Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ★★★★

Film 6/30 - March Around the World 2020 - Germany

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of the classics of the New German Cinema of the 1970’s, and I’m very pleased to have finally caught up with it. It tells the surprising love story of middle-aged Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), a handsome Moroccan immigrant, and elderly Emmi (Brigitte Mira) a widowed and lonely German cleaning lady. 

The first two acts of the film play out as a fable. There’s a disarming naturalness to the way the couple meet and fall in love. Their interactions are gentle and loving; but this is juxtaposed with the suspicious and hostile reactions they face from nearly everyone else. The gossip, racism and contempt that circles around the couple is toxic, but they find strength in their union. 

There’s a lot of talk about gaze in film these days, but this is surely the cinema of the stare. Everyone stares long and hard at the couple. Ali has come to believe that Arabs are not human in Germany, and you can see clearly from the Germans’ attitudes towards him why he has formed that view. And Emmi, for her part, is faced with rejection and condemnation as a traitor to German cultural decency. 

It is difficult to describe the strangeness of the film, but any contemporary viewer familiar with the works of Aki Kaurismaki will recognise similarities. Kaurismaki was heavily influenced by Fassbinder and you can see this through their common use of bold colours, the way they prefer simple and often static shots, and with the way they both focus on the struggles of the working class and immigrant poor. And they also share the use of oddly stilted dialogue, with acting that can appear wooden, yet which can miraculously accentuate the humanity of the characters. The big difference between the two directors is that Kaurismaki often has his tongue slightly, if not firmly, in his cheek, but there’s no evidence of that with Fassbinder. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Fassbinder is deadly serious. It’s as if he is challenging us to stare at the screen just as everyone in the film stares at Emmi and Ali. He’s daring us to choose either to condemn or to tolerate the foreignness of his vision. 

Fassbinder presumably made this film to hold up a mirror to German society’s continuing racism and intolerance and compare it to the still raw memories of Nazism. Emmi confesses, matter of factly, that she used to be a member of the Nazi party, and the couple celebrate their wedding by going to the same restaurant that Hitler used to frequent. But what must have been powerful rhetoric in 1974, today feels terribly sobering. Fassbinder must have thought he could change things for the better, but watching his film nearly fifty years later, it feels like we’ve failed him. 

There is a curious shift that occurs in the film’s final act. After Ali and Emmi return from a short holiday, the attitudes of their community appear to soften. Suddenly Emmi’s family and neighbours start to accept their relationship and become more friendly towards them. And where before, Emmi had bravely withstood their condemnation in order to protect her love of Ali, now that they accept her, she becomes less tolerant of his differences. And he in turn, becomes less tolerant of her age and nationality. He has an affair with a younger woman and pointedly seeks out the pleasures of his own culture. Suddenly, what had seemed a simple morality tale has become more complex. It’s as if Fassbinder is saying that intolerance is deep-seated and that our need to be accepted necessarily excludes our acceptance of others. This is a tough thesis, particularly after the warmth and hope of the first two acts. It’s like the warm tide has suddenly gone out leaving us shivering and stranded. The film then ends suddenly on a fragile and uncertain note. But before it leaves there is a partial reprieve from the third act’s cynicism, and with it a return of hope for this lovely couple. As the opening titles had noted, “happiness is not always fun”, and it’s clear Emmi and Ali will have a hard life ahead of them. But the way we feel their tenderness return is like the warm tide rushing back to the shore.

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