Ever since I became violently nauseated a long time ago while watching a film of the great German director Rainer Fassbinder, I’ve been fascinated by him. At the time, I took it as a sign of his genius that I got sick to my stomach. When I recovered from that and went again to another of his films I thought it was the jumpy camera work shooting from one thing to another that hurt my eyes. Then I just didn’t know why, but I stayed away from his films. Years went by. A couple months ago I saw Fear Eats Soul Up (Angst Essen Seele Auf) on streaming video and got hooked all over again.
Fear Eats Soul Up was influenced by Douglas Sirk’s 1954 Hollywood film All that Heaven Allows with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. Fassbinder said that he “transcribed” his film from All That Heaven Allows. He meant that he told his own story on the basis of his experience of the Douglas Sirk film.
I like knowing about the power of Douglas Sirk’s film-making influence over Rainer Fassbinder. It reminds me that great innovators like Fassbinder, who have squeezed the slave out of themselves, also have people who influenced their style. I was especially curious because Rainer Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk seemed an unlikely match. The characters in Fear Eats the Soul Up are from the lower classes; All That Heaven Allows are middle and upper-middle class people. The violence and brutality that would be unthinkable in the Sirk film drift around the edges of the Fassbinder scenes, sometimes erupting without a flicker of warning.
What did Fassbinder see in the Sirk film? I got a DVD of All That Heaven Allows, and prepared to have the mesmerizing psychological experience that Fassbinder had.
All That Heaven Allows took two hours. I couldn’t see the slightest reason for Fassbinder to be so taken. Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, thick loud cartoon colors, schmaltzy music. I liked it but it had nothing near the power of the Fassbinder. Obviously, Fassbinder saw something that I didn’t. He watched the same images, but he had a different experience.
I thought my head off to understand the huge effect of the Sirk film on Fassbinder. But I didn’t get it. As long as I kept thinking I must see what Fassbinder saw, everything was bewildering and unclear. But as soon as I said to myself, Fassbinder saw something that I didn’t, the mist dropped away and all became clear.
Fassbinder’s films are about outsiders who do not want to get in. The world of power, advantage, money and success has nothing to do with the essence of their souls.
Sirk’s films are about insiders who do not want to get out. The world of power, advantage, money and success is the essence of their souls.
What is All That Heaven Allows really about? It’s about absolutely nothing more than a crisis in the lives of people leading very comfortable lives. The crisis has nothing to do with what life has done to them. Nor are the film’s criticisms of wealth and power intended to show what the world they embody have done to Rock and Jane. When the crisis is resolved, the bluebird of happiness reappears.
What is Fear Eats Soul Up really about? It’s about what their lives have done to Emmi and Ali. It’s about absolutely nothing less than people trying to have a life when it’s too late.