Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
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If anyone needs proof that ethnic bias and anti-immigrant bigotry are nothing new, a look at Rainer Werner Fassbinder's great 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul clarifies the situation in no uncertain terms. The first time Emmi Kurowski walks upstairs to her flat with her Moroccan boyfriend, Ali, the gossips in her apartment building start in without delay: "Mrs. Kurowski's got a foreigner up there. A black man....Well, not that black, but pretty dark. She's not really German herself. With a name like Kurowski! What are things coming to?" Emmi is completely German, by the way - she's a widow, and Kurowski was her husband's name.
Later in the story, Emmi mentions that she's had a chat with a nice foreign worker, and the response is just as bad: "They're filthy pigs. The way they live! Whole families crammed into one room. All they're interested in is money." Dismayed by this, Emmi says immigrants might have trouble finding good places to live. "No," responds a coworker. "They're stingy. And they have only one thing in their heads: women." Then another piles on: "A load of trash! None of them work. They live here at our expense." What about the Germans who sometimes marry these workers? "Some women would stoop to anything....And what can you talk about with someone like that? Most of them don't speak a word of German....All they want is sex."
And so it goes at various points in the film. If fear eats the soul, as the title says, the threat comes from multiple directions. Emmi is afraid of what society will say. Ali is also afraid of that, and of whether his relationship with Emmi can withstand the cultural differences between them. Most important of all, absolutely everyone is afraid of foreigners, outsiders, others, people who don't fit the normal patterns we expect of one another. The original title of Fassbinder's film was simply Fear Eats the Soul, and that warning is at the movie's heart. Fear eats every soul it gets hold of, and we will be devoured if we don't find ways of overcoming it.
Fassbinder hugely admired Douglas Sirk, a towering Hollywood director who specialized in socially acute melodramas. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is Fassbinder's most explicit homage to Sirk, taking story elements directly from Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, which premiered in 1955, and Imitation of Life, a 1959 release. The first of those films recounts a troubled love affair between Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), an affluent widow with children on the verge of adulthood, and Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a handsome young man who works as a gardener.
Cary and Ron are obviously a terrific match, but Cary's friends and children instantly scorn the relationship, saying she's too old for romance with anyone, much less a somewhat younger man who works with his hands for a living. In one of the film's most emotionally harrowing scenes, Cary's children give her a present to brighten her life - not a nod of approval for her love affair with Ron, but a new TV set that will let her watch life's parade without actually being part of it. She and Ron are reunited at the end of the story, but only after he suffers an accident that makes their victory difficult and incomplete.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul came almost twenty years after All That Heaven Allows, and Fassbinder was able to radicalize the story in ways Hollywood wouldn't have allowed in the 1950s. Emmi isn't a pretty, well-heeled woman heading into middle age, she's a sixty-something housecleaner with a wrinkled face and sagging figure drained by a lifetime of manual labor. Ali, whose real name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha, isn't a charming, creative landscaper but an inarticulate auto-repair worker probably half Emmi's age.
Emmi and Ali fall for each other and get married despite their visible differences, and the largeness of those differences is essential to Fassbinder's point. When genuine, heartfelt love has drawn two people together, why should superficialities like skin tones, age differentials, language skills, or nationalities keep them apart? And why should other people butt into the situation? The neighbors and relatives who tsk-tsk about Emmi and Ali are so pathetically misguided that they themselves eventually get tired of moralizing, coming to terms with the rightness of the couple's marriage. By that time strains have shown up within the marriage, however, leading the story to a bittersweet conclusion.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul keeps a steady focus on the romantic and psychological dilemmas of Emmi and Ali, but it gives many indications that society at large is also implicated in their problems. Emmi's daughter and son-in-law have a large crucifix on a wall of their apartment, for instance, yet this show of religion doesn't modify their unloving, uncharitable attitude toward Emmi's new husband. And right after their wedding, Emmi and Ali eat at a restaurant where Adolf Hitler used to dine, reminding viewers of the hatred and xenophobia that reigned in the still-recent Nazi era. Fassbinder even takes a vigorous poke at popular entertainment; outraged when Emmi announces her marriage to Ali, one of her sons lashes out and kicks in the screen of her TV set, giving a violent twist to the poignant TV-set scene in Sirk's movie.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul gains great power from quietly devastating performances by Brigitte Mira, who appears in several Fassbinder films, and Salem, a gifted Moroccan actor. But credit goes mainly to the amazing artist who wrote, produced, and directed it, and plays the role of Emmi's son-in-law. Fassbinder never made a more emotionally affecting film, or a better illustration of his belief that simple contentment is always a sadly elusive goal. For the basic message of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, just read the text that precedes the opening titles: "Happiness is not always fun."
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Producer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematographer: Jürgen Jürges
Film Editing: Thea Eymèsz
With: Brigitte Mira (Emmi Kurowski), El Hedi ben Salem (Ali), Irm Hermann (Krista), Elma Karlowa (Mrs. Kargus), Anita Bucher (Mrs. Ellis), Gusti Kreissl (Paula), Doris Mathes (Mrs. Angermeyer), Margit Symo (Hedwig), Katharina Herberg (girl in bar), Lilo Pempeit (Mrs. Münchmeyer), Peter Gauhe (Bruno Kurowski), Marquard Bohm (Gruber), Walter Sedlmayr (Angermayer), Hannes Gromball (waiter), Hark Bohm (doctor), Rudolf Waldemar Brem (bar customer), Karl Scheydt (Albert Kurowski), Peter Moland (chief mechanic), Barbara Valentin (Barbara), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eugen), Kurt Raab (mechanic)
by David Sterritt