Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a prodigy, the most prolific member of the New German Cinema movement, which made its mark from the late '60s through the early '80s despite his short career. By the time he died in 1982 at the of age 37, Fassbinder had made 40 features and written two dozen stage plays.
Fassbinder shot “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974) during a 15-day gap between two other films he was working on, “Martha “ and “Effi Briest.” Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) provided the inspiration for the story of a blossoming relationship between an older woman and a younger man. For Fassbinder, disparate nationalities contribute to a social chasm that challenges the relationship.
The themes of social oppression and racist attitudes define the unconventional relationship at the heart of this film. Germany’s national identity is swept up in the ideologies of generations traumatized by the legacy of Nazism.
Emmi, a 60-year-old widow and cleaning woman, (Brigitte Mira) dreams of eating at “Hitler’s favorite restaurant.” She enters a bar where the unusual sound of Arabic music piques her curiosity. A weathered Teutonic blonde barmaid (Katharina Herberg) contemptuously serves Emmi a soft drink. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a thirty-something Moroccan auto mechanic, takes up a challenge from his fellow barflys to dance with this interloper to their enclave. Fassbinder’s peeking camera captures the couple’s formalized introduction as they talk while dancing to a German song on the jukebox. German and Arabic patrons observe the couple with stern judgment; their contempt serves only to incite the budding romance.
In describing his experience living in Germany, Ali tells Emmi, “Germans with Arabs not good. German master. Arab dog.”
Emmi, too subsists on the bottom rung of a rigid social pecking order. Her busybody neighbors rally to have the landlord evict Ali after he moves into Emmi’s apartment.
Emmi’s adult children also try to block her quest for happiness. But seeds of xenophobia also exist in Emmi’s and Ali’s subconscious minds. Social pressure is everywhere. Two of the film’s defining scenes — there are others as well — expose the influence of Ali and Emmi's peers upon how they interact with one another.
Emmi treats Ali like an animal in a petting zoo when her neighbors arrive to check him out. She invites them to feel his muscles, an invitation the two women are only too happy to accept. Emmi attributes Ali’s grumpy departure from this untoward scene to his “foreign mentality.”
When Emmi shows up at Ali’s auto shop the next day to confront him for not returning home the night before, he makes no effort to stand up for her to his insulting co-workers.
“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is a timeless examination of the insidious effects of prejudice and racism on relationships. There is no oversimplification in Emmi’s realization that she and Ali must be “nice to each other” when they are together because “otherwise, life’s not worth living.”
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