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The origin of Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974), a breakthrough in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career and one of the great ﬁlms of the New German Cinema, can be traced to two earlier ﬁlms. In Fassbinder’s 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 (1956), 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 von Trotta in The American Soldier, Fassbinder takes the names and social situations of the two main characters of Fear Eats the Soul, along with the interracial aspect of their relationship (although Ali is now Moroccan, not Turkish). But he replaces the tragic ending with a hopeful one. He also shifts the story from Hamburg to Munich. From All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder takes the age gap between the lovers (and signiﬁcantly widens it) and the theme of the hostility of outsiders, which lets 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 Germans does 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 recreating Sirk’s devastating camera movement toward Wyman’s reﬂection in the TV screen). But in adapting the story of All That Heaven Allows (which more recently also inspired Todd Haynes’ 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.
In the ﬁrst part of Fear Eats the Soul, the oppression comes from Emmi’s children, neighbors, and coworkers. The turning point is the couple’s vacation in Steinsee. After they come home, they ﬁnd, as Emmi had hoped, that everything is different around them. But now the oppression comes from within, from the power imbalance between the two of them. She has power over him because she is a German in Germany, but he has power over her because he is younger and sexually attractive.
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 that 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 of 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 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 middleground, the 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 the ﬁlm that the world has become still—a feeling of timelessness, conveyed not just through the long, strange moments of silence and immobility, but also through the way the characters of Fear Eats the Soul 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. The ﬁlm draws its immense force from its concentration on two simple facts: the world’s indifference and the couple’s love.
Much of the beauty of Ali: 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 with 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 the 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, 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 make a transition, or sliding-off, in our sympathies, from the couple toward the outsiders, preparing us to see the ﬁlm’s racists as redeemable. (Characteristically, Fassbinder gives himself the role of the most swinish racist, Emmi’s 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 change?
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.
The author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press), Chris Fujiwara writes on film for the Boston Phoenix and other publications. He is currently working with A.S. Hamrah on a book on world cinema from 1968 to 1978.