Thursday, February 17, 2011
German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder experienced an epiphany back in the early ‘70s when he attended a retrospective of the movies of Douglas Sirk, a Hollywood director with German roots. Fassbinder emerged into the daylight a changed man and immediately started typing out a now infamous essay expressing his newfound love for Sirk’s brand of Technicolor melodrama.
Fassbinder also began pouring Sirk all over his own movies like syrup over pancakes. In “Martha,” he had his title character take up residence on “Sirk Street.” Sirk’s distinctive visual style would permeate all of Fassbinder’s subsequent work. This is where his particular uses of color and his fascination with mirrors originated for instance.
Fassbinder’s most overt response to Sirk was “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” a close remake of one of Sirk’s most popular and endearing movies “All That Heaven Allows.” I regard it as one of two or three of Fassbinder’s finest movies and easily the best place to start for the Fassbinder uninitiated. (Many of his other movies are, face it, pretty darn weird. This one is a pure, though sad, joy.)
Both movies center on an upper-middle-aged and recently widowed woman. They both meet and fall in love with a younger man and they – society being an unforgiving creature – both pay dearly for their recklessness. The “forbidden” nature of their loves varies between the two movies.
In “Heaven Allows,” Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her well-muscled gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Her high society friends all immediately shun her for allowing a man, a lowly man, who can only possibly be after her for her money, into her life. Her grown children disown her. She sees no way to go live a happy life in Kirby’s renovated water mill and keep her friends and family.
“Fear Eats the Soul” has Emmi (Brigitte Mira) falling in love at first sight with Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem, Fassbinder’s lover at the time). Ali is an Arabic auto mechanic who offers her a dance in a bar on a rain-soaked night. Her friends and grown children shun her as well. After all, all this “animal” could possibly want from her is money and sex.
The plots follow almost identical trajectories, but re-watching them both recently highlighted one key difference. In Sirk’s movie, Kirby, a man who tries to live a life as portrayed in Thoreau’s “Walden,” fails ironically to apply it to his relationship with Cary. He comes across as selfish. But Ali has none of these qualities and comes across as one of the movie’s most perfectly selfless characters.
This has the effect of shifting the blame from something shared between man and society in the earlier movie to something owned solely by the society, still haunted by the Munich Olympics murders of 1972. Ali is persecuted simply for his race. In these post 9/11 days, the movie is painfully more relevant than ever.
I said this pairing made “most of a dream come true” because my complete fantasy would be to share these two movies along with Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” and the delightfully endearing zombie movie “Fido.” Both are remakes of the Sirk classic as well. But that would take up a third of our series, and that we just can’t allow.