Free Argumentative Essay On Emmi, Paula And The Roles Of German Women In Ali: Angst Essen Seele Auf And
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Das Legende von Paul und Paula
West and East German society, as depicted in their films, provided women with few options for freedom and happiness amongst the oppressive insularity of social groups. The 1960s and 1970s saw dramatic changes in German society, as greater tolerance for (and exploration of) socialist behavior and the rejection of the bourgeoisie began to take hold. Meanwhile, West Germany simultaneously dealt with issues of post-WWII Nazi anxiety, the changing roles of women in the workforce, and the influx of immigrants (gastarbeiter, or “guest worker”) into West Germany at this time (Chin 33). These cultural factors had a particularly dramatic effect on women in these countries, who had to fight both against the traditional gender roles expected of them and the limited means they had to transcend them. Both West and East Germany faced dramatic economic and social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, which are reflected in the female characters at the center of Das Legende von Paul und Paula (1973, dir. Heiner Carow) and Ali: Angst essen Seele auf (1974, dir. Reiner Werner Fassbinder), depicting them as both victim and revolutionary in the changing cultural realms of East and West Germany.
Emmi, the elderly widower at the heart of Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, works as a housekeeper and the matriarch of a traditional West German family. In West Germany, this type of work was normal and extremely prevalent among older women, who were becoming increasingly integrated in both white-and blue-collar work (von Ourtzen, 2007). Her experiences largely match those of the older working women of West Germany, who have already reared families and have re-entered the workforce to make themselves productive and useful. While she herself lives a comfortable middle-class existence, her line of work brings her occasional shame (“people always make the face when she says what she does”), but she continues to work it because of the limited options available to women of her age in modern West German society, who were mostly family-centered in their youth and did not learn any skills.
Paula’s combination of poverty-laden anxiety about raising a family, and her free-wheeling lust for life, provides a conduit for exploring the way young women were treated in East German society in the early 1970s. That being said, East Germany at the time displayed an “ambivalence toward gender and class” that can be found in Das Legende von Paul und Paula, as society is shown to be tremendously uncaring and indifferent to the struggles of the poor, and poor women in particular (Heiduschke 99). Paula, unlike the comparative economic stability of Emmi, is in a state of constant anxiety about her status as a single mother in the early scenes of the film. After catching her boyfriend in flagrante with another woman after coming home from work, she kicks him out in a fit of rage. While this is softened dramatically after meeting Paul (followed by a comedic scene in which Paula giddily goes about her day at the store, singing vulgar songs along with her customers), her lower-class struggles indicate the continued strife of women in the working class despite the GDR’s insistence that “women’s emancipation had been successfully accomplished by achieving women’s economic independence” (Renke 185). While a number of mitigating factors color these women’s attitudes toward their working lives (e.g. their age differences), both Emmi and Paula’s perspectives permit West and East Germany to be examined through the lens of working women, though this is done through differing socioeconomic groups (working vs. middle class).
Emmi and Paula find both meaningful solace and further social struggles in their romantic relationships with their respective paramours. Paul in Das Legende von Paul und Paula is a socialist functionary of the East German government, and a true believer in its political orthodoxy; dedicated to his job, he is unwilling to leave his wife even after he discovers her infidelity, as it would jeopardize “not only his reputation but also that of the party” (Heiduschke 99). This is a direct contrast to Paula’s social disadvantage, as his comparatively wealthy lifestyle (right down to his modern-looking apartment) is due to his loyalty to the East German government, while the working-class Paula simply lives her life as she pleases, unconcerned with the greater tenor of the world around her. Carow’s placement of Paul’s opulent, modern building just across the street from Paula’s run-down apartment building provides an immediate visual comparison of the two characters’ distinct socioeconomic situations, as Paul is shown to have much more to lose in committing himself to Paula while Paula literally looks upward at Paul’s window, practically deifying him and his higher social status. Despite their passionate desire for each other, and their respective unhappiness in their love lives, Paula and Paul could not be further apart in temperament and social status, which leads to a great deal of tension throughout the film.
Ali, the Moroccan “guest worker” whom Emmi takes as her lover and husband in Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, is representative of the racial and intersectional tension that Emmi must contend with as a woman in West German society. Ali, as he relates to Emmi, represents a dilemma in political and social identity – her love for Ali represents a more liberal, enlightened perspective on the immigrant population of West Germany, but also alienation from the other German characters whose relationships she has cultivated throughout her life. From the beginning of the film, Emmi is shown to be more open to multiculturalism than other German women; Emmi’s more liberal perspective on love comes from her marriage to her first husband, who was Polish (she keeps her married name, Kurowski). While her association with a non-German is seemingly a non-issue in most normal aspects of her life, it is only after she begins dating Ali that it becomes an issue for those around her. This is most directly referenced when her neighbor Ms. Karges quips to a neighbor, “She’s not really German herself. With a name like Kurowski!” upon seeing Emmi with Ali their first night together. Emmi’s love for Ali unavoidably results in her isolation from the other West Germans she holds in her company, as she chooses controversial love over orthodox loyalty to her nationality. Filmically, Emmi and Ali are frequently beset by groups of gawking Germans, often clustered together in the far background or foreground, while Emmi and Ali are framed on the opposite end or focal plane of the screen. Fassbinder also provides a recurring motif of Emmi and Ali slowly dancing by themselves in the dark, which is most often used in the bar in which they frequently meet. This simple visual motif visually illustrates both their isolation from the rest of Munich society and their dedication to each other – two outsiders thumbing their nose at conventional wisdom and repressive prejudice.
Ali: Angst essen Seele auf features this intersection between gender and racial politics within West German culture prominently, with Emmi’s complex position at the center becoming a central part of the drama (Skvirsky 98). This prejudice is represented by the constant taunts and dismissiveness Emmi hears firsthand about immigrants in general, and Ali specifically. Her group of female co-workers lament women who take up with immigrant men to Emmi while taking their lunch break. One of her co-workers remarks that women like that are “filthy whores,” and that “some women will stoop to anything” to find companionship, no matter how desperate. These scenes frame Emmi separately from these other women, typically sitting on the other side of the staircase, filmed through the bars of the banister (to illustrate her feelings of being trapped in this job and with these reprehensible people). In a later scene, when she begins to earn their good graces again by absorbing their racist attitudes and shunning a new immigrant co-worker, that same co-worker is shown through the same bars Emmi was imprisoned by, demonstrating the cyclical and hypocritical nature of such prejudice. Cinematography is also used to demonstrate the shock that Emmi’s children, upon hearing of her marriage to Ali, feel as their mother violates the traditional roles expected of her by women. The scene is filmed with Emmi and her children at an increasing distance from her, alternating between over-the shoulder shots of the family (grouped together, scrutinizing Emmi with their gaze) and Emmi herself. With these shots, Ali: Angst essen Seele auf depicts the gradual and comprehensive alienation that Emmi experiences as she defies conventional social wisdom and the roles expected of her as a German, a mother and a worker.
In Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, Emmi undergoes a dramatic change as she falls victim to the social forces in West Germany that continue to plague her. Just as Emmi’s friends and coworkers begin to accept her marriage with Ali out of convenience and practicality (e.g. the convenience store owner fearing losing a customer, her fellow tenants needing to use her apartment for storage space), Emmi soon falls victim to the same Orientalism and exoticizing of Ali to stay in their good graces. The latter part of the film sees her treating Ali poorly, shutting herself off from him in order to look at him as an object. This is made most clear in the scene in which Emmi shows off Ali to her friends, who gather around him to gawk at his muscles - this objectification of Ali as her dark, exotic lover shows her falling into orthodox West German prejudice and stereotypes, Fassbinder using an alienating, still wide shot to implicate the audience in this same exoticizing. While she spends most of the film as a social nonconformist, this late act of the film demonstrates a decided social weakness on her part, a surrender to peer pressure that forces her to play along with the racist attitudes of those who hold her social standing in their hands. This provides the most direct incomparability between these two films, as Emmi’s weakness to her social station is much more acute than Paula’s, whose own attitudes and convictions to live her life regardless of authority truly falter.
Paula, unlike the gradually withdrawing Emmi, experiences greater and more intense passion for Paul as the film goes on, reflecting the more open and exuberant attitudes women felt in East Germany in the wake of loosening social mores in the 1970s. At the same time, Paula must still struggle with “the familiar codes of modernity’s symbolic gender order,” wanting to be more carefree and autonomous while struggling with the GDR’s expectation for her to become a productive German woman, with all the traditional ideas of marriage and child-rearing that entails (Dolling 80). Paula’s desperate, energetic love for Paul means everything to her, being largely ignorant of the “opportunities which socialist society held in store for women of her generation” (Berghahn 195). Rather than being acutely aware of the social forces that hold her and those she loves at bay (like Emmi’s self-conscious guilt over the racism of her friends and family), Paula’s concerns remain small in scale – mostly revolving around Paul and her children. Like Emmi, Paula’s aspirations are modest, but more consciously disconnected with the social changes that were happening in the GDR. In this way, her character is more overtly transgressive than Emmi, as she governs her passions in a much purer fashion than the typical East German socialist personality – unlike Emmi in Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, who is far too self-conscious of the prejudice and scorn she engenders by marrying a Moroccon immigrant. Paula’s dedication to love and passion extends all the way to her decision to have her child, even at the risk of death – in this way, she is shown to be uniquely unconcerned with the thoughts and opinions of others, even achieving sainthood.
The filmmaking of both Ali: Angst essen Seele auf and Das Legende von Paul und Paula also reflects the societal changes that were taking place in both countries, and how these stories were meant to be told. Director Reiner Werner Fassbinder shoots Ali: Angst essen Seele auf with a deliberate, patient hand, offering a kind of mannered neorealism that allows for geometric images to portray the power dynamics that can be found within the film. The intense, unspoken pressures Emmi and Ali experience are represented by recurring shots of these characters (whether together or apart) framed in narrow doorways. The thin doorway of Emmi’s kitchen provides a cinematographic way of boxing the two into the same small space, while wide shots of the two of them sitting at a table in a restaurant (framed by yet another doorway) indicates their willingness to stand together despite their isolation. Eventually, even wide open spaces evoke claustrophobia and isolation – the scene in which Emmi admits to Ali her distress at her neighbors’ disapproval of their relationship (“I always pretend I don’t care, but I do care. It’s killing me”) sees them sitting in the middle of an empty patio, the couple surrounded by a sea of bright yellow tables and chairs. Here, Fassbinder illustrates both the couple’s ability to stand together against the world, and the complete emptiness that Emmi feels at having no one else around her.
Stairs provide yet another regular visual motif, as power relationships are easily demarcated by who is sitting or standing above whom in the stairways of both Emmi’s apartment building and the building in which she works. The gossipy, xenophobic neighbors in Emmi’s building (particularly the rotund, nosy Ms. Karges) are typically framed through tight, diamond-patterned grids, offering a symbol of the heightened and distancing judgment framed upon those who do not conform to West German attitudes towards foreigners. The editing of the film itself is tremendously straightforward, with very few surrealist jumps in chronology or overt presentationalism, resulting in a film that relies on stillness and silence to convey the quiet agony its characters demonstrate in bucking societal trends.
In contrast to the restrained filmmaking of Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, Das Legende von Paul und Paula is infused with an anarchic sense of surrealism by director Heiner Carow. Unlike the supreme lack of flourish that Fassbinder demonstrates in Ali, Carow’s editing and filmmaking demonstrate a tremendous amount of kineticism and energy. Repeated use of jump cuts, dream imagery and non sequitur images depict an apocalyptic East Germany that both overwhelms and alienates its main characters. Paula’s imagination asserts itself frequently in the diegesis, between the muting of the symphony when she covers her ears during the concert, to her imaginary stripping of Paul’s clothes to see her image in a locket close to his heart. Paula’s wandering through the street, picking up coal, surrounded by dirt and fog, makes working-class East Germany look like a complete wasteland, while the brightness and sterility of both the rooftop concert and the underground dance club showcase a bourgeois society too distracted by entertainment to address its own problems. This greater contrast in formalism in Das Legende von Paul und Paula as compared to Ali: Angst essen Seele auf reflects Paula’s chaotic, passionate expressiveness, which is appropriately tied to West German youth’s rebellious desire for freedom.
The endings of both films both offer a bittersweet sense of optimism about the future of its characters, though this occurs in different ways. Das Legende von Paul und Paula ends with the death of Paula in childbirth, despite their heartfelt reconciliation and a dedication to the future; in doing this, Carow demonstrates that “grief and sorrow also accompany bliss: even in socialist society one cannot escape the realities of life” (Heiduschke 100). A similar event occurs in Ali: Angst essen Seele auf, but with a more positive ending – Ali experiences a ruptured ulcer immediately after reconciling with Emmi, who is told afterwards by a doctor that these ulcers occur regularly due to stress that comes from the prejudice experienced by immigrants in West Germany, and that an ulcer will most certainly recur in six months’ time. Emmi, ever hopeful, declares, “I’ll do everything in my power” to reduce that stress, the film ending with her waiting patiently by Ali’s bedside. Though Paula’s story ends more tragically than Emmi’s, both films demonstrate each woman’s own silent rebellion against their culture’s own unfair values – Paula in her ceaseless pursuit of passion and happiness against the expectations of marriage and family life, Emmi in her taboo, interracial relationship.
The changing social mores of West and East Germany, respectively, are reflected in Ali: Angst essen Seele auf and Das Legende von Paul und Paula, particularly as these changes relate to women’s agency and sense of social/economic mobility. While the Munich of Ali: Angst essen Seele auf is a land beset by xenophobia and prejudice towards immigrants, the Berlin of Das Legende von Paul und Paula is a land of divided classes, age groups and genders, the characters either choosing to ignore these political concerns in favor of greater love or self-consciously reacting to them and rejecting true happiness. Recurring motifs and themes exist within both films which deal with Paula’s and Emmi’s respective desires for freedom and spontaneity in a culture that seemingly rejects it -Paula’s free-wheeling personality is suppressed by the strict Paul and the stoic society of Germany, and Emmi’s late-life love for Ali is beset with problems because of the racism and prejudice of her friends and famiy. By the end, both become sacrificial figures for the greater ideals of Germany – Paula as the sacrificial lamb for “individual self-realization and the pursuit of happiness in the private sphere” of socialist East Germany, and Emmi as the selfless partner of a struggling immigrant dealing with the stress of West German prejudice (Berghahn 199). With Ali: Angst essen Seele auf as representative of the prudish xenophobia of West German society and Das Legende von Paul und Paula showing the class-related social battles of the East, these films showcase female characters whose lust for life openly defies the unique and alienating ways West and East Germany treat gender.
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Sean Allan and John Sandford (eds), DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992 (New York and London: Berhahn Books, 1992), pp. 183-203.
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