Rainer Werner Fassbinder's cinema is uncommonly sensitive and sumptuous. Nuanced and thoughtful, it is also earnestly emotional and compassionate. Normally Fassbinder's work is concerned with those who fall outside the “norms” of society, and in his case, this society is the West Germany of the very late 1960s to the very early 1980s. As a bisexual, Fassbinder saw himself as existing just outside the framing typicality of his own society. Viewed through this sociologically bountiful prism, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is possibly his most purely beautiful work, concerned as it is with the relationship between a strongly virile foreign Arab worker named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, who was Fassbinder's partner at the time of the film's production) and an older German cleaning lady named Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira).
The quite loosely-followed basis for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, and it is worth noting how much Sirk's cinema influenced Fassbinder. While Sirkian aesthetics were not the most crucial component for Fassbinder, theoretical command of mise-en-scene and the adroitness with which Sirk weaved powerful social commentary through his exquisite precision. Fassbinder wanted to emulate the ocular symmetry of Sirk's films, and was especially moved by the intelligence that buttressed Sirk's stingingly palpable love stories. Fassbinder's filmic treatises on social ostracism and rejection were often searingly muscular, but with The Merchant of Four Seasons, made in 1971, Fassbinder's admiration of Sirk became visible. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first film Fassbinder made after meeting Sirk at the Munich Film Museum, and he would continue to extrapolate Sirkian touches in his work. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was the culmination of this strain when it was made.
Decades before Fatih Akin would make films examining German-Arab and German-Turkish relations through narrative, Fassbinder crafted a plausible romance between Emmi and Ali. The film begins with Emmi, as played by the amazing Mira, a slightly stereotypically stout German woman, walking into a bar to escape the rain. Emmi wears clothes with loud colors, and the clothing makes her, as a physical figure, more arresting and interesting, as well as remarking on the unconventional and unorthodox openness of the character that most meticulously comes forth through the narrative. When Emmi walks in, the bar seems strangely motionless; when the plain older lady tells the blonde barmaid that she will have a Coke, a group of customers turn and glare at her. Remarkably, it is Emmi who is perceived as the outsider, and justly so, as her actions create the seemingly irreconcilable firth that becomes a gulf between the central characters and the people who exist in their orbit. As the blonde returns to the bar, she taunts Ali into dancing with the older woman. “Ali dance with old woman?” Ali asks. Yet he decides to move to her table and ask her to dance. As the two dance, the camera focuses with the two in the foreground and the other characters in the background; as Ali and Emmi dance, the rest of the people inhabiting the bar are staring at them.
Ali accompanies Emmi home. As they converse, the dialogue renders the relationship in rigorous terms, while expanding on the characters themselves. Emmi talks about her first husband, who was Polish, as her name suggests. Emmi talks about the importance of wearing colors that make one feel happy. She kindly admonishes Ali about his dark-colored clothes. She says that he should wear bright, colorful clothes. Later he will. The scene is heartwarming, and is mostly shot in a drab apartment complex hallway. The isolation and absence of other characters enhances the separation from all others that most who fall in love experience—while on another plane elucidating the harsher reality of Ali and Emmi's marriage, which carries with it the caveat of (in an expressionistic manner) divorcing the rest of the world.
Ali is limited in his German, and the statements he makes—which always sound and read like maxims—such as “Always work, always drunk,” when describing his days and nights or “German master, Arab dog,” when conveying just how alike he and Emmi are in their social stations (she tells him that many people look down on her when they find out she is a cleaning lady), inform the title itself. The original German title, Angst essen Seele auf, translates as Fear Eat Soul. And Ali indeed tells Emmi that “fear eat soul”; it is, Fassbinder instructs, fear that has pushed Ali and Emmi outside the comfortable ordinariness. Separated by race and age, Ali and Emmi are viewed with contempt; a group of women who live in Emmi's apartment building become incensed that she is living with an Arab. These women are primarily linked together by their shared occupation as cleaning ladies, and so Fassbinder comments on the socio-economic experience that creates bitterness out of despair. One woman says she would rather die than live with a “dog.” Another remarks that “they... only want women” for “one thing.” Most damaging is the fear and loathing Emmi is confronted with from her own immediate family. One son violently kicks in a television set (echoing All That Heaven Allows) upon learning of his mother's lover's identity.
Fassbinder sagaciously utilizes simple devices and creations such as those hallways, windows and doorways, the spaces around tables, and other objects with which to frame Emmi and Ali—and their attendant romantic desperation—which transmit the characters' valiantly heedless acceptance of one another, finally as man and wife, pitted against a large, imposing group of ethnocentric societal guardians of “purity,” a veritable haut monde for the purposes of Fassbinder. In one humorous scene, Emmi is confused by a man to choose between a “rare” and a “medium-rare” dish; she believes rare to mean unusually excellent. In a scene far more disconsolate and tragic scene, Emmi and Ali, sitting at an outdoor table at which they hope to dine, are placed apart from nothing less than all of humanity by a metaphorical forest of empty yellow chairs. As the German and Moroccan quietly converse, she finally succumbing to the shattering realization that she and he are apparently doomed to stand out as the others through their marital bond, director of photography Jurgen Jurges aids Fassbinder in creating a bravura sequence of sight, color and sound in suspended animation.
For Fassbinder, the development of his characters takes on an unrestricted intimacy that is bracing. The act of ablution is made into an experience of cleansing that transcends bodily limitations. Ali is framed, naked, washing himself, and Fassbinder, capturing his naked lover, lends the character and actor portraying him a nearly embarrassing genuine love that surpasses the utilitarian concepts of filmmaking that are as surely used as a man's legs in a brusque gait. Shot in fifteen days on a small budget, between two much larger productions, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a redoubtable case of a writer-director squeezing more distilled pathos and integrity out of a “small” film than many “big” ones. The long, almost intermittent stretches of silence, in which life itself seems paused for Ali Emmi, makes the racial tensions both more invisible and present all at once. Defined by his appearance, Ali is gradually accepted by the very women who had earlier feigned repulsion at the mere thought of him. In an extension of the showering scenes, Fassbinder comments on the fetishism of the exotic, as a small circle of German women beam, each happily caressing and gripping the muscular biceps and triceps he possesses. This fetishism of the other is made purposefully whole, as Emmi herself routinely describes her husband as featuring a “foreign mentality”—which is certainly not untrue.
From approximately 1955 to 1973, Arab workers were immigrating to Germany to fill the vacuum of manual labor in the great postwar German economic recovery and boom. Invited in to work, these foreigners often found themselves marginalized by a society whose leadership had requested their presence. Creating social commentary out of the already ripe tale of volition and romance Sirk had etched less than twenty years earlier, Fassbinder's film remains abundantly relevant. Yet in some ways more importantly, this motion picture remains most incendiary in its discomfited self-contained vicinity—its wonderful insistence to tell a complete, human story about two people with all of their unsentimental flaws. Ali strays from Emmi and resorts to rendezvous with the blonde barmaid who dared him to connect with the older woman. The blonde provides Ali with two things his wife cannot, his favorite dish couscous and sex. Coworkers of Ali's are cruel toward Emmi when she visits him at work, asking Ali, “Is that your grandmother?” Nevertheless, through everything Ali and Emmi sustain their great love. Fassbinder's patient, watchful camera captures every last delicate moment, and takes the frighteningly personal viewpoint, which is always more perilous. It is from here he paints with the colors of those framing objects that create gorgeous portals through which to view Ali and Emmi through their many experiences with one another. Again and again, primary colors are utilized, always, it would seem, to italicize the primary urges, desires and needs these two characters so trenchantly carry with them.