Exquisitely simple and memorably sad, this culture-clash melodrama was an international breakthrough for prolific and provocative German writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One of two significant films inspired by the classic Hollywood tearjerker All That Heaven Allows (1955)—the other being Todd Haynes’ beautiful Far from Heaven (2002)—this picture explores the relationship between a middle-aged German woman and a young Moroccan laborer. Exploring themes of duplicity, hypocrisy, ignorance, loneliness, prejudice, and sexuality, Fassbinder’s movie offers a stark vision of desperate souls searching for connection in an unkind world. As the epigraph that appears at the beginning of the movie says, with typical Teutonic flair, “Happiness Is Not Always Fun.”
In a bar one night, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) hangs out with fellow Moroccan immigrants, as well as slatternly German barmaids, because getting drunk and having sex are his only reprieves from a life of hard work and incessant racism. He lives in Germany because he can’t find employment in Morocco, but he’s either exploited or resented by nearly everyone he meets in Germany. That is, until he encounters Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a middle-aged and overweight cleaning lady who enters the bar one evening. Sensing a kindred lost soul, Ali asks Emmi to dance, striking up a long conversation that eventually continues in Emmi’s home—and Emmi’s bed. Surprised but delighted by her new romance, Emmi slowly breaks the news to her coworkers, neighbors, and relatives, all of whom shun her like she’s caught a disease. Meanwhile, Ali moves into Emmi’s apartment and the two become engaged. Although Ali harbors traces of his old melancholy personality, he brightens when he sees how happy he makes Emmi. Yet Emmi realizes she can’t live without all the people who’ve abandoned her, so domestic friction emerges—notwithstanding Ali’s wise admonition that fear is cancerous.
Quickly paced and shot in a minimalistic style, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul presents its offbeat story without adornment. (For instance, there’s virtually no music except for tunes playing on jukeboxes and radios.) Fassbinder also gets in and out of scenes without ceremony, often relying on fade-outs and fade-ins. The pared-down style suits the material perfectly, keeping the focus on subtleties of performance. Mira and ben Salem are heartbreaking in different ways, because she plays a woman trapped by her worldliness and he plays a man inhibited by his naïveté. (Fassbinder’s affection for ben Salem is evident in lingering nude shots of the actor.) Supporting players incarnate various shades of intolerance effectively, with Fassbinder playing Emmi’s thuggish son-in-law. A deeply humane film that respects its audience too much to provide the release of a completely happy ending, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is poetic without being pretentious, and tragic without being treacly.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: GROOVY