Fear Eats the Soul is an affecting and superbly acted melodrama
Fear Eats The Soul tells the story of – and romance between – Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a late-middle aged widow who works as a cleaning lady and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a much younger Moroccan man who’s in Germany to work (what the Germans call a ‘Gastarbeiter’, or ‘guest worker’ ). In the film’s opening act, inclement weather forces Emmi to take shelter in a local bar. Here she meets (and dances with) Ali and the two form an immediate rapport and eventually a relationship, despite their differences and Ali’s limited German. Fear Eats the Soul is much more substantial than simply an odd-couple drama however. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s much-celebrated film is an examination (and an indictment of) the prejudice, ignorance and hypocrisy that he found endemic in society at the time, especially in regard to attitudes towards race and those perceived as outsiders.
Emmi and Ali face frequent instances of bigotry and condescension throughout the film, some more overt than others. Emmi’s housewife neighbours, who at first gawp at the sight of her taking a “foreigner” up to her flat in the late evening, soon begin to make unsubtle references to the “dirt” which has recently built up in the building. Not only this, but her previously friendly colleagues begin to ignore her at work. Fassbinder isn’t just condemning the entirety of German society however, and not everyone who comes into contact with the unorthodox couple is dismissive. In one important scene, the son of the building’s landlady is sent round to Emmi’s flat in order to remind her that subletting isn’t allowed and that therefore Ali (who has by this time ostensibly moved in), must leave. This is clearly intended by the landlady as a message first and foremost of disapproval, using her son as a proxy. Emmi states that this rule is irrelevant to her situation since her and Ali are to marry and satisfied with this, the son leaves amicably. Upon hearing this, one of the neighbours is incredulous but the son remarks to her that he “fails to see anything indecent”.
The film is not just a commentary on the social mores of German society however, and has profound things to say about how people treat those different from themselves and the ethics of group mentalities. Also, neither of the two main characters are portrayed as morally blameless. Emmi eventually shows some of the intolerance and impatience toward Ali which she so deplores in others, and Ali is more than simply a character used only to shed light on these attitudes. It’s germane to note here that Fassbinder was in a relationship with Salem while shooting the film. A gay, interracial relationship in early 70s Germany would have represented quite the taboo, and it’s tempting to interpret Emmi and Ali’s relationship as an analogy for this and therefore to read the film as partially autobiographical.
The concepts of hypocrisy and selfishness explored in the film are perhaps best exemplified by two key scenes in the first and last acts. In the first of these (as mentioned above), Emmi’s colleagues ignore and then walk away from her at work, after her and Ali’s relationship becomes common knowledge. The second is thematically similar. A new arrival among the cleaning staff is a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, and although initially the ladies are cordial towards her, they soon (Emmi included) go to sit elsewhere to discuss asking the boss for a raise, excluding her from the conversation. Both scenes depict a group displaying (in different ways), their disapproval and distrust of ‘the other’.
Despite its hasty shooting schedule (it was apparently shot in a two week gap between other projects), the film is expertly constructed on a technical level. Fassbinder was famed for working very quickly and to achieve his desired pace of filmmaking, he frequently shot single takes of scenes only and in Fear Eats the Soul, all of the dialogue was recorded as ADR during post-production. This gives some scenes a slightly uncanny feeling – especially in the few where Ali’s speech is prominent. The fact that Salem didn’t actually record his own character’s lines adds to this feeling of unreality (his lines were recorded by an uncredited actor). The film’s narrative is never less than involving throughout though, and minor technical issues such as this don’t distract from it.
Jürgen Jürges’ camerawork is unfussy and often beautifully composed; none more so than in one memorable scene where the newlywed couple dine at an upmarket restaurant (which Emmi somewhat comically refers to – without apparent distaste or irony – as one of Hitler’s favourites). Here, after an amusing encounter with the waiter, there’s a long static shot of the couple sat alone in the restaurant, with them gazing directly at the camera. It’s symmetrically framed and seems to be designed to portray the couple as alone in the world, and somewhat out of place. Many other subtle but clever touches like this occur throughout the film, yet it never seems to be done in a pretentious or superficially arty manner.
Overall, Fear Eats the Soul is a powerfully acted, handsomely shot film which is pleasingly free from sentimentality or predictability. It never appears to be lecturing the viewer on the moral issues it explores, and is a sincere portrayal of an unconventional romance.
The sound is in PCM mono only, with the option for English subtitles or none. The sound quality is very good; throughout the dialogue is all perfectly audible and there are no pops or other erroneous noises on the soundtrack.
The film is very well presented. Colours and sharpness are both excellent in this new 4K restoration and while the grain is slightly distracting in some later scenes, overall the transfer and video quality is exemplary.
The extras on the Arrow Blu-ray are quite extensive, and well worth a look. They include;
– A commentary by critic and lecturer Mark Freeman.
– A feature length documentary (‘My Name is Not Ali’) in which former colleagues and friends of El Hedi ben Salem discuss the actor and his relationship with Fassbinder, among other things.
– New interviews with cinematographer Jürgen Jürges.
– Original theatrical trailer.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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