on 19 January 2006
Fear Eats The Soul is one of the defining films of the New German Cinema movement of the late 60's and early 70's, and is perhaps the first true masterpiece by the maverick filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fear Eats the Soul could also be seen as the first film that is characteristic of the director's trademark style; as he advances on the territory of earlier films like The Merchant Of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, whilst all the while refining his style of camp Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama, and spiralling emotional despair. Like the majority of the director's work, Fear Eats The Soul focuses on a relationship between two characters from different backgrounds, in this case, an elderly German woman and a Moroccan immigrant.
Like his later film, Fox and his Friends, Fear Eats The Soul uses the central relationship to comment on contemporary German society and their treatment of the outsider. In 'Fox', it was the shallow upper-classes who passed scorn on the working-class carnival worker, essentially using his capacity for love (and his naive understanding of human emotion) in order to get their hands on his recent lottery winnings. In 'Fear', however, the villains of the piece are the same working class characters that seemed so simple and idealised in the film yet to come; the close-friends, neighbours and co-workers who should be celebrating the relationship, instead... set out to destroy it. In 'Fear', Fassbinder is attempting to hold a mirror up to the latent racism of the post-war generation, drawing on the country's dark past and sense of collective historical guilt (...not just of Germany, but of Europe as a whole). However, he doesn't feel the need to limit himself to the idea of race and racism. As with 'Fox', which used homosexuality to define the central relationship - but not the arc of the story - 'Fear' uses race as a device to simply underline the closed-minded suspicion, pettiness and capacity for causing pain that is central to the genetic make up of all human beings.
Are the characters in opposition to the relationship really out to harm Emmi and Ali, or can they merely see that this kind of relationship can never work? Fassbinder presents both sides of the story - having Emmi and Ali living a blissful, loved-up relationship, whilst all around them family members are turning their backs and neighbours are starting to talk - only to later then flip the coin - by having the friends and family slowly begin to accept the relationship and even admire Ali - whilst behind closed-doors the once vibrant relationship is beginning to wilt. Fassbinder asks the audience to bring their own painful experiences to the film in order to better understand the character's plight and to see that ultimately, regardless of the opinions of those around us, it is our own feelings that will consume and eventually destroy us.
As with most of the films from his mid-period career, Fassbinder is always doing something interesting with the camera and production design, trying to visualise the connection and later the defragmentation of the relationship through his use of mise-en-scene. The first scene, in which Ali and Emmi meet, is a master class in forced perspectives; as Fassbinder uses the camera and positioning of the actors to isolate our two protagonists from the other customers in the bar. He also shoots through doorways, having characters together but constantly distanced by the jarring production design that is constantly getting in the way and (sub-textually?) splitting the characters apart. One of the most talked about scenes in the film is the legendary "sea of yellow chairs" moment, in which Emmi and Ali sit quietly at a road-side café, watched, suspiciously, by the motionless employees and segregated by a sea of empty, plastic yellow garden furniture. The use of colour, although subtle when compared to later films like Lola and Querelle, is quietly overwhelming, particularly in the way Fassbinder moves from drab, white interiors (Emmi's bourgeois existence) to the vibrancy of the outdoors or the textural shades of the local bar (Ali's more sinful domain).
The political points and the insights into modern German society are intelligent and add a certain depth to what could have easily become just another routine melodrama, with Fassbinder really managing to cut through the black and white aspects (pun intended) of human nature, by contrasting loving and nurturing behaviour with actions and dialog that would suggest something else. Fassbinder never falls into the trap of presenting cloying sentiment and always remains true - despite anything else - to the hope and spirit of his characters.
Whether you want to view it as a straight romantic melodrama, or as a treatise on race, age differences and/or society in general is ultimately up to you. Fassbinder never underlines the actions or moral/ideological standpoints of his film, instead, choosing to tell a story and allowing the audience to bring their own interpretations to it. The performances are strong throughout, with Brigitte Mira bringing out the loneliness and vulnerability of Emmi, but at the same time, retaining an element of strength. The role of Ali was written specifically for Fassbinder's one-time lover El Hedi Ben Salem, who, although limited as a performer, does manage to present the various emotional shades of the character well, and creates a real human being, regardless of limitation. Tragically, Salem would take his break up with Fassbinder very badly, stabbing a group of people to death towards the end of the decade, and taking his own life whilst in prison in 1982. Fassbinder would die of a drug-overdose later that year.
Fear Eats The Soul is a film that is coloured by the various tragedies of Fassbinder's life, though it never panders to self-pity. Although fairly bleak, like a lot of his films, Fear Eats The Soul urges us to find hope in even the most hopeless of situations, and remains one of Fassbinder's most touching and beautiful works.