One of the most influential German films ever made is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which depicts a taboo-breaking sexual relationship between a German woman and an Arab man. In what you could call an attempt at channeling Fassbinder, Label Me, the second film from German filmmaker Kai Kreuser, depicts the illicit sexual relationship between a rich German man named Lars (Nikolaus Benda) and a Syrian refugee-hustler named Waseem (Renato Schuch).
The film opens when Lars pays Waseem to have a one-night stand in Lars’ apartment. It doesn’t exactly go great: Waseem sets the mood when he curtly tells Lars, “You cum, I get my money, I leave.” But in spite of this inauspicious initial encounter, Lars decides to make Waseem his regular hookup buddy – and through the questions he frequently asks about Waseem’s personal life, he hints that he’d like Waseem to become a romantic partner as well.
“…the illicit sexual relationship between a rich German man and a Syrian refugee-hustler…”
Throughout the film, however, Waseem reacts to Lars’ advances with a mixture of reluctance and anger. Insisting that he’s not a “faggot,” Waseem refuses to open up to Lars: at one point, Lars has to pay Waseem 20 euros just to learn where Waseem is from. Furthermore, when the two of them hook up, Waseem insists that they follow rules – for instance, no kissing – that allow him to maintain the illusion that he’s straight.
Waseem’s internalized homophobia might seem illogical. But as Kreuser persuasively shows us, it’s simply a product of the macho culture in which Waseem was brought up. To give us a sense of just how homophobic Arab culture can be, Kreuser spends parts of the film depicting life at Waseem’s refugee shelter, where guys who are suspected of being gay are bullied and ruthlessly beaten up.
If you exclude this look at Waseem’s homophobia, however, Kreuser doesn’t make much of an effort to develop his characters. For instance, whereas the film thoroughly probes Waseem’s conflicted feelings about Lars and homosexuality, it doesn’t take a similar interest in Lars. We don’t get insight into what he sees in Waseem, what kind of relationship he has with his own sexuality, or what kinds of prejudice he encounters as a gay German.
“…can pack worlds of emotional nuance into something as simple as a stare or a grimace…”
Perhaps the strangest thing about Label Me is its indifference to current sociopolitical realities. Although refugees have been a salient issue in Germany for years, Label Me has surprisingly little curiosity about Waseem’s life as a Syrian asylum seeker. We learn nothing about how he has or hasn’t adjusted to German culture. We don’t learn how he’s been affected by Germany’s rather complicated asylum application process. And with just a few exceptions, we learn little about how he’s been treated and received by the German community near his refugee shelter.
Still, even if it doesn’t go nearly as far as you’d hope, Label Me gets two crucial things right. In Schuch and Benda, Kreuser has found a perfect pairing, two performers who can pack worlds of emotional nuance into something as simple as a stare or a grimace. With actors as dedicated and mesmerizing as these, you almost find yourself forgetting how much Kreuser stints on character development.