Saturday, July 05, 2008

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Miss agitated

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) is as direct as a white man's contemptuous glare, as mysterious as a black man's serene gaze.

Fassbinder uses color, stylized theater acting and camera movement to point up the extreme isolation felt (and developing bond shared) by two lovers--Emmi (Brigitte Mira), an elderly cleaning lady, and 'Ali' (El Hedi ben Salem), a young Moroccan immigrant worker who came to his name by mistake (his real full name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha).

Their first meeting at a bar, for instance: we first see Emmi entering the establishment's front door, the row of small tables (topped with a rich red tablecloth) emphasizing her distance from the camera. Fassbinder cuts to a reverse shot where Ali, bar owner Barbara (Barbara Valentin) and friends stare at Emmi as if at a personal affront. Cut back to Emmi, who at this wordless assault gropes for a chair to pull back and sit down.

Ali is asked to dance with Emmi; he goes forth to comply. Cut to the seated Emmi as Ali asks; their shared posture--Emmi at her chair looking to the left, Ali standing behind her bent slightly in the same direction--already has the look of a casual pas de deux. Emmi seems flustered at the question, somehow finds the perfect answer ("why not?") then stands up; like a butterfly shedding her cocoon she drops her black overcoat to reveal a bright white-and-yellow dress; not spectacular, but a bit startling to see on such a humble mouse of an old lady. She and Ali walk to the back, Fassbinder not cutting (as he did when Ali went to Emmi's table) but following them, underlining the drama of their gesture (handsome young man asking, shy senior citizen accepting), the fact that both ends of the bar has suddenly been united.

A red spot is turned on; the couple dances slowly under its heavy glow. We listen to their conversation and it's easy, casual; the two feel totally at home with each other, chatty Emmi curious at her dance partner, Ali easygoing and open despite the stumbling block of his faltering German. If there's any electricity to the moment, any tension, it's coming from Barbara and friends, who stare at the shuffling couple as if at a personal affront doubly insulting (now there's two of them).

Emmi returns to her table, Ali following; behind them Barbara walks up to set Ali's beer (which he had left at the bar's other end) on the table. Barbara walks away, and the camera which had held the table in a medium shot glides sideways to catch Barbara stopping midway down the bar to turn and look at the couple; Emmi's table up close, Barbara in mid-distance, the figures at the far end--all three sets of figures plus the bar's considerable length help emphasize the distance between elderly stranger, Moroccan, and disapproving watchers. 

Emmi decides to go; Ali decides to escort her home. As they stand up to leave the camera suddenly pulls back from them, Fassbinder's way of underlining the significance of the moment. But the shot has yet another function: when Fassbinder cuts to a reverse shot it's to Barbara, looking at the departing couple; we realize that the camera has leaped from table bystander to Barbara's point of view--from sympathetic viewers, in effect, to silent onlookers, silently judging the two. 

At the hallway of Emmi's apartment building we see Fassbinder building their intimacy through dialogue, staging and, again, camera movement. The scene begins with a long shot as the two enter the front door; Fassbinder breaks this into two separate shots, cutting from Ali asking questions to Emmi answering. Then Fassbinder brings them together again by having Emmi walk from one side of the room to the other while Ali is standing but behind her, out-of-focus. Emmi is talking about her job; suddenly she turns to look at Ali (who snaps into focus) and notes that he would look better in lighter-colored suits (turning her focus to Ali transfers our attention from her and her past to him). When she talks of children, Ali moves forward to finally stand beside her; mention of family, of being with them and being without, has brought the two closer together. From polite strangers trying to maintain an interested conversation Fassbinder swiftly and persuasively shows them becoming real friends, sharing secrets, sharing vulnerabilities. 

When the two finally become lovers Fassbinder makes this such a natural, uncomplicated development it takes one's breath away: Fassbinder, master of melodrama, baroque storytelling, extremes of suffering and emotion, is also capable of creating scenes of simple tenderness and transcendent joy--in some ways the more difficult achievement. 

As their intimacy grows, so does resistance to their union. Fassbinder uses a variety of means, but the gossipy women chatting in scandalized voices is such an old and familiar device I had to laugh--Lino Brocka, whose sensibility comes closest to Fassbinder's than any other significant Filipino filmmaker I know, has used small-town gossip-mongers at least one other time, in his early masterwork Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) (and in fact there Brocka also had his version of the aliented couple, in the form of a leper and a madwoman (Mario O'Hara and Lolita Rodriguez, in arguably their finest onscreen roles)).

In interracial dramas the character whose race is the issue is often a paragon of virtue, and for at least the picture's first half that's what Ali is: patient understanding, charming, somewhere this side of lifeless. In the film's second half Fassbinder adds flesh to this walking cliché: he grants Ali the right to be willful, self-destructive, even cruel--to be fully human, in effect, free to experience and inflict every form of suffering such a state of existence implies. At this point Fear Eats the Soul transcends its racial issues and becomes a meditation on the mysteries of human nature; the relationship, unhappy because of stresses without, starts to crack from stresses within. The strange and somehow beautiful finale brings the film full circle, and we can see Emmi and Ali continuing on, but on a sadder, not necessarily wiser level (or if wiser, not necessarily capable or willing to act on that expensive bit of wisdom). A great film, one of Fassbinder's finest. 

The Goethe-Institut’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival kicks off on July 5 with a screening of a documentary on the director, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (3 p.m.), followed by a discussion on Fassbinder by Teddy Co at 5 p.m. and a screening of Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) at 6 p.m. The film festival, which will run until July 26, will be held at the Goethe-Institut Manila, 5F Adamson Center, 121 L.P. Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. The movies will be screened on Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 3 and 6 p.m. There is also an exhibit of posters of his films which will run during the duration of the festival. For more information, call 817-0978. The screening schedule is available at Admission is free. 


The Coroner said...

Art films rock.

Noel Vera said...

Films rock in general, but since art films don't get the money they deserve (I can imagine Ali was shot on the catering budget of The Transformers), they rock double.

john marzan said...

one of the most memorable lines was Ali lamenting about his "cock broken" in broken german.

Dante Acuna said...

I'm surprised how funny and satirical I found the film upon reviewing. More than once Emmi's puerile and bourgeois children (her son kicking her TV set in disgust is childish, not to mention impeccably timed) and her gossipmongering neighbours got some guffaws from me. And to celebrate their wedding they dine at one of Hitler's favourite restaurants? Past Nazism is treated as nostalgia and postwar xenophobia a commonplace next to negotiating a raise. Fassbinder's analysis of German society is so exact and methodical that you can precisely plot the zones where the brutality has dropped.

I still find Ali to be an enigmatic figure. You mention that he turns from a cliche into a developed character, and I agree with you, but in the end I can't help but feel that Ali will not overcome his status as a cipher, not only in society but in his marriage as well.

I see two parts in the film: the euphoric first part when Ali and Emmi fall in love, and the destructive second part, which starts right after they return from their vacation. There is a feeling of doom in both parts, but the feeling is allayed in the euphoric first part by the buoyancy of love. In the second part euphoria gives way to something sinister, and though Ali and Emmi's love deepens (I think), their love seems undermined by a deeper desire for societal acceptance...It's that penultimate, clinical close up of the doctor who shuts the door instead of witnessing an act of tenderness; that unsettles me, because I don't know if he's done it for privacy or disgust. His expression gives nothing away. He shuts the film when it still has mysteries to impart...It must be that closed door that leaves us guessing that Pedro Costa talks about.

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff, Dante.

It's that sense that there's things still to learn about Ali that makes him so real to me. A character you know everythign about at the end of a play or film, especially a murder mystery; human beings still remain mysteries, even if you've spent years living with them.