Emmi Kurowski, a cleaning lady, is lonely in her old age. Her husband died years ago, and her grown children offer little companionship. One night she goes to a bar frequented by Arab immigrants and strikes up a friendship with middle-aged mechanic Ali. Their relationship soon develops into something more, and Emmi's family and neighbors criticize their spontaneous marriage. Soon Emmi and Ali are forced to confront their own insecurities about their future.
The original title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1974 film "Fear Eats the Soul" is deliberately ungrammatical German: ANGST ESSEN SEELE AUF "Fear Eat Soul". That is due to one of the two protagonists we meet: Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a Moroccan immigrant working in Munich. He toils as a car repairman and has learned some very basic German, but he has been hindered from assimilating to German and fully learning the language by both lack of time and a German society that deliberately keep his kind at arm's length. But one night at a pub, he meets by chance Emmi (Brigitte Mira) a 60-something widow. They dance and Emmi falls in love with this tall, dark, and handsome stranger who makes her feel feelings again after so many years. Ali's own thoughts and motivations remain more mysterious, but he too seems to have been wracked with loneliness, and he recognizes in this woman two decades his senior a soulmate. The result is initially a very idiosyncratic romantic comedy. Sadly, as an opening title of the film reads, "Happiness is not always happy". The flip side of this couple's burgeoning love is the suspicion, jealousy, fear, and hatred that Emmi and Ali encounter from the citizens around them. Emmi's neighbours gossip and disparage her for bringing "trash" into their block of flats; Emmi's adult children reject her new partner; and the local grocer refuses to serve Ali. The drama of the film is Emmi and Ali's attempts to weather this storm of social rejection and make their relationship work. Some small hope remains in a handful of Munich people who see nothing wrong with this couple. The acting here is memorable. El Hedi ben Salem was not a professional actor. In fact, he was one of Fassbinder's lovers, the two met in a bathhouse in Paris. Yet El Hedi ben Salem's awkwardness on screen actually fits his role perfectly, because Ali is ill at ease and unsure of what to do in this foreign land he has immigrated to. Most of the strong acting demands are placed on Brigitte Mira, a veteran of German film and television for decades, and she pulls this off marvelously. So much poignant emotion of a woman ruing the racism of her peers, or alive with love again after years of solitude, are expressed purely through her eyes, which Fassbinder often emphasizes with long camera takes. Fassbinder himself appears as Emmi's son-in-law (married to Emmi's daughter played by Irm Hermann, a stalwart of this director's productions), and though he gets little screen time, Fassbinder's facial expressions and sardonic dialogue are delightful. Yet, in spite of its curiously heartwarming romantic pairing and touching plot about two lovers against a cruel world, ANGST ESSEN SEELE AUF is not a perfect film. In the latter part of his film, Fassbinder seems uncertain of his point. In a bitter turn, he upends the romance we had become used to for a much more pessimistic view of human relationships where the original theme of racism and intolerance seems forgotten, or at least firmly pushed aside. He then ends the film at an arbitrary point, as if unable to come up with anything more conclusive. Nonetheless, this is a classic film and worth seeing. One can also appreciate just how well Fassbinder anticipated here the cinema of Aki Kaurismäki with its characters who are "losers", the cold stares of onlookers, and the awkwardness of it all.