"We'll be rich, Ali... and we'll buy ourselves a little piece of heaven..."
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a very strange, but ultimately extremely talented director who helped bring about, perfect, and end the German New Wave cinema movement. His professional filmmaking career lasted a little bit less than 15 full years in which time he was somehow able to produce over forty films. Fassbinder was an open homosexual (though he married 2 women during his lifetime who were said to be "non-disturbed" by his homosexuality) who was often accused in his West German homeland of being homophobic. He had a desperate need for a motherly or feminine caretaker, but was also often accused of being a misogynist. Fassbinder had a history of domestic and substance abuse*, and an even more tumultuous history of casting his multi-gender lovers as leads in his feature films.
Fassbinder also had a reputation for speaking up for the socially disadvantaged. His films frequently dealt with exposing the injustices formulated by the German upper-class. Combining his desire to speak for the unspoken for and his enigmatic appreciation for Hollywood melodramas, Fassbinder made a low-budget film that was meant to keep him in practice between two of his bigger budget productions. He cast his gay lover in the title role, and based the story loosely on Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodramatic masterpiece All That Heaven Allows. Sirk's film tells the story of an upper-class widow played by Jane Wyman who falls in love with a much younger gardener played by Rock Hudson while her kids, friends and country club look down on her and their arrangement.
Fassbinder's homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, follows a frumpy, older cleaning lady named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and a much younger Moroccan immigrant named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem**) who ignite an unexplainable connection after meeting in a bar. The mood of the next 89 minutes is uniquely introduced through Fassbinder's direction using a variety of tunnel shots with main characters in the foreground while nosy onlookers sit just slightly out of focus in the background. From the opening moment when Emmi enters the bar, the camera flows outward to show her disapproving onlookers. She does not belong in a place like this - it is mainly inhabited by Arab immigrants along with a busty blonde bartender***. She is immediately the outsider. After being coerced into dancing with this strange older woman, Ali (one of the previously disapproving immigrants) realizes that there is a connection between the two of them that he cannot ignore.
After a very short time the two are married and forced to deal with all of the social and racial prejudice that goes along with their partnership. Both parties have already been forced to deal with scrutiny. Emmi is a cleaning lady who is used to being looked down upon, while Ali is an Arab immigrant who is not even allowed to use his birth-given name. Though experienced in being scrutinized (Ali goes as far as saying "German Master, Arab Dog" in his broken German), the weight of the world's disapproval begins to impact the couple daily. Ali longs for the food of his homeland. Emmi refuses to make that food for him because she believes that he needs to become more of a German. After succumbing to pressures to fit in with her co-workers and neighbors, Emmi even begins to mock her lover's "foreign mentality" in front of others. Though they are in love, this furthers their loneliness and isolation from each other. Self-identity begins to dissolve.
It is no coincidence that a decent portion of the film takes place behind fences, or through windows and screen doors. Fassbinder's sophisticated direction keeps his main characters isolated figuratively and literally from the outside world. Loneliness palpitates through both Ali and Emmi - only their connection is strong enough to survive. Even Emmi's children (one of which is played by Fassbinder) disapprove of the love affair in dramatic and shameful outbursts. Another wide shot from the camera during this scene sits the audience in the role of a voyeur. If her children knew that we were watching, they would not be acting out in this fashion. We want nothing more than the ability to reach through the screen and scold those causing shame, but rather we are forced to watch, react, and imagine ourselves in the same position.
Though Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an obvious homage to American melodrama, the film does not seem sappy or overly dramatic. Fassbinder takes a very simple approach (perhaps due to budget restrictions) to the story that helps all points remain powerful. The main characters are framed in a way that allows the audience to empathize with their emotional journey without feeling like they are being forced through a sermon. This is a simplistic film. But that is what makes it beautiful.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul : B+
*Fassbinder died in his apartment of a cocaine overdose in 1982. He was found with a lit cigarette still between his lips.
**Sometime after El Hedi ben Salem's relationship with Fassbinder ended, he stabbed multiple people in a bar. After fleeing Germany for France, he was later jailed. He hanged himself in his jail cell at the age of 43. Just three years after the release of Fear Eats the Soul.
***The "busty blonde bartender is played by Barbara Valentin - who was romantically linked to Freddie Mercury in the 1980s. Yes, THAT Freddie Mercury.