I’ve seen FEAR EATS THE SOUL umpteen times now, and it never ceases to move me. Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a sixtyish charlady, walks out of the rain and into a bar and a new life when she meets Ali (El hedi Ben Salem), a much younger Moroccan ‘guestworker’. They like talking to each other, soon fall in love and get married. The first third is all about the understanding two lonely people share, the building of a life, and the basking in a particular type of happiness, until now long forgotten, that they both partake in: They love each other. Brigitte Mira is so transparent in her needs, her common sense, her understanding of the hurdles to come that she’s heart-breaking to see. We know she will suffer because we know this is a melodrama where individual desires crash against the family and other repressive social forces that won’t allow the existence of an inter-racial coupling of such divergent ages. What is moving in the film is the delicacy of individual feeling against the harshness with which the social opprobrium is expressed.
In the second third of the film, her co-workers shun her; the shop-owner refuses to serve her; her own children are outraged, kick-in the television and call her a whore. It gets to the point Emmi can’t take it anymore. She’s so happy to be with Ali but breaks down at how punitive society has been and they decide to go away.
When they return from vacation in the last third of the film, social need reasserts itself and alters the mode and intensity of opprobrium. Her children need a babysitter; her neighbours need her cellar space; her co-workers need an ally. As Emmi re-gains her previous place in society, she becomes more like the people who oppressed her and soon she’s refusing to make cous-cous for Ali, berating him for not integrating better into German Society, and reducing him to a prized fetish she can show off to her friends. The more she does this, the more he strays. They become cruel to each other.
All seems about to be lost again, but in an end that almost responds to the beginning, Emmi walks back into that bar once more, they dance again and re-assert their understanding with fresh wisdom. In a typical Fassbinder twist on melodrama, this is just before Ali’s ulcer kicks in and an ambulance has to be called. Life will not be rosy; these attacks might recur every six months; it’s the stresses of an immigrant life says the doctor. But Emmi asserts that they will face these challenges together.
The film is shot very simply and elegantly, in frames within frames, so that we sometimes get a partial view, or it is indicated that the neighbours are spying, society is intruding, or that their little bit of happiness is just an illuminated part of a much harsher much colder world. Elements are repeated in the same way to quickly indicate changing circumstances; so for example when Emmi is shunned she is framed alone through a staircase; later in the film she does the same to a Yugoslavian immigrant; or earlier in the film when, in private, she sees Ali’s body in the mirror and tell him ‘You are so beautiful,’ in the last third of the film becomes the scene where she is asking him to show off his muscles to her co-workers: public, self-involved and demeaning. I love the way Fassbinder leaves a shot hanging rather than quickly cutting to the next scene, which underlines the filming of frames within frames in depth, conveying a feeling of danger, alienation and sadness, even when the occasion is meant to be a happy one, like the wedding meal at what was Hitler’s favourite restaurant.
Fassbinder had clearly been thinking on this material as early as THE AMERICAN SOLDIER where we’re told a slightly different version of it. And one of the fascinating things about this film is how it’s similar to but also so different from ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, a film which clearly inspired it, and Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN, a film that was in turn influenced by both the Sirk and the Fassbinder. All great film, all great in different ways. FEAR EATS THE SOUL is the only one in which this story is told in an unapologetic working class setting, and very powerful for it.
The Arrow blu-ray contains a fascinating documentary on El hedi Ben Salem, an interview with Jürgen Jürges and much more. It’s a beautiful restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation as well.