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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
(Angst essen Seele auf)
Director: Rainer Wener Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Stars: Brigitte Mira (Emmi Kurowski), El Hedi ben Salem (Ali), Barbara Valentin (Barbara), Irm Hermann (Krista), Elma Karlowa (Mrs. Kargus), Anita Bucher (Mrs. Ellis), Gusti Kreissl (Paula), Doris Mathes (Mrs. Angermeyer), Margit Symo (Hedwig)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1974
Country: Germany
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulRainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) is a simple and powerful film of great and quiet beauty. Although Fassbinder was often characterized as a deep pessimist, this film is much different from his earlier work, as it is centered around the importance of personal responsibility in a hostile world and ends on a hopeful note that is neither pandering nor unrealistic. It says, in effect, that the world may not change, but there is power in individual actions. The film is filled with moments of severe human ugliness, but also of moments of such pure loving and tenderness that it makes anything seem possible.

Borrowing the basic narrative structure of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tells the story of two lonely people who fall in love and suffer dire social consequences because the world in which they live does not accept their being together. The man is Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a Moroccan in his 30s who has lived in Germany for two years and speaks the language well, but not nearly well enough to be accepted in German society as anything other than a “foreigner.” The woman is Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a widower in her 60s who has three grown children and works as a cleaning lady. They meet in a bar populated entirely by foreign workers when Emmi stops in to get out of the rain. As a joke, someone suggests that Ali ask her to dance, which he does. He ends up walking her home, and then coming up for a drink, and then staying the night in a series of scenes that perfectly convey how two unlikely people could so easily and quickly come together.

Ali and Emmi fall in love with each other, despite the fact that there are more than two decades of age difference between them and he is black and she is white. When they decide to get married, Emmi feels the full force of others’ intolerance, as her children refuse to come see her, her neighbors turn their noses up at her and call the police when Ali’s friends come over, her coworkers stop speaking to her, and the local grocer refuses to serve them. Fassbinder consistently isolates Ali and Emmi within the frame or traps them between stark vertical lines to reinforce their separation from the others around them. There are two crucial scenes in which they go to restaurants and appear to be the only people there, while the waiters stand and stare.

Fassbinder is making a powerful statement about the nature of intolerance and prejudice without the film ever feeling didactic or condescending. Although working in the basic form of the melodrama, he keeps the emotions dialed down and allows silences and stares to speak volumes. Fassbinder was himself an outsider as both a homosexual and a provocative artist at the cusp of the New German Cinema, so he was keenly aware of what his characters were going through. In simple compositions and spare dialogue, he conveys the pain of isolation juxtaposed with the comforting beauty of pure love. The irony is that the two coexist in Emmi and Ali—their relationship is simultaneously the source of great happiness and sorrow.

This is particularly true for Emmi, who had not known the pains of being an object of prejudice. Once a member of the Nazi party, she is nevertheless an open and caring individual who is never bothered by Ali’s ethnicity. She sees past his skin to his heart, something most everyone else around her cannot do. Ali, on the other hand, seems resigned to his lot in life, at one point articulating his social position as, “German master. Arab dog.” Fassbinder had been openly critical of “establishment” figures in many of his films, but in Fear Eats the Soul, he locates tolerance in exactly those characters, namely two policemen who are reluctantly called in to quiet down a party at Emmi’s apartment and the landlord’s son, who wants Ali to move out until he finds out that he and Emmi plan to be married. When two of Emmi’s nosy neighbors vocalize their disgust at Emmi and Ali’s union, he states simply that he sees nothing wrong with it and walks away.

While both Emmi and Ali are admirable characters, Fassbinder does not condescend to some easy dichotomy of good and bad, heroes and villains. Both Emmi and Ali have their weaknesses, which at one point threaten to destroy their relationship. Emmi, despite being tolerant, slips into a casual form of racism once her friends and family begin to accept Ali when it benefits them (her neighbors like that he can help them move furniture, the grocer needs their business, etc.). In a particularly wrenching scene, Emmi’s coworkers come over and she shows Ali off like a circus animal, allowing them to “ooh” and “ahh” over his muscles and how clean he is (“I didn’t think they bathed,” one them remarks). Ali has his own weaknesses, which lead him to bed of another woman, not so much for sex, but for comfort (and the fact that she can make his favorite food, couscous, which Emmi refuses to make because it’s not German).

Shot in only 16 days and starring mostly unknown actors, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a great and moving film that also gets at crucial societal issues that are still with us today. Fassbinder so intricately weaves together the emotional and the social that the two are indistinguishable, which is why is he can make such firm social statements without feeling preachy. At the end of the film, which brings it to its most melodramatic moment, Fassbinder finds a perfect balance in suggesting that Emmi and Ali will persevere in their relationship, but it will never be easy. In this way, he suggests that there is hope, but not without suffering. As the epigraph that opens the film puts it, “Happiness isn’t always fun.”

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulCriterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateJune 24, 2003

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
The beautiful new high-definition transfer of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was taken from the original camera negative and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is clean and clear throughout, with excellent detail and strong saturated colors that underscore the film’s most emotional moments (of particular vibrancy are the red tablecloths in the bar and the yellow tables at the outdoor café). There are virtually no traces of dirt or scratches anywhere, and while some shots seem a bit softer and grainier than others, it is due to the original film stock, not the transfer.

German Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
The monaural soundtrack, which was mastered at 24-bit from a magnetic track and then digitally restored, sounds quite clean. It has evidence of the limitations of the source material, but it couldn’t sound any better.

“Todd Haynes: From Fassbinder to Sirk and Back”
In this 23-minute interview, writer/director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) speaks cogently about Fassbinder’s career and his influences, Douglas Sirk’s career and his ideological leanings, and their influence on his own work. As someone who studied semiotics in college and is clearly very well-read and intelligent, Haynes has the tendency to speak a lot of jargon, so be prepared for plenty of sentences that contain phrases like “regime of the look” and “construct of society.” Presented in 1.33:1.

Interview with Brigitte Mira
Well into her 90s but still acting, Brigitte Mira sat down for this 25-minute interview, speaking openly and animatedly about her first encounter with Fassbinder, the script for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, shooting the film, working with El Hedi bin Salem, and the film’s premiere at Cannes in 1974, among other things. Presented in 1.33:1.

Interview with Thea Eymèsz
Although now retired, editor Thea Eymèsz granted Criterion this 23-minute interview, in which she discusses her long career working with Fassbinder (she edited 16 of his films), her style of editing, working on Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and her work on a new short film based on it.

Angst isst Seele auf short film
I found this 12-minute short film by actor/director Shahbaz Noshir, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, a bit pretentious, but it’s worth sitting through just to see Brigitte Mira, now in her 90s, self-reflexively playing an actress playing the role of Emmi in a stage production of Fear Eats the Soul. The entire film is shot from the point-of-view of a foreign actor in Germany who is attacked by neo-Nazis and then goes on to play the role of Ali on-stage. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1).

Signs of Vigorous Life: The New German Cinema documentary
This robust half-hour documentary was produced by the BBC for its series Omnibus in 1976. It discusses the history of the German cinema, from its influential heyday in the 1920s, to its virtual destruction by Nazi propaganda in the ’30s and ’40s, to its dormancy in the ’50s and ’60s, and finally to its resurgence as the New German Cinema in the late ’60s and throughout the 1970s. The documentary focuses primarily on five then-up-and-coming young directors, all of whom were in their 30s: Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Presented in 1.33:1.

Clip from The American Soldier
This brief clip is from a 1970 film by Fassbinder in which a chambermaid relates a story that is strikingly similar to the one told in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, except that it ends much differently. Presented in 1.33:1.

Original theatrical trailer
Presented in 1.33:1.

16-page insert book
Includes a new essay by Chris Fujiwara and a reprint of Michael Töteberg’s introduction to a collection of Fassbinder’s screenplays.

Overall Rating: (4)

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