Ali: “Why do you cry?”
Emmi: “Because I’m so happy on the one hand, and on the other I can’t bear it anymore. All this hatred from everyone. I always pretend I don’t care, but I do.”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder has always had a special place in my cinephile heart. He died in 1982 when he was 37, but left a filmography of over 40 feature films. His work is transcendent – so alive. I was obsessed with his films while in high school and when I arrived in college – I sat through his entire oeuvre when my university’s film program curated a retrospective. I understood he felt like an outsider – and I could feel his restlessness. I also knew that this was one of the most important voices I’d come across.
Fassbinder was born in 1945 during the unconditional surrender of Germany and his mother had fled Poland during the War. He always wanted to work in film but was turned down from the Berlin Film School. Instead he concentrated in theatre doing acting, writing and directing – which would come in handy later. It is said that in the span of about a year he directed 12 plays. He had a particular approach that was eventually used in films – where movement was fluidly choreographed and interspersed with fixed poses. I’ve always loved that fact. There’s a determined stylization and a sense of emphasis. Eventually he started making films – deeply influenced by the French New Wave and dramatist Berltolt Brecht’s coined concept of Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht wanted a distancing effect – for you to have a deeper intellectual understanding of the situation you were watching by keeping emotionally distanced. Fassbinder worked fast – making four or five films a year. He got international attention starting in 1971 – with films that were molded from the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (a German who migrated to Hollywood) but reconfigured through the Fassbinder prism. He documented a Germany after the War – and the vestiges of fascism and its toxicity in every aspect of society – sexually, politically, racially – you name it. As a young rebellious adult, I connected on a deep level with Fassbinder. When I asked my film-educated staff recently if they’d seen any of his films, I was a bit heartbroken they hadn’t. He was a genius, and I exhort you to seek him out.
“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974) is the best way to start. It is the most accessible and beautiful. Before the movie starts there’s a sentence projected on the screen – “Happiness is not always fun.” That’s a line from another German émigré – Max Ophul’s “Le Plaisir” (1954).
A lonely sixty-year old woman, Emmi takes shelter from the rain inside a Morrocan restaurant. Ali – in his late thirties and dark skinned – is dared by the waitress to ask Emmi to dance. They dance. He’s from a little town in Morocco called Tismit and migrated to Germany for the work. She tells him her husband died ages ago. “Half of life consists of work,” Emmi professes. He walks her home and in the lobby of her apartment building they talk about each other’s life struggles. She’s embarrassed to say she cleans for a living. “People always give you a funny look,” she says. “It’s good to talk with someone. I’m alone all the time,” she admits.
These two outcasts will find solace in each other in a very tender way. Her husband was Polish. “My parents told me this’ll come to no good,” she mentions. “That’s because he’s a foreigner, you see? My father hated all foreigners.” Emmi marries Ali – to the chagrin of her distanced family, her neighbors and her co-workers – even the corner grocer. When Ali finds her crying he asks why. “Because I’m so happy, and so full of fear, too.” She responds. He comforts her, “Not fear. Fear not good. Fear eat the soul.”
The way Fassbinder presents it is what makes it so transcendent. He shoots Ali and Emmi in long shots. Remember the Brechtian distancing effect? He keeps them at bay from us – separated from society. I have never felt a camera move more palpably than in a Fassbinder film – as if you could feel the emotion coming from behind it – and how he feels for the characters – gently emotionally pulling away from them. In general, the way the camera moves in cinema carries a lot of meaning – in a Fassbinder film it is a direct expression of the way he feels. A late scene that takes place in a park is a special one. The camera stays again at a distance – a sea of yellow benches and Emmi and Ali are seated holding hands. Notice how it gently moves in and eventually pulls away at the end.
Emmi and Ali are framed inside their apartment – doorways, windows – emphasizing their alienation and entrapment. Notice how the characters move carefully – choreographed – and intermittently will deliver their lines in static poses. His theatre techniques integrated into film. It is all deliberate. Sublime.
Emmi: “They’re just envious.”
Ali: “No understand ‘envious’.”
Emmi: “Envious is when someone doesn’t like another person having something.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy and to rent on iTunes, Apple TV and Amazon Prime.
Written and Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Irm Hermann, Elma Karlowa, Anita Bucher and Gusti Kreissl
About Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges
Jürgen Jürges was born 1940 in Hanover. After completing his studies in 1961 at the Fotoschule in Berlin, he worked at Modern Art Film/Berlin as a camera assistant and focus-puller until 1967. Since then, Jürges has worked as cinematographer on over 100 feature films and TV projects, including R.W. Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” 1974, and “E Briest,” 1974, Wim Wenders’ “Faraway, So Close,” 1993, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, 1997, and many more. He is a four-time winner of Deutscher Kamerapreis; a three-time winner of the golden Bundesfilmpreis; a three-time winner of the golden Bayerische Filmpreis; and numerous other accolades at film festivals worldwide. Jürges has been involved in the DAU project since 2008, when he created an unprecedented system to light the entire set of DAU using natural lighting and mirrors, which allowed for his mobile camera and crew to capture private interactions and intimate scenes with minimum intervention into the lives of those living in the Institue. He has advised extensively on post-production and the staging of the DAU launch events, also becoming responsible for lighting the DAU Rooms at Téâtre du Châtelet in 2019. (dau.com)
About Actor Brigitte Mira
Her show-business career covered eight decades in ballet, operetta, musicals, cabaret, film and television. Yet fame came to her relatively late, when Rainer Werner Fassbinder cast her in “Fear Eats The Soul,” which won the international critics’ prize at the 1975 Cannes film festival. In the film, Mira played Emmi, a 60-year-old widowed office cleaner in Munich who sets up home with a young Moroccan gastarbeiter (played by El Hedi ben Salem) after meeting him in a pub. Fassbinder’s sensitive handling of the unequal relationship, and his critical presentation of the responses of Emmi’s family, turned the melodrama, which was based on Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film, “All That Heaven Allows,” into a critique of racism and ageism. Mira’s performance was widely praised; Fassbinder had made her a character actor, and people began to take her seriously. She became a member of Fassbinder’s team, and was to make eight more films with him, notably “Lili Marleen” (1981), and also the television mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980). Fassbinder died in 1982. “If RWF were still alive,” she said later, “I would have an Oscar by now.” Mira turned to television, where her warm heart and sharp repartee made her a sought-after talk-show guest. She also became a soap star as the grandmother in the 140 episodes of “Drei Damen Vom Grill” (“Three Grill Ladies,” 1977-92), the saga of a family-run hotdog stand in Berlin. Mira was the daughter of Siegfried Mira, a Russian concert pianist who settled in Hamburg and married a local woman. Her parents intended her to be a music teacher, but she preferred to train as a singer and dancer. Her first professional role was as Esmeralda, in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in Cologne in 1929. In the 1930s, she sang in operetta as a soubrette alongside artists of the calibre of Richard Tauber and Fritzi Massari in Bremerhaven, Graz and Kiel, before settling, in 1941, in Berlin, where she worked at the Rosetheater and the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.
After the war, she appeared in Walter Felsenstein’s productions of Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne” at the Hebbel- theater, and Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus at the Komische Oper in East Berlin. Willy Schaeffer spotted her comic talent, and she was engaged at the Kabarett der Komiker, and later at the Insulanern, the leading cabaret venues. In the 1950s and 60s, she also acted in boulevard comedies. Her first straight character part was in Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” in 1967. She was also appearing regularly on television. Then, in 1972, Fassbinder saw her in Peter Zadek’s revue “Little Man What Now?,” and cast her in “Fear Eats The Soul.” By 1998, she was appearing with Evelyn Künnecke and Helen Vita at the Bar jeder Vernunft, in Berlin, in “Drei Alte Schachteln” (“Three Old Bags”), a programme of chansons that the veteran trio toured all over Germany. Her two partners died in 2001. Mira’s last stage appearance was in “The Beggar Queen Of Moabit,” at the Berlin Hansa-theater in 2000, when she was 90. Mira was a Berlin original, despite having been born in Hamburg. Her life was quite untouched by political controversy, though she lived through the Third Reich on false papers because her father was Jewish. By the end, she was a national treasure, the archetypal funny old Berlinerin with a heart. Her sense of humour, with a dash of sentimentality, stayed intact to the end. Her wit and irony were legendary. (theguardian.com)
About Director and Screenwriter Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (May 31, 1945 – June 10, 1982) was born into a cultured bourgeois family in the small Bavarian spa town Bad Wörishofen. Raised by his mother as an only child, the boy had only sporadic contact with his father, a doctor, after the divorce of his parents when he was five. Educated at a Rudolf Steiner elementary school and subsequently in Munich and Augsburg, the city of Bert Brecht, he left school before passing any final examinations. A cinema addict (“five times a week, often three films a day”) from a very early age, not least because his mother needed peace and quiet for her work as a translator, “the cinema was the family life I never had at home.” Fassbinder made his first short films at the age of twenty, persuading a male lover to finance them in exchange for leading roles. He also applied for a place at the Berlin Film School (dffb), but was refused. He acted in both his early films: “Der Stadtstreicher” (“The City Tramp”), which also featured Irm Hermann (later often used in character roles); and “Das Kleine Chaos” (“The Little Chaos”). In the latter, his mother – under the name of Lilo Pempeit – played the first of many parts in her son’s films. Only after these amateur directing-scripting-acting efforts did ¬Fass¬binder take lessons with a professional acting studio, where he met Hanna Schygulla, his most important actress, who thanks to him became an international star. It was through Schygulla that Fassbinder turned his interest to the theatre. In 1967 Fassbinder joined the Munich action-theater. He directed, acted in, and adapted anti-establishment plays for a tightly knit group of young professionals, among them Peer Raben and Kurt Raab, who along with Schygulla and Hermann, became the most important members of his cinematic stock company. Jean-Marie Straub directed the action-theater in an eight-minute version of Bruckner’s “Krankheit der Jugend,” using part of this stage pro¬duction in his short film “Der Brautigam, Die Komodiantin und der Zuhalter” (1968), with Fassbinder as the pimp. In 1968 Fassbinder directed the first play written by himself, Katzelmacher , a twenty-minute highly choreographed encounter between Bavarian villagers and a foreign worker from Greece, who with scarcely a word of German, becomes the object of intense racial, sexual, and political hatred among the men, while exerting a strangely troubling fascination on the women. A few weeks later, in May 1968, the Action theater was disbanded after its theatre was wrecked by one of its founders, jealous of Fassbinder’s growing power within the group. It promptly reformed under Fassbinder’s command as the antiteater, which pursued an equally radical and frequently provocative production policy.
The years from 1969 to 1976 were Fassbinder’s most prodigious and prolific period. An outstanding career in the theatre (productions in Munich, Bremen, Bochum, Nurnberg, Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, where for two years he ran the “Theater am Turm” with Kurt Raab and Roland Petri) was a mere backdrop for a seeming¬ly unstoppable outpouring of films, tv film, adaptations, and even a TV variety show (in honour of Brigitte Mira). During the same period, he also did radio plays and took on roles in other director’s films, among them the title part in Volker Schlöndorff’s Brecht adaptation “Baal”. By 1976 Fassbinder had become an international star. Prizes at major film festivals, premieres and retrospectives in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and a first critical study on his work appearing in London had made him a familiar name among cinephiles and campus audiences the world over. He rented a house in Paris and could be seen in gay bars in New York, earning him cult hero status but also a controversial reputation in and out of his films. Art house circuits avidly took up his films: because he had so many to his credit by the time he was ‘discovered’ with “Fear Eats the Soul,” the rerelease of his earlier films, together with the steady stream of new work, made his extraordinary productivity seem even more phenomenal. (…) His flamboyant and at the same time seedy life-style, his openly displayed and well advertised homosexuality, and at the same time life and love to women, the scandals, public outrages and bouts of self-pity ensured that in Germany itself Fassbinder was permanently in the news, making calculatedly provocative remarks in interviews, which nonetheless were usually shrewd and to the point. His work often received mixed notices from the national critics, many of whom only began to take Fassbinder seriously after the foreign press had hailed him as a genius. In 1972 Fassbinder began his collaboration with a highly experienced and successful producer at West Germany’s most prestigious television network, Peter Märtesheimer of WDR. Under Märtesheimer’s influence, Fassbinder turned with even more determination to recognizably German subject matter. Together they made, among others, the television series “Eight Hours Do Not Make a Day” and in 1978 cowrote “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” Fassbinder’s commercially most profitable film and the first in his post-war German trilogy (the other two were “Lola” and “Veronika Voss”). For many foreign critics, his crowning achievement was the 14-part television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” much maligned by the domestic press. Although for “Veronica Voss” Fassbinder received the Golden Bear at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival, a much-coveted Oscar nomination eluded him. As had often been noted, Fassbinder was the engine and motor (the “heart” in Wolfram Schütte’s words) of the New German Cinema. His sudden death from a vicious combination of drugs and sleeping pills in June 1982 symbolically marked the end of the most exciting and experimental period the German cinema had known since the 1920s. (fassbinderfoundation.de/leben)