Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is arguably one of the director’s best films. It may be the rough-around-the-edges style and its low budget charm that makes it a timely classic, as the director shot the movie in a short two weeks whilst in pre-production for his next feature Effi Briest. Though perhaps not perfect, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is by far Fassbinder’s most authentic and human work.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul focuses on a relationship between a 60-year-old cleaning lady, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), and a younger Moroccan expat, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), in 1970s West Germany. What begins as an unlikely friendship develops into a deep romance between the two, an improbable pairing that causes tension with their friends and family. Mira and Salem had previously played only small bit parts, yet they effortlessly carry almost the entirety of the narrative between them.
The film is in part a homage to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, specifically All That Heaven Allows (1955), a film which is founded on a love that conquers divisive social barriers. Narratively, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and All That Heaven Allows are not too dissimilar — the crux of each film explores social stigmas about dating outside one’s race or class. In the same way that Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2003) modernised Sirk’s classic, Fassbinder also rejuvenates the story by adding in different elements of conflict for the star-crossed lovers. For Emmi and Ali, their race and class are inextricably interlinked with reactions they face from society about their newfound relationship. Emmi’s age renders her a non-sexual being to Ali’s young friends, and Ali’s immigrant status and nationality comes as a particular shock to Emmi’s friends and family.
Naturally, the comparison of All That Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes incredibly easy, but the latter does significantly more than just repeat and rehash Sirk’s narrative and ideologies. It goes further, in fact, to show just how ostracized Ali and Emmi become for daring to choose partners outside of their social circle.
Re-imagining some elements from the melodrama genre, Fassbinder plays with time, visuals and colour. As in a typical melodrama, Emmi and Ali fall in love impossibly fast. Time slows around them. Fassbinder uses bright colours, reds and yellows to surround the pair. Everything feels a little more radiant than it should. When Emmi and Ali go on holiday, they are surrounded by a sea of sunflower yellow chairs as they sit in the grey courtyard of an otherwise dull cafe. It’s drizzling, but they don’t care. The yellow is joyful, and the two of them are sitting contently in peace and quiet. The camera then cuts to the cafe workers, all of whom are staring in judgemental silence at Emmi and Ali amongst the backdrop of a dreary cafeteria. The two lovers are in their own world, and it’s a world filled with colour, joy and love. They don’t care for the judgmental gaze of society.
Fassbinder was an expert at subverting melodramatic tropes. The couple ends up marrying quickly because Emmi’s landlord is suspicious that Ali is illegally subletting. It’s not the most logical solution, but it is borne out of rationality, unlike many decisions made in traditional melodramas which are almost always based on feelings alone. Equally, Fassbinder is determined to show the ugliness of the relationship. The way in which Emmi objectifies Ali in front of her German friends, and Ali’s own affair with Barbara, show them to be imperfect people. Fassbinder focuses on the desperation and anxieties that exist in all relationships, instead of just the highs and lows of melodramas. The title phrase, “fear eats the soul,” is a an Arab saying which Ali repeats to Emmi when they first spend the night together. The meaning is that these small anxieties and fears will end up destroying you.
Fassbinder also goes to great length to portray the isolation and loneliness that both Emmi and Ali experience in the film, from Emmi’s loneliness at the beginning, to the isolation they feel from their peers when they go public with their relationship. The couple then begins to isolate each other due to their frustration at their situation — a deeper, more direct isolation. Emmi and Ali are both facing radically different obstacles. Emmi has been barred from her own community, a community which she was an intrinsic part of before marrying Ali. On the other hand, Ali is already alone in Germany having left his community in Morocco. His constant desire to listen to Moroccan music and eat couscous is symbolic of his homesickness — a type of sickness that Emmi cannot understand. Although Emmi is also alone, she is still in her home country, and the prejudice she faces is via Ali only.
This isolation is witnessed through Fassbinder’s penchant for placing the two characters within a frame together, either claustrophobically closely or uncomfortably apart. When they are alone together, they are often not seen in the same frame — giving the illusion that they are further apart than they are in actuality. When the two are in the outside world, they are usually staged close together and far away from other people in the frame. At their wedding dinner, they sit side by side, squashed together in the centre of the frame, in a room by themselves. The only other people who enter the frame are the servers who do not enter Emmi and Ali’s space. At a table that’s too big, in a room that is too large, the two of them are huddled in the middle of a restaurant that neither can afford to eat at. They are, in the most literal sense, distanced from society, the camera and the audience. The sequence drives home the prejudice, discrimination and toxicity that the two are now going to face from society and, sadly, from each other, too.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a timeless piece of cinema, in a way that few films are. Modern attitudes towards immigration in Western Europe are eerily similar to the situation Ali himself is presented with. Phrases such as “those lot” and “your people,” or the local shopkeeper’s discrimination against Ali, are not alien to 2017 audiences, sadly. With Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder created a masterpiece that is relatable due to his depictions of racism, discrimination and the complexities of identity — themes which still resonate loudly today.
Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.