Fear Eats The Soul

Fear Eats The Soul

****1/2

Reviewed by: Leanne McGrath

As one of the most gifted directors of the New German Cinema of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's highly intelligent social melodramas are both stylistic and narrative works of art.

In Fear Eats The Soul, he pays tribute to the work of his hero, Douglas Sirk, with an updated version of his 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows. Sirk's classic melodrama follows a lonely, middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) who falls in love with a young gardener (Rock Hudson) - but she is shunned by her snobbish family and friends for her romance with a man outwith their social class. Like all of Sirk's films, it is a subtle critique of American culture hidden behind the cosy, inoffensive surface of a family melodrama.

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Fassbinder takes this method of representing ideological conflicts through family situations a step further - making his heroine's lover not only younger, but Moroccan, in order to comment on the racial tension rife in post-war German bourgeois society.

His lonely widow is Emmi (Brigitte Mira), who meets Arab worker Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) in a bar while sheltering from a rainstorm. They fall in love but are shunned by her family and friends, who are disgusted she has married a foreigner.

Fassbinder's camerawork is nothing short of masterful throughout as he emphasises how the couple are isolated and dehumanised. He uses painfully long, lingering shots of his protagonists to implicate the spectator in the racist gaze of whoever is watching them with disapproval, be it friends, neighbours or waiters at the restaurants they visit. They are put on uncomfortable display - a feeling heightened by them being framed within the screen's frame, such as being shot through a doorway or window. It's almost Brechtian in its artificiality - probably a throwback from Fassbinder's time as a theatre director - but highly effective.

The dehumanisation of Ali is also superbly presented and extremely unsettling to watch. The movie was made as a vehicle for Salem - then Fassbinder's lover, who later commited suicide in prison after being charged with murder - and he gives a raw, touching performance as a man robbed of spirit and dignity by a society which loathes him.

His name alone speaks volumes. Ali's real moniker is actually El Hedi Ben Salem Mubarak Mohammad Mustafa but he is called Ali, a generic name given to all Arab workers. One of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch is when Emmi shows him off to her friends, asking him to flex his muscles. He becomes an object on display as they admire his physical strength.

It is through Emmi that Fassbinder implies racism is ingrained into the German mind. Despite her genuine love for Ali, she is implicated in the racist discourse and was once - and still is - a part of it. She reveals she was a member of the Nazi party - "we all were" - and after their wedding, she insists they eat at what was one of Hitler's favourite restaurants. She shows Ali off to her friends and brags about his body and makes him help a neighbour move things, thereby falling into the "German master, Arab dog" order Ali described when they first met.

After being shunned by her work friends, Emmi is eventually allowed back into their social circle because a foreign girl - someone more alien than her - joins them. She now attracts the anti-foreign gaze Emmi once did - and is shot sitting alone on the stairs alone as she did. Emmi is implicated in this look as she joins her colleagues in excluding her.

Fassbinder also plays with the conventions of melodrama with a great deal of skill. The family, the heart of all melodramas, is largely replaced by society - although Emmi's loathsome kids do make a brief appearance, Fassbinder himself playing her lazy, racist son-in-law. We do not get the happy ending melodrama usually delivers and when the characters pray for a reversal of fortune - the racism to stop - we do not get a clear cut shift. Yes, people eventually accept them, but only because they want something. Emmi also becomes more and more drawn into their racist discourse, dehumanising Ali further and driving him away.

A truly unmissable film not only for the biting attack on a prejudicial society, but for the touching plot, raw performances and innovative, thrilling camerawork most directors can only dream of.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2006
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Touching romance between a lonely widow and an immigrant worker.
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Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Elma Karlowa, Anita Bucher, Gusti Kreissl, Margit Symo, Doris Mattes

Year: 1974

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: West Germany

Festivals:

Leeds 2008

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