Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Fear Eats The Soul

I saw 2007 to the dregs with Fassbinder's Ali : Fear eats the soul and it was a very melancholic note to begin another day. Fassbinder occupies a distinct position in European cinema, and for those who have watched him perform in his movies and his interviews, his presence is a mix of intellectual fury and cinematic melancholy and symbolic shards are not his mien.

Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter in Germany, meets an middle aged woman Emmi in a bar. Out of pity and curiosity at her loneliness, he offers to dance with her which she accepts. Thus begins a friendship which quickly leads to love and marriage. However, Ali is not accepted by Emmi's grown up children and her neighbours. She is ridiculed and faces social ostracising, and in an attempt to escape this, the couple go on a holiday hoping that things will change. On returning back, things seem to change as Ali finds his old loneliness returning yet Emmi finds a positive change in her neighbours. Feeling like a showpiece when Emmi's friends see him at home, Ali returns to his old bar, gambles but eventually, their estranged marriage finds its way back home.

This movie is a unique one not just because of its theme or story but its treatment of those. It does not just mention things but cuts into the heart of things. We find two things at the outset.....a lonely guest worker and what he represents....a difficult low paid job in a hostile city, an immigration complex which feeds paranoia, a sense of not belonging to a new culture and a sense of duty towards the job at hand, to send money home. Ali is thus a lonely man and like other such people, he immediately senses the aura of desperate loneliness around Emmi. Emmi lives alone, her children are married, her husband is dead and she remembers belonging to the Nazi party, as every one did. She lives the life of lower class sensibility, which is at least less conformist than bourgeois affectation. For Ali's advances find her breaking her silence and isolation, for no one talks to her.

Thus both individuals are similar though different apparently. Ali is the foreigner, not so black but an outsider still while Emmi is now an outsider because she knows him and has married him. However, the bar owner, with whom Ali occasionally sleeps is not pointed at because that relation is covered with the film of respectable hypocrisy. Emmi senses Ali's isolation in a genuine effort of finding a person to love, to surmount her isolation. Maybe Emmi's love is not really so, only a response to her silence but then what is love? Emmi does not know how to make couscous and reminds Ali of adapting to life in Germany which estranges them temporarily till they rediscover their love. Thus both know their differences as well as their affinities for these reveal to themselves as they live them.

Fassbinder's unique success lies in allowing his characters and situations develop into significant questions, into the workings of psychology, the inner changing needs where hypocrisy and selfishness feed paranoia and racism. Fassbinder, unlike other European directors who have skirted with similar themes does not play or flirt with ideas but pores deep into raging fires. The product is a movie of intense humanity and angry underpinnings yet all balanced with the unique orange glows of the bar where Ali and Emmi meet. Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira is easily a winner, for she brings a deep humanity and a sense of expectation to her role. Ali, played by El hadi Ben Salem, Fassbinder's partner is equally well done. There is also a silent melancholy at work here, with the orange bar, the bar-owners spent, exhausted sultriness and the melancholic wails of an Arabic song setting the tone. Throughout the movie, one senses a precarious togetherness between Ali and Emmi, for they are under siege, surrounded by an urban pessimism, Ali's foreignness, Emmi's colour and age, social prejudice, inherent bias, desperate loves, and on their very lives hangs a sword, a German master Arab dog world as Ali sees it.

Think much, cry much, says Ali and that reflects the immigrant position, for he is resigned to be unhappy, for happiness is not always fun. Emmi understands that Ali is younger than him and is ready to allow indiscreet relations too. Ali's bar friends, Germans themselves, do not wince at Ali and Emmi as much as the others do, for they seem less shocked at this union. This position does look strange but shows a movement within the circles, a degree of Ali's acceptability. Recurrent stress ulcers, Emmi is reminded at a hospital where Ali is being treated, is the fate of guest workers, them. But Emmi is resolved that Ali will not suffer a similar fate. Fassbinder ends the movie on a positive note though his and the world in general is surrounded by darkness.
In Europe now, Arab immigrants in particular and immigrants generally are the outsiders, foreign, opposing established social and environmental European values. One can ask questions and like this one, in 1975, a critique of some mores can produce solutions. Without blaming anyone, one can see Europe approaching the earlier climate of antisemitism, which only some decades ago led to annihilation and war. This is not a paranoid assertion but recognition of a unique fear, which eats the soul.


billoo said...
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billoo said...

Kubla, I'm intrigued. Do you *really* think that Europe is going back to something like the antisemitism of the inter-war years?

My own experience (from living in England) is that this is very, very unlikely. Sure, I can see the ratcheting up of the usual Daily Mailesque rants and there is much hostility to "idle" immigrants.

Although it's possible that island people are maybe always a bit insular,myopic, do you seriously see that happening in the UK?

Kubla Khan said...

What i mean is the undercurrent, the subtle rants that one hears, which reflect a certain position, an attitude.
this is perhaps more evident in central europe but the possibilities are present everywhere. mainstream press, popular writers usually speak a language which is odiously official....there is nowhere a serious attempt to 'see' things differently, from various points of view.
Fassbinder, in an interview speaks of Germany returning to old possibilities for he says, the structures that gave rise to racial and antisemitic pogroms are still in place.
but this is only an opinion.

billoo said...

You could be right, KK..I have no idea of what's happening in Europe though I do get the feeling, given just the numbers, that right-wing parties are on the ascendancy.

But I've got to say that I think that things are working in the other direction (at least in England). And that's not just because of the pragmatic understanding that the so-called 'war on terror' isn't working; I think it's more to do with a greater sharing of culture/language/educational outlooks than in previous times. One might also add: that capitalism works, at one level at least, to 'level down'..so that we're all working class.

my question was really: do you get that feeling in the UK, from your own experiences, or from what you think is happening in Europe?

Marta said...

What a great movie and what a great analysis K. :)
I was recently discussing with some friends the meaning of ‘embodiment’ What I really meant is what I think, and you confirm, Fassbinder expresses here, that is, that the only way through life is life itself, is living through differences and commonalities. I do not know what the future will bring about race and power, but I think that the way out is to encounter the other, face the difficulties, feel the pain, and keep moving. All these great analyses of human movements, globalisation, migration are so over dimensioned and so rarely helpful in making life simply better, for those who travel and for those who stay. On the other hand, change, as it is, of perspective, of affection, of understandings, is, to me, involving and pretending a movement that matches the one of the workers changing country, people changing cultural condition, bodies changing with age.

Or maybe I am not good anymore at discussing politics as it is :)

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Marta
your analysis is better than mine. i was wary of overanalyzing the movie, but having later watched Fassbinder speak, i thought my post was a wee bit watery.
the solution in the end is one of hope, as the movie ends positively. this is a question of many equations, of power and as you rightly call it' embodiment'
the discourse must run through unpleaseant corridors of portrayal, a harsh critique and only then will the shell show its true contents.
the us and them, ours and theirs is too worn out a way. the differences of power however cannot be changed.the way out is through a catharsis of content, of definitions. it is a teleological problem.
the bareness of the landscape in the movie, the house where emmi lives, the bar where ali drinks his beer etc is representative of an isolationist spectrum.
Billoo:my own experiences do not suggest what i wrote but my suspicions do.mainstream dialogue here, press or literature(is there good literature here?)pays lip service to such issues. it borders on solipsism.however, immigrants themselves need to delve inside their own paranoia and see if movements can occur both ways.
that said, Fassbinder, treated like a maverick because of his own eccentricities( motherhood equates to saintliness to him) captures not just snapshots but whole lives in a movie which is simply brilliant.

Alok said...

This is one of my favourites as well and your commentary is wonderful.

I think it is not just Europe, it is true for any society, the preconditions exist everywhere. The mutual suspicions of people not belonging to the same ethnicity, resistance to change or inability to see from the perspective of other people... every society has these problems.

What makes the difference is the willingness to listen, acknowledge the problems and to accept the criticisms and I think this is one of the reasons to feel optimistic about Europe. There is still an artistic freedom there and people like Fassbinder who are sensitive to these problems.

Btw, this film was a homage to an old American film All That Heaven Allows... which is quite good too. Both these films were recently remade as Far From Heave directed by Todd Haynes. I don't know if you have seen these but these are very good films too.

Anonymous said...

i like how you wrote that the movie is of intense humanity which is what i think too, that Fassbinder, of all things whether gloomy or not is one of the most human directors i know and this is why i like him so much, he does not fool you around, but goes straight to the heart of the matter, and most important as well, he is nonjudgemental.

Kubla Khan said...

Alok: I agree with your comments. racism and prejudices are not the prerogatives of any group of people and lie dormant or rampant, depending on how you see things.
re the movies you mentioned, i wasn't aware of them till after i saw this one. i watched an interview about the american movie you mentioned. it seems, Fassbinder had an ambiguous relation with hollywood and was some how aware of its big potential, though he remained true to his own vision.
Antonia, yes, Fassbinder's greatness as a director and story teller lies in his own humanity, otherwise such vision w'd be impossible.his distance is that of some one who allows us to see, to think.he remains an objective force, depending on what objective means.

swiss said...

i'm so glad others have commented on this before me as when i looked at it before i felt rather curmudgeonly. plus i was only really commenting on your last paragraph rather than the film, which i haven't seen
am doing a bit of reading about pre WWI europe at the moment and i'm really quite astonished at what i'm reading with regard to antisemitism. to suggest that we're even approaching that far less conditions in the thirties would be something that was outside my experience. rather than worrying about a return to old mores i'm amazed at how far away from them we've travelled

that said i have to agree with alok regarding mutual suspicion, especially in light of events in kenya the other day. it seems there are segments of society where ever you go that will latch on to the smallest thing as an excuse.

billoo said...

KK, I'm not sure if I entirely agree with you. As alok says, is this really a "unique" fear?

I agree with you, some elements have an interest in whipping up confrontation and talking in terms of us OR them; but I've got to say that the ground realities of people living cheek by jowl with one another are quite different (in my opinion).

And for all the scare stories about some irreducible 'otherness' of the stranger there are countless others that don't make it to the headlines, the quiet story of assimilation and middling acceptance of life and its complexities.

I often heear people say: "this is a police state" and I sometimes wonder if they *need* it to be so in some sense..what else could one "resist" in liquid modernity?

Kubla Khan said...

Hi billoo
Perhaps of all art forms, cinema is the most successful, the most immediate. hence, we can see disturbance, whereas in say a painting or in words, one c'd be suspect of imagining one. Fassbinder's movie is a portrayal of a reality, a vision of a coat that covers things. his vision, to repeat, is to allow us to imagine the goodness or rightness of being humane or human.
your idea of assimilation somehow bothers me....why? why cannot people live respecting each others differences? what you think by assimilation is a negation, of all sides....what should actually happen is actualisation, of the self....a recognition of every one's innate difference.
these stories of assimilation are good to read.but i w'd rather have the humanity of Fassbinder, of a recognition and acknowledgement of difference and lie with it, in justice and and with respect. pure assimilation is the dream of supremacist ideologies.
also, in my opinion, it is perhaps natural for the insider to feel under threat from a 'visible' outsider.
this movie is about a love that springs from a need, a need to talk. Ali shortens his name from a longish moroccan name to Ali only because of an unvoiced 'guilt' of being an outsider. these subtleties must never be ignored. the underlying structures of discrimination, paranoia are rampant everywhere. it is also my opinion that such structures are prevalent everywhere, and in asian countries, more visible.
this movie is about fear, a silence, a voice , a nightmare. it might be misplaced but its deep 'humanity' must be respected.

billoo said...

KK, I don't think assimilation is a *good* thing either. That was not my point. It was not a normative one but, rather, a description of what I take to be of the way things are or the direction in which they are moving. As simone Weil once remarked: money and the state are now our gods...and cold ones at that too!

To put it on other words, the power of the state means that there is only one identity (religion , ethnicity and other things may be important at the personal level but not at the political. What 'binds' people together is , at least at the theoretical level,citizenship).

of course, I'm not denying that tied up with that commonality is the idea that our humanity is defined by the pursuit of happiness-and the state's legitimacy is inextricably linked with that as well (Foucalut's biopolitics).

so, yes, I'm a ll for respecting difference but what I'm suggesting is that the so-called pluralism of modern socities really isn't that pluralistic. It is only AFTER one accepts the basic ideas of belonging (for king and country) and aspirations. To that extent, we are all working class now (as Hannah Arendt might say).

What would it mean to talk about a 'we' again or of a "non-representative community"? These are not questions modern societies ask.

In my opinion the "fear" itself is maunfactured to a large degree. (Which is not to disagree with your point about it being 'natural'). But right now, with all of this leveling down (via capitalism, globalisation) there seems to be the need to *construct* the other. How else would one feel alive without a 'clear and present danger'?

again, the other has always been constructed. I'm not denying that. But I think 'fears' over migrants,s trangers in our midst, are really a cover for not looking at the more fundamental changes in society. Not surpising, really, since that would mean re-examining the trajectory of capitalism itself.

billoo said...

Kubla, could I just add: where I disagree with you is in this:

"the underlying structures of discrimination, paranoia are rampant everywhere."

I just don't see that. I see 2 million people marching in solidarity against the war ON Iraq. I see many, many people symapthetic to the Palestinian cause. And I see most people thinking theat the BNP are a bunch of tossers.

In Statford, I see black, asian and Chinese kids laughing with one another; probably falling for the same girls or boys; and I see people of all shades and colours just trying to get along.

of course there are tensions and sometimes paronia. But to say that that forms an "underlying structure" or that it is "rampant everywhere" just seems too extreme ..to my mind , at least.

I think that real pluralism would see not only difference but also what we share. Only the crazed racists and religious lunatics want to talk about irreducible differences.

Anonymous said...

hi k, i can't find your emailaddy anywhere here, will you send alok and or me a mail re the Big Project? so that we can make detailed plans?

Anonymous said...

Please, do you know the name of the arabic song from the very beginning of the film , or any sort of info about it ?
Thank you