Sunday, July 31, 2005

#16: On Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL 10/28/2004 Thirty years ago, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, wrote, directed & scored his 19th film. Arguably the best director – certainly the best known - of the German New Wave cinema movement, Fassbinder made 41 films between 1969 & 1982. He was 28 when he made this film, which was shot in just four weeks. ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Festival in 1974, & around 2001 it began popping up in new screenings here in the US. The Redhouse, Syracuse’s new multi-use art house, opened FEAR EATS THE SOUL last Sunday; it runs Sundays & Tuesdays through November 14th. In a post-9/11 world, this film supplies much perspective. It’s set in Germany after the Munich Olympics, where Arab terrorists held siege with kidnapped Israeli athletes, which ended badly. A middle-aged German woman, Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira, meets a guest worker from Morocco one rainy night when she stops at a bar to get out of the weather. She & Ali dance, he walks her home, & stays, & to the surprise of both, they soon find themselves getting married. Although Ali shares this with his fellow Arabs, he keeps it secret from his German co-workers in a car shop. Emmi & Ali endure ostracism of the cruelest, pettiest kind, from her grown children & neighbors & shopkeepers & fellow workers. Fassbinder has an uncredited cameo role as her supremely loutish son-in-law. They have difficulties, chiefly when each lapses into bad behavior in the company others – we may say each is unfaithful but in different ways. Despite their reunion, the film abruptly ends with his physical collapse. The doctor informs Emmi that guest workers frequently suffer these severe stomach ulcers, borne of stress in hostile surroundings, even as the doctor himself looks after Emmi with profound disdain. Both Mira & the actor, El Hedi ben Salem, acted in other Fassbinder films, & it probably helps the film’s visual admiration of Ali that Fassbinder & Salem were lovers. Indeed, though Emmi’s character turns prettier & even looks younger as the story progresses, Ali is a magnificent man. Emmi calls him “beautiful” & contrary to the Germans’ belief that the guest workers are not clean, Ali is constantly showering. Left to themselves, Emmi & Ali fall in love because they are able, however haltingly & inarticulately, to risk the intimacy outsiders intuit of each other. But the very air seems toxic with racial, class & nationalist distrust, not to mention the disapproval their age difference provokes. It literally makes Ali sick. One of the most striking scenes has them alone in a virtual sea of empty tables at an outdoor cafĂ©, admitting how hard it is to endure the ostracism, as a band of waiters & chefs glare at them holding hands. Though family & friends come back around – ironically, all when they want something from Emmi – we see great damage done. One of the actions by a public figure that I most appreciated following 9/11 was Oprah Winfrey’s invitation to Muslim women to use her TV show to identify themselves, to talk about their culture & beliefs to try to prevent both the hi-jacking of Islam by extremists & the stereotyping & attack of Muslims by some angry, frightened Americans. We saw incidents here in Central New York that were ugly in those days. Such ugliness persists in national trends of opinion about our borders, about who gets what jobs, about benefits to foreign nationals who work in the US, about Arab & Muslim people & indeed about foreigners in general. Just weeks ago Women’s Voices had guests who spoke of the long Central New York history of migrant workers, & of efforts to resettle refugees here. This morning’s paper features a story about one such family, who’ve lived a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp. These gentle people look tired, & scared, even as they peer hopefully at the news camera. Some people find Oprah melodramatic, you know. But I think she stepped up to the plate on this one. In FEAR EATS THE SOUL, Fassbinder also employed the melodramatic style of his own hero, director Douglas Sirk, to dismantle & comment on European culture & politics in an era of fearful prejudice. Roughly a re-make of Sirk’s 1955 film, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS – which has much in common stylistically with Todd Haynes more recent FAR FROM HEAVEN – FEAR EATS THE SOUL is more effective now because of some distance. Just as it’s disconcerting to see old photos of ourselves in hippie haircuts & big glasses, watching these characters in their bell-bottoms & beehive hair-dos makes one realize that we are about equidistant in time from them as they were in the 70’s from the Third Reich. Indeed, Fassbinder won’t let us forget the few decades – “mere” or very long, according to your perspective – between Ali & Emmi’s story & the Nazis, for Emmi’s family belonged to that party. It’s just far enough away for the complacent to feel comfortable. But have either fashion or behavior really changed? See this film, this mirror. It runs at the Redhouse through November 14th. (858)