Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Written by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Xenophobic beliefs towards immigrants have plagued mobility in all of human history, as shown in this film set in 1980s Germany. The pain of alienation never gets duller and the privilege held by those deemed to be acceptable shows itself to be quite tempting to continually fall back on. It all comes together to make Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a story that can be a bit heavy-handed but still tells an important story about love.
After stepping into a bar due to the rain, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) gets the opportunity to dance with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). Their connection sparks and they soon begin a relationship that seems wonderful to them but everyone else around them deems it to be unacceptable.
Stories about forbidden love have spanned as far as Greek mythology and Shakespeare and they always stem from the difference in their circumstances and identity. In the case of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, it comes from the racial and age differences. Emmi lives a life as a cleaner and maintained residence for her entire life in Germany as she reaches almost 60 years of age. Ali happens to be in his 30s and immigrated from Morocco. It would be more comforting to state that the anguish they encounter from their relationship would make this more of a period piece, but it feels just as timely today. Their love and affection get questioned by every single person they interact with throughout the story. From Emmi’s children to Ali’s friends all for the two differences they hold.
Ali gets the worst of it because of him being Moroccan in a very white country. He has to contend with all of the looks and the mockery made out of him. When he meets Emmi’s friends, they look upon him as if he’s some sort of animal. The same happens with Emmi’s children and their horrible reaction to their relationship. The Germans see this relationship as Ali taking advantage of Emmi as they express their prejudices against people of color. They make comments about what he may smell like and the mess he leaves in Emmi’s apartment. Nothing from actual evidence or merit but they let their xenophobic beliefs take control. It left me conflicted with the story because the outright hate Ali receives from the other white characters seems almost artificial. The hate certainly persists but not a single one even tried to be civil at first. It may be the immigrant experience in 1980s Germany, but it did come across over the top at certain times. Ali faces that struggle throughout the entirety of the film but Emmi has hers as well.
Even with the privileges she holds, Emmi faces the backlash of her relationship with Ali from her friends and seemingly anyone with whom she interacts. They see her as someone who has gone insane because of her dating decisions. An interesting turn in the character occurs when she starts to harbor some of the similar xenophobic thoughts that the people around her spew at Ali. Throughout the relationship, Emmi starts to make mircoagressive comments towards Ali that she never used before until trying to reengage with the same people that called her horrible names because of her relationship. It shows the utter weakness of those with the privilege to stay higher even if it means harming the ones they proclaim to love. This ultimately begins to drive a wedge between them and further complicates things.
Showing that perspective of Emmi certainly showed an understanding of being in the privileged class by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Having written and directed the feature, he displays that battle each of them internally as well as externally. Fassbinder ensures that each of them is challenged in their beliefs and the pure fortitude of this relationship. He does that through the dialogue of the characters and the way he frames each shot. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul serves as the first film of his that I have viewed but I’m fascinated to look at his other films and how he examines human relationships in regards to their identity. Emmi battles with trying to have it all with Ali and her incredibly racist and xenophobic family and friends. Ali wants to have a life in this new country but seemingly cannot start a relationship with a German woman without facing abuse.
It all makes for a very good film that may feel over the top at times but still gets its message across clearly. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul works because of the character work and how Fassbinder focuses on both Emmi and Ali as individuals and as a couple throughout the film. It creates an empathetic feeling around each of them even when making decisions that harm the other. It all comes with being part of a relationship, only this one comes with the increased baggage of having to fight against the world around them.