Classic Film Club: 'Fear Eats the Soul'
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Fear Eats the Soul' (1973)
‘Fear Eats the Soul’ depicts a concrete Germany blighted by economic hardship and racial intolerance, where characters either exist in maudlin isolation or subject themselves to the bitter indignity of the small-minded social pack. The film has long been regarded as one of the era’s most directly ‘humanist’ films, and it’s true, Fassbinder’s sympathy for his central characters is absolute. But it’s perhaps ironic that this empathetic outlook comes, at least initially, at the price of depicting every other character – indeed, the entire world outside the central relationship – as petty, self-regarding and cruel.
The plot would now be regarded as soap opera, but was still fairly dangerous stuff in the early ’70s. Sheltering from the rain, Brigitte Mira’s elderly, widowed hausfrau Emmi finds herself in a bar frequented by Moroccan guest workers, among them El Hedi Ben Salem’s Ali. After a sedate softshoe to an old gypsy tune, the two fall to talking, and eventually into bed. A tentative relationship begins, leading eventually to marriage and some inevitably fraught familial fallout.
But the story itself is relatively unimportant: Fassbinder is far more interested in creating two rich and complex characters, then exploring how societal prejudice impacts upon their lives. Despite the yawning cultural gulf between them, Emmi and Ali are oddly complementary souls: deep but inarticulate thinkers adrift in a world of lonely self-loathing, cut off from their families, whether physically or emotionally.
One of the film’s most challenging themes is revealed through its depiction of mother-child relationships: Emmi loves her children, craving their support and approval. But she is able to survive, and find strength, without them: her relationship with Ali, however rocky, gives her all the comfort she needs. Families are important, Fassbinder seems to be saying, but they’re not as important as personal happiness. When a loved one becomes poisonous, or simply loses interest, it’s perfectly acceptable to cut them loose. If you’re lucky, they’ll come back on their own.
Which is indeed what happens. Fassbinder’s final major theme is revealed only in the last act, as the people in Emmi’s life who abhorred her decision to marry Ali – not just her children, but her neighbours and colleagues – gradually acclimatise to the new state of affairs and, in a series of quiet, beautifully judged scenes, realise how much they need her. Here, Fassbinder is speaking as much to the activist as to the intolerant, illustrating in simple, inescapable terms the gradual nature of social change, and displaying a profound, optimistic faith in humanity’s ability to adapt and improve itself.
Author: Tom Huddleston
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