1974, 93 min. Not Rated – some nudity
The 73rd Virgin says... A 60-ish German lady, Emmi, walks into a bar to get out of the rain. It’s an Arab bar with a German barmaid and the whole place pulses with director/screenwriter Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s beloved red color. Across the room customers stare at her with detachment. On a dare Mr. El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha, or just Ali, asks her to dance. Ali is a dismissive generic term for Arabs, not as insulting as, say, “darkie”, but maybe closer to “boy”. He is polite, courtly, and rather kind. There is no sexual tension. She’s as homely as a mud fence. They dance to “The Black Gypsy”.
But being a gentleman he escorts her home in the rain and she invites him up for brandy and coffee. The neighbors certainly notice. And Ali’s no fool. His expression here is priceless. All of your darkest fears, or something, staring down the steps at you.
Although she comes from a family of Nazi party members, she is a bit of a free spirit. Her long-dead husband was a Polish foreign worker; her children come to see her but seem to care very little. They talk as if neither of them has had a satisfying conversation in months and so rather than send him a long way home in the rain she fixes up a bed.
They are both deathly lonely. Well, maybe there was a little sexual tension. In the morning she is momentarily horrified but within days they are in love.
After this unexpected beginning the movie turns to more familiar turf describing the almost monolithic societal and familial rejection of the couple. Arabs respond better than Germans. Men respond a little better than women of either race. Only the youngish landlord Mr. Gruber is tolerant once he discovers she is not subletting the apartment. Along the way she almost inadvertently proposes.
She honorably calls her children together to introduce them. They respond poorly. Fassbinder is the ugly little son-in law with the droopy moustache second from left. His slow pan across the faces of all four and then his arrangement of the four at the table, and the silence, builds the tension in what could have been a predictable scene. One son is framed in red as his jaw muscles pulsate. You might also notice the expression on Emmi’s face as she questions why they think she might be ill. It perfectly communicates a mother’s knowledge that she knows her children too well.
Much of the acting seems deliberately still and formal although Brigitte Mira as Emmi is very good, with youthful body language trapped in a boxy old body wrapped in garish polyester. El Hedi ben Salem was not a professional actor but he is warm, and his woodenness works as a stranger in a strange land.
Emmi thinks that things might improve if she and Ali go on a long trip to let things cool down, and she is right. When they return the tension subsides and neighbors at least begin to tolerate the marriage and even to admire how handy it is to have big, strong Moroccan around. And one son needs a favor.
And here is where the movie achieves its specialness. With society no longer arrayed against them, they begin to turn into a fairly typical couple with all the little slights that mean nothing when it’s you & me against the world, but that become a source of irritation when it’s just you & me. She’s a bit bossy and dismissive, and doesn’t care much about his desire for home-cooked couscous. Being a free spirit does not guarantee being unselfish. He responds childishly by staying out late drinking and finding couscous – and whatnot – where he can. In a crushing scene, when a joke is made at her expense, he laughs.
But hatred takes energy and they already work hard at menial jobs. And fear and loneliness are even worse. Fassbinder places them at the bar three times. First, as strangers, then as newlyweds, and then as weary adults who need some peace. And there it ends almost. There is no violence, no death, a little illness, and no real shouting and pointing. And it’s one of the sadder movies I’ve seen.
Sort of the anti-Valentine.
P.S. Fassbinder made at least 40 full-length movies in 15 years. He reportedly made this in 15 days. Ebert provides background on the sad real-life epilogue of Fassbinder and El Hedi ben Salem. If my review seems to follow his, well, it’s not a complicated story.