Cinema has the ability to do two things, amongst others – the first is to serve as a reflection of the period and society that it takes place in, and the second is to attempt to change hearts and minds about a certain issue. There have certainly been very many films that go beyond the guise of being entertainment and delivered powerful messages that stir thought in the audiences. One film that I feel succeeds incredibly well in this regard is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (German: Angst essen Seele auf), one of the most exquisite melodramas I have ever seen, and one that conveys a message with grace and dignity.
To call Rainer Werner Fassbinder a controversial figure is an understatement. His biases and drug abuse led him to a tumultuous (and ultimately very short) life – yet in between acts of debauchery (or what was seen as such in the era), he managed to have a highly prolific career, and there is a reason why he is an acclaimed and widely respected filmmaker. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was certainly quite something, and it launched him to a great degree of fame in the arthouse circuit and brought him quite a bit of acclaimed. I will be the first to admit that I am not fully embroiled in his filmography just yet, only having seen a few of his films, but Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is extraordinary enough for me to want to explore his filmography deeply, because, despite its simplicity, it managed to be something quite special. I went in expecting a good film, but what I saw was a masterful piece of cinema which shows a great auteur’s mind steadily at work.
The story is very simple – Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is a lonely elderly widow living in Germany. One night, she has a chance encounter with a man at a local bar. The man is Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a man more than half her age, an immigrant from Morocco – they dance in the middle of the barren pub. What started as a joke by some bigoted Germans results in a torrid love affair, where the two individuals fall deeply for each other. However, what they don’t consider is the fact that society can be very bitter and prejudice is very real. The couple, despite their happiness, is the subject of much bitterness from the society they live in. Judged, reviled and outright rejected, they face the prospect of their marriage being the cause of their exclusion from society – and it does take a toll on their relationship, and the message is sometimes love can’t overcome everything – even if Ali: Fear Eats the Soul does have a somewhat hopeful ending.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an extraordinarily simple film – it is straightforward and does not have anything overly ambitious about it – the story is simple, and the execution is done through the bare minimum. This is not a complaint – in fact, the key to the brilliance of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is through its simplicity. There is absolutely no need for a film like this to have anything other than the performances and the story driving it – it is a no-frill narrative that touches the emotions of the audience deeply through its gritty realism – there is absolutely no manipulation of emotion, which are common in many similar films, where cinematic tricks are made to force the audience to feel one way. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul avoids all tropes and clichés to deliver something so direct and brutally real, it hits you like an emotional ton of bricks. The vast majority of what is great about Ali: Fear Eats the Soul needs to be felt, rather than explained. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is certainly inspired by melodrama but doesn’t include the excesses that many melodramatic films that inspired Fassbinder included, which allows for more emotional resonance, and something painfully realistic.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are the two primary performances. Neither of the two leads was well-known actors – Brigitte Mira was a character actress who usually played small parts in German films. El Hedi ben Salem was the lover of Fassbinder. Yet, despite their lack of experience and notability as performers, they gave truly amazing performances. Mira, in particular, is absolutely mesmerizing – her performance is so subtle and brilliantly nuanced – she manages to say so much with so little – a small gesture, a subtle expression or a quiet utterance. You can see this film’s themes reflected in every moment, and she gives a truly memorable performance. She is so wonderful, and I am glad Ali: Fear Eats the Soul have Mira some degree of visibility because she certainly warranted it after such a magnificent performance here.
El Hedi ben Salem was also wonderful in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Playing the titular character, he undergoes an interesting arc. He plays a foreigner in a strange land, and he has to do his best to appear, German, to get over as much as the prejudice as possible, even going so far as to learn the language as much as he can, so he fits in somehow. However, his broken German and dark skin means he will always be the subject of some form of prejudice. Not only is he viewed as an animal initially, but after their community gets over the shock, they do treat him like an object, seeing him as something to be used for their gain, and to be gawked at. He is thoroughly dehumanized and ben Salem does a phenomenal job of showing the pain. I imagine quite a bit of this performance was derived from his own experiences being a gay Arab in post-World War II Germany. The two leads may be somewhat amateurs in terms of their acting careers prior to making this film, but they had remarkable chemistry and brought out the true emotion.
This is a film about bias and prejudice. The main characters experience two kinds of bias – the first is the racial bias that forms part of this film’s legacy. Watching this film in 2017 is probably radically different from watching it in 1974, as despite the fact that we still have problems with society’s biases, the world has matured somewhat, and an interracial relationship is certainly far from the taboo that it once was – but it still isn’t an easy topic, because race is still a subject that is addressed in media, and rightfully so. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one such example of a film that needs to be made to bring visibility to these issues. There have been so many allegations put towards Fassbinder, but we cannot deny that he was progressive in making this film, and addressing a very real subject head-on, in a way that was poignantly beautiful but also brutally honest and emotionally destructive. It is an important film that is more relevant today than ever.
The other kind of bias is something far more subtle and not as notable, but equally as important – age bias. Most of what makes this film so fascinating is that the characters are of different ages, so it makes it that much more unique. Emmi is a woman who has seemingly resigned herself to the life of a widow, growing older alone, without the love of her children. Suddenly, the young and energetic Ali is thrust into her life – but throughout the film, especially towards the end, we are led to believe, as Emmi does, that Ali doesn’t truly love her, not because he has ulterior motives, but because she is an old woman, and he is a young man. Age differences in couples are a subject that is often ridiculed as the subject of comedy more than anything else, but in the case of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, it is utterly heartbreaking. Seeing Emmi look at herself in the mirror, examining her aging skin and her gray hair, is one of the most heartbreaking moments in this film. It is a subject not explored often in this kind of manner, which makes it all the more brilliant that Fassbinder made this film.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a great film. It has a simple narrative, and the execution is humble and unassuming. However, it is a powerhouse of emotions – it is impossible to watch this film and not feel something. It is a hypnotic, mesmerizing journey into the lives of these characters as they fall in love and go through the trials and tribulations that come with being in such a controversial partnership. It is an excellent film, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder was an important filmmaker simply because of his keen eye for humanity and bringing out the truth in his social dramas. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a complex, emotionally rich film with great performances and an important message that I assume will be relevant for many more years, as sad as that may be. Maybe if more films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul were made, with strong morals and a defined message, the collective thinking of society may change. Cinema often serves to educate and change the way we see the world, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a prime example of such, and it is because of that reason, it is a very important film.