Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann
Country: West Germany
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a director whose name I've heard bandied around for a long time, but I've never got around to watching any of his films. Thankfully Arrow Academy are releasing a collection of 10 of his most famous features on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD (full details further down the page) so I decided to take the plunge and review one of the most well known titles in the set, Fear Eats the Soul (a.k.a. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Jason Cluitt will be taking a look at another couple of the films in due course.
Fassbinder was an interesting character, to put it mildly. Openly bisexual at a time when that was taboo, he had a myriad of sexual relationships with his regular cast and crew and had problems with alcohol and drugs throughout his adult life which eventually killed him at the age of 37. However (or maybe fuelled by all the cocaine he took), he had a creative prolificacy like no other. To quote Wikipedia, “in a professional career that lasted less than fifteen years, he completed forty feature length films, two television film series, three short films, four video productions, twenty-four stage plays, four radio plays and thirty-six acting roles in his own and others’ films. He also worked as an actor (film and theatre), author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theatre manager.” Quite how he managed this is baffling, but he had a skill for swiftly putting together a production, frequently of a high enough standard to gain great critical acclaim.
In fact, Fear Eats the Soul was meant as a throwaway experiment, shot in just two weeks in between the higher budget films Martha and Effi Briest. It went on to be one of his most critically successful films, winning prizes at the Cannes and Chicago Film Festivals. It tells the simple story of a 60-odd year old German woman Emmi (Brigitte Mira) who falls in love with a 40-odd year old Moroccan immigrant known as Ali (although his real name is that of the actor who portrays him, El Hedi ben Salem – Ali is just the name most Germans give to Moroccan immigrants). The couple face horrible treatment from their family, friends and colleagues due to their age and racial differences. This causes a strain on their relationship.
And that's pretty much it. The film has a stark simplicity to it, which effectively punctuates the issues being examined. Reminding me of the minimalist approach taken by Robert Bresson before him and Aki Kaurismäki afterwards, Fassbinder's style is one of cinematic economy. Other than some stylistic nods towards Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, which is a clear influence on the film, Fear Eats the Soul is devoid of frills in any aspect of its filmmaking. This can be difficult to take at first. Most striking is the mannered meets stilted performance style. Salem in particular seems almost robotic in his actions, but it all seems to be part and parcel of the style and works strangely well. The well built man is a strong presence on screen and his bluntness, when paired with the affection his character shows towards Emmi, gives him an 'average man' relatability you don't always get with your average movie star performance. It also makes the treatment put upon him all the more shocking as he comes across as a simple guy going about his business, who's hard to object to. Mira's performance is more openly warm and provides the range and sensitivity to sell the relationship. So together they drive the film perfectly.
Although stark, avoiding grand sets or big crane shots, the film looks good too. Often framing the protagonists between bars or frames, the camera traps them in a similar way to how German society does. The lighting and production design tips its cap to Sirk, with colours quite boldly used, although the film has a murky realism to its settings as opposed to the stylish beauty of Sirk's. This mix of Hollywood melodrama and stripped back realism is an interesting combo which occasionally looks like it's spoofing the over-the-top nature of the former (particularly in the unexpected climax to the film) but uses its style to shine a harsh spotlight on a serious issue.
I did have a problem with some sections of the film. Most notably there are two sudden changes in character that I didn't quite buy into. One is where Ali has an affair with a younger barmaid, which seemed out of character, and another is where, after they go away on a long holiday to hide from their torment, the couple come back to find that most of their friends, family and colleagues now accept their relationship. The latter is cynically explained however as you learn that everyone now happy with the pairing have their own selfish reasons for re-establishing their friendships. A racist shop keeper for instance realises that Emmi was a good customer so he accepts her back in the shop after initially banning her.
It's an unusual film that won't be for everyone I imagine, but I found its economical approach most effective. It delivers a raw, unvarnished view of race issues in Germany at the time which disturbingly still linger around the world today. It may seem disarmingly stilted in presentation, but in keeping consistent to this style the film feels perfect in execution by never wasting time or energy on unnecessary frills or embellishments. I'm certainly going to be digging further into Fassbinder's filmography, that's for sure.
Fear Eats the Soul is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. It is also available as part of The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection, which brings together ten of the director’s finest, including his feature debut Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Chinese Roulette and The Marriage of Maria Braun. I saw the Blu-Ray version of Fear Eats the Soul and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is excellent. I noticed a faint line briefly, but for the most part the print is clean and retains the original look of the film stock.
For special features you get an audio commentary by critic and lecturer Mark Freeman. This is rich and in depth, really dissecting the film, helping you better appreciate it. You also get an 11 minute interview with director of photography Jürgen Jürges. This provides a frank and interesting account of how it was to work with Fassbinder.
Finally, there's Viola Shafik’s feature length documentary My Name is Not Ali, an exploration of the life and death of El Hedi ben Salem. When I saw this was included I wasn't particularly interested to be honest, as it seemed a bit extravagant to devote so much time to a relatively little known actor, but his story is fascinating and shocking. Salem had a relationship with Fassbinder, which the notoriously wild director promptly cut off after a couple of years. Following this, Salem struggled to maintain a career, turned to crime and ended up dead in prison soon after (reportedly hanging himself although the documentary suggests otherwise). Possibly more shocking than this though was the treatment of his children, two of which Salem brought over to Germany with him from their home country of Morocco. After they struggled to adapt to life in the country with their father and Fassbinder (the two lived together at the time), the two boys were passed between other friends and associates of Fassbinder as no one seemed to be interested in looking after them. The film goes into their story in great detail and it truly is a sad one to tell.
And as with all Arrow releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative as always.