That Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which the twenty-nine-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder made in only two weeks on a budget of 260,000 deutschmarks (about $120,000 dollars), manages to tackle so many subjects in ninety minutes is a testament to Fassbinder’s genius. Germany’s fascist past, the distinction between inner and outer beauty, youth, aging, and above all racism, the story of the unlikely romance between Emmi, a German widow in her sixties and Ali, a Moroccan immigrant in his thirties, somehow manages to address them all. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is proof that making a great film isn’t about years of preparation or huge budgets, but about a director’s ability to translate ideas into images.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul opens with Emmi Kurowski, an elderly widow played by Brigitte Mira, ducking into an immigrant bar, supposedly to get out of the rain, but in reality because she was fascinated by the Arabic music coming from the jukebox. When Barbara, a hard, brassy-looking blond played by Barbara Valentin, suggests to Ali, the title character played by Fassbinder’s real-life boyfriend El Hedi ben Salem, that he ask the old woman to dance, it sets up a plot that keeps us guessing right until the very end. Fassbinder’s ability to make us question our assumptions by contradicting our expectations at every turn is remarkable. Why does Ali go through with it? Why does he offer to walk her back home to her apartment? Does Emmi invite Ali upstairs for a drink because she’s trying to be polite, she’s attracted to him, or both? Why does he accept? When the tall, muscular young man in his thirties puts his hand on the elderly woman’s wrist, and we suddenly realize that they just might sleep together, it’s a bit like stepping on a charged power line. It’s a jolt of electricity that comes out of nowhere and leaves you lying on the sidewalk, profoundly disoriented by a force that had you might have guessed had been there all along, if only you had looked more closely.
Fassbinder also plays with our expectations in a more low key, more sustained way. For the average person, going to the movies usually means spending a few hours looking at characters who on the whole tend to be better looking the than people you meet in real life. This is by no means limited to mainstream Hollywood. For his low-budget À bout de souffle Godard cast the ruggedly handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo and the beautiful, pixie like Jean Seberg. Hal Hartley cast the gorgeous Adrienne Shelley in his films about drab, suburban Long Island. This makes perfect sense. To be able to make a living as an actor, or even to get a part in a major, alternative movie takes a certain charisma, a charisma which, in our culture, is usually associated with good looks. Even a director like Robert Bresson, who never used professional actors, almost always cast people who would turn heads in real life. To look at Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, however, is a bit like looking in the mirror. Except for El Hedi ben Salem, who looks exactly the way you’d expect the object of a white, gay 1970s director’s lust would look like, all of the characters in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are ordinary, even drab-looking. What’s more, Fassbinder’s Munich is not the great city of Berlin in Wings of Desire, a cosmopolitan metropolis that envelopes its citizens in its own sublime, ethereal glow. It’s a nasty, pinched little corner of a profoundly conservative country with a racist, genocidal, not so distant past.
Emmi Kurowski’s Polish name, therefore, takes on an added significance. Even though she was a member of the Nazi Party – “wasn’t everybody?” she remarks – she still has an affinity for the outsider. Her first husband, who died twenty years before the action of the film takes place, was a Polish slave laborer who decided to stay in Germany after the war. I don’t speak German, but Ali’s thick foreign accent comes across even in the film’s subtitles, where he has the tendency to speak of himself in the third person, not out of arrogance, but out of an inability to properly conjugate German verbs. Why does Ali appeal to Emmi? That’s not particularly difficult to explain. Perhaps he reminds her of her own youth. Perhaps she sees something in his more traditional, immigrant Moroccan culture more appealing than mainstream German culture can offer. Perhaps she just likes his muscles. Unless you’re a racist, it’s easy to see why Emmi is attracted to Ali.
What’s more difficult for us to accept is why Ali would be attracted to Emmi. This isn’t supposed to happen in our culture. Good looking men in their 30s don’t date women in their 60s, and Fassbinder forces us to confront our own assumptions that physical beauty means spiritual beauty. That Ali sees something in Emmi that Barbara, who set up their dance to make fun of the old lady who had wandered into the bar, cannot, raises him as far above his drag surroundings as his good looks do. Yet when their relationship starts to break up after being subjected to the racist disapproval of their marriage by their neighbors and by Emmi’s half Polish children, Fassbinder digs even more deeply. Neither Emmi nor Ali is a saint. Emmi has a, typically German, authoritarian side that drives Ali back into the arms of Barbara, and Ali isn’t blind to the fact that Emmi is three decades his senior. In fact, he’s never quite so physically beautiful in one of the film’s cruelest scenes where he refuses to acknowledge her as his wife in front of his coworkers, who mockingly refer to her as “his grandmother from Morocco.”
It’s only in the last scene of the movie that we really understand the meaning of the title Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The virulence of the racism we’ve seen dramatized for the past 90 minutes has damaged Ali not only spiritually, but physically. As the film closes, we begin to suspect that Emmi will outlive her much younger husband, and exactly the way Brigitte Mira outlived El Hedi ben Salem, by decades.