Something snapped inside of me after having revisited Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in so many years: it was the urge to let out a storm. I wasn’t exactly sure at first, but I still recall my first experience with Fassbinder’s Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama and I found it to be a stunning, if difficult experience at that. It was difficult because what I saw from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul wasn’t only a film that tells of a romance that was made impossible at the hands of societal norms. It was a frightening experience that brought back my own fears – and I froze on the spot like I always do at the hands of my own paranoia. I froze because I was reminded of everything in my life that I’m most afraid of and think about on a regular basis. I just sense fear eating me away at every minute, my soul is slowly leaving day by day – and I can never escape.
Emmi is a 60-year-old widow living as a cleaning woman in Germany. Ali is a Moroccan guest worker in his late thirties who is only able to speak in broken German. They meet by chance in a bar amidst rain and end up dancing, which becomes the start of a rather strange, yet touching friendship. It isn’t only friendship where this is limited to, but we see this relationship blossom into a romance – one that is frowned upon on both ends. On Emmi’s end her pain starts from her racist family members and peers treating her with contempt. Ali has found company in another group of people who speak Arabic, and he faces even more pressure coming to his ability to connect with a much older German woman. This romance should be seen as impossible, yet it isn’t – it’s merely broken, like Ali’s German, only highlighting the greater power of a melodramatic tale.
Fear eats away at the soul. Fear of what, exactly? It’s the fear that wants to eat away humanity. It is never defined by reason. It is present because it just is. And it always leads to the alienation that other human beings are left to withhold from. But it’s the extreme that Fassbinder has elevated how it controls people, it ends up separating us from humanity altogether and we even lose touch of who we really wish to make ourselves out to be. We have an idea of what makes a decent person, yet we condemn others who don’t come on board – as shown from the relationship that Emmi has with her own family. Her daughter is married to a racist tyrant (a cameo role from writer-director Fassbinder himself), and upon the announcement they shrug her off as being ridiculous. And it’s how Fassbinder captures this anxiety that elicits the film’s greatest powers.
How often does fear take influence inside of our own lives? Well, quite frankly – I had always lived under it. I don’t go out as often as I know I should and when I’m out I barely even show a sign of wanting to talk, because I keep myself afraid of encountering all the worst qualities of another person. It seems fitting enough because of what I know Fassbinder’s experience intends to capture in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – because there’s always a fear of rejection, coming from how Fassbinder has portrayed Emmi. Emmi, who is already in her sixties, suffers at the hands of an ageist society that has no place for her, even her children have no use for her anymore. The coldness of the society only fits with portraying a budding fear within each of its characters and what turns other people into, and quite frankly – it only starts to strike more chords with the direction our world goes in.
Speaking about the film’s Douglas Sirk influence, it isn’t just present within scenario but within its own anger at the society it depicts. It’s set within Germany after the war, broken apart because of the fact that their own society is formed with a general idea of what they see as decency rather than humanity. We know that Emmi and Ali are in love, but they are not allowed to be, as a result of the xenophobia within the society because Ali is only seen as an Arab worker and nothing but. Emmi is a lonely woman who has found a sense of happiness and comfort from her first encounter with Ali. And yet it only makes her feel more alone than ever because the world continuously alienates her. Because Fassbinder is playing this budding romance so simply it also sheds a light on where something more complex is present.
Fear, once again – fear on the count that forming a connection will only result in further alienation. People all around the world continue to be treated like aliens for things that they cannot change about themselves. It’s this fear that only results in the violence of the current political climate, and maybe one that will only keep everything moving in this direction if society refuses to change their ways and see the damage they leave behind. I can barely even talk in the public because I know I present an image that others will see, and I get paranoid about how people judge it. I get so paranoid to the point I just silence everything out as much as I possibly can and it also hit me even more so when I see Emmi and Ali’s fear of what they will lose because of what image they present in a world that builds itself on generalization. And because of how subtly it grows it also makes this romance all the more moving amidst the film’s anger.
It’s this fear that’s keeping me moving, but I can’t ever tell if I’m going forward. I just feel that everyone’s judging me over what I am like and it stunned me I felt this resonance from watching Ali: Fear Eats the Soul for my first time in so long. I feel it would be easier for me to ramble once again, but it caught me how Emmi’s alienation from her own peers over time had struck a chord with me. Because she knows that there are people around her who still treat her with kindness, and it is the fear eating her own happiness away – even finding it in some way would only have it becoming much worse. And maybe it’s only fitting enough that Fassbinder has titled the film the way it is, because fear is what breaks humanity apart. In the words of Ali, “fear eat soul up.” And in the same sense, Fassbinder eats the heart up with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann
Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 93 minutes