Saturday, August 24, 2013

Angst essen Seele auf / Vokzal dlya dvoikh

The Cold War wasn't so much war anymore at the time; it was simply cold. Even when it was to flare up, that was to happen in farflung, exotic-sounding and goddamned lands of Afghanistan and the like, not really closer home like the politically Eastern Europe. Newer issues had come up: oil had become the most important thing. Countries like France, Italy and Germany experienced or rather invited a boom of immigrants, many from North Africa; the old noble idea of democracy as conceptualized in Athens had now become the American dream, wherein mediocrity was celebrated and even worshipped; slowly, and inexorably, this would guide the flood-like wave of individualism, a cancer soon to spread all over the world. And with individualism came its issues: that of loneliness, and the idea that man loves another only to run away from his or her loneliness; or rather, is forced to. Around that hidden idea somewhere developed films focused on 'monologues' of a pair of lovers, a family, and so on: the family thing happened more in the US, where films were made showing a family coping with a son's death/drugs problem/etc. (curiously, it was more often son than daughter). Rarely, a Love Story came along, too. In Europe, in a trend that has since continued, it was more about a couple or relationships: while Antonioni deplored the modern, fragmented inner world of a man, some others accepted it as a fatality, and it is there that belong the films Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eat Soul Up, 1974) and Vokzal dlya dvoikh (known as A Railway Station for Two, 1982), the former German, the latter Russian.

The beauty about Antonioni is that he refuses to accept that there is any permanent salvation in the individualistic man's pursuit of and refuge in romantic love; the answer has to be beyond, since the malaise is in individualism. While many find Antonioni's films pessimistic, I find them optimistic. Rather, I find the two films meant to be the subject of this post as given to fatalism, as pessimistic. Emmi and Ali in Fear Eats the Soul (the grammatically correct title by which the film is strangely better known) are beings eaten away by loneliness: and they think of each other as the messiah who's come into their lives to save them from this utter loneliness, this atmosphere of veneer and civility wherein lurk only prejudices all the more sharpened by the values taught by some civilisation's mores. The same is the case in Station for Two: Vera and Platon here reprising the roles. There is nothing to fault in the stories themselves; woven with humour, an observant eye of the world surrounding, and great or at least adequate performances from most characters, the films are in their own right little gems, depicting authentic slices of life as lived by probably hundreds or thousands, or more, in though different guises, different costumes. Yet, a thought occurs, that there is no question asked that is not rhetorical, there is no transcending: they are good, decent films, being lovely stories, yet they lack what makes a story truly great: finding the answer. The viewer is rather invited to enter the tedium of these characters and swim into it, and self-identify with that: and at the most paint a critical, intelligent-looking picture of what all she or he views, as does Haneke to take an example. Yet, man's intelligence is surely bound for greater destinations than mere observing and analyzing? Analysis is not the goal in itself; sadly, with the modern academics taking analysis itself to be the goal (which they call as "research"), films have not been far behind.

Fear Eats the Soul does portray Germany, especially that of the '70s, quite effectively: the immigrant from Maghreb is still very much the Other in white countries like France and Germany. However, what Fassbinder does well is to portray also how Emmi also experiences the hostile othering gaze when she is among circles not of her class: the opening scene when she enters the bar and everyone looks at her is a classic, exaggerated, lovely scene; later on, it will happen again when she will go to confront Ali at his workplace: this time, it's more economic class distinctions acting (even if Emmi is herself poor, she is German looking, white, and not looking a junkie: hence, for the stranger, she represents respectability, which Ali, even if earning more than Emmi, doesn't; rather Ali, the dark man, means filth, pig, squalor, muscles, hard cock). However, by selecting an actor who doesn't act well to play Ali, Fassbinder may have only reinforced some stereotypes; the only thing that the director has surely done is to show that whites (Germans) can be and often are themselves filth. That is, whiteness has got nothing to do with how dirty - or how clean - you are from inside. However, it is not clear if blackness has got to do something with it or not; Ali doesn't inspire much confidence, especially because of poor acting skills of the actor playing Ali. The film however has to be watched for the superlative acting of Brigitte Mira, playing Emmi.

Another great performance, again by the woman protagonist, Lyudmila Gurchenko, playing Vera, marks Station for Two. On appearances, the two women cannot be more different: while Vera plays a street-smart, gutsy waitress, Emmi is a humble, meek old woman who wants to be integrated into the world around her at every step. Yet, Emmi is as strong as Vera: she married a Polish, against her Hitler-loving father; she excuses her father's memory of Hitler loyalist almost immediately by claiming herself also to have been in the party; she marries Ali in spite of the reactions and keeps trying to go through it, and maybe her own self-doubts at the start. For, probably, in the memorable scene when her coworkers are introduced at first, it is her doubts speaking about the foreigners, rather than her coworkers. And Vera, for all her apparent meanness, is as soft from inside, as much in want of being loved, as Emmi; she is rootless, working in a place where people come and go, and all you have is a nice fuck with a man who comes now and then. But this fornication doesn't give her any company; when she sees another such soul, alone inside but outwardly busy in a bourgeois world, the pianist Platon, she will go even to the prison camps with him; just as Emmi will resolve to protect Ali from stress again if she can. That said, Station for Two does paint certainly a rosier picture of romance than does Fear Eats the Soul. That might be because the latter has one of the protagonists, Ali, whom we are ambiguous about: we also can't trust him!

We do not know the endings of these stories; they do not matter. They are your or mine stories. The ordinary man has triumphed; these films are not about momentous events of history, though history is certainly influencing their life courses. But the films are about hope, fear, stupidity, jealousy, meanness, generosity, altruism, love, irrationality; they are about eating couscous and changing trains. What these films do not set out to achieve, however, is finding the, or a, meaning beyond: they are content contemplating.