(Ali: Fear Eats the Soul)
West Germany, 1973
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Production: Tango-Film Productions; color, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes. Released 1973. Filmed in Germany.
Producer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; photography: Jürgen Jüges; editor: Thea Eymes; sound: Fritz Müller-Scherz; art director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; costume designer: Helga Kempke.
Cast: Brigitte Mira ( Emmi ); El Hedi ben Salem ( Ali/El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha ); Barbara Valantin ( Barbara ); Irm Hermann ( Krista ); Peter Gauhe ( Bruno ); Karl Scheydt ( Albert ); Rainer Werner Fassbinder ( Eugen ); Marquand Bohm ( Herr Gruber ); Walter Sedlmayer ( Herr Angermeyer ); Doris Mattes ( Frau Angermeyer ); Liselotte Eder ( Frau Munchmeyer ); Gusti Kreissel ( Paula ); Elma Karlowa; Anita Bucher; Margit Symo; Katharina Herberg; Lilo Pompeit; Hannes Gromball; Hark Bohm; Rudolf Waldemar; Peter Moland.
Cannes Film Festival, International Critics' Award (shared with
Lancelot du Lac
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* * *
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteenth film, Angst essen Seele auf , represents perhaps the peak of his renowned domestic melodrama period, bracketed approximately by The Merchant of Four Seasons and Angst von Angst. The story of an improbable romance between Ali, a young black Gastarbeiter in Munich, and Emmi, an elderly, widowed German cleaning woman, Angst essen Seele auf is patterned rather explicitly on the Hollywood "women's pictures" of Douglas Sirk; in this case, All That Heaven Allows , where bourgeois widow Jane Wyman falls in love with her younger gardener, Rock Hudson, and finds herself ostracized by her children as well as the country club set. Admiring Sirk for his ability to deal with interpersonal politics in the context of melodrama (a genre animated by personal crisis in a social/familial context), Fassbinder was equally impressed by the visual stylization of Sirk's mise-en-scène.
Employing a Sirkian stylization in camera angle, framing, color, and lighting, Fassbinder takes on the conventions of melodrama in Angst essen Seele auf , yet exaggerates them in the direction of Bertolt Brecht, emphasizing the social typage of the characters, arranging characters in frozen tableaux at key moments, and distancing the viewer by constantly framing through doorways and in long shot. The effect is to force the contradictions of the story to reveal themselves on an intellectual level, to remove the viewer from the level of pure empathy to that of understanding the ways in which the characters' lives are determined by age, social status, and economic class. Like Sirk's characters, Ali and Emmi face social ostracism for their love— the harrassment of neighbors, co-workers, and merchants, and the horror of family and friends. After returning from a trip to get away from it all, they finally find themselves accepted; but only to the extent that returning them to their "proper" social roles allows them to be exploited once again by those around them.
It is a very cold world which Fassbinder depicts, a world in which emotion and love are exploited. Writing on Sirk, Fassbinder (whose first film is appropriately titled Love is Colder Than Death ) asserted his conviction that "love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression"; and Angst essen Seele auf is an unblinking illustration of his point. Once relieved of the social pressure which brought the lonely Ali and Emmi together, they find their personal relationship determined by many of the the same prejudices and assumptions, playing out their "types" and becoming more like those who despised them.
What emerges is a scathing critique of social repression seen from the lowest rungs of society's ladder. The ungrammatical title, translated literally "fear eat up soul," is a phrase used by Ali to describe the pain he is suffering in his relationship with Emmi, a pain which eventually manifests itself as an ulcerated stomach—a malady, a doctor tells Emmi, suffered by many foreign workers. The irony that this strange, almost grotesque couple must suffer a fate which is normal, typical, and utterly anti-romantic adds a chilling sense of truth to the film's epigraph, "Happiness is not always fun."
It would be incorrect to assert that the analytic aspects of the film preclude an emotional response; for if Fassbinder makes it almost impossible to empathize with Ali and Emmi in the conventional sense, it is only to provoke more deeply disturbing feelings. Fassbinder has been quoted to the effect that "films that say the feelings you believe you have don't really exist, that they are only the sentiments which you think you ought to have as a well-functioning member of society—such films have to be cold." Yet the coldness of Angst essen Seele auf is not emotionless; far from dulling the viewer, it produces a profound shiver, marking the success of Fassbinder in constructing a film which will make audiences both think and feel.