Six reasons to watch Fear Eats the Soul

With Fear Eats the Soul returning to cinemas, we consider six reasons why the tale of an unlikely romance thwarted by social convention in 1970s Munich still holds such appeal for audiences today.

David Morrison

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Although Rainer Werner Fassbinder was known for his prolific output, even by his standards Fear Eats the Soul (1974) was a bit of a rush job. He shot the film in just 15 days as something of a stop gap between working on two other films from the same year, Martha and Effi Briest. Outlining the romance between sixtysomething Emmi, a German cleaner, and fortysomething Ali, a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker), the film examines the reactions that their relationship provokes and, in turn, the effect society has on their relationship. A powerfully moving tale of intolerance and prejudice, Fear Eats the Soul manages to be both tender romance and fiercely political moral fable.

Here are six reasons it deserves your attention.

1. It’s a brilliant reworking of Douglas Sirk’s classic All That Heaven Allows

Rock Hudson as tree surgeon Ron Kirby and Jane Wyman as widow Cary Scott in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Rock Hudson as tree surgeon Ron Kirby and Jane Wyman as widow Cary Scott in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Often described as a remake of Sirk’s 1955 film, the plot of Fear Eats the Soul actually stems in part from a story told by a barmaid in another Fassbinder film, The American Soldier (1970). In this version – itself based on a news item – Emmi winds up murdered, but Fassbinder said that he wanted to give the couple the chance to live together. He became fascinated with Sirk after seeing a retrospective of the director’s films in 1971, and in Fear Eats the Soul he uses aspects of All That Heaven Allows’ melodrama and social oppression but ratchets up the stakes through the use of a racial and national divide. The scene in which a television is kicked in is a brutal homage to Sirk’s famous shot in which Jane Wyman’s socially enforced loneliness is heartbreakingly reflected in a TV screen.

2. Its composition and framing are masterful

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

There are few films that employ such a powerfully suggestive use of composition to complement their themes so devastatingly. Via a rigid sense of framing, through doorways or windows that seem to imprison the often static characters in a narrow gap within, Fassbinder comments on the characters’ essential isolation. And even when Emmi and Ali are together they are frequently depicted in wide shot with empty space surrounding. This, coupled with a habit of cross-cutting between the characters and the staring faces of disapproving neighbours or family, makes both an affecting and ironically distanced statement regarding the social forces that entrap them. If you’ve ever wondered how film form can create meaning, Fassbinder makes it visible for all to see.

3. It remains searingly relevant

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Intolerance towards economic migrants, complaints that ‘they’ can’t speak the language, Arabs described in terms of, “You know what they’re like. Bombs and all that” – it’s not difficult to see the relevance of Fassbinder’s film for modern-day Britain. But it’s not simply a case of ignorant racism against saintly, hard-working victims of discrimination. Fassbinder sees hypocrisy everywhere – even kind-hearted Emmi wants to visit Hitler’s favourite restaurant and finds herself blithely adopting her neighbours’ culturally superior stance in an effort to be accepted. Prejudice begins in attitudes that are unthinkingly and uncritically enacted, and – again – it’s Fassbinder’s framing that aptly makes the point, as Emmi leaves new foreign worker Yolanda excluded on the stairs in a masterful repetition of an earlier shot that highlighted Emmi’s own ostracisation. And so, the cycle continues.

4. The distinctive performance style

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Fassbinder’s early career often saw his actors employing a Brechtian ‘anti-acting’ style, a mode of performance meant not to encourage empathy but rather to reveal the mechanisms of power and exploitation to an audience. Later, however, in part influenced by Sirk, he moved towards a more natural style. Fear Eats the Soul contains a touch of both to great effect. Professional actor Brigitte Mira brings a kindness and warmth to Emmi that’s hard to resist and rounds out her character. El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder’s partner at the time, was a non-professional and effectively plays himself as Ali. His deliberately impassive, stiff and stoic performance creates a distance that calculatedly illuminates his shameful treatment at the hands of German society.

5. The dialogue – simple but effective

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Supporting the performances are lines of dialogue that often sound like simplistic generalisations, almost clichés, but in the context of the film they pack a hefty, if ironic, dramatic punch. From the opening credits dedication of “Happiness is not always fun” – appearing over a dark puddle, an encouraging welcome to a film if ever there was one – to lines such as “German master. Arab dog,” “Think much, cry much,” and the “Fear eat soul” of the title, the unsophisticated phrases belie a depth of commentary and emotive power that surprises on first viewing. There’s something of this uncomplicated yet insightful straightforwardness in Fassbinder’s descriptions of Sirk: “People can’t live alone, but they can’t live together either. This is why his movies are so desperate.”

6. It’s a genuinely moving love story

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

While Fassbinder’s acerbic bite is always present, perhaps what is most responsible for Fear Eats the Soul’s continued popularity is the surprisingly touching and tender romance at its centre. Its director may have seen love and especially marriage as oppressive forces, with the “exploitability of feelings” one of his most cherished themes, but almost in spite of himself Fassbinder seems to have taken on at least some of the sentiment of Sirk, whose work he described as “the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.” When Emmi says, “When we’re together, we must be nice to one another,” it’s another modest line, but coming as it does after so much pain, suffering and betrayal on both sides, this seemingly naive statement (briefly) becomes a heartbreakingly poignant call to hope.

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