‘Christmas,’ exclaims Louisa. “My Favourite Things,” a song from the infamously jolly movie musical The Sound of Music, reflects the bucolic existences of the nun turned governess Maria Rainer (Julie Andrews), and the kids get this too, Marta naming pussy willow (?) as one of her favourite things. She’d fit in well in Berlin. Liesl (Charmian Carr) names ‘telegrams,’ not just indicating Rolf, the creepy boy who sends them, but she also breaks the pastoral spell and naming something modern and technological. She’s becoming a modern woman, a potential improvement on Maria herself.
Kurt names ‘snakes,’ reminding Maria of his earlier pranks with her and showing that the kids aren’t devoid of personality after all. I’ve been watching movies where the main/’supporting’ characters listen to others to understand them, simply enough. Later in the film, a wet Maria shows her master Captain Georg (Christopher Plummer) that she’s been doing her homework with the kids and that she’s one step ahead of him.
This movie’s very much maligned, a friend of mine actually saying that if William Wyler directed the thing, the film would be more veracious with its time. And he’s not alone. But this movie is set in 1938. It accurately portrays an antebellum, when characters declare war through whispers, speculations and accusations, when the rich worry about their trifles and of what’s to come. Georg spanking his children is potentially as frightening as the Nazi ‘spider’ banners. It’s just as human to see joy in frightful times, while it’s insulting if a movie about say, our times is full of characters who are constantly depressed. A movie, like a nation, is allowed to reimagine its Arcadian past while anticipating is future, right?
Lastly, I don’t know if it’s just me, but the reprise for “The Sound of Music” sounds like it could fit well within a Summer of Love setting or concert. But then Captain had to ruin it, but not as much as these guys did.
‘I pass by here every evening and hear the foreign music.’ These words are from an old, unassuming Emmi (Brigitte Mira) tells a hostile, word-down Brigitte Bardot copycat of a barmaid inthe first scene of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali – Fear Eats the Soul. These first words set the film portraying Berlin as a city at odds with each other. Berlin has traces of multiculturalism, a pan-Islamic enclave in the city attracting Emmi, a Polish man’s widow. Emmi, a cleaning lady, dances with Ali, a 35ish Moroccan man who’s just as lonely in a big city as he is.
Then there’s the Berlin and Germany that works against this multiculturalism, that coincides with its reputation. The Hitler references aren’t here for nothing. As Emmi and Ali’s romance blossom, gossipy neighbors, coworkers, family members and others around them talk about the couple negatively. These characters also don’t shy away from using their races and non-Germanness against them. The other cleaning ladies talk about other women who have been in relationships like hers, giving the audience an impression that this is more prevalent and apparently, looked down upon. Emmi’s daughter Krista (Irm Hermann) calls her a pig, a slur she also fittingly calls her own lazy husband, Eugen (Fassbinder). It’s also jarring to watch these people call a 60-year-old woman a whore. The racist characters can also be harsher version of the audience, making the latter wonder about their own reactions and possible objections to the couple being together. Yes, they marry for the wrong reasons and their relationship is based on completing each other instead of complementing each other, but I can only imagine other couples getting married the same way or worse.
Fassbinder visual style has been described as opulent, reflecting the multicultural subject matter of this film as well as the colour choices seen in his ouevre. The camera angles in this film also interest me. Emmi and Ali’s first dance looks like it’s shot from the back of a chair. The gossipy neighbour’s head maliciously popping out of her window. Sometimes scenes between the couple are shot while slightly obscured by a corner of a hallway, or from far away. Or stairway railings between Emmi or Ali or Emmi’s eldest son and the camera. Sometimes the main characters are seen through mirrors instead of directly by the camera. It’s as if, like the neighbor, we’re watching this story unfold, peeping at the characters intimate revelations.
There’s also this ‘Twilight Zone’ effect when the other characters decide, with a few words, to accept this unlikely couple. I also felt said effect when no one apologizes for their past actions except for Emmi’s eldest. Perhaps I’m overreading, but the change is all the more jarring since it seems like these other characters will do the same routine to another couple. Nonetheless, the pain they have caused, as well as other emotions within the couple, help cause a strain in the relationship. Ali realizes that this marriage didn’t make him less lonely nor objectified, Emmi slightly adapts the racist attitudes of her peers and treats her trophy husband as a body instead of a living soul. They work through their problems, Ali remembering his devotion for her, she realizes she hasn’t been a saint all the time. They go through more hurdles, reminding them that the happiness, although impossible through separation, is still difficult to achieve in a loving partnership.