Ali: Fear Eats The Soul – Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Set two years in the wake of the 1972 Munich massacre, Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (one of his finest works) is a bothersome and unsettling tale of unlikely love and unabashed hate. As a rainstorm engulfs Munich, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) takes refuge in a small bar largely frequented by North African immigrants. After she orders a drink, a patron plays a German tango single on the jukebox, and a young Moroccan man, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, who was Fassbinder’s lover at the time), offers the lonely widow a dance.
As they dance together, they exchange conversation, Ali communicating through broken German. Refusing to allow Emmi to walk home alone following their dance, Ali insists upon walking her back to her apartment. This is much to the bemusement of the racist crones living on the floor below, who obnoxiously quip that Emmi must be buying a carpet from Ali. Not wanting him to leave so soon, she offers her newfound companion a bed for the night, which he gratefully accepts.
The two fall in love, soon becoming wed to one another, much to the chagrin of Emmi’s so-called friends and family, and surprise of Ali’s. Snide underhand comments are directed towards Ali, and he is received with pure revulsion by Emmi’s bigoted family, unhidden contempt burning through their eyes. As the couple spend more time together publicly, Emmi notices a rapid change in treatment; people she has known for years act with coldness towards her, and others stare disapprovingly.
In what is perhaps the film’s most powerful and effective scene, Emmi breaks down into tears, the immense weight of her newfound ostracism having taken a large toll on her happiness and relationships – Ali maintains a stony composure, long-numbed to such behaviour. Fassbinder does not shy away from showing the flaws of his characters, for when a Yugoslav woman joins Emmi’s cleaning team, she readily joins her coworkers in excluding the poor expat, desperate to fit in again.
Otherness takes centre stage as the overarching theme of the picture; “Angst essen Seele auf”, indeed. Feeling homesick and constantly aware of his outsiderness, Ali seeks Morocco where he can find it; with his fellow expatriates, with the Arabic music available on the bar’s jukebox, within a bowl of couscous (on the rare occasion he can procure some). Despite living and working just as his German native neighbours do, he cannot shed his otherness, their gaze permanently affixed to him.
Astonishingly shot in 14 days, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul is an excellent work of cinema, but not a pleasant one. Fassbinder infuses a markedly Fanonian spirit within the film, unafraid to showcase the appalling racism with which North Africans and Arabs have historically been faced in Europe, particularly “since Munich”. Ali’s story may be fictional in this case, but his strife is depressingly resonant for millions of migrants, even today.
By Joe Muldoon.
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