-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
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
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."