A German cleaning woman falls in love with a Moroccan immigrant and everyone turns out to be racist. Sound timely?
This is actually the plot of 1970s cult-favorite film, Fear Eats the Soul, directed by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Scena Theatre is showcasing a theater adaptation of the film, directed by Robert McNamara, until June 4 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Scena specializes in international performances, and they’ve successfully tackled Fassbinder’s eccentric work before.
Although the dialogue leaves something to be desired – who knew Arabs flirt in third person? – the play is frightening in its relevance. At a time when social media feeds are saturated with rants about the cultural assimilation – or lack of it – of Arabs in Europe, this production is a worthy reminder that the excuses may change, but hating the presence of Arabs in Western countries is one vintage trend that won’t go away.
Fear Eats the Soul grapples with multiple issues. Not only is Ali (Oscar Ceville) a Moroccan guest worker in Germany, but he is 20 years younger than Emmi (Nanna Ingvarsson.) After they meet, fall in love and marry, Emmi’s family and coworkers react venomously, shunning the new couple. To regain everyone’s favor, Emmi internalizes society’s malicious behavior and directs it toward Ali. As the outside world tears away at them for being together, they begin to question why they fell in love at all.
“We’re all human and trying the best that we can,” Ingvarsson says. “And opening yourself up to another human being is a brave act. And there should maybe be a little bit more of that.”
While Ali deals with dehumanizing stereotypes about Arabs and immigrants, Emmi must contend with iron-clad notions of what women her age should and shouldn’t be doing.
“[It’s] not just that she’s involved with a foreigner, but that she has the audacity as a senior citizen to let herself fall in love against all of her family and coworkers’ objections, and that kind of thing,” Ingvarsson says. “And she finds someone who understands her, someone she can talk to, someone she can be herself with. And I don’t think you see a lot of that represented for women of a certain age.”
Although Ingvarsson is not as old as the character portrayed, she uses her personal experience to get into character. After Ingvarsson’s grandfather went blind from diabetes, her mother and grandmother had to make ends meet.
“There’s a mentality among those women where you just have to get the job done,” she says. “So, I think I’m sort of channeling the kind of attitude of a certain European woman at that time because I grew up with it, so I take a lot from that.”
Set in a post-WWII Germany, Fear Eats the Soul serves as a reminder that one dead “Aryan” dictator does not a post-racial society make. Emmi frequently touts her family’s connection to and involvement in “The Party.” Despite its age, Fear Eats the Soul has remained as relevant as the racism it depicts.
Supporting actors, many of whom navigated several roles in the production, provide a barrage of the host country’s views on its guest workers: Arabs are lazy, obsessed with women and/or steal everyone’s jobs. That the play occurs in Germany specifically makes the echoes of our modern news broadcasts even more profound.
“[The play] doesn’t give a big political diatribe on any of it, but it just shows a microcosm of how it is in modern, regular, daily life,” Ingvarsson says.
Scena Theatre is performing Fear Eats the Soul at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-$45 and can be purchased on Scena’s website.
Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St NE, DC; 202-399-7993 http://www.atlasarts.org/