Angst essen Seele auf
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 09 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Emmi, a widowed cleaning woman, wishing to avoid the rain takes shelter in a bar catering to Moroccan immigrant workers. On a dare one of the workers, Ali, dances with the lonely woman. One thing leads to another and Ali is walking Emmi home and spending the night in her bed. The next day, Emmi is shocked by what she has done but soon realizes that she is falling in love with Ali. The couple, when they can find no good reason not to, marries, despite the prejudice of almost everyone they meet, including Emmi’s own grown children. Such discrimination takes its toll on the couple and the tensions begin to manifest within the relationship. Emmi begins to take Ali for granted and wishes that he could assimilate more effectively into mainstream German culture. Ali, missing his own culture, spends more time with his Moroccan drinking buddies than with Emmi and has a brief fling with a woman who knows how to make couscous. Just when it seems as if the relationship may be beyond repair, Emmi returns to the bar where she first met Ali and they dance again. Emmi tells Ali that she doesn’t care about his infidelity and that the only thing that’s important is that when they are together, they must be nice to each other.
Much has been made of this film’s connection to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, of which it is considered a loose remake. While it’s interesting to compare the two films, Fassbinder’s is nothing if it cannot stand apart from its predecessor. It does so admirably. Apart from some superficial characteristics and plot turns, the key similarity is that Fassbinder doesn’t pretend to be smarter than or superior to his sincere, sympathetic characters. It would be easy to frame the melodrama ironically, to snicker at these poor slobs trying to change the world through their love, or to take a perverse pleasure in their tribulations. Indeed, Sirk’s films are more often enjoyed for their camp value than for any other qualities, even though they are some of the best films of their era. Fassbinder’s film doesn’t really invite the same derision. Perhaps it’s tougher to laugh at someone like Emmi, a woman of a certain age who has lost her husband, whose children ignore her, and who lives alone in a cramped apartment between shifts cleaning corporate offices, than it is to laugh at Sirk’s heroine, Cary Scott, a wealthy socialite whose biggest problems tend to be related to the country club. Perhaps it’s easier to take seriously a kind-hearted Moroccan guest worker who shares a one-room apartment with five other men than it is to take seriously Rock Hudson as a nature-loving, Thoreau-reading heterosexual love object. Regardless of the mechanics involved, Fassbinder’s film takes its characters and their problems very seriously, as if they were the only people and problems in the world that mattered. By coating the bitter pills of racism, economic exploitation, and human indifference with a sweet love story, Fassbinder makes them all much easier to swallow. That’s not to say the film provides easy answers to those problems (or any answers at all, for that matter), or to say that the film has a happy ending. Like Sirk’s film, Fassbinder’s ends hopefully, but not happily. We want to believe that things will work out for the best for Emmi and Ali (or for Cary and Ron), but we’re left with the nagging sensation that these people are doomed.
In spite of its critical reputation as such, I’m not sure that this is Fassbinder’s best film. Some elements of the story, such as Ali’s illness or the honeymoon dinner in Hitler’s favorite restaurant, feel forced. They exist simply as adornments of plot and do not seem to develop organically from the story. Visually, however, the film is flawless. The décor of the bar and Emmi’s apartment, not to mention her dresses, are riots of color. One interesting and very subtle visual motif that often goes unnoticed in the film is Emmi’s hair. In the first scene of the film, it is matted and touched with grey. Watch through the film as it becomes redder and more coiffed — she literally appears to grow younger over the course of the film. It’s the kind of attention to detail that you don’t expect from someone who worked as feverishly as Fassbinder, yet it’s almost always there.
If this were the only film Fassbinder ever made, it would still be one of the great works of cinema. It’s only the sheer fast-burning brilliance and extraordinary scope of his work both before and after this film that keep me from declaring it his unqualified masterpiece. It’s like trying to pick out the best diamond from a pile of almost identically faultless stones.