Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).
It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem الهادي بن سالم, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018).
Historical dramas based in the period during the 1940s when World War II was being fought are hardly rare, but what remains interesting about this piece, newly-restored and extended with material cut after its original release, is that it bases its focus on a German story, and specifically that of a German woman (reputedly based on that of the writer-director’s own mother). In many ways, she is the “pale mother” of the title, an allegorical representation of the country perhaps, and subject to the many whims of fate visited upon it by the men in the story. In the central role is Eva Mattes as Lene, the beautiful young wife of Hans (Ernst Jacobi) at the film’s outset; Hans is not a Party member but when war breaks out is nevertheless conscripted into the Army. Hans’s best friend on the other hand is very much a party apparatchik who gets a cushy job in Berlin and lords it over everyone in a petty way. The film focuses on Lene’s struggle to make it through the wartime period, first in the city and then out in the countryside where it is presumed to be safer. There is no big comeuppance for any of the characters, as they continue to muddle through after the war has ended. Yet for all that it is bleak, and for all that it presents a vision of Germany that is far from optimistic or hopeful, it is still made with a great deal of sensitivity and craft.
Director/Writer Helma Sanders-Brahms; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Eva Mattes, Ernst Jacobi; Length 151 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014.