I suppose it was inevitable. I seem to have lost all momentum with this thing and I don’t know how to get it back. Too busy the past few months, I think I may have just forgotten how to do it. It’s been six weeks at least since I watched Fear Eats the Soul and I just haven’t been able to find the time or the will to sit down and write about it. And what is there to say about everyone’s favorite Fassbinder movie anyway? Hasn’t it all been said already? But I’ve committed myself to this lunatic project, so I will soldier on as best I can. Maybe the spirit will eventually return.
OK, so. As any film student will tell you, Fear Eats the Soul is an homage of sorts to Douglas Sirk—German-American émigré and master of the 1950s Family Melodrama—and is, in fact, based on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. In the Fassbinder film, however, Jane Wyman’s upper-middle class widow is an elderly cleaning lady named Emmi (the marvelous Brigitte Mira), while Rock Hudson’s tree trimmer whom she falls in love with is reconceived as a Moroccan gastarbeiter named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). So, to a love story that crosses the strict boundaries of (middle) age and (middle) class, RWF adds the exponentially more complicating issues of race, culture, and sexual age.
Emmi and Ali are trapped by the strict codes and strictures of a society that marginalizes them, and which further condemns them when they marry. Emmi is shunned by her adult children, her neighbors, and her colleagues. Lonely and alienated, far from home, Ali can find only partial comfort with Emmi. (She will not make him couscous, for example, which she says he must learn to live without if he is to settle in as a German.) Emmi’s friends and family call Ali a pig, filthy, less than human. The women at the bar which is the center of Ali’s social world mock the aged Emmi and call her an old whore. At the very bottom of the social ladder, both Emmi and Ali are naturally held in contempt by polite German society.
We’ve seen this movie before, of course, and not just in Sirk. Fear Eats the Soul is a remake of Fassbinder’s own Katzelmacher (1969) which, as you might remember, depicts the plight of Jorgos (RWF), a Greek gastarbeiter living in a working class German neighborhood, and Elisabeth (Hanna Schygulla), the German girl who breaks ranks with her racist peers when she falls for him. The comparison between these two films is not trivial: it nicely illustrates RWF’s evolution as a filmmaker. Whereas Katzelmacher often felt like a detached and formal exercise (which I thoroughly enjoyed, don’t get me wrong), Fear Eats the Soul is genuinely compelling, even as it depicts the same phenomenon.
Of course we’ve seen this phenomenon before, too. I wrote in an earlier post about the stylistic and technical evolution evident in the comparison between 1970’s Why Does Herr R Run Amok? and the following year’s The Merchant of Four Seasons. Those observations hold just as true when you compare Katzelmacher to Fear Eats the Soul. But I realize now that there’s more to it than just stylistic and technical development, and that what makes the later films so much richer and more compelling than the earlier ones is precisely what RWF borrowed from Sirk: melodrama as a structuring principle and a sort of moral paradigm.
But why melodrama? What is it about this lowest of lowbrow genres—dismissed by serious artists and audiences alike as corny and overblown, trash for women (women’s pictures)—that was so useful and so liberating for Fassbinder as an artist? I’ve been grappling with this question for a while now (I still think about Fassbinder quite a bit even if I don’t get around to writing about him). I’m not entirely confident of my explanation, but I’ll give it a shot. God only knows if it will make any sense to anyone else.
Merriam Webster (Eleventh Ed.) defines melodrama as “a work characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.” But that sounds exactly like every Fassbinder film I’ve written about to date—especially the early films—doesn’t it? So what’s different? American Heritage (Third Edition) has this to add: melodrama is “characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.” Bingo. I think it’s this combination of stereotypical characters, whom we can “read” easily and immediately (Eisenstein called them “types”), engaged in interpersonal conflicts that follow a clear and inexorable emotional logic, within the context of social situations constrained by social laws, that makes all the difference. And I think it’s precisely RWF’s move away from an avant-garde minimalist aesthetic—in which characters weren’t so much stereotypical as they were simply opaque, and in which Hollywood genres like the gangster film (Love Is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier) were quoted rather than harnessed—that enabled RWF to achieve what must have been his goal from the very beginning. And what’s really mind-blowing here, at least to me, is that I think that goal was exactly the same goal as, say, Bertholt Brecht’s—who was pretty gosh-darn avant-garde, as I think we can all agree. (Can you think of anything further from Epic Theater than As the World Turns?)
Brecht’s objective as I understand it was to prevent audiences from passively identifying with characters, to encourage them to interpret the conflicts depicted in a play critically rather than emotionally, to achieve understanding rather than catharsis. Part of RWF’s genius was to recognize that melodrama—a form of theater expressly rejected by Brecht, not surprisingly—could actually achieve this more effectively than Epic Theater (or Antitheater, for that matter) precisely by exploiting stereotypes, which permit easy character definition without recourse to complex psychology, and depicting conflicts that are unequivocal and immediate and don’t require lots of deciphering, but which show us something about the nature of our society. You don’t have to identify with Emmi or Ali to understand their oppression or to pass critical judgment on a society that marginalizes and rejects them. The fact that they are in love does not obscure or complicate this injustice, it only makes it easier to see.
But there’s something else going on here, something about melodrama as a paradigm that I think really suited RWF. It has to do with what I have previously thought of as his extraordinary generosity toward his characters. By concentrating on the emotional reality of the characters I think it becomes impossible to condemn or dismiss them—and equally impossible to glorify them. This strikes me as really brave, especially when you consider how unattractive some of these characters’ behavior and histories are. Think of Alma (Irm Hermann) in Pioneers in Ingolstadt, for example, or Petra von Kant, or any character in The Merchant of Four Seasons, really. There may be no wholly sympathetic characters in these movies, but there are no true villains either.
Early in Fear Eats the Soul Emmi describes her father’s hatred of foreigners with a shrug. “He was a party member. Hitler’s party. You know who Hitler was? I was in the party, too. Everyone was, or almost everyone.” These things don’t explain a person, they are just facts. When a colleague comes to ask Emmi to cover a shift for her but leaves in horror after she is introduced to Ali, Emmi defends her. “She’s OK. She was just surprised.” Good people do bad things, sometimes, just as bad people do good things. People do what they do. Everyone, as Renoir says in Rules of the Game, has their reasons.
At the end of Katzelmacher, Jorgos, eventually accepted by the rest of the neighborhood, expresses disgust at the fact that the firm he works for has just hired a Turk. Or was it an Arab? I’m afraid I can’t remember now, but of course it doesn’t matter. The important fact here is that Jorgos is just as much of a xenophobe when it suits him as the Germans who had earlier tormented him. Victimhood does not automatically bestow moral superiority, just as power does not only inhere to evil people. Everyone has their reasons.
So here’s what really impresses me about all this: at a time in European cinema when it was utterly unfashionable to do so, when narrative itself was often dismissed as a reactionary bourgeois construct, RWF embraced one of the most conventional forms of narrative imaginable to illustrate a profound truth: all human relationships are power relationships and all power leverages and exploits human emotions. His genius, I think, was to recognize that a dramatic medium designed to entertain middle- and working class housewives characterized by “exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts” could be used to achieve this, when other more critically respected “masculine” genres such as the gangster film or the western apparently could not. (He tried.) And I can’t help but wonder: would a straight male director have recognized this, let alone had the courage to act on it?