Fear (1): Fassbinder

A few weeks ago I finally saw my first Fassbinder film. [Fassbinder](http://jclarkmedia.com/fassbinder/index.html) was an obsessive prodigy who dominated German cinema of the 70s, churning out 41 films in 13 years before working and snorting himself to an early death at the age of 37. He has been mythologized as a romantic hero, as a driven man surrounded by a clique of neurotic hedonists, and as a sadomasochist obsessed with the cruelty underlying love.

‘[Angst essen seele auf](http://jclarkmedia.com/fassbinder/fassbinder19.html)’ (ali: fear eats the soul) fits into that stereotype, though perhaps not in the way a plot summary would suggest. Emmi, a middle-aged German cleaner, meets Moroccan migrant worker Ali in a Munich bar. They begin a relationship and, to the disgust of society at large, eventually marry.

Racism and social opprobrium are omnipresent, but as background rather than theme. The fear of the title isn’t of foreigners or violence or economic hardship; it is fear of small acts of cruelty from your friends, as they protect whatever small scraps of social respect they have by kicking out at anybody below them. The sole cure for fear is desperation; characters come together only when they have nothing to lose.

The first scene covers all this in microcosm. Emmi walks into an unfamiliar bar, half-full of migrant workers. She’s rigid with anxiety, not knowing where to look or where to put herself, aware that all eyes are upon her. But she’s here, overcoming fear and cultural barriers, because she has nothing else: her husband is long dead, her children ignore her, her work gives her nothing but shame. If she had just a little more self-respect, just a little more status to defend, she would retreat back into a world of petty closed-mindedness. Fairly soon, she will. So will everyone else in the film: all the characters betray themselves and their companions through small acts of social cowardice.

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