Loving Fassbinder

Published in: November-December 2023 issue.


I PROBABLY HAD the same reaction as the rest of the audience in 1974 while watching Ali: Fear Eats the Soul for the first time. I must have been around fifteen or sixteen, being slowly introduced to arthouse film as my curiosity and passion for cinema grew, and I was beginning to hear the name of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In the film (Angst essen Seele auf in the original German) I was surprised by the Arab music I heard, and by the appearance of El Hedi ben Salem on the screen—tall, dark-skinned, and unmistakably Berber. Over the next hour and a half, I sat mesmerized by the beautiful magic of Fassbinder’s film, which was so simple yet so profound. Being Moroccan and seeing a Moroccan actor in such a wonderful film filled me with great pride and joy. The moment the credits rolled, I had to know more.

            The Arab star of the film, El Hedi ben Salem m’Barek Mohammed Mustapha, was born in 1935 in the midst of the French occupation of Morocco. He had an upbringing and an early adult life that were typical for the time, and they could not have foretold what the future held in store for him. He came from an old Berber tribe by the name of Haratin, which had small populations in Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Haratin are believed to be the descendants of former Sub-Saharan slaves. They are Muslims and known to be hard workers, taking jobs in agriculture, physical labor, and occasionally war. At the age of fifteen, Salem* married a thirteen-year-old girl, and together they settled in a small village near the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Very little is known about Salem’s life in Morocco, except that it was unremarkable for its time and place, and that he and his wife had five children.

            At the age of 36, Salem left his wife and children and headed for Europe, finding himself in France, where he met the person who would change his life forever, for better or for worse. He met Fassbinder in 1971 at a gay swimming pool in Paris, and they hit it off and started a romantic relationship, which meant that Salem had become part of the director’s infamous entourage.

            Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982) is a significantly more recognizable name than is El Hedi Ben Salem, and, in cinephile circles, he needs no introduction. As a director, actor, and playwright, he was one of the pioneers of the German New Wave in cinema, and he remains one of the most important names in German film history. Born in 1945 to a doctor father and a translator mother who split up shortly after his birth, he grew up with his mother and her many lovers, some of whom he quarreled with. Having a busy single mother meant that he grew up with very little company or authority, so the movie house became his babysitter.

            In Germany during World War II, all movie productions were strictly controlled by the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and all films made in that period were produced with the sole purpose of indoctrinating the masses. After 1945, Germany, like many other countries that participated in the war, started receiving American films that were made during the war. Having earned their profits back home, U.S. promoters exported these films at such low prices that they crushed any local competition. So, young Fassbinder grew up absorbing the works of Michael Curtiz, Orson Welles, and Douglas Sirk, watching at least one film a day throughout his childhood, sometimes up to four.

            In these years, he and his mother were often separated because she was recovering from tuberculosis, and he was looked after by friends and acquaintances. He got used to a certain freedom and became a young delinquent. He also came out as a homosexual at a very young age. He was sent to boarding school but left before his final exams at age fifteen, going to live with his father in Cologne. The two didn’t get along, but living with his father allowed him to immerse himself in the world of literature and drama while doing random jobs during the day to earn money. At age eighteen, he returned to Munich in order to attend night school in drama, which he did for two years.

            During that period, he met many people who would become permanent members of his clique and his team, and who would work with him for the remainder of his career, most notably Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann. He joined what was known as the Munich Action-Theater in 1967, which later became better known as the Anti-Theater, a group he quickly took over, something he accomplished through the force of attraction and fascination that he exerted over its members.

            Some of Fassbinder’s negative traits started to emerge, such as the manipulation and the emotional abuse to which he frequently subjected members of his entourage. At the director’s insistence, they all lived and ate together, a practice that lasted for many years. Fassbinder would reveal personal secrets about each particular member in front of the whole troupe, which consisted of fifty people or more, just to get an emotional response out of them. He would cast his actors based on favors and personal closeness to him, so they were always trying to get on his good side to ensure a role in his next project. He created a tense workspace in which actors graded each other, so there was always a lot of jealousy and rivalry. As the leader of the Anti-Theater, he directed many plays, notably his own Katzelmacher, which deals with the plight of foreign workers in postwar Germany. His directing style in the theater anticipated that of his earlier films, marked by robotic, stilted, emotionless delivery in melodramatic tales.

            While he had made a couple of earlier short films, Fassbinder didn’t get to direct his first feature film until 1969. The film was Love Is Colder Than Death, a gangster movie that imitates similar films from Hollywood from the 1930s up to the 1950s, starring himself as a criminal torn between his love for two women and his friendship with another man. Due to its slow pacing and its robotic acting, the film got very poor reviews at the Berlin International Film Festival that year. But before production was over, Fassbinder was already cast as the lead actor for Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal. Indeed, Fassbinder’s short career was marked by obsessive productivity. He made up to four or five films a year, and by his death at age 37, he had 44 film credits to his name.

El Hedi ben Salem in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974.

            He had his first national success with The Merchant of Four Seasons in 1972, but it was in 1974 that he made his breakout film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which was shot in fifteen days. It was only intended as a way to pass the time between two other projects, but it ended up winning the International Critics Prize at Cannes that year, and it introduced Fassbinder to international audiences for the first time. From then on, his films would be released internationally and often won major awards. Eventually, movie theaters around the world would organize retrospectives of his work, and he became a symbol of underground cinema everywhere.

            Fassbinder’s personal life was anything but a triumph and was always chaotic. Ever since his childhood, he had been outspokenly gay, though he had relations with a number of women. He was married for two years, to Ingrid Caven, who once said of him: “Rainer was a homosexual who also needed a woman. It’s that simple and that complex.” He also had many male lovers, something that West Germany wasn’t exactly thrilled by at this time. He became something of an antihero, often showing up in the press and ever the subject of rumors and scandals. Starting in the 1970s, when he became a heavy drug and alcohol user, he came to be seen as an “Antichrist” figure, which he played up in public.

            Coming from entirely different backgrounds, Salem and Fassbinder met by chance, and their story together is one to rival a Greek tragedy—full of love, hurt, art, and doom. After their 1971 meeting in Paris, they traveled back to Fassbinder’s home in Munich, where they started a passionate and turbulent affair. During the following year, Fassbinder would try to play father to two of Salem’s sons, an attempt that proved disastrous. One was sent back to Morocco in a confused state, and one got caught up in legal troubles due to paternal neglect, as his father was now entranced by his new lover. Salem was cast in minor roles in three of Fassbinder’s projects between 1972 and 1974, including two of his most celebrated works: The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) and World on a Wire (1973).

            In the following year, Salem took center stage as the title character, an immigrant worker, in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The film’s story is simple enough: an immigrant worker from Morocco gets together with an old cleaning lady from Germany, a widow with grown-up, married children. Their relationship culminates in marriage, one that defies all of postwar Germany’s social norms and prejudices. It’s a fascinating film that manages not only to criticize contemporary society and all its hatreds, including the remnants of fascist thinking, but also to paint a beautiful image of pure love that transcends seemingly insurmountable barriers. It’s not hard to see that the film is a reflection of Salem and Fassbinder’s relationship, taking the form of the latter’s doubts and insecurities as they creep into the narrative. The relationship devolves into a toxic dynamic in which the physical attractiveness of one partner crosses swords with the power and talent of the other. Nor was this dynamic unique to their relationship, for it was always the case with Fassbinder that his lovers had to live by his rules to secure a role in his next film.

            Fear Eats the Soul was a major success, but by the time it was released, Fassbinder and Salem’s relationship had started to go downhill. They made a couple more films together, notably Fox and His Friends (1975), a film shot in Marrakech, Morocco. Fox and His Friends starred Fassbinder as Fox, a naïve gay man working in a carnival who’s suddenly out of a job after his boss is arrested. He’s picked up by an older man, who takes him to a party where he first meets Eugen (played by Peter Chatel), a rich gay man who looks down on Fox and insults him even though he’s attracted to him physically; and they end up in bed together. The following day, Fox wins the lottery and Eugen’s feelings of disgust suddenly turn into love and warmth, and the couple starts living together. Eugen tries to mold Fox into the image of a cultured man of wealth and taste, though Eugen really just wants to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, notably Fox’s body. He also takes advantage of his lover’s fortune, until Fox is left with nothing, and his prospects look bleak. Salem plays the role of a male escort that Fox and Eugen sleep with during a trip to Marrakech.

            At some point during or after the making of Fox and His Friends, Salem and Fassbinder’s relationship reached its inevitable end. The readiest explanation for the breakup implicates Salem’s volatile temperament, especially when drunk, but other factors were surely at play. The night of the breakup, Salem went to a bar, got extremely drunk, and stabbed three people, wounding them badly. Fassbinder and his friends tried to sneak him out of Germany, but he was captured at the French border and sent to prison in France, where he would spend the remainder of his life. Fassbinder continued making one film after another, enjoying great success, but at the cost of his mental and physical health. His drug addiction got worse along with his obsessive productivity.

            Two years after his arrest, Salem killed himself in his prison cell. He had started life as a Berber in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, married young, had kids, and worked at a conventional job. He’d left Morocco to chase a better life in Europe, met Fassbinder, and the rest is history. The news of his suicide was withheld from Fassbinder until the very end. A year later, another of Fassbinder’s lovers, Armin Meier, killed himself as well.

            Fassbinder would not find out until 1982 during the making of what would be his last film, Querelle. Its plot revolves around the title character in Jean Genet’s novel, a sailor with dubious morals who sails into Brest and goes into a brothel, where he meets his brother and starts exploring his homosexual fantasies. The film was dedicated to El Hedi ben Salem. Shortly after he finished filming it, Fassbinder died of a drug overdose at age 37. Forty years later, his name is forever engraved in the annals of cinematic greats, even as that of El Hedi ben Salem is largely forgotten.


*          El Hedi ben Salem is properly referred to by his full name to distinguish him from his father, but here we’ve adopted the convention of calling him simply “Salem” for the sake of brevity.

Akram Herrak is a writer and film critic from Morocco, writing for multiple online magazines about film and literature. He is also a musician, a photographer, and a semi-professional chess player.


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