So I'm going through one of those periods where I'm a little bored with watching movies, am way behind in writing reviews, and have a number of movies I've watched the beginning of and can't muster interest in watching the rest. I had a bunch of crap from Netflix at home [all of which I've watched half of], and I decided damn it, I was in the mood for something GOOD. So I browse the Criterion section of my local video store and end up with this, based on my enjoyment of Fox and His Friends and wish to see more Fassbinder.
One other thing to know about this movie is that Fassbinder had recently seen Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, and apparently been blown away by how Sirk was able to create a melodrama that was rich with social, psychological and political threads. This film is richly informed by that one and follows its basic outline [it also inspired Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven], and while it's not necessary to be familiar with that film to get a lot out of this one, it will add quite a bit to your perspective.
Okay! So we open with saying: "Happiness is not always fun." Then we have the credits, which, you might find interesting to know, contain a purposeful grammatical error to literally read "Feat eat soul," which is more in line with how non-native German speaker Ali might say it. So then we're in this bar that caters to Moroccan immigrant workers, where we see the tall El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder's lover at the time, as Ali. Like many Muslims, he has a long name that he shortens to "Ali" for easier use among Europeans. A woman there wants him to come home with her, as he apparently has before, but he says he can't: "Cock broken." Then this dowdy older German woman comes in and sits at the table by the door, far from everyone. She says she just came in from the rain. The patrons stare at her [get used to several shots of groups of people staring] and generally mock her. They jokingly suggest that Ali go ask her to dance, which he does.
She accepts, here comes the first kind of miraculous thing, when she stands and removes her dowdy jacket to reveal a brilliantly colored dress underneath. If you think it shows how there's a complex, colorful person inside this drab exterior, you might be right! It's obvious, but it works. They go dance, and talk. Emmi, the woman, talks to Ali, asks him about his work, doesn't condescend to him, and seriously engages with him as a person. He says that in Germany, "Moroccans not human," especially since the Munich bombing of 1972. When they return to the table, Ali pays for her drink. When Emmi protests, he says "You talk good Ali, Ali pay cola." This is important because it indicates her attraction for him: she takes him seriously and listens to him. He walks her home [the bar patrons are mortified that he has actually begun to like the old woman], and soon comes up and they talk more. She tells him she works as a cleaning lady, and that her family were Nazis! She says that she barely sees her kids anymore, and Ali says "In Morocco, mother never left alone." It's obvious that she also treasures someone to talk with. As it's late, she soon asks him to stay.
He can't sleep and comes into her room in the night to talk. He rubs her arm and says "Ali much alone." Then--fade out! When we come back, Ali is nude in bed and Emmi is shocked! She gets up and goes to the bathroom, disconcerted. Ali appears in the door, and we're just waiting for Emmi to say they must never mention this to anyone or something like that when--they embrace! They eat breakfast together, and here is where he introduces the Arab saying that you can't live in fear because "Fear eats the soul."
Already it is easy to see the bond between them; they're both lonely, forgotten people, and both of them speak and listen to the other as though they're a real human being. Emmi, who pooh-poohed Ali's statement that Moroccans are "not human" in Germany, quickly learns that he is correct when her fellow cleaning ladies discussing other cases of older women who have taken up with Moroccans, and how "some women will stoop to anything," and these women are "filthy whores," the underlying assumption that all the women want is sex. The women who live in Emmi's building are all scandalized and call the landlord to kick her out. Soon the two of them decide to get married. Emmi tells her kids, and they are horrified and betrayed, one of them kicking in her television. Remember when I mentioned the many shots of groups of people staring appalled at them, we get that from Emmi's family, the people in the bar, the staff of restaurants, etc.
SPOILERS > > >
One day Emmi and Ali are sitting in an outdoor cafe--the staff all staring at them from afar without serving them [I must also mention that the shots here are breathtakingly beautiful]--and Emmi says that she pretends not to care what others say, but she does care. She says they should go on vacation, and when they come back, everything will be better and people will be nice to them.
The weird thing is, when they come back, everything IS better and people are nice to them. This is where you start to wonder what is happening and if we have suddenly flipped into some kind of fantasy world or something. The neighbors are suddenly nice, the shopkeeper who wouldn't serve them relents, the son who kicked in her TV is going to buy her a new one. Of course, each of them want favors from her. But something strange is happening with Emmi as well. She's ordering ALi around like a servant, telling him to change his shirt, and letting her friends talk about him like he isn't there. It's enough to drive him into the arms of the bartender. Anyway, I won't tell you the ending, but if you've seen All That Heaven Allows you might have an idea what's coming. Although I will say the final scene took me by surprise--I was expecting more wrap-up, and had that moment of "What? That's it?"
< < < SPOILERS END
It's very good. The key that makes it work is that it is easy to understand the connection between Emmi and Ali--that they talk and listen to each other as no one else does--and it is possible to comprehend how this would overcome their age and racial differences [although it must be noted, evidenced by certain IMDb comments, that some do not understand the nature of their relationship at all]. We also just have to accept Emmi's blindness to the prejudice against Moroccans in her society--her fellow cleaning ladies NEVER discussed it before this day? When they all of a sudden won't drop the topic?--but it nevertheless works to show her open heart and humanity. It is also ironically leavened by details such as making sure we know Emmi and her family were Nazis--so while she is open and accepting of one race, we know she might feel quite differently about others. And this, in itself enriches the complexities here, which helps to overcome the fable-like nature of the story: It casts prejudice as little more than the result of one's circumstances and upbringing, and doesn't let its main characters off the hook. Don't forget that discrimination toward Emmi and Ali only fades when the former perpetrators WANT something. So Fassbinder continues to be a harsh and exacting deconstructor of the impulses that go into what might go unquestioned as "morality."
Wrapped up in all this, although never a main driver, is that Fassbinder is gay and we can imagine that he has experienced hatred and discrimination of his own--at least the several shots of groups staring in appalled horror don't seem to just spring from nowhere. They have the edge of arising from personal experience.
Finally, the film is technically delghtful. Many of the shots are quite beautifully composed and constructed in terms of shapes and color. Anyone can appreciate the gorgeous colors of the large picture of the yellow garden chairs against the green of the overhanging trees, but also look at the comparatively drab shot of Emmi sitting on the stairs. First, we have the rails and pipes in front of her, emphasizing her isolation, but also a beautiful use of color with the beige background and the two ribbons of red running bottom to top. This could easily be reduced into a Barnett Newman painting. Furthermore, when the new cleaning lady is later being isolated in the same way Emmi is here, she is placed in the same position on the stairs, in the same shot setup. One also notices throughout that Fassbinder uses his compositions quite expressively, and that, for example, we'll often get a new shot with objects placed between characters when a new tension has developed, or suchlike.
So there you are, a deeply felt and emotionally-moving film that is also harshly moral and psychologically-penetrating, as well as beautifully and carefully-made. That's it: I need to watch even more Fassbinder.
Yes, it's quite good in virtually every respect.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS is the Douglas Sirk film that laid the template for this film [as well as Far From Heaven] and familiarity with it enriches the experience of this one.