Saturday, 4 March 2017
1,001 Films: "Fear Eats The Soul/Angst Essen Seele Auf" (1974)
Opening with the foreboding motto "happiness is not always fun" rendered in a lurid-green font, Fear Eats the Soul has nevertheless remained Rainer Werner Fassbinder's most accessible film - or, at least, the one that hasn't been buried under reams of academic and queer theory, and doesn't require substantial historical footnotes to make sense of it. You could approach it as Romeo and Juliet with age and bitter experience on its side, and the ingrained prejudices of the entire German nation stacked up against its lovers-in-chief. These are Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a lonely, sixtysomething cleaning lady, and Ali (El Hadi ben Salim), the gentlemanly Moroccan gastarbeiter with which she strikes up a companionship after she walks into his local to get out of the rain - the first of several transgressions wider society will come to tut and fuss about.
The third act marks a return to Fassbinder's familiar theatre of cruelty, but for the most part the film's dramatic tactics are simple, pitching the supremely sympathetic Mira into scene after scene in which Emmi comes up against neighbours, co-workers and blood relatives who offer up variations on the same opinion: that foreign workers are scum/swine/dogs, and that any right-thinking German woman who gives them the time of day is a money-grabbing whore, the repetition of such sentiments driving home just how unlikely this relationship is to survive. This picture-book simplification doesn't always work in Fear's favour. One could argue Ali is presented in terms roughly as basic as his stuttering German: only belatedly are we shown what he actually does for work, and then at a moment when he's been cast in an altogether unflattering light.
For her part, Emmi appears weirdly naive and idealised for a sixtysomething woman, although there's something appealingly perverse about any film that employs an old girl who once voted for Hitler as a beacon of liberal tolerance. Despite the sometimes artless functionality of Fassbinder's direction - which might, granted, be the artless functionality of 70s West Germany, offering a director nowhere to point his camera without catching concrete and peeling paint - the film functions all the same, making disproportionately expressive a simple close-up of a barmaid turning her head away, and the recurrent framing of the lovers in windows and doorways. For ninety minutes, we are the outsiders looking in, and you realise, however accessible the film is, it's finally every bit as confrontational as this director's other public statements. There you go, Fassbinder barks: see how you like it.
Fear Eats the Soul returns to selected cinemas on March 31 as part of the BFI's Fassbinder retrospective; it remains available on DVD through Arrow Academy.