Fear devours the soul

Hélio Oiticica, Metaesquema, 1958.


Commentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film

Em Fear devours the soul, [Angst essen Seele auf], a 1974 film, the filmmaker and, in this case, also an actor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), addresses the violence of prejudice and xenophobia in Germany in the 1970s. The plot presents the story of the couple Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder's companion); she is German, ex-Hitlerist, widow and cleaning lady, and he is Moroccan, twenty years her junior, single and car mechanic. They meet in a bar in Munich, talk, dance and go to her house, everything is narrated with a peculiar combination of frugality and delicacy.

After some time, considering themselves already in love, they decide to get married. The hypothesis of a relationship between the two had begun to bother people at the bar, when they first met, because the younger girls thought they were offended by the woman's petulance of stealing what, by law, would be their business. Then, it will be the neighbors of the building where Emmi lives who will express discomfort with the presence of the man, especially because he is black, Arab and therefore a foreigner.

Married, she decides to tell her children, now adults (one woman and two men) and with their own lives consolidated. Fassbinder, as an actor, plays Emmi's son-in-law, a particularly repulsive, sexist, prejudiced and violent character. In the course of this torment imposed on the couple, Emmi's work colleagues, the owners of the nearby market and the employees of the restaurants they try to attend actively participate.

At a certain point, Emmi realizes that she feels at the same time great happiness at the rediscovery of Ali's love and company and deep sadness at the refusal and prejudice expressed against their union, at the discovery, on her skin, of discrimination against Arabs, against any foreigner (Emmi's father, she says, was Polish by origin) and against marriages outside the norm of normality.

She, on several occasions, tries to think that they are, deep down, good people, but that, unfortunately, they feel envy. Emmi tells Ali, naturally, that she had been a Nazi and they even celebrate the wedding in an Italian restaurant, according to her, of Hitler's preference. He is never surprised, he just says he knows who it is, but that's it. Emmi makes the decisions and Ali follows her. At no point do they link the problems they face with Nazism. So that the main characters seem alien to the history of what happened, above all, in Hitler's Germany.

The contradiction embodied by Emmi is that of someone who constituted her own identity and personal history in this culture and community, with parents, husband, children, son-in-law, work colleagues, acquaintances from the local trade, all radically familiar and, on the other hand, gave -he realizes that all of this was largely fabricated by what appeared later on when he decided not to adjust himself to other people's expectations, to that society's plans for aging Germans, to the projects of normality and to life that had a previously determined course, essentially lonely, bitter, and dispassionate.

By placing herself in another perspective and assuming, more or less, autonomously, moved by sudden passion, the course of her own existence, she fell on her the burden of violence previously invisible to the familiar native German. Emmi would become apt for social criticism, if that were the case, because she was thrown into marginality. However, on the other hand, displacement was not enough for the necessary understanding of what was at stake. Maybe it wasn't essential, because, in fact, it didn't seem to matter to the direction of the plot.

Fassbinder's melodrama could not end well and, in fact, it does not, but this is perhaps not important for the economy of what he wanted to discuss from these central points of the film, disruptive behavior, the revelation of social violence and the tearing apart the idea of ​​the familiar. We spectators are left thinking about that dramatic circumstance and how it speaks about the relationships we maintain in the world we live in, fifty years after the film.

There would therefore be, in every pleasant sensation of normality or, worse, of familiarity, the self-defensive concealment of the horror of violence and prejudice in vogue, and which, in part, appears as material for the invention of the normal and familiar. Dissidences, divergences, divisions, deviations, in short, allow us to see precisely the fractures and invoices that expose the crudity of what has always been in vogue, but duly hidden.

The thread of violence weaves more fabric into family and social relationships than we would be willing to recognize. And, perhaps more, than we would be available to consider and draw the consequences, including because, in many cases, we are so concerned, they are part of our own identity, of what we deem most untouchable and non-negotiable as a value in us that there would be no space or means of first seeing and then conceiving of any necessary investigation. I keep thinking about Emmi's case. What would happen to the character if Fassbinder took her to the last consequences in an attempt to understand the violence she suffered.

In part, it seems more or less evident, she would be placed on the brink of madness, of the abyss whose bottom would mean giving up even what she had been until then, willing herself to turnaround or succumbing to horror. The other thread (that of Ariadne?) could be precisely that of firmness, of the plumbline outside of violence, due to the set of material conditions, choices and feelings that were consubstantiated in love and union with Ali, the way out, after all, of range of the monstrosity in the labyrinth.

As if, at the same time that the ruin appears, in the midst of it, but without getting confused, the possible foundation of a new building arises. In the film, the chance of this threshold is, in my view, represented in the scene of the couple in the rain, sitting at one of the tables outside a restaurant (where they will not be served precisely because of the strangeness directed at the couple), she is crying and says to Ali can no longer bear the torment of contradiction, so he decides that they must travel, escape from there. Next, the realistic treatment of marriage leaves no room for romantic idealizations.

The hardships soon appear. Ali, young, inexperienced, impulsive, gives in to gambling, drinking and eventually returns to his old girlfriend, but does not abandon his wife. Emmi, more experienced, suffers, however, conceives the balance that keeps them together. The edification here was providentially edifying, even if far from being revolutionary, however, the result of a different and divergent morality from the old one, of another political position. In this, Emmi regains, little by little, some social respect, in the same place, but as another social figure alongside Ali.

Punctual, but not negligible, is the cynical formulation at this point in the film, of the merchant reconsidering his own moral pride due to the need to overcome the financial loss that the loss of an old and assiduous customer represented to his business and, therefore, the the decision to “forgive her” for the inappropriate course she took in her own life and the gesture of inviting her to return to the local shops and tell her about the couple's vacation. The shopkeeper says to his wife, before he asks Emmi on the sidewalk: “In commerce, we must hide what we don't like”. The maxim that, adapted to each area and naturalized as education and expectation, has long since been demanded as a family, school and social etiquette.

We can think that the painful experience lived mainly by the couple produced shocks and also imposed changes in the values ​​of that community, among the few people they knew, family members and co-workers. As if Fassbinder summarized, in the course of the film, a social time that is usually extended, startled and demanding, and delayed a personal time that, not infrequently, is chaotic, hasty and urgent. These resources seem to suggest to the interested spectator something like precautions for anyone who decides to consider the social violence hidden under the appearance of normal life.

First and foremost, suffering the delights and delusions of the clouded lucidity of passion, the most unforgettable phase of love. Any effect of this tends to be understood by those who do not participate, but approach it as disturbing, risky and foolish, that is, a correct understanding of the essence of any passion, but socially dangerous due to its transformative power. Emmi manifests through suffering to embody the axis of this condition. Many of us succumb here, out of fear, weakness and, in the end, choosing the required normality.

When this is not the case, as it appeared to be in the film, it begins to make sense to endure the pain caused by family and social refusal of disruptive behavior. That means feeding on the passion for the necessary energy that combat calls for. Let's say that the constructive feeling that unites the couple establishes the terms of the utopia that their stay together comes to represent, hence it constitutes a force and ethical orientation, with guiding stars in the sentimental sky that protects them, as if they detected the truth together. that another and better world is possible.

It is from this kind of edge of life that the characters can realize what happened before. And they get this chance precisely because the center of life began to expel them, to repudiate them, being an old woman and a young Arab, both strangers to almost everything in that society. For this reason, Emmi, progressively and with great difficulty, perceives the degree of family and social violence summoned and practiced in the name of guaranteeing a stabilized order and as scheduled; she feels the impact of the tearing of identity based exclusively on historical and shifting contents of familiarity and normality.

What do you see when consulting, hand in hand with Ali, as an immediate alternative? Through the script, we learn that the evasion, geographic or not, will work as a condition of appeasement, of weighting and sedimentation of the new contours of existence. A providential respite as space and time for designing ways to adjust perspectives and consider the terms of the equation that surrounds them. Finally, more elements in the existence of less, and not because the present was without resources, but precisely because we need to be, in some way, others to glimpse and intend to contradict, from the new vision in constitution, what said the Moroccan saying that gave the film its title, because hope must always overcome fear in the project of a better life.

*Denilson Cordeiro Professor at the Department of Philosophy at UNIFESP.


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