Ranking: #77/111

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)

Genre: Satirical Social Drama/Romance

Fear Eats the Soul is a gem of the New German Cinema. This movement flourished as a result of the founding of the Filmverlag der Autoren distributorship in 1971, enabling more politically and artistically ambitious films, like this one, to be viable.  It’s also a masterly and poignant social drama and I can’t think of a more moving and authentic critique in modern cinema of Western xenophobia towards foreign migrant workers.

At the same time, Fear Eats the Soul is a genuine, touching love story, depicting with an understated realism, how an older German woman, Emmi Kurowski, and a young Moroccan migrant “guest worker” (gastarbeiter), called Ali, fall in love, while trying to deal with an onslaught of discrimination and disgust which is unleashed against them. A struggling widow, Emmi is a humble window cleaner, which is both appropriate, as it gives her insight into the plight of workers generally, and symbolic. Her soul is shown to be largely like a clean window, looking at humanity clearly without the overt prejudice so prevalent in her world.

The story is presented almost clinically, as if the camera has become a diagnostic tool which is being used to analyse this unusual love affair. It is really the society itself which is being coolly examined by Fassbinder, as he relentlessly exposes the prejudice which is rife throughout the community.

The fact that this was a tense time period in West Germany, shortly after the terrorist attack during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, had probably contributed to a heightening of underlying racism in the society.

Emmi and Ali are treated with cruel disdain and they become a tragic laughing-stock in the community. It’s painful to watch. Fassbinder brilliantly draws the audience into the drama. He often uses the camera to show the couple seen at a distance, reinforcing the idea of their alienation from their neighbourhood. Their isolation is powerfully evoked.

And the director turns Emmi’s apartment into a claustrophobic space, showing how restricted and constricted their lives have become after breaking an unspoken taboo in their society. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem don’t put a foot wrong in their portrayal of the star-crossed lovers who become ostracised.

New German Cinema attempted to be bold in its political commentary on the issues of the day and Fassbinder was nothing if not a fearless artistic innovator. Politically, Fear Eats the Soul is uncompromising, highlighting the migrant labour issue long before it became a mainstream concern. To this very day, almost fifty years later, the European and British media regularly cover stories about migrants and asylum-seekers and the rising resistance shown by many governments to this influx of “foreigners”. Fassbinder was therefore years ahead of his time in this film, touching a raw nerve in society.

Given the director’s style of clinical realism adopted in the film, needed to create such a prescient social critique, it’s fitting that the story ends at a hospital. Ali has a stomach ulcer which has burst. The ulcer has been caused by long periods of stress trying to fit into a society that doesn’t accept him, coupled with worry about his family and friends back home in Morocco. The doctor tells Emmi that ulcers are common among migrant workers due to this sustained stress. Ali’s ulcer represents the meaning of his saying in broken German, “fear eat soul up”. He tells Emmi he’s “always nervous”.

Emmi is the heroine who continues to love Ali despite all the setbacks they have endured.

Naturally, there’s a lot of pathos in the film. While it portrays a sweet, tender-hearted and ultimately tragic love story, the movie’s tone is never overbearing, or sentimental.

This film is stamped with artistic authority and integrity from beginning to end.