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Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

By Ben Nicholson • June 24th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Filmverlag Autoren / Tango Film

Original release: March 5th, 1974
Running time: 93 minutes

Country of origin: West Germany
Original language: German

Writer and director: : Rainer Wener Fassbinder

Cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem

Fear Eats The Soul

I am an old romantic at heart. I may not swoon at the average American romantic comedy or other similarly saccharine and sentimental fare, but I’m always drawn to characters who let their hearts rule their heads.

In contrast to that, in many other aspects of my life I’m a very logical and realistic person and it’s this blend of romance and realism which I think I connected with most in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s drama about race, immigration, loneliness and love; Fear Eats The Soul.

The storyline sees a rather sweet, lonely old widow, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), meeting a young Moroccan immigrant worker, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), when she takes shelter in his local bar. After walking her home, he ends up staying the night and the two of them fall in love. They get married, and as such are ostracised by the local community and Emmi’s family who rail against her having a relationship with a man half her age and much more significantly, against a wild immigrant Arab. After all, she’s a good German woman.

I must admit that Fear Eats The Soul was not the easiest film to get into and settle down with, especially in its early moments. Emmi is a likable enough character from the very beginning and Mira imbues her with enough wonder at the exotic music drifting out of the bar, and a fascination with the foreignness of it and of Ali. Salem’s performance as Ali is a very stilted one though and this is compounded by his broken German – which is perhaps more annoying when reading it as subtitles than it would be without them. Although Ali’s manner doesn’t change throughout the film, the story does slowly take you over and before long it feels a natural part of the film’s rhythm.

The idea of miscommunication and an inability to understand one another is a very important undercurrent to the film as a whole and this is signified by the literal translation of the film’s title is in fact “Feat Eat Soul” as Ali might say it. The real lack of understanding comes at a far deeper level though and is what undercuts the triumph that our central couple manage to obtain.

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

There are lots of different themes which Fassbinder is trying to explore through the film and the issue of race and the perception of a Gastarbeiter or ‘guest worker’ is clearly key. When the couple first get together, this is not supported by the wider community. The other Moroccans don’t seem to mind Emmi particularly, and the barmaid is not keen at all but never really voices her objections. However, before and after Emmi reveals her love for Ali to friends, neighbours and co-workers, Fassbinder paints a compelling picture of a German society in which the immigrant worker is considered to be lazy, and moreover to be troublesome.

In its latter stages the film deals quite prominently with selfishness in terms of almost all of the players. Every character wants something for themselves and the feelings of other people, or even the beliefs which they have held until this point are ignored to that end. Emmi’s co-workers reintroduce her to the group once there is a new arrival amongst the cleaners who is a Gastarbeiter herself – and Emmi joins in with this despite having been in the same position weeks earlier. Emmi’s son forgives her “transgression” as he needs her to baby-sit, the neighbours need her cellar space and are happy for Ali to do manual labour to clear the place up.

However, it’s the central relationship that’s at the films heart. The narrative deals with the idea of love and loneliness and clearly shows an attempt by two people to love one Ali: Fear Eats The Soulanother for companionship despite not seeming to have the flame of passion burning within them.

It is an utterly engaging story with Ali often solemn and distant and Emmi really just desperately wanting company in her later years. There are some wonderfully tender moments, we see them struggling through the disrespect that Ali is afforded by her children and her neighbours, and we see them agreeing to keep fighting through. However, the romance of the set-up is contrasted with the immigrant’s eventual disillusionment with his life with the older German widow and his visits back to the bed of the barmaid.

Ultimately, Fassbinder shows us two people who seem to fall in love and against all odds, and with the scornful eyes of society upon them, listening to their hearts and not their heads (or their friends’). What he then shows us is the reality of that situation and asks us what’s really going for these characters beneath that surface. It’s something each person has to decide for themselves but this mix of romance and realism was a nice fit for me.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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