Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ★★★★★

"A Black man!"
"Real black?"
"Well, not that black, but pretty dark."

Now having become an expert on the films of Douglas Sirk by watching exactly one of them, I am now properly learned to appreciate Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fantastic (and better) work based on a similar story, Angst essen Seele auf ["Ali: Fear Eats the Soul"]. The German filmmaker does his own take on romantic melodrama with superb results.

It's only been a few months after the shocking Munich Massacre – the tragedy at the 1972 Summer Olympics perpetrated by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September – and in this time there is heightened racial tension in West Germany. A bar frequented by the Arab-speaking community suddenly sees the 60-year-old white Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) walk in and order a Coke from the bartender Barbara (Barbara Valentin). Someone jokes to the tall and handsome Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) – a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker) – to ask the older woman to dance. He does, she accepts, and they both smile as they sway softly to the jukebox. He even walks her home and asks about her life and career.

She's alone and widowed, a window cleaner. Her adult daughter Krista (Irm Hermann) and her hateful son-in-law Eugen (Fassbinder) only come around when they need something. Ali simply listens to this intelligent and introspective woman who hardly ever has someone with whom to speak, as she admits her former life in the Nazi Party many decades ago. And Ali speaks about his family life – his German is good enough, broken in parts – charming Emmi with his values, honesty, and kindness. After he spends the night, it's clear they already have a deep connection. Everyone and everything conspires to keep them apart.

Rabid racism, inexplicable Islamophobia, and [adjective that begins with "x"] xenophobia were rampant at this time in Germany… and today as well. But 50 years ago people weren't as discreet, and Fassbinder does not shy from some vile comments against the Arab people that Emmi hears immediately from her supposedly friendly co-workers. At least today, people have the courtesy to post it on Facebook.

But the majority of the screentime in this film is spent with the central couple, and Fassbinder showcases a depth of compassion and warmth rarely seen in his transgressive works of satire and anguish. Though even in those tender moments of genuine romance, he cannot stray from his real aim: to expose the hatred and bigotry of his native land. Sirk plays the will-they-or-won't-they game but Fassbinder has the two star-crossed lovers married within 40 minutes and introduced to the family… with a violent outburst in response. Then comes all the repercussions of this interracial relationship and the friends, relatives, and community members who turn against her. It's devastating.

Still, what makes the film brilliant is that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul isn't a weepy story about triumph over hatred. Fassbinder is too smart for that. He has the couple confront their own relationship and the realistic prospects for it to continue. As Ebert wrote, it's purposefully unsensational: "Fassbinder leaves out all of the highs and lows, and keeps only the quiet desperation in the middle." And in the latter stages, it's actually irony at the forefront in surprising ways, ones that chip away at the marriage we thought was unassailable.

A shopkeep was prejudiced… until he realized how good of a customer Emmi was. The neighbors were dismissive… until they needed help from a strong man. Her son was hateful… until he had a favor to ask. And Emmi herself enjoys this feeling of normalcy. She was right when she knew people would come around. But have they? Or, for the right reasons? Ali sees through it, and his resentment of her new happiness is only natural. His insecurities bubble up again. Does that mean Emmi herself isn't the colorblind woke white ally we thought? Watch when she shows his muscles to her friends and see if you like her as much as you did in the first scene. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi? Maybe we are all motivated by self-interest. (I had a girlfriend in college argue with me about love, that it's the most selfish emotion of all, demanding reciprocity. I dunno. I just wanted to not be a vegan anymore.) Chris Fujiwara proposes the questions 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?"

You can start by watching this deeply affecting film.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: TheTigerCritic.
Find others like them on my two special lists here and here!

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to Rainer Werner Fassbinder ranked.
Removed from (and formerly the oldest recording on) What's on My DVR?

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