Fear Eats the Soul review – love versus racism in Fassbinder's exquisite tale

Cleaner Emmi loves immigrant Ali, 20 years her junior – to the chagrin of 1970s Munich – in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s heart-rending and extremely prescient drama

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 movie Fear Eats the Soul is as quietly amazing as ever, nationally re-released as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. It’s the gripping tale of courageous romance between Emmi, a white Polish-German woman, and Ali, a young Moroccan man: a simple, clear story and yet with its own sophisticated moral intelligence. The film takes place among the resentfully racist anständig middle classes of postwar Munich, all of them with fear-eaten souls. This is partly a homage to the 50s domestic dramas of Douglas Sirk, but given that Sirk was still alive and working when this was made, the perspective now is different. Quite unlike Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002), a masterpiece for different reasons, it is not a pastiche, and not something in which modernity is in ironic contradistinction to a past genre. Fear Eats the Soul is urgent and contemporary: it means something relevant in 1974, and in 2017. (If it comes to homage and pastiche, I’m only just coming to terms with the way Aki Kaurismäki’s bar-room scenes are a tribute to this film.)

Causing consternation … Emmi and Ali in Fear Eats the Soul.
Causing consternation … Emmi and Ali in Fear Eats the Soul. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Brigitte Mira plays Emmi, a widowed cleaning lady who one sad rainy night stops at a bar frequented by immigrants and Gästarbeiter, presided over by the blowsy Barbara (Barbara Valentin). A lonely young Moroccan man, nicknamed Ali (played by Fassbinder’s partner El Hedi Ben Salem) gallantly asks her to dance. They go home together, fall in love and – to pre-empt her landlord’s assumption that she is illegally subletting her apartment to this man (for surely no other explanation is possible) she defiantly announces that they are getting married. And so they do, facing down their own inner fear and that of others. It causes consternation among her grownup children and her obnoxiously racist son-in-law (showstoppingly played by Fassbinder himself).

One of her sons furiously trashes her television in a rage – a direct reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. With remarkable, unself-conscious candour, Emmi reveals that she was a Nazi party member during the war, asks Ali if he has heard of Hitler and even takes him to the restaurant renowned as Hitler’s favourite, the Osteria Italiana in Schellingstrasse. She never makes any gesture of apology for her past, never hints that her feelings for Ali are in some way redemptive: she is just transported by love, and by her contempt for the thin-lipped gossips and bigots who disapprove. Yet their love is not easy, and cultural differences are not wished away as easily as that.

The performances of Brigitte Mira and El Hedi Ben Salem as Emmi and Ali are superb; they act with instant sympathy and charm and in their own way, they are the most purely lovable characters I have ever seen on a movie screen. When Ali tells Emmi not to think too much: “Viel denken, viel weinen” (much thinking, much crying) it is heart-rending. It is a triumph of intersectionality – as no one used to say in 1974 – and a triumph of love.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul review – a searing tale of love and prejudice
Fassbinder’s 1970s spin on All That Heaven Allows is re-released as part of a BFI season celebrating his work

Wendy Ide

02, Apr, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
On Body and Soul review – bizarre and brutal tale of lovers in the slaughterhouse
In this strange, unsettling romance, a Hungarian abattoir provides the backdrop for an affair between two workers that exists only when they sleep

Peter Bradshaw

21, Sep, 2017 @2:30 PM

Article image
Cold War review – wounded love and state-sponsored fear in 1940s Poland
Ida director Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely chilling Soviet-era drama maps the dark heart of Poland itself

Peter Bradshaw

11, May, 2018 @7:54 AM

Article image
Padmaavat review – Indian drama that sparked riots is a fabulous tale of love and plunder
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s extravagant medieval epic, which has been the subject of controversy in its home country, makes for a gloriously stirring spectacle

Mike McCahill

25, Jan, 2018 @12:31 PM

Article image
Heritage of Love review – wretched, retchworthy Russian romance
An insufferable love story set in St Petersburg pre-1917 and Paris today, this regressive, saccharine film may have made serious rubles, but it has no merit

Leslie Felperin

01, Dec, 2016 @9:15 PM

Article image
Sweet Dreams review – muddled, sentimental tale of a son haunted by grief
Marco Bellochio’s story of a journalist dealing with the loss of his mother is spoiled by a disappointingly sugary resolution

Peter Bradshaw

23, Feb, 2017 @10:30 PM

Article image
The Other Side of Hope review – coolly comic take on the refugee crisis
Aki Kaurismäki’s tale of a Syrian refugee who stows away to Finland mines the deadpan humour he’s famous for while refusing to flinch from heartbreak and hardship

Peter Bradshaw

25, May, 2017 @2:30 PM

Article image
The Dreamed Ones review – a poetic postwar love affair revisited
Two young actors become involved with Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann’s letters in this intriguing study of a famous relationship

Peter Bradshaw

01, Dec, 2016 @10:00 PM

Article image
My Golden Days review – rich, fluent exploration of student love
Arnaud Desplechin’s film about the unbearably sweet nature of remembered youth only now finds a UK release

Peter Bradshaw

15, Mar, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
The muse and the monster: Fassbinder's favourite star on surviving his abuse
He tormented his actors, threw drinks at his cameraman, and died of an overdose at 37, leaving behind two dead lovers – and an extraordinary body of work. As a Fassbinder season begins at the BFI, Hanna Schygulla reveals how she survived

Ryan Gilbey

27, Mar, 2017 @6:00 AM