Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) opens to Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), a German cleaning woman, timidly entering a bar one night on her way home to get out of the pouring rain. Fassbinder’s frame composes her at a distance; she is isolated and alone and by the looks of it, lonely. She shuts the door. We can’t see her expression clearly but she’s looking off-frame and instead of sitting down immediately she stands there in the doorway as if second guessing her choice of shelter. Fassbinder cuts to a frozen tableau of staring strangers, arranged with artistic precision, in a take that lasts a bit longer than expected. No one moves a muscle. They just gaze at her like an odd museum piece; as if they’ve been staring at the door since time immemorial, just waiting for someone, anyone, to come through. We understand Emmi’s hesitation now. She’s an outsider here and it’s the silent judgement of the gaze that positions her as such.
Cut back to Emmi, closer this time as she takes a seat, compelling the bar owner to finally break from the gazing tableau and take her order. As a rouse, one of the regulars asks Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), whose given name is El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha, Ali for short, to dance with the woman, and he does, almost without hesitation. Ali and Emmi dance and have an honest, tender conversation about the hard realities of their lives. More gazing ensues, but an undeniable connection has formed that will persist despite all odds and forces.
Within this simple opening sequence Fassbinder provides the visual motifs he employs like a surgeon with a schedule to keep throughout the rest of the film. As Emmi and Ali’s unexpected love blossoms into a marriage they are subjected to increasingly hostile discrimination from friends, neighbors, and family. In Emmi, Ali finds a compassionate, tender woman who doesn’t uphold and inflict the racist trauma he is subjected to daily. As their relationship grows Emmi’s perceived transgression subjects her to a similar trauma. In one scene Emmi invites Ali up to her apartment and they pass by another tenant on their way. She quickly gossips to another tenant and they realign their view of Emmi in light of her relationship with Ali:
Tenant #1: “Mrs. Kurowski’s got a foreigner up there. A black man.”
Tenant #2: “Real black?”
Tenant #1: “Well, not that black, but pretty dark.”
Tenant #2: “She’s not really German herself. With a name like Kurowski!”
Fassbinder’s dialogue ferociously reveals the prejudices and hierarchies of race and ethnicity in contemporary German culture, and how fluidly they may be transposed and realigned, but the resistance they face throughout the film does not come exclusively from others. The most heartbreaking sequences come from the pain Ali and Emmi enact upon each other. We come to understand that their differences (Emmi is German and around 60 years old, while Ali is much younger and Moroccan) are what bind them together and tear them apart.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul takes its inspiration from two films. First, in one of Fassbinder’s own films, The American Soldier (1970), a story is recounted about a cleaning woman from Hamburg named Emmi and a Turkish immigrant worker who get married with tragic results. From this story in the film he pulls the basic plot, character names, and interracial relationship of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Second, after making The American Soldier in 1970 he saw several Douglas Sirk melodramas and was enamored. One in particular had a lasting impression, All That Heaven Allows (1955), which tells the story of a widow (Jane Wyman) and a younger tree surgeon (Rock Hudson) whose relationship is met with protest based on their class differences. In Ali, Fassbinder strips Sirk’s melodramatic excesses and flowing movements to its subversive core. He slows every social-, racial-, and class-based slight to a grinding visual halt, frozen in time. We have to time to study, dissect, and sit with its tension.
Fassbinder’s formal devices and visual motifs perfectly reflect the tortuous and tender progression of Ali and Emmi’s relationship. The film’s basic visual structure is supported by long, repeated takes of frozen tableau gazes and silent judgements by neighbors, friends, and even family. Often, the stares are amplified through group solidarity. One pair of silent, gazing eyes might be shrugged off and ignored, but when coordinated through a group become nearly intolerable. The silence becomes very loud indeed, and very few are tolerant of their love. When Ali and Emmi are shown together they are nearly always utterly alone. This is often conveyed through wide shots that showcase the solitude their love must endure, or they are framed within frames, such as doorways, that emphasize their claustrophobic alienation. In these scenes it often feels like the small rooms they’re confined to are slowly pushing in, trying to smother their love. Finally, Fassbinder uses repetition not only through his use of visual motifs, but as it relates to the social desire (or necessity) to ostracize or marginalize an Other.
One memorable sequence that combines all of these strategies into a beautiful crescendo of crushing alienation occurs at a restaurant’s outdoor patio. Emmi confesses to Ali that no matter how hard she tries not to care what other people think of them, she does. It’s a tender and emotional scene that expresses the pain of their relationship, while strengthening their love as it’s pitted against everyone else. The scene opens with an extreme long shot of Emmi and Ali surrounded by a sea of canary yellow chairs and lush trees; a beautiful and isolating shot. Eventually we see the tableau once again, staring intently, frozen, behind Ali’s shoulder, and then a shot of the gazers, comprised not only of restaurant staff, but other customers too, who we might imagine got up and left their tables once Ali and Emmi sat down.
I’d like to focus on one last sequence in Ali that showcases Fassbinder’s ability to create complex, contradictory, and subversive narratives that are mirrored through visual motifs. After the restaurant sequence Ali and Emmi get away for a vacation to escape their oppression, and come back to find that their family, friends, and neighbors have warmed to their marriage and try to make amends. These acts of penance appear genuine at first but all come laced with hidden agendas. These small tokens of tolerance manifest narratively into a transference of prejudice and discrimination to another, newly christened victim. Initially, after Emmi’s coworkers realize who her new husband is, she is ostracized from the rest of the group on their lunch break. This occurs near the beginning of the film, but by the end, Emmi has been allowed back into their inner circle. There is a new coworker from Yugoslavia who takes Emmi’s place as outsider, who Emmi and her coworkers alienate just as she was before. The scene displays a visual and thematic repetition, whereby the staircase as social prison is visually repeated with Emmi and then Yolanda, and as a thematic repetition as Emmi is initially ostracized, recuperated, and then participates herself in the ostracization of Yolanda from the group.
In one early scene, the morning after Emmi and Ali spend their first night together, Emmi starts crying as she grapples with her feelings for Ali and the implications of those feelings. Ali asks her why she’s crying. She says, “Because I’m so happy and so full of fear, too.” Ali responds, “Not fear. Fear not good. Fear eats soul.” Emmi, at first troubled by the phrase, embraces it. “Fear eats the soul? That’s nice.” It is nice, isn’t it?
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul will screen at the IU Cinema in 35mm on Thursday, February 14, at 7 pm. This screening is part of IU Cinema’s 5X Series entitled 5X Rainer Werner Fassbinder: New German Cinema’s Subversive Social Critic.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 film and a Tarkovsky nut.