After a chance meeting in a bar in Munich, Emmi, a cleaning woman (Mira) and Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), a much younger Moroccan guest worker, fall in love and marry. Family, neighbours and work colleagues respond with horror and disgust, ostracising the couple. In despair, they take a vacation to escape social disapproval. On their return, they find attitudes have changed somewhat: their former persecutors now hypocritically look to take advantage of either Emmi or Ali. Gradually the couple’s relationship starts to fall apart. At a moment of apparent reconciliation, in the same bar where they met, Ali collapses with an acute ulcer, a condition typical of immigrant workers, unlikely to be curable.
Fear Eats the Soul is among Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most canonical films. Along with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), it is the one that appears in lists of ‘100 best films’ and is most often assigned on undergraduate film studies syllabi. The film falls into the ‘domestic melodrama’ phase of Fassbinder’s production, the period in the early-to-mid 1970s when, under the influence of Douglas Sirk, he introduced an affective directness into his work, a directness until then rare in the Godardian genre re-workings and austere comedies of his already substantial oeuvre. But while Sirk may have given Fassbinder a taste for simpler stories, his staging of sentiment was never simple, nor did it mark a softening of his outlook. In Fassbinder’s worldview, at once cynically clear-eyed and utopian, power pervades all social relations from the ground up. Individuals are locked into and exploited by large-scale systems of power and money, and interpersonal relations offer only the mirage of escape. Even on the level of – especially on the level of – personal, emotional and sexual relations, there can be no equality, motives are never innocent, and the question of who whom can never be escaped.
Fassbinder’s films of this period – Fear Eats the Soul, but also The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Mother Küsters Journey to Heaven, Fox and his Friends, The Merchant of Four Seasons and others – relentlessly lead their principal characters through downward spirals of emotional suffering. In doing so, they also excoriate the smugness, conformism, hypocrisy and unacknowledged violence of post-war West German society, shown to be founded on vulgar materialism, psychic repression and historical guilt. However, although there is much melodramatic suffering, there are few entirely innocent victims: affliction can be noble, but it is rarely pure. The central figures – who often die with or from their unhappiness – are frequently complicit with their situation, sometimes abjectly so, and often inflict a portion of suffering on others in turn. In compiling this compendium of distress and exploitation, Fassbinder returned time and again, with particular vehemence, to the institutions of the family and couple. The former is depicted as an inescapable site of violent socialisation, the latter as a nexus of bitterness, co-dependency, frustration and mutual manipulation.
For all that, there is a deep strain of utopianism and even romanticism at work in Fassbinder. Desire and love are constant threads through all his works, albeit ultimately in thwarted, aborted, abused, betrayed or otherwise impossible forms. A bleak but nuanced picture, and one that was, for the director, ultimately political. As he put it in a late interview: ‘In the exploitative system under which we live, love too is exploited and exploitative. [Thus] I can recommend the desire to love, but not love itself. But perhaps if that desire were made to grow ever larger and ever clearer – then maybe something would change’ (Fischer 2004: 600). While sympathetic to many currents of the 1960s and 70s counter-culture, Fassbinder refused to put forward overarching solutions to the problems he diagnosed, suggesting his role lay rather in forcing audiences to pose difficult questions about their own lives, to sensitise audiences through the knotted problems his films present (Fischer 2004: 324). This combination of social critique and apparent fatalism led some critics to diagnose a pernicious passivity in his work. For Richard Dyer, Fassbinder’s films were suffused with ‘left melancholy’, wallowing in suffering, acknowledging social determinants while disavowing practical action (Dyer 1980: 54–65). Others since, however, have detected more subtle modes of resistance, seeing in the dismantled masculinities and affirmation of abjection a promise of new modes of social, emotional and erotic being.1
Whatever the place of passivity in his films, Fassbinder himself was a prodigiously active and productive figure. It was not unusual for him to produce up to several features a year, writing and directing, as well as frequently acting, and with a hand in editing, production and design. Fear Eats the Soul was produced in 15 shooting days. The speed of production is partly explicable by the great clarity of Fassbinder’s artistic vision and partly by the efficiency of his close-knit group of regular collaborators. The group included a substantial number of family, acolytes, friends and former and current lovers: the director’s work and tumultuous life were intimately related on the level of production and of casting, and sometimes in narrative allusions. El Hedi Ben Salem, who plays Ali, was Fassbinder’s then partner. The director’s complicated personal life and the multiple interconnections of biography and films were a favourite topic for West German tabloids during his life and after his early death.
Like Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1956), of which it is a partial re-make, Fear Eats the Soul shows a scandalous love story across social divides, centring on a couple faced with the disapproval and outright sabotage of family and neighbours. However, in transposing the action from New England to Munich, Fassbinder also changes the constellation of social conflicts and taboos. Where Sirk’s wealthy widow falls in love with her gardener, Fassbinder locates both his main characters at the bottom of the social scale, lessening their class difference while emphasising their common marginalisation. Above all, Fassbinder amplifies the scandalousness of the match – its impossibility and impropriety in the eyes of society, and perhaps in the eyes of the audience – by adding a difference in race and nationality, and a radical disjuncture in age and sexual attractiveness.
On paper, this compounding of ‘issues’ – prejudice, racism, exploitation, the loneliness of the marginalised – is reminiscent of what in German is referred to as the Problemfilm, contemporary dramas worthily addressing social problems. But the exacting formalism of its visual style, along with Fassbinder’s writing and staging, takes the film far from banal realism. Already in the extraordinary opening scene, the meticulously constructed mise en scène – careful analysis of space; garish colour in costumes and design; stylised, almost ritualised blocking of the actors – reveals a key aspect of the film: the way it uses relations of vision and looking to demonstrate and allegorise how personal relations are constituted in a web of coercive social relations. Throughout, relations and emotions are staged through a complex exchange of gazes and glances, including the camera’s look – we are never allowed to forget that we too are staring, along with the hostile neighbours.
Thus, when Emmi takes shelter in the bar, she is subject to the steady, cold gaze of all those present. But the starers do not have to turn to look: in Fassbinder’s staging, they are already looking even as she enters. Likewise, the dance between Emmi and Ali, which inaugurates their scandalously inappropriate romance (‘it’s just not natural’ says one character), is initially a product of the mockery, jealousy and resentment of others: a woman at the bar, her advances spurned by Ali, puts money in the jukebox and scornfully suggests he dance with the old woman.
The opening scenes conjure one of Fassbinder’s moments of utopian hope. On the space of the empty dance floor, an unlikely bond between mismatched outsiders comes to pass. To an old jazztango, the two dance simply, with mutual respect and unexpected equality of esteem, and they speak straightforwardly and honestly. Here, the subtlety of the performances is key – although Brigitte Mira, as Emmi, tells Ali she ‘hasn’t danced in twenty years’, she is unfazed to be asked, and gets up to dance with no sense of subordination or surprise.
Both here and later – when Ali walks her home with a kind of self-evident gallantry, and she invites him in – the dialogue does standard narrative work, giving information about the characters. But, in addition, the vocal performances (added later in voice-over) lend simplicity and dignity to their words, making of the encounter less a seduction and more a continuation of their dance. The dynamic between the two has an emphatic ordinariness and a childlike unintendedness about it. Nonetheless, by morning, there is an incorporeal moment of transformation; something has happened, a horizon of possibility has opened. As the film unfolds, we observe their relation to be primarily composed of a mixture of tenderness and solidarity: what lends it eroticism and romanticism is less a chemistry of bodies, than its sense of inevitability in a place of improbability.
Once the relation is established, inviting the viewer’s investment in the story, all begins to go horribly wrong. But the problems are of more than one kind. As many observers have pointed out, the story divides neatly in two. In the first half, the couple’s problems largely come from outside, while in the second – both a recapitulation and a development of the first – the relation erodes from within. The schematism and abstraction of this structure – as if the narrative is systematically testing their love under different conditions – is aligned with the coolness of the camera’s gaze, which has many shots that hold characters within door or window frames, or fix them through the bars of stairwells. In part, this device visually underlines their isolation, but it also serves to frame them for us, showing them almost as exhibits.
In the first half, thus, the film foregrounds the comments of racist neighbours, the greed and hypocrisy of family members, the hostility of the local shopkeeper, the shameless stares of strangers. This all takes its toll: for Emmi in particular, the ostracism becomes unbearable. Although old and lonely, she still has social ties to family, colleagues and neighbours, and in that sense more to lose. However, the hostility also strengthens the couple, making marginalisation their common bond and the foundation of their relation. This simultaneous isolation and togetherness is highlighted in a famous sequence, with Ali and Emmi seated alone in a large café garden, the camera – in a rare break from its usual carefully composed static framings – moving around them, as if to trace the circle of their exclusion. As the waiting staff stands and stares in cold impassiveness, they affirm their love, but Emmi breaks down, wishing aloud that they could leave and come back to find everyone ‘nice’.
Emmi’s wish for acceptance comes true, but without happy consequences. Returning from vacation, the couple finds a radically changed situation. Social rejection is replaced by manipulative acceptance, as the same figures who shunned or condemned them now find reason – they all want something – to re-establish ties. When outside pressure is reduced, the couple collapses internally. Emmi finds a route back into society, but at the price of collaborating in the exclusion of others, including a new Yugoslavian worker, now ostracised in her turn. Ali becomes more and more the Other in the home. Echoing the racist banalities of her co-workers, Emmi shows him off as an exotic– erotic exhibit. Ali, whose social connection is far more limited, escapes the stifling marital home through heavy drinking and sex with other women. He too can be shockingly cruel: in a bitter scene, he laughs along as his co-workers mock the unhappy Emmi as his ‘grandmother from Morocco’.
If the division into two parts represents a kind of thesis and antithesis, the conclusion offers little redeeming synthesis. The penultimate scene, the narrative climax, repeats elements from Emmi’s and Ali’s history, and at first seems to offer the possibility of resolution. Emmi arrives at the bar to rescue Ali, who is recklessly gambling and drinking. Dressed in their wedding clothes, the couple dance again to the music of their first meeting. Here, in the space where the relation began, they attempt – as in the liberal model of relationships – to talk through their problems. All seems set for a third start, a higher and happier synthesis of understanding and honesty. Ali admits to sleeping around, Emmi forgives him; it doesn’t matter, she says, she knows she is old, mutual kindness is more important.
At this point, Fassbinder violently aborts the reconciliation. Ali collapses with an ulcer, a condition that, we learn, is endemic and recurrent among immigrant workers. All easy hope is dispelled: the film stages the futility of interpersonal goodwill in the face of social conditions, conditions which burrow deep into the bodies of the poor. The film ends downbeat and ambivalent, with Emmi weeping by Ali’s hospital bed, vowing to take care of him. Some see this as a kind of happy ending; if so, then only in the spirit of the film’s sober motto, a quotation from Godard’s Vivre sa vie: ‘Happiness is not always fun’.
1 For a good summary of these readings, see Gorfinkel 2012.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: West Germany. Production Company: Tango-Film. Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Producer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Cinematographer: Jürgen Jürges. Designers: Kurt Raab, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Editor: Thea Eymèsz. Cast: Brigitte Mira (Emmi Kurowski), El Hedi Ben Salem (Ali), Barbara Valentin (Barbara, the bar owner), Irm Hermann (Krista), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eugen).]
Richard Dyer, ‘Reading Fassbinder’s Sexual Politics’, in Tony Rayns (ed.), Fassbinder, London, British Film Institute, 1980, pp. 54–65.
Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1996.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Töteberg, Leo A. Lensing, The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Robert Fischer (ed.), Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Fassbinder über Fassbinder, Frankfurt am Main, Verlag der Autoren, 2004.
Elena Gorfinkel, ‘Impossible, Impolitic: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Fassbinder’s Asynchronous Bodies’, in Brigitte Peucker (ed.), A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hoboken, Wiley Blackwell, 2012, pp. 502–15.
Judith Mayne, ‘Fassbinder and Spectatorship’, New German Critique, Vol. 12, 1977, pp. 61–74.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Notes on Sirk and Melodrama’, in Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 39–44.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.