Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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A middle-aged woman and a young Moroccan man fall in love in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.  Their relationship will befuddle most and attract open contempt from others.  It’s the same type of hatred of the outsider as in Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher, though because we are so acquainted with the subject of such hate this story is tragic where the former was more of a dark, bleak comedy.

From the very beginning we are made to feel the pressure of being looked at.  Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a young Moroccan man, and Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is a middle-aged janitor.  For reasons of race and age they both feel outcast, and before they meet in a small dive bar people are already glaring at them.

Ali speaks little English, and Emmi takes to him immediately, whether as someone to love or to care for or both.  When he tells her he lives in a crowded room with five other men she insists he stay with her.  Soon they will be married.

No one understands or approves of Emmi’s relationship with Ali.  They have their unsubstantiated concerns that he doesn’t bathe, among other more barbaric beliefs, and they refuse to acknowledge that he’s anything other than what they already believe.  Emmi’s neighbors, coworkers and even her own children will shun her.  In one of the more striking moments we see her daughter, already shown to be in an abusive relationship, side with her husband and turn her back on her mother.

The dynamic here is clear and simple, but Fassbinder’s film explores some of the potential conflict within Ali’s and Emmi’s own relationship, even away from the accusing outside world.

It’s not just a partial language barrier but age as well.  Ali has given up much of his own culture, presumably, when he came to Germany, and with Emmi he loses more of a grasp on the simple pleasures he enjoyed before he met her, like eating couscous and drinking with his friends.  He soon finds himself gambling excessively and sleeping with a bartender who seems only to care about using him to hurt Emmi, almost out of principal.

Ali’s concern, though unspoken, is understandable.  There’s a scene in the second half of the film in which Emmi’s friends come over and marvel at how different Ali is than the brute they expected.  They raise their eyebrows when they realize he does bathe (every day in fact, Emmi will say), and then Emmi, intoxicated over their sudden acceptance, encourages them to feel his strong arms and back.  Ali is suddenly on display but made to feel no less “other” than he was before.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tackles extreme xenophobia in a country still reeling from the fallout of World War II.  In the film it feels an overbearing force, and on several occasions Emmi will make casual reference to Adolf Hitler, taking Ali to a restaurant at which he once ate and acknowledging how she grew up in the Nazi party (‘everyone did’).

It’s a force that I imagine might feel invisible so long as you fit in, but for anyone moderately ‘different’ it would be impossible to ignore.  Fassbinder, from what I know, carried on a few homosexual relationships, including one tumultuous one with El Hedi ben Salem, who would pass away only a few years after the movie’s release.

The film is concerned with the ways in which people inflict suffering on each other, notably out of fear and insecurity.  That insecurity isn’t much explored here other than to show that it exists.  Characters drink and gamble too much, others run struggling ‘mom & pop’ stores that are losing customers to bigger establishments.  There are hints of economic struggle, but all we see are the manifestations of such possible problems.  They force those who might be struggling and resentful to take out all of their fury on someone who simply looks different.

Even within that clear divide the film doesn’t overly romanticize Ali’s and Emmi’s relationship.  In making an effort to show their own relationship struggles the film makes them more human.  They are not just role models of a sort, meant to suffer in the film but remain angelic in spirit.  Instead they are fully functional human characters, working through their own struggles and insecurities but finding strength together.

Up Next: Sunshine (2007), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Vice (2018)

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