Postwar German culture is skewered in this Fassbinder masterpiece, beautifully presented by Criterion.
At a time when the cinematic legacy of Douglas Sirk is once again under discussion thanks to Todd Haynes’ rather too wilfully second hand Far from Heaven, the climate seems perfect for DVD releases of the numerous other films inspired by the master melodramatist. It is fitting, then, that Criterion has chosen to begin their slew of releases by New German Cinema enfant terrible and outspoken Sirk champion Rainer Werner Fassbinder with his most Sirkian film: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. (His BRD trilogy — The Marriage Of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss — was released in September.)
Just as Sirk made pictures like All That Heaven Allows — the reference point for this film as for Far from Heaven — and Imitation of Life to comment on the superficiality and shallow materialism of 1950s middle-class America, so Fassbinder began to make supremely stylized, lurid melodramas to highlight the hypocrisy, impersonality, and moral bankruptcy at the heart of postwar Germany. The film directly preceding Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in the Fassbinder canon, Martha, set the template for his particular take on the melodrama. Its garish, artificial mise en scene, muted emotional palette, stark, pared-down narrative, gritty stench of reality behind often baroque theatricality and focus on doomed individuals heralded something of a new direction for the filmmaker. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, shot in only 15 days, continues in much the same vein.
The focus of this deceptively simple film is the tentative relationship between 60-year-old widow and cleaner Emmi (Brigitte Mira, supporting actress in many films by Fassbinder and fellow New German Cinema luminary Werner Herzog), and Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), an Arab garage mechanic 20 years her junior. These two marginalized characters offer one another a ray of light in an otherwise empty existence, a spark of real companionship and comfort in a world so devoid of those things.
But, as so often with Fassbinder, a cold, indifferent society, enacting what critic Jan Dawson has termed “everyday fascism,” conspires to corrupt, exploit, and destroy the simple pleasures of human contact and compassion. The hermetic, insular community in which Emmi and Ali live, reminiscent of the one seen in The Pioneers of Ingolstadt, is one of Fassbinder’s most caustic paradigmatic representations of the sorry state of postwar West Germany at the time of the so-called economic miracle.
The film is almost entirely populated by characters whose sole pastime seems to be denigrating or exploiting those around them, whether the workers and regulars at Ali’s local bar who first encourage Ali to dance with Emmi in order to show her up, or the other tenants in Emmi’s apartment block, who even challenge that she is a true German because she involves herself with foreigners (she was previously married to a Pole).
Significantly, however, and though Fassbinder views his subjects here with more warmth than is generally the case with him, his two central characters are not exempt from this all-pervasive racism. Emmi, in particular, appears to have absorbed much of her society’s toxic attitudes to foreigners. For example, when a new, Yugoslavian cleaner begins working in the same building as her, she immediately gangs up with her co-workers to bully and ostracize the young woman. And there are also moments, such as when she has Ali move the furniture of her exploitative neighbours, that she too adopts the position outlined succinctly by Ali himself during his first meeting with her — “German master, Arab dog” — before basking selfishly in the glow of the attention she receives when she lets them feel his muscles.
What Fassbinder is stressing here is just how deeply ingrained such attitudes are in the German psyche. Although the political angle in this film is less to the fore than in later melodramas (especially The Marriage of Maria Braun), it is still a work that, as befits one of the most directly and openly political filmmakers of the New German cinema, resonates strongly as a document of the time and place in which it was made.
Typically with Fassbinder, a director as prolific in the theatre as in film, he draws astonishing performances from his actors. Salem especially, for whom the film was made — he was then Fassbinder’s lover and later went on to commit suicide in prison after being charged with three counts of murder — gives a beautifully nuanced and at times disturbingly raw portrayal of a man stripped bare of his identity and emotional vitality in a land where he does nothing but work and drink and for which he receives little but contempt and denigration. The fact that he always refers to himself in the third person, and that Ali is not even his real name but a generic term for Arab workers (Fassbinder’s original title for the film was All Turks Are Called Ali amply connotes that this man is certainly present in body but not in spirit or soul.
The sense of feeling he regains in the presence of Emmi is, logically given that dialogue between them is often painfully functional, expressed through minute, almost imperceptible details. There is something moving beyond words about the way he gently strokes her arm as they sit on the bed together for the first time, or the awkward way he turns to look at her as she walks away from him when they part the next morning.
The stylized visuals — in this film more camerawork than mise en scene — also augment this notion, capturing perfectly the sense of two lost souls coming together. They are initially seen, when they meet in Ali’s local bar, in long or medium long shot to highlight both their gauche, hesitant manner with each other and also the fact that they are being keenly observed by the rest of the people in there, who are highly amused. As the narrative progresses, however, Fassbinder tightens his compositions, even in the exteriors, to underline the unity of these characters, their simple togetherness, as well as generally excluding other people from the frame, particularly in the scenes where Emmi and Ali encounter hostility.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was a very important film for Fassbinder. Called by Thomas Elsaesser one of the key works of the New German Cinema, it achieved considerable success internationally and introduced the director to a whole new audience abroad. It was also a very personal film for him, perhaps second only to his 1978 In a Year of 13 Moons, which was made in the wake of his lover Armin Meier’s suicide in Fassbinder’s own apartment. The fact that it speaks so eloquently, yet with such brutal honesty, about persecution and transgressive love must be attributed in large part to its director’s own turbulent and troubled life. And the fact that it has lost none of its power and unique emotional universality after 30 years bespeaks a true masterpiece.
As expected, Criterion has delivered a superb package with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Aside from a fantastic 1.33:1 transfer with complete visual and audio restoration, there are a host of extra features, including a video introduction by Far from Heaven director Todd Haynes, interviews with Brigitte Mira and editor Thea Eymesz, a 1976 BBC documentary on the New German Cinema, a short film, the original theatrical trailer, and more.