Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Angst Essen Seele Auf
1974 — 93 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Romantic Drama
Essential Fassbinder. Poignant, beautiful and political story of a middle-aged cleaning woman who marries a young Moroccan immigrant, and how they deal with bigotry.
Fassbinder, only twenty-eight and already at the middle of his prodigious 14-year career, reached another pinnacle with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Although this is one of his most universally acclaimed (it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes) and popular films, it was made, from start to finish, in just four weeks. It is at once an homage to his cinematic hero, Douglas Sirk (Fassbinder here loosely riffs on his 1955 classic, All That Heaven Allows), as well as a brilliant use of melodrama's emotional power to dissect racial and other deep-rooted social tensions. It allowed Fassbinder to explore not only tortured places in the heart, as he does in all of his films, but some of the more tender and loving ones as well.
In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, lonely, middle-aged widow and cleaning lady Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Chinese Roulette) goes into an unknown bar during a rainstorm and meets Ali (El Hedi ben Salem The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends), a Moroccan auto mechanic over twenty years her junior. These two "outsiders" like each other immediately, fall in love (to their mutual surprise), and marry. That sends shockwaves through Emmi's family and neighbors, as well as Ali's co-workers and bar buddies. Emmi and Ali's relationship is threatened not only by hostile outside forces, but by problems in themselves which they need to confront if they hope to find lasting happiness together.
This film moves me deeply as a heartfelt and simple, but never simplistic, love story, even as it fascinates with its revelations about Fassbinder's growing artistry and insights into social politics. More suggestively, it offers some possible insights into Fassbinder's complex personal life.
"Happiness is not always fun" flashes on the screen in the first seconds, even before the title and credits. But that epigraph is a bit misleading. Although this film is certainly about the vicissitudes of pursuing, and maintaining, happiness, it actually is one of Fassbinder's most "fun" pictures in terms of its relatively straightforward story, engaging characters, and sometimes playful visual style. But Fassbinder is also reminding us of the origins of this film, dating back to his 1970 picture, The American Soldier. Those exact words begin the monologue he gave to the maid (played by future filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta) who recounts an early version of the plot of this film, which closely followed events reported recently in newspapers. (The full scene is excerpted on the DVD of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.) However, the intervening four years brought some changes: Emmi and Ali do not indulge in "six months of parties" and, happily, Emmi is not found dead and consequently Ali is not arrested for her murder.
After making the romantic thriller Martha (1973) for television, Fassbinder quickly wrote the screenplay for this, his next feature. Although Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is often mentioned as a "remake" of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (both are among the greatest films about romance I know), the reality is more convoluted. Yes, Fassbinder greatly admired Sirk, not least because the elder director taught him how to use popular melodrama as a vehicle for dissecting social hypocrisies and contradictions. And yes, the most basic outlines of both films are similar, namely, a middle-aged woman and a much younger man of a different social class meet, fall in love, and encounter social ostracism. But beyond those broad similarities, the works are distinct, and not just because of the economic disparity between the wealthy widow in Sirk's film and the poor cleaning lady of Fassbinder's (whom her neighbors consider socially superior to Ali because, after all, she's a German and he's not). In an interview on the DVD, filmmaker Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine) offers insights into the connections between those two pictures, as well as his own recent Far From Heaven, which draws on both Sirk and Fassbinder. Haynes notes that Emmi is innately good and accepting like Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) in Sirk; but Emmi has a more steadfast nature. She sticks to her values even more than the Cary (or the Julianne Moore character in Far From Heaven). By contrast, Ali is more corruptible as he becomes increasingly accepted by society; so in a way he is more like Cary.
Although both Sirk and Fassbinder use a TV set as a prominent symbol, how it is treated reveals another pointed difference between them. Whereas Sirk gives us an elegant, and deliciously ironic, image of Cary reflected in the blank screen. Her snobby children have given it to her as a Christmas present, a sort of consolation prize for bowing to their desire to dump the "socially inferior" gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), and to provide her with 'human companionship' now that they are all going off on their own. In startling contrast, in the comparable scene in Fassbinder, when Emmi introduces Ali to her swinish children (uncredited, Fassbinder plays Eugen [in the center of the still]), her son Bruno goes into such an uncontrollable rage that he literally kicks in her TV set.
Fassbinder was clearly inspired by this project. Recently rediscovered by Juliane Lorenz (editor of his last eleven films and now head of the Fassbinder Foundation) in an archive was his handwritten original of the script. As Ms. Lorenz notes in a filmed interview (in the BRD Trilogy set), incredibly, he did not change a single word from that "draft" to the finished film. Unfortunately for the harried editor, Thea Eymèsz (her interview is on this DVD), the actors often ad libbed, since the film was shot rapidly without synchronized sound. All of the dialogue and sound effects were added in post-production. Those dialogue changes made editing, especially with an unbreakable four-week deadline, a herculean task. It should also be noted that Fassbinder, as with many of his films, often shot only one take. Not only did knowing this strategy encourage the cast and crew to concentrate fully, it also helped keep the film within its tight budget. The ultimate achievement of this film, which some people regard as Fassbinder's masterpiece, seems almost superhuman under these circumstances.
Part of the film's power and appeal comes from the superb performances, especially of the two leads, Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. Both actors had supporting roles in several other Fassbinder works: Mira in eight other films and ben Salem in a half-dozen. Although the great "Briggi" Mira played the title role in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, this was ben Salem's only starring role for Fassbinder. However, offscreen he was reputed, by some, to have been the great love of Fassbinder's life (below I'll look more at how their relationship might be embodied in this film). Ben Salem's performance also reminded me of Bruno S (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek), the unique actor associated with Fassbinder's fellow instigator of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog. Ben Salem, in this film, and Bruno S both convey a sweet but unsettling quality of directness, innocence, and even a kind of unearthliness. (In this film, a small part of that 'strangeness' may be attributed to the fact that Ali's voice does not come from ben Salem; rather it was dubbed in by an uncredited actor, Wolfgang Hess.)
One reason these performances are so indelible is that not only do they bring fully to life the multi-layered characters which Fassbinder has written, they let us intuit through their gestures and even their stillness (of which there is a good deal) what these people are thinking. They show a tremendous, but always believable, range from confusion to love to playfulness to hurt. And that anchors the film emotionally. Our deep connection connection with these characters allows us to accept the more intellectual elements of the film, as when he focuses on social politics: his comments on German society can all too easily be applied to any society at any time (the considerable humor in the film makes the philosophical pill easier to swallow). And even when Fassbinder begins pulling the film in sometimes extreme stylistic directions, to explore those themes from a unique visual perspective, we stay with him, with them: Emmi and Ali.
Fassbinder's politics in this film are more genially presented, although no less probing and incisive, than in his other works, from the brilliant early work, Katzelmacher, in which Fassbinder himself plays a foreign "guest worker" in Germany (like Ali here), to his penultimate film, Veronika Voss (Querelle, his last film, is another matter). In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the tone is different, more hopeful: and it's reflected both in the way the story embodies his theme (Emmi and Ali are among Fassbinder's most empathetic characters) and in the striking visual style. A late work like Lola is even more stylistically lush, but it's "happy ending" (there aren't very many in Fassbinder's filmography) bites with irony. Here, the abrupt ending (some people find it too jarring, but on a gut level that very quality makes it effective for me) is ironic only in terms of Germany society, and what it has done to Ali's health. I feel that Fassbinder is indeed holding out hope for Emmi and Ali's relationship together, because he has shown us how much each has learned about themself. This ending, on one level, reminds us that the flip side of irony is a kind of latent idealism: Allows for insights into social politics & social hypocrisy & Germany (specific) and human nature (general), etc. always grounded in these real, believable people whom we come to care about so much. Not pessimistic; rather ironic which implies a kind of latent idealism, i.e., if we can understand our flaws (perhaps) we can overcome them. But Fassbinder sees the source of that idealism in individuals, not the larger society.
Of course, the Germany depicted here with much tongue-in-cheek humor never comes to understand itself any better (Fassbinder implies that such growth is only possible in individuals), yet still it's flexible enough to integrate outsiders like the interracial couple here. Of course, Fassbinder slyly reveals the practical reasons for why the family members and neighbors gradually accept the couple: there's something in it for them. Exploitation is a major theme in all of Fassbinder's work with great perceptiveness he looks equally hard at the victims and the victimizers but here it's presented ironically, even comically.
Emmi's son sends a check to pay for the TV he smashed, along with a request for Emmi to provide some (free) babysitting time for his kid. The catty women in Emmi's building realize that not only is a big strapping hunk like Ali useful for moving heavy furniture (for free, of course), he's also useful as eye candy in these women's lonely lives. Who can ever forget the hilarious scene where Emmi's newly 'open-minded' friends circle Ali, feeling his muscles: from loathing to lust in an hour of screen time! Note Fassbinder's subtlety in this brief scene. He shoots the climax of this scene in one continuous, and static, long shot, which simultaneously gives the impression of objectivity (it's a head-on shot, no movement or cutting) even as it reflects the alienation which Ali feels as he is objectified by the giggling matrons. What we see reflects what Ali is feeling, as external and internal converge intuitively, brilliantly.
Fassbinder is too keen an observer of human nature to don rose-colored glasses. It's significant, and sad, that once Emmi has again found favor with her cronies, she joins with them to ostracize the latest "foreigner," Yoland, a young, cleaning woman from Yugoslavia (played by an uncredited Helga Ballhaus, wife of the film's cinematographer Michael Ballhaus). Fassbinder uses the exact shot he first employed to reveal Emmi's forlorn state sitting hunched and alone on the stairwell, metaphorically imprisoned by the jail cell like railing now to show Yolanda. The victim has joined with the victimizers, their "in-group" status solidified by having found someone new to cast out. Why? Perhaps the title offers a clue.
"Fear eats the soul,'' Ali tells Emmi, is a saying which Arabs use a lot. What is the source of this fear? On one level, it is people and situations which are unknown, or even simply unfamiliar. Of course, in Fassbinder there is always the suggestions of a deeper level, almost a metaphysical dimension to fear. On the surface, the fear in this and many other Fassbinder films is "simply" racism or xenophobia. But if you dig deeper as Fassbinder often does through his images (even in a flawed film like Chinese Roulette, which is all about fear) you can sense the loneliness, the fragility, the desperation of his characters. But after Ali's collapse at the end, Emmi is able to suggest a heartfelt solution to their problems: "When we're together, we must be nice to each other.'' Simple, poignant, and I believe true, for them and for all of us.
One of the things which I respond to most in Fassbinder, what makes his films feel true (even when he's sometimes reaching dizzying heights of stylization), is that he never lets anyone off the hook. Even though he usually focuses on minorities, they are not allowed to escape his scrutiny; and some of his most original insights involve dissecting how victims participate in their own victimization. That's why some people consider far ahead of their time the quartet of films in which the openly-gay Fassbinder focused on people who are, respectively, gay (Fox and His Friends), lesbian (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), bisexual (Beware of a Holy Whore), and transgender (In a Year With 13 Moons). On the one hand, his GLBT characters exist in a world where their sexual nature is accepted as ordinary (although some of those worlds are admittedly circumscribed literally, in the single-set universe of Petra von Kant). But on a deeper level, Fassbinder also explores with as much mercilessness as genuine compassion how and why they participate in their own problems. Radically, his GLBT characters are just as flawed and, unprecedented for their time, shown to be as fully and complexly human as any non-GLBT characters, like, say, Ali and Emmi.
In this film, not only does Emmi, however tentatively, go with the herd and shun poor Yolanda, Ali also proves himself no saint. He leaves Emmi after his co-workers at the garage jeer at her ("Is that your grandmother from Morocco?") and finds solace in the the barmaid's (Barbara Valentin) steaming coucous which Emmi doesn't want to learn how to cook, although it's his favorite. The statuesque Barbara has always had the hots for Ali; but perhaps more as a sign of fidelity to Emmi than a lack of physical stamina, he can't perform in bed for her: he just lies there, motionless.
The resonant stillness in that late scene is just one of dozens of instance throughout the film, both with characters and camerawork. Fassbinder literally freezes the action, at several points, into a tableau. He had used this theatrical/abstract effect frequently, and sometimes to devastating effect, in his first ten or so films (including the astonishing Katzelmacher in which Fassbinder himself plays a foreign "guest worker"). Much more prevalent than actual tableaus are the many moments of stillness which Fassbinder uses, mostly with Emmi and Ali, throughout the film. Also, ben Salem's natural stiffness, offset by his sense of humor, works very well in this film. In addition, Fassbinder only rarely moves his camera in this film (although in other pictures, such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha, he proves himself a master of fluid camerawork). On one level, this literal lack of movement augments the quality of yearning which permeats the film, and gives it much of its power. We literally see the emotional blockage of these people. On an even broader level, you could read a tacit criticism of German society into this technique: people are literally and metaphorically paralyzed by their distance not only from themselves but as we see in the many shots which place isolated characters far in the background the people around them. Ironically, the "liveliest" elements in the film are arguably not even Emmi and Ali, but two primary colors: the objects painted a scalding red (including the trim in the bar, some cars, the curtains in Emmi's apartment, various objects, Coke signs) or a glaring yellow (such as the tables and chairs in the bistro scene discussed below, Emmi's blouse after she's been re-accepted' by society, Barbara's apartment). Of course, that is not so surprising in a world marked by such objectification and anti-human stiffness.
Fassbinder expands this strategy through his pacing, which is slow and expectant; again subtly highlighting this world's (often) unfulfilled longing and paralysis. Part of his genius is that he is able to make even such "lethargy" dramatically and emotionally riveting. Although here his use of the technique is much less extensive, and extended, than in, say, his first film, Love is Colder Than Death, when he has the main character stand still for several minutes, allowing us not only to watch that rarest of phenomena in film a character thinking sans voice over but to let us ponder him, and imagine his thoughts, for ourselves. It's worth noting that Fassbinder, especially in his greatest films including Ali: Fear Eats the Soul uses rhythm as an integral part of the whole film. He is in command of narrative flow in many ways: as the author, as the director who works intimately with his extremely gifted actors as well as with his cameraman (in terms of camera movement), and finally as the (often uncredited) editor of his films, who also knows how and where to use sound and music as yet more ways of controlling rhythms. This is a lengthy way of saying that Fassbinder got the rhythmic effects that he wanted; they are often not what we are used to, if we come from a steady diet of commercial movies (which at their best can be very satisfying in their own way). But Fassbinder's uses of pacing are what his characters, stories, and themes need, whether it's the manic energy of Satan's Brew or the languors of Effi Briest or the periodic moments of stillness which punctuate this film. Sometimes in small ways, other times by leaps (especially in his great early films), Fassbinder's complex use of rhythm expands the expressive, and analytical, potential of cinema.
In the film's design, Fassbinder also emphasizes rigid boundaries, including the frequent use of narrowly-framed spaces, including a variety of rooms (the bar, Emmi's apartment) and stairwells. He also often shoots through doorways and down halls, which further reduces the space in the already confined blockiness of his 1.33:1 aspect ratio frame. People are literally squeezed into tiny openings, as their condition suggests the static yet constricting nature of society.
An even more impressive achievement is how Fassbinder can make outdoor settings fully as claustrophobic as his tightest interior shots. Look at the extraordinary scene at the open-air bistro (DVD chapter 14), in which Emmi and Ali are alone at a table, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of empty, stiffly-arranged chairs and tables all painted a garish bright yellow while far in the background we see the staff huddled together, casting disapproving looks at the interracial couple. (The setting recalls a key scene in Fassbinder's extraordinary first short film, "The City Tramp" (1966), in which the title character sits alone amidst rows of empty picnic tables in a park, an ironically jaunty Strauss waltz playing on the soundtrack.)
Here, the simple but powerful bistro scene also reflects Fassbinder's basic structural technique for the entire film: he begins with a long shot, which highlights the empty space around the main characters, cuts in to a confining two-shot, then gives a close-up which includes the main character in sharp focus while far in the background we see the people who glower at them. First the main characters are distant, then it's their observers.
Because of Fassbinder's evocative use of his dramatic, visual, and emotional strategies, all working together, we intuit what Emmi and Ali are feeling, even as we understand Fassbinder's compassionate stance towards them and his criticism of the mindlessly disapproving society in which they live. Fassbinder has created a complex, and deeply satisfying, form of identification between his characters and each of us through a series of seeming contradictions of sympathy and observation, of emotional density and intellectual clarity. What is ultimately so involving about this scene, not to mention the entire film and many of Fassbinder's other pictures, is that Fassbinder forces or allows (depending on your perspective) each of us to understand what the characters do not, both about themselves and their society. Although we are literally in a scene of emptiness and distance, we are emotionally engaged because we have to fill in the gaps of psychology, social awareness, and most importantly emotion which Fassbinder purposely leaves open for us. We must understand the scene not only through Emmi and Ali's points of view, and even that of the shadowy waiters glowering in the background, but from our individual perspective. As Fassbinder learned from two such seemingly different mentors as Douglas Sirk and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as his own experience, each of us has to go through the process of personal and political growth ourselves; those works, or institutions, which purport to do it for us take away our autonomy and, ultimately, our freedom. Of course, that is also the lesson which both Emmi and Ali must learn, if their marriage is to survive and enrich both their lives.
These visual elements combine with Fassbinder's theme to provide increasingly nuanced insights which reflect both the way we perceive events and how we think about them. Ultimately, I am so involved in this film not only because of the characters, whom I care about a great deal, but because of the complex way in which Fassbinder tells, or more precisely explores, their story. He invites us to participate, both emotionally and analytically. He combines realism, with genuine insights into how society functions, with fairy tale-like qualities in the story, as well as a sensual, sometimes extreme, style (the use of bright primary colors, the symbolic framing of shots). This produces a rich tension between the real and the abstract I'm seeing things which are simultanouesly famliar and "different" and perhaps that explains in part why this is such a haunting film, one which stays with you for days, or even years, after seeing it.
This film is also fascinating for what it suggests about Fassbinder himself, and his complex inner life. Although I don't pretend to "psychoanalyze" Fassbinder through a speculative reading of this film, I will share some of my thoughts with you. Part of the complexity and richness of this film, exceptional even for Fassbinder, may come from his greater than usual emotional investment in this picture, perhaps because it allowed him, on a number of levels, to work through some of his own deepest feelings. Foremost, Fassbinder offscreen was himself involved with the handsome, brooding "foreigner," with a rich sense of humor, who played his male lead. In fact, Ali's full name, as he tells Emmi, is "El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha." And like the actor who embodies him, he came to Germany just a few years earlier. Some people have also speculated that Fassbinder had a special affinity for the character of Emmi Ali's lover in that he saw himself as short, pudgy and unattractive. Further, we can see a parallel between Fassbinder's frustration at German society's negative reception to his interracial gay relationship and the interracial, mixed-age relationship of Emmi and Ali.
Whether or not you choose to read Emmi as Fassbinder's trope for himself, and Ali as, well, himself, it is notable and exceptional in his body of work that Fassbinder possibly allows them to find love, self-knowledge and happiness together. Of course, he can never completely let go of his razor-sharp critical view of society, and the circumscribed relationships which it demands. So the abrupt ending in the hospital paradoxically can be seen as another reason for why this film feels so satisfying. Fassbinder's final scene also offers another telling instance of how he both uses and critiques the underlying assumptions of All That Heaven Allows. Sirk ends his film with Ron being injured in an accident, and Cary caring for him selflessly; we are certain that, despite their disparate incomes, all will work out well for them.
By contrast, Fassbinder's final scene is troubling on several levels (including a medical one) which is exactly the kind of discordant note this love song needs to end on. Even visually, he gives us a complex 'double' final image: first we see Emmi and Ali, far in the distance, reflected in a mirror, which further emphasizes the artificiality. Next comes the final image, a two-shot of Emmi holding Ali's hand which continues for what feels like a long time, as he lies there with his ruptured ulcer. Unlike the certain recovery of Rock Hudson, in Sirk's film, the doctor here has just told Emmi that Ali's perforated ulcer is common among foreign workers, and that he will probably be back with the same condition in six months. But at least Fassbinder does she us Emmi and Ali together, touching, connecting in ways which we must interpret for ourselves. If Fassbinder had ended on too sugary a note, it would have undercut the honesty and emotional range of what had become before.
Fassbinder's original tragic ending to the story, as recounted in The American Soldier, is sadly prophetic of what happened eight years later, in 1982, to ben Salem in real life. Before moving to Germany and falling into Fassbinder's heady world, he had grown up in a remote area in North Africa. After making this film, and becoming increasingly able to deal with his feelings of jealousy towards Fassbinder, ben Salem reached the breaking point. As recounted by Fassbinder's friend, filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen (on his commentary for Lola), ben Salem stabbed three people in a Berlin bar (claiming they had made racist remarks to him; at least none of them died), then went to Fassbinder, saying, "Now you don't have to be afraid anymore. I've gotten rid of my aggression." Fassbinder helped ben Salem leave the country, and covered for him at the Cannes Film Festival, where people were surprised that he did not appear at the screening. A few years later ben Salem was captured and imprisoned in Nimes, France, where he hanged himself. Fassbinder learned of the suicide while he was editing Querelle, and so dedicated the film to ben Salem. Some people have speculated that his former lover's death may have precipitated Fassbinder's own suicide by a drug overdose.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul shows us another possibility; not for the real life ben Salem, or even Fassbinder, but for Ali and Emmi, and perhaps through them, for us. Fassbinder reveals, with beauty and force, that the path to happiness can never be walked on blindly: connect, love, grow but don't be afraid to scrutinize the broader context, which extends from inside ourselves to the contradictory shape of society.
- New digital transfer, with restored image and sound
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Introduction by director Todd Haynes (whose 2002 film, Far From Heaven, was in part suggested by Fassbinder's picture and their common inspiration, Douglas Sirk's 1955 classic, All That Heaven Allows)
- Interviews with actress Brigitte Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz
- Short film "Fear is the Soul" (2002), directed by Shahbaz Noshir and featuring key personnel from Fassbinder's film: star Brigitte Mira, cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, and editor Thea Eymèsz
- Signs of Vigourous Life: New German Cinema, a 35-minute documentary from the BBC
- Excerpt from The American Soldier starring Margarethe Von Trotta
- A 16-page booklet, featuring a new essay by critic Chris Fujiwara and a reprint of Michael Töteberg's introduction to the published screenplay
- $39.95 suggested retail
Reviewed February 21, 2004
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