Saturday, June 2, 2012

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Angst essen Seel auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul)

der rosenkavalier

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) / 1974

Actor Udo Kier, relating as have so many individuals, the difficulty of working with film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder—who often pitted his actor-friends against one another to produce emotional fireworks both on and off the screen—introduced the recent showing I witnessed of Fassbinder's 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). In its homage to American film director Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, this work, at first viewing, seems much less experimental and unchallenging than either Effi Briest of the same year or Fox and His Friends of one year later. In part, his clear-minded focus on the unlikely relationship between an aging, overweight cleaning woman (acted by the wonderful Brigitte Mira) and the hirsute handsome Moroccan, Ali (performed by Fassbinder's then-lover El Hedi ben Salem), played out against the background of German xenophobia and disapprobation of immigrant workers, sacrifices numerous other cultural complexities.

      Using, as does Sirk, the form of the melodrama, which both simplifies the themes and, in exaggerating them, clarifies the social issues, Fassbinder himself described this work as a kind of film-making exercise. Yet, unlike Sirk, whose Cary Scott is a quite beautiful, if older widow, who ends up abandoning her happiness for her children's sake, Fassbinder's Emmi Kurowski refuses to accept the status quo, marrying Ali over the virulent objections of her children—one of whom, Bruno, kicks in the television set (the symbol in Sirk's version of Cary's alternative to marriage)—meeting most of the challenges and affronts head on. And this, in turn, finally adds complexity and texture to Fassbinder's version that, in the end, enriches his work of art. It would be hard to imagine Cary Scott rushing out, as does Emmi, to attack the local grocer for his refusal to understand Ali's request for margarine. And while Sirk's heroine gets on nicely with her younger lover's friends, the small bar frequented by Ali's Arab friends, seems as isolating for Emmi as does the restaurant, supposedly beloved by Hitler, to which she takes Ali.

     While underlining their simple pleasure with one another's company, Fassbinder also deepens the psychological underpinnings of Fear Eats the Soul by first showing Emmi frozen out of conversation with her cleaning-women friends, but later, after being reaccepted into their little claque, herself rejecting a new worker from Yugoslavia. When the neighbors, who have previously shunned her and her new husband, discover that he is useful to help move things to the basement, Emmi shows off her lover to the neighbor women as she might a trophy, forcing him to briefly pose as a muscle man. The language-barrier, moreover, grows deeper as the movie puts forward its narrative, rather than becoming resolved. Throughout Ali speaks in simple noun-verb expressions, which make him appear as a sort of inarticulate beast demanding, as eventually he does, "couscous." Emmi's simple statement that he must learn to get used to German food is a reassertion of all that she has previously stood against.

     In short, what at first might have simply seemed as a kind of artificed presentation of social differentiations, gradually builds up into a far more complex series of concerns. If Fassbinder's long camera shots, alternated with an almost claustrophobic condensation of these two lonely people has melodramatically restated the film's themes, by the end of the movie, we begin to comprehend them as representing the yawning gaps of understanding and empathy for their very separate and different longings. Ali's drift back to the small bar and into the bed of Barbara, the bar-keeper, is a need to once again feel like the young Moroccan stud he is; and she, unlike Emmi, knows how to make couscous. But his pulling away from his wife, obviously, can only remind Emmi of her own aging face, bringing up fears of not only age, but of loss and a reminder of the emptiness of her life before she met him.

     A bit like the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Emmi cedes Ali to the younger woman, coming ultimately to realize that in order keep him she must open up herself to his absences. The only thing she demands is the touching suggestion: "When we're together, we must be nice to one another," a seeming solution that might be applied to the larger chasm between the German culture and its immigrant workers.

     Even at this moment of great insight, just after Emmi has returned to symbolically begin anew—asking Barbara to play the same song to which she and Ali danced the first night when she darted into the place to escape the rain—Fassbinder introduces another inexplicable event that compromises her desires. Ali falls to the floor in pain, suffering, as we are told by a doctor, the results of living a life filled, not only with fear, but with the anxiousness of not knowing what is expected of him and where his life will end. The doctor's prognosis, that the patient will be cured but only temporarily, speaks volumes, predicting the brutal failures of love that Fassbinder would reveal in his films for the rest of his life.

     That great sense of angst within the film, moreover, was played out in Fassbinder's real life, when in 1982—the same year as Fassbinder's death—ben Salem stabbed three people in Berlin before hanging himself in his prison cell

Los Angeles, June 1, 2012

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