With Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder achieved a major milestone in his career and made one of the great works of the New German Cinema. The film clearly builds on the strengths that had made Fassbinder’s previous works so fresh, distinctive, and startling—in particular, a formal, sometimes theatrical style of performance and mise-en-scène brought to bear on a brutally frank and intellectually astringent exploration of the themes of power, exploitation, and class struggle. Beware of a Holy Whore (1970), The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) are three high points of the director’s early period, incisive and bleakly ironic films that oscillate between florid melodrama and a Brechtianism that has been filtered through post-nouvelle-vague cinephilia.
Transcending both terms of this duality, while holding in check Fassbinder’s tendency to indulge or mock his characters’ masochism, Fear Eats the Soul achieves an ideal balance between emotional involvement and critical distance. Though lacking the historical sweep and formal perfection of The Marriage of Maria Braun and the steely ferocity of In a Year of 13 Moons (both 1978)—to name two highlights of Fassbinder’s later career—Fear Eats the Soul has an intensity and maturity that qualify it to stand among his masterpieces. It also has a tenderness that is almost unparalleled in the director’s work.
The origin of Fear Eats the Soul can be traced to two earlier films. In Fassbinder’s own The American Soldier (1970), a hotel chambermaid (played by Margarethe von Trotta) recounts the story of Emmi, a Hamburg cleaning woman who met Ali, a Turkish immigrant worker, in a bar, married him, and was later found strangled, the imprint of the letter A from a signet ring on her throat. Shortly after making The American Soldier, Fassbinder encountered the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk—a German-born director who’d emigrated to the United States—and found proof that it was possible to make beautiful, personal films that registered with the public. One film that had a particular impact on Fassbinder was All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which the romance between a well-to-do widow and a younger tree surgeon is opposed by her mortified children and snobbish, envious neighbors.
From the story told by the chambermaid in The American Soldier, Fassbinder took the names and social situations of the two main characters in Fear Eats the Soul, along with the interracial aspect of their relationship (although Ali is now Moroccan, not Turkish), while shifting the story from Hamburg to Munich. Crucially, he also replaced the tragic ending with one in which there remains at least a degree of hope. From All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder took the age gap between the lovers (significantly widening it) and the theme of the hostility of outsiders, which let him use the film to criticize society.
It’s inaccurate, however, to call Fear Eats the Soul a “remake” of All That Heaven Allows, as has sometimes been done. There are a few precise echoes of the earlier film in the later one: Emmi’s tearful confession that, despite her pretended indifference, the hatred of the people around her does, in fact, matter to her recalls lines spoken by Jane Wyman in the Sirk film; and Fassbinder borrows from Sirk the symbol of a TV set as the sterile link between the heroine and her son (without re-creating Sirk’s devastating camera movement toward Wyman’s reflection in the TV screen). But in adapting the story of All That Heaven Allows (which later also inspired Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven), Fassbinder simplifies it, makes its contrasts more extreme, turns it away from melodrama and toward fable, and intensifies its motive forces: the love of the couple and the oppression acting on them. And with his characteristic irony and bitterness, he shows that this oppression is just as necessary to the lovers as the love is.
In the first part of Fear Eats the Soul, the oppression comes from Emmi’s children, neighbors, and coworkers, who all turn against her because of her marriage to Ali. Their attitudes, and the emotional devastation wreaked upon Emmi, are powerfully and simply delineated. A turning point comes with the couple’s vacation in Steinsee. After they return home, they find, as Emmi had hoped, that everything around them is different. The racist grocery store owner, having realized that in alienating Emmi he lost a good customer at a time when his business is under threat (from competition from a new supermarket), tries to reenter her good graces with an elaborate performance of neighborly cordiality. Emmi’s son, previously so enraged by his mother’s marriage that he was driven to kick in the screen of her TV, returns meekly and contritely to her house to request her help with child care. The neighbors, who had affected being scandalized by Emmi’s relationship with Ali, now greet her as though nothing was ever amiss (and, by the way, about that storage space in the basement she’s not using . . .). Emmi’s coworkers, who formerly ostracized her, can bond with her again now that their relentless need to reject someone has found a new victim in a recently arrived Yugoslavian workmate.
Once relaxed on the outside, however, the oppression of the couple must come from within: from the imbalance of power between the two of them. Emmi becomes a boss figure, ordering Ali around, and also a kind of show business impresario, getting him to display his muscles to her friends from work. If Emmi has power over Ali because she is a German in Germany, he is younger and more sexually powerful— attributes he proceeds to use by resuming his liaison with the owner of his regular bar (Barbara Valentin). The scenes charting these various reversals allow Fassbinder to make the points that the behavior of people in society follows arbitrary rules and that social attitudes operate independently from any of the individuals who adopt them at one time or another. In other words, life is theater, and the function of cinema, for Fassbinder, is to make the inner and outer workings of this theater visible and intelligible. The cruelest stroke comes when Emmi peeks out from behind her half-opened door at the prostrate Ali in the hallway, only to shut the door again. At this moment, she merges completely with the faceless role of a solitary, elderly urban apartment dweller living in mistrustful seclusion from the world outside—a role to which her social status as an elderly widow seems to have doomed her, though her relationship with Ali enabled her, for a time, to escape it.
The visual style of Fear Eats the Soul is both masterly and utterly without flourish. To show the couple’s predicament, Fassbinder uses a complementary pair of expressive figures, the first based on the restriction of the film frame. The doorway to Emmi’s kitchen becomes a variable frame that traps characters in their unhappiness (as when she’s left alone after Ali goes out for couscous) or encloses a moment of intimacy stolen from loneliness (the couple’s first private time, when Emmi gives Ali brandy). In the several scenes set on the staircases of Emmi’s apartment building and the building she cleans, intrusive vertical forms (columns, pipes, window and door frames) divide the characters and make their power relations instantly readable.
The second expressive figure—a wide shot revealing the emptiness around the couple—appears at the moments when Emmi and Ali are most together. As they emerge from the registry office in the rain, the solitude and indifference they’re up against seem to take on visible form: piles of rubble in the middle ground, a lone car that passes in the background. Visiting an outdoor café, the couple find themselves marooned in a sea of yellow tables, across which the camera tracks toward them in an instinctive gesture of sympathy. The scene in the fancy restaurant where they celebrate their wedding unites both expressive figures: an interior doorway ceremoniously frames the couple, while on the camera’s side of the doorway, empty tables testify to the absence of any social context for their happiness and any support for it.
There’s a sense throughout Fear Eats the Soul that the world has become still. Even copulation is static, as in the scene of Ali’s coupling with the bar owner. The sense of timelessness that pervades the film is instilled not just through the long, strange moments of silence and immobility but also through the way the characters constantly generalize about life. “Fear eat soul” (a closer translation of the film’s ungrammatical German title, Angst essen Seele auf). “Time heals all wounds.” “Money spoils a friendship.” “In business you have to hide your aversions.” “Half of life consists of work.” “Germans with Arabs not good.” “Think much, cry much.” “Dark clothes look so sad, don’t they?” “It’s no fun drinking alone.” The sententiousness of these lines adds to the film’s impression of stillness. In them, a way of looking at life has solidified and become accepted as natural and permanent.
The stillness of the film is deeply sad. But in the middle of all this sadness lies the possibility Emmi and Ali create when they find each other. Much of the beauty of Fear Eats the Soul comes from the performances of Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. All the details of Mira’s Emmi are vivid and affecting: her resignation, her intelligence, the mixture of stubbornness and hesitancy with which she faces her life, the fundamental optimism implied in her graciousness toward other people (as when she chooses to ignore the malice of the neighbor who seizes an inopportune moment to repay a trivial loan) or in the pleasant way she serves Ali brandy. Mira shows us the social role that has been imposed on Emmi, while at the same time showing us her need to give and receive tenderness—a need that this role fails to satisfy. Ben Salem’s freshness and candor make him an ideal partner for Mira. As Mira does with Emmi, ben Salem makes the social attitudes that Ali has adopted instantly clear: his ready impassivity before German racism, his retreat into the haven of the bar.
As we enter more deeply into the film, we may be surprised to find that we feel for the other characters too, with all their limitations: they, too, are trapped, vulnerable. It’s crucial for Fassbinder’s portrayal of German society in Fear Eats the Soul that, in the first part of the film, when Emmi and Ali are victimized at every turn, we see three people who don’t condemn the couple, who regard their union if not positively then at least with a certain equivocal indulgence, and who, in Emmi and Ali’s absence, defend them: the shopkeeper’s wife, the landlord’s son, and the bar owner. These three characters effect a transition, or sliding-off, in our sympathies, from the couple toward the outsiders, preparing us to see even the film’s racists as redeemable. (Characteristically, Fassbinder gives himself the role of the most swinish of them, Emmi’s lazy son-in-law.) And even while showing that the turnabouts in the attitudes of Emmi’s neighbors, children, and coworkers are motivated by self-interest, Fassbinder makes us ask: Isn’t that the case with all progress? And if it’s too much to hope that people’s natures change, isn’t it enough, for a start, that their actions do?
Fassbinder praised Sirk as “a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do.” As Ali: Fear Eats the Soul shows, he gave himself too little credit.
Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jerry Lewis; The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger; and Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. He is also the general editor of the anthology Defining Moments in Movies (also known as Little Black Book: Movies). Since 2012, he has been the artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.