ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

 (Angst Essen Seele Auf)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1974.


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Two lonely people connect with each other at a local bar in Munich, Germany. The bar is frequented by foreign workers, mostly Arabic, who come to socialize and escape from the rejection they feel as foreign workers. Inspired by the Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by German master Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a simple and direct statement of love between an older woman and a younger man and also a biting commentary on the mentality of prejudice and the state of German society during a period of economic resurgence. 

Shot in a period of only fifteen days, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a fortyish Moroccan auto mechanic who feels estranged from his culture amidst the condescension and hostility of German society. Emmi Kurowski (Brigette Mira), who is probably close to sixty, is a lonely cleaning lady who lost her husband many years ago and finds the outlets for companionship very limited. To escape from the rain, Emmi ducks into the bar where a few foreign workers gather as the jukebox plays haunting Arabic songs. On a dare, Ali asks Emmi to dance and the two become friends after he accompanies her to her home and stays overnight. Speaking in broken German, Ali's terse answers to her questions underscore his inability to fully blend into German society. As Ali says, "German Master. Arab Dog".

Emmi is a native German who once belonged to the Nazi Party but shrugs it off by asking "Wasn't everyone?" She is an innately good person but full of the contradictions of German society. They are drawn to each other out of a desperate need for love but as they see more of each other, they are subject to increasing hostility from nosy neighbors, co-workers, and members of Emmi's family. The resentment reflects not only ageism but also the reaction to foreign workers who in their view are usurping their jobs. In a classic scene, Emmi tells her children that she is going to marry and introduces Ali as they sit in stunned silence and disbelief staring at her until one of the sons kicks in the television set as the rest get up and leave. 

Even after they are married, the hostility continues and the couple are subjected to condescending service in restaurants and neighbors telling the landlord's son about Emmi's "lodger" and calling the police to report a disturbance when friends gather to listen to music. In a powerful sequence, Ali and Emmi sit alone in a garden restaurant surrounded by empty yellow chairs and the restaurant staff stands transfixed, looking at them from the doorway. After Emmi breaks down in tears, they decide to go on a short vacation, hoping that things will turn around when they return. Surprisingly they do when hypocritical neighbors and family members suddenly discover that they are in need of assistance from the couple.

The fears have been implanted, however, and the newlyweds' deep-seated insecurities come to the surface despite a noticeable change in attitude from the people around them. Ali longs for his native food that Emmi cannot or will not cook and turns to the buxom owner of the local bar for sex and Couscous. After a brief separation, they return to the bar where they first met as the film takes an unexpected turn. Brigette Mira turns in a solid performance as the lonely old woman, giving her the strength of character to withstand all of the rejections. El Hedi ben Salem is magnificent as the strong stoic African who is able to give of himself to a very different kind of partner. With limited dialogue, the camerawork enhances the feeling of isolation with wide shots that render the couple vulnerable to the stares of neighbors, family, waiters, and bar owners. A poignant, honest, and revealing work of art, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an immediate addition to my list of favorite films. 

GRADE: A
 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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