At the end of the past semester, students in the Multicultural Germany class at UC Berkeley wrote final papers on topics of their choosing. To conclude our series of posts from this class, we are delighted to share several of their papers here. This paper is by Treasure Nguyen, who wrote about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film, Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul) and Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short film, Angst isst Seele auf (Fear Devours the Soul).
Emmi Kurowski. El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha. With names like that, they can’t be real Germans, one of Emmi’s neighbors might say. With a title like Angst essen Seele auf, grammatically incorrect as it is, Rainer Werner Fassbinder puts pressure on the audience’s conceptions of German identity and explores the significance of its dynamics of hybridization and bastardization. Fassbinder’s use of stilted, broken German in the both mouth of the man known as Ali and in the title of his film is an intentional mistake, which resonates with the German shopkeeper’s intentional misunderstanding of Ali’s request for Libelle margarine. The shopkeeper belongs to the majority and Ali to the minority other. In what ways does each represent himself and project his preconceptions on the other? What is the role of mistakes in their self-conception? If the shopkeeper intentionally doesn’t want to understand and help Ali, then are there moments in which Ali intentionally does not want to be understood, moments in which he appropriates the German language so that it is no longer simply incorrect, but instead becomes a kind of identity in and of itself? If Ali, the character, does not want this, then Fassbinder, the auteur, does. The title Angst essen Seele auf deliberately retains Ali’s speech patterns; it does not rewrite or try to correct his words; it simply presents them unaltered, and by using a non-standard form of German in this way, the film’s title acknowledges and therefore legitimizes this non-grammatical usage. Unconventional language is no longer scorned, overlooked, shunned to the peripheries of society and deemed worthless, or, even worse, deemed a contaminant of the original, “pure” language and culture. At the same time, though, Ali’s manner of speaking is itself an artificial creation. His language plays an exaggerated role in Fassbinder’s artistic scheme, and this exaggeration foregrounds for members of the audience their own prejudices, expectations, and stereotypes of foreigners. Do we accept Ali’s broken German as the natural mode of speaking for all foreigners, or does it only seem natural because we are intentionally, reflexively misunderstanding him, viewing him from the start as an Other? By making the artificiality of the construction of art (in this case the film) apparent through these acts of alienation, in other words, by drawing attention to the intentionality and performativity of elements of his film, Fassbinder also draws attention to the artificiality and social construction that makes up so much of real, everyday life. Through the uncanny—familiar yet unfamiliar—portrayal of ingrained prejudice and habits of othering, we come to see for the first time what we so often overlooked in the past.
In his short film Angst isst Seele auf, writer and director Shahbaz Noshir addresses issues of stigmatization, overlooking, and denigration of foreigners and migrants in many ways, including through the inclusion of the Nick Drake song “Parasite” towards the end of the film (incidentally, the musician Nick Drake died in 1974, the same year Angst essen Seele auf was made). We hear the song in the scene when the actor Ngaturipure rolls down the window of the car he is riding in and assigns to the rain and wind the bouquet of sunflowers he has been given by the director of the production he recently starred in. With the sunflowers is a note informing Ngaturipure that the director will try his best to land him the role of Othello. Just from the song title we are told, in unequivocal terms, that Ngaturipure is no more reconciled with the theater community nor society in general by the end of the film. After all, the director seeks to give Ngaturipure the role of a black man, essentially typecasting him based solely on his skin color. “Parasite” is an epithet that can conceivably be used by people such as the neo-Nazis who violently beat Ngaturipure in the subway. The song title evokes society’s sentiments regarding people of color and foreign descent, but the song lyrics, containing lines such as “Take a look you may see me on the ground/For I am the parasite of this town,” with their first person perspective raise questions of the internalization of racism and oppression, of just how often can people be abused and insulted before they start believing that they deserve it. In the context of the short film, the lyrics are completely ironic, but in Angst essen Seele auf, the lines “And take a look you may see me in the dirt/For I am the parasite who hangs from your skirt” resonate with Emmi’s behavior, who, after coming back from vacation with Ali, begins to treat him no longer as an equal, but as a foreigner whose foreign ways must be made to conform to local norms. For Emmi, it seems that the only way to escape ostracization is to become the oppressor: she treats Ali like a servant, asking him to carry her neighbor’s belongings into the basement; she scolds him for wanting to eat couscous; and she objectifies his body by inviting her female neighbors to feel his muscles, without even asking for his permission. Her interactions with her neighbors and her coworkers fall into a power play dynamic, in which someone dominates and someone submits. And since strength is found in numbers, and the popular sentiment at the time was decidedly anti-foreigner, Emmi is always isolated and excluded. Yet, as she tells him repeatedly throughout the film, Emmi needs Ali. She needs him because he is the only one who does not use her class and age to feel superior, but instead embraces who she is until gradually her insecurities start to fade away.
In the beginning of the film, Emmi enters a bar and everyone fixes cold, hard stares on her. Already the staging sets up an atmosphere of judgment and division, Emmi against the rest of them. There is no verbal confrontation, no communication. Rather, the gaze is accompanied by silence, further deepening the separation between the two parties. With Ali, however, the distance is immediately closed when he asks her to dance. They dance arm in arm, facing only each other, as the other bar patrons gaze passively on at them. Emmi and Ali’s relationship is a strange and warm mixture of physical and emotional support. The first night he spends at her apartment he once again closes a distance between them by entering her room. They speak of sleeplessness and fears, and he caresses her arm, closing the final gap between them, the physical separation between individual human beings.
A question that the film raises is how independent can a person really be? Emmi says that she only needs Ali, but she and the audience know that cannot be true. One cannot live in isolation. There are different kinds of isolation. There is the kind that Emmi faces before she meets Ali: rarely talking to people, on cordial but impersonal terms with her neighbors, coworkers, and children. She feels ashamed of her job and keeps to herself because of it, not confident enough in herself to feel worthy of love or friendship. This, then, is a kind of learned self-isolation. It shrivels up the spirit until one cannot readily connect with another, even when that person is right in front of you, as when Emmi and Ali are first standing by the doorway, Emmi speaking to one side, gazing into the distance, while Ali stands on her other side, seeing only her back. Her loneliness exists in the lack of eye contact, in the words directed at no one in particular; it has become a habit, she has learned to survive by herself. But that cannot be called independence. Another type of isolation is one that is compelled by fear. I’m happy but also scared, Emmi tells Ali. He tells her that fear is no good—fear eats the soul. Emmi’s neighbors, coworkers, and children are consumed by a xenophobia that causes them to discriminate and exclude. And Emmi, fearing ostracization, fearing abandonment, begins to adopt their fears, which eventually poison her love for Ali and cause her to push him away, isolating the source of her fear, which happens to be the source of her happiness as well. In the game of social power play, being in love makes you vulnerable and dependent. But it also means, as in Emmi’s case, that she becomes one half of a whole, for better or worse. This means that when she is alone, she is not really alone because she is living and fighting for both her own and someone else’s sake, able to draw on reserves of strength outside of herself. This becomes apparent in the dispute with the grocer. An insult to Ali becomes an insult to her. They married because they faced the same struggle with isolation, and they separated because at a certain point she stopped looking at Ali and started looking back at the people always staring at her. She neglected the one she loved and paid more attention to the people who could never truly love her back.
In the end, Emmi and Ali are reunited and dance together as one unit. But just as fear had eaten away at Emmi, weakening the bonds of her relationship to Ali, so social pressures ate away at Ali, literally: he is hospitalized with a perforated stomach ulcer. “Happens a lot with foreign workers,” the doctor says, “it’s all the stress.” As Emmi sits in the hospital with Ali who is lying unconscious in bed, there is a tender atmosphere of reconciliation and unity once more, but the cyclical nature of Ali’s ailment (“he’ll heal, but he’ll be back here in six months,” the doctor says) places this moment of peace in a context of ongoing strife.
Indeed, twenty-eight years later, in 2002, Shahbaz Noshir made a short film based on personal experiences with racially-motivated violence. Angst isst Seele auf takes a different approach to the issues that Angst essen Seele auf raises. First, there is the intertextual title of the short film that places it in direct dialogue with Fassbinder’s film. The tweaked, allusive title resonates significantly with the past and also provides us with a contemporary perspective and commentary on the original work. Noshir’s title is markedly grammatically correct. What does this say about the growth and evolution of the ways in which we talk about language, migrant culture, and racism? What does it say about how Fassbinder’s film has aged? Angst isst Seele auf is much more unobtrusive as a title than Angst essen Seele auf. If the latter represents Ali’s voice, the voice of the migrant worker, then what if we said the same about the former? Perhaps the migrant worker (or his children or his children’s children) has assimilated more into society. He is now fluent in German. Yet language barriers were never the sole issue when it came to societal acceptance of foreigners—or lack thereof. Ngaturipure speaks perfect German, was born in Germany, and has a job as a stage actor, i.e. he is not a working class laborer as the stereotype of the foreigner often dictates. But none of these facts matter when he encounters people who only see his skin color. Visceral and ingrained, prejudice does not take into account that one is a German citizen or that one’s identity is not just skin deep. This applies not only to the neo-Nazi thugs who beat Ngaturipure in the subway, but also to the director at the end who, with perfectly good intentions, pigeonholes Ngaturipure into a racial category, subordinating his skills as an actor to his status as a man of color.
One way Noshir intervenes with this unconscious formation of racial prejudice is by filming from a point-of-view shot. We see through Ngaturipure’s eyes. Noshir removes almost all visual cues of race, excepting Ngaturipure’s hand, which is the only part of him that we see in the film. The audience is thus denied the opportunity to judge and essentialize Ngaturipure based on his appearance. This marks one of the greatest differences in Noshir’s approach, as compared to Fassbinder’s. Whereas in Angst essen Seele auf we are invited to objectify Ali’s body along with everyone else, the first person perspective of Angst isst Seele auf facilitates a more personal connection with the protagonist. We are no longer the third party watching from a distance; the gap between audience and character is closed, and a strong connection is built from the start. Noshir’s film seeks to create empathy where Fassbinder’s sought alienation.
Most intriguing, perhaps, is Noshir’s exploration of the relationships between film and theater, past and present, actor and character, reality and fiction. By turning Angst essen Seele auf into play in which Ngaturipure stars, Noshir raises several questions about the nature of the world of Ali and Emmi and its relation to the world that Ngaturipure inhabits and which we, the audience, are invited to enter. Actress Brigitte Mira makes an appearance the short film, but it becomes unclear whether it is a fictionalized Brigitte Mira dancing on that stage with Ngaturipure or Emmi. A similar effect was achieved in Angst essen Seele auf with the decision to make Ali’s real name El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha given the fact that the actor who plays Ali is named El Hedi ben Salem. The crossover and carryover of names raises the question of just how much of Ali is a role and how much is reality? When Mira/Emmi says onstage that her husband is long dead, a wave of grief passes over her face that looks very real. Is it Brigitte Mira saying Emmi’s lines, or is it Emmi recalling her past life? If the latter, is she referring to her Polish first husband or to Ali?
This scene on the stage, then, occupies all sorts of liminal spaces, bringing the story of Emmi and Ali closer and closer to the audience. In the staging of a scene from a film in a theater production, one level of separation between audience and character, that of the screen, is removed. Emmi and Ali become flesh and blood people walking the floorboards. The 1974 story, moreover, is resurrected and renewed in profound ways by the blurring of real and performed identity. After all, there is no clear line between what one does because of social indoctrination and what one does in a manifestation of pure agency. Mira/Emmi simultaneously calls the audience’s attention her role and performance as an actress while breathing life into Emmi in a way that draws the audience in, getting people to empathize and sympathize with her on a very personal level. In fact, Mira/Emmi acts as the linchpin of this scene, holding together the overlapping theatrical and cinematic (both of Angst essen and Angst isst)realities. When Ngaturipure enters the scene, bloodied and beaten, he is both himself and Ali. The beating he received was meant both for him and for Ali. Violence is not confined by spatial or temporal boundaries. By allowing actors to embody characters, collapsing and conflating multiple identities on stage, Noshir captures the unique, individual nature of these stories of violence and everyday oppression while also conveying the cyclical, repetitive nature of these incidents. The theater is particularly effective in embodying this almost paradoxical phenomenon. A stage performance happens in real time, the moment is ephemeral, yet the performance is repeated for several nights. The audience can see history repeating itself on stage.