, they declare their love in child-like words and gestures and decide to go away where no-one knows them and no-one stares. When they come back it will all be different, Emmi promises. And by the time they return it is. Self-interest has overcome jealousy and socially-prescribed aversion: the grocer prefers not to lose a customer (“in business you must hide your aversions”), a neighbour and Emmi’s son need favours, and at work she joins with her colleagues in sidelining a new girl, in an exact repetition of her own previous scene of ostracisation. With the pressure from outside relieved, the power balance in Emmi and Ali’s relationship can now assert itself. It had been bubbling under – inevitable in any Fassbinder relationship – with Emmi never asking but always telling Ali to do something, and occasionally patronising in as glibly unthinking a way as she excuses her membership of the National Socialist party. Now, visibly swelled by regained respect, she takes on a more commanding matriarchal role, more clearly ordering him about; when she tells him she won’t make couscous and that he must get used to how things are in Germany, she sounds barely different from the racist shopkeeper.

The mirror objectifies, divorces body from self, as Emmi admires the beauty of Ali’s physique while he showers. Elsewhere, she will weep at the sight of her aged face the morning after their first night together, and Ali will slap the face of his mirror self repeatedly in frustration at being unable to choose a positive course of action to rebuild their relationship.

Ali’s fault, meanwhile, is that he remains as passive as ever; hurt and unsure he goes to the bar owner, Barbara, more for comfort and couscous than for sex, but the outcome of his visit is inevitable. After Emmi has paraded him and his muscles before her friends (and proudly told them he showers every day) he returns to Barbara’s, and this time does not come home. Emmi goes desperately to his place of work and his colleagues joke about her age; where Ali had previously defended her honour in the bar however, he now merely looks down in shame. Emmi confesses how much she needs him, but he is still hurt and (with the usual Fassbinder distrust of dependence) makes no move to patch things up.

Barbara Valentin asks Ali if he is happy and he says he doesn’t know. She asks if he is scared of his wife and he looks away, a persistently repetitive gesture throughout the film (and Fassbinder’s oeuvre) to indicate the character’s (self) knowledge that they have done or said something of which to be ashamed.

“You can’t make films about something, you can only make films with something.” [8] Douglas Sirk expresses his belief that a film must ask a question, not answer one on the audience’s behalf.

Ali tries to lose himself in gambling and drinking at the bar, impotently slaps his face in front of the bathroom mirror: he has no idea how to make things better. Emmi enters, asks Barbara to play their song on the jukebox (“The Black Gypsy”) and they gaze at one another across the room – they have already shown they need no words to communicate. Their walk to the dance floor is triumphant, crossing the screen like cowboys going to the final showdown in Walsh or Hawks. Throughout the film we have heard other characters say the relationship is unnatural, that it will not last, but as they reaffirm their love, it looks finally as though they have found how to be with one another – “together we are strong”, says Emmi. Immediately, in one of Fassbinder’s cruelest ironies, Ali falls groaning to the floor: a perforated stomach ulcer. At the hospital the doctor explains it is a common complaint among the gastarbeiter, exacerbated by their being denied time to convalesce – Ali will likely be back in six months. This is Fassbinder’s “thrust into reality”: the couple has overcome pressures from other people and pressures created by themselves, and now real-life socio-economics conspire to keep them apart. As Emmi sits at Ali’s bedside, there is no way of knowing how the story will continue, whether they will have the strength to remain together in the face of all the difficulties we have seen them endure – whether happiness is even possible in such a society – but the optimistic note is that we know they will try; for Fassbinder, the important thing is that we must act as if circumstances could be changed.

Emmi and Ali dance together three times in the film, the first at his request, the second at hers, and the third time in recognition of their mutual need for one another. The power relationships between them have become balanced, they have gained acceptance from the people around them, and all that can harm them now is some blow from the very fabric of society.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
played in competition at Cannes in May 1974 (by which time Fassbinder had already completed Effi Briest, appeared in Ulli Lommel’s The Tenderness of Wolves and in Hedda Gabler on stage in Berlin, shot Fox and his Friends and opened Die Unvernünftigen sterben, directing and taking the lead, on stage in Frankfurt-am-Main). Ali won the prizes of the international critics (FIPRESCI) and the ecumenical jury (beaten to the Palme d’Or by Coppola’s The Conversation). Following the festival successes of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fassbinder’s international reputation was further consolidated. He and Mira were afforded a rapturous reception on the red carpet, but there was some surprise that the leading man was not present. Fassbinder had broken with ben Salem the previous December; in distress, the latter went to a bar and stabbed three men. Believing he had murdered them (he had not), with Fassbinder’s assistance he fled to Morocco. In January of 1974, Fassbinder took up with another outside, the free-spirited Armin Meier, an orphaned result of experiments in Aryan eugenics and sausage-griller at the gay hangout Deutsche Eiche that Fassbinder frequented in Munich. It to was to him that Fassbinder dedicated his next film, Fox and his Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit).

“I don’t consider human beings incapable of change.”[9]

d/sc/pd Rainer Werner Fassbinder p Christian Hohoff ph Jürgen Jörges ed Thea Eymesz cast Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Karl Scheydt
(1973, WGer, 92min)

[1] RWF interview with Christian Braad Thomsen in Politisk Filmkunst (Copenhagen, 1973); [2] RWF “Imitation of Life: on the films of Douglas Sirk” in Fernsehen und Film (Hanover, Feb. 1971); [3] RWF, “Reacting to what you experience” conversation with Ernst Bukel and Sirk in Suddeutscher Zeitung 8 Mar 1979; [4] RWF interview with Tony Rayns, “Forms of Address” in Sight & Sound 44, 1 (Winter 1974/75); [5] quoted in “Imitation of Life: on the films of Douglas Sirk” in Fernsehen und Film (Hanover, Feb. 1971); [6] RWF, ibid; [7] RWF, ibid; [8] RWF, ibid; [9] RWF, “At some point films have to stop being films” in Zoom-Filmberater 2 (1976) / Film-Korrespondenz (Cologne), February 1974


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