Dir./Scr. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's work has always been characterized by a dichotomy between the plot conventions of melodrama and an
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul 13
extremely stylized mise-en-scene. His claustrophobic camera style forces his actors to move in space as if part of a series of still lifes. If The Merchant of Four Seasons leans more toward stylization, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul relies more on melodrama as a means of attacking German bourgeois values. A black Moroccan "Gastarbeiter," Ali, meets an elderly German cleaning woman, Emmi, in a pub frequented by emigrant laborers. Although she is at least twenty years older than he is, they end up sleeping together. Not really sexual, their attraction is based on a need for human warmth and companionship. They move invisibly on the edge of middle-class society, his color and her age having isolated them physically and emotionally.
Ironically, their relationship only increases their isolation from society. Emmi's children kick in her television in shame, while the cleaning women at the office ostracize her as a "nigger-whore." Ali's Moroccan friends, on the other hand, ridicule him for marrying "a grandmother." The first part of the film ends with the couple going on a trip, hoping "everything will be better when we get back."
Paying homage to the Hollywood melodramas of another German director, Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder in fact uses Sirk's All That Heaven Allows as a source for Ali. In the original, a New England town is turned upside down when a respectable widow (Jane Wyman) has an affair
with a young gardener (Rock Hudson). Just as Sirk veiled his critique of America's shallow and artificial existence during the Eisenhower years in the genre conventions of the women's picture, so Fassbinder uses melodramatic devices to crystallize his critical vision. Through these conventions, he is able to execute a major plot reversal.
When Ali and Emmi return, they are inexplicably greeted by the same neighbors who had shown them nothing but contempt earlier. To be sure, selfish motives are involved: a neighbor asks Ali to move some furniture, while the local shopkeeper wants Emmi's business again because "she was a good customer." Even Emmi's children (Fassbinder plays the son-in-law) begin to accept her life with Ali. Without external forces holding them together, internal pressures inevitably begin to affect their relationship. Fassbinder's patently artificial plot is used to expose the deeper psychological effects of social repression.
Emmi, once again accepted by her German friends, hopes Ali will conform to her image of respectable society. Her subconscious cultural chauvinism is clearly shown when she reluctantly joins her fellow workers in giving a new Turkish worker the cold shoulder. In another scene, Emmi proudly puts on display Ali's strong muscles for her lady friends, not realizing how dehumanizing her action appears. The old ladies even snicker about the size of other muscles not presented in public.
Still suffering from cultural displacement, Ali attempts to cure his depression by getting drunk with his Moroccan friends. Not unlike Hans in Merchant of Four Seasons, he is unable to verbalize his emotions, a situation only made worse by his broken German. Again, Fassbinder's inherent mistrust of language becomes apparent. Language is used by society's ruling power structure to control (Effi Briest), to isolate individuals (Ali), and to denounce (Merchant). Even the German title, Angst essen Seele auf ("Fear Eat Soul"), is taken from Ali's awkward use of language.
Under emotional strain, Ali collapses with a bleeding ulcer. As in many Sirk films, Fassbinder uses physical disease as a correlative for psychic and social illnesses. The doctors tell Emmi that ulcers are extremely common among transient laborers, with the only permanent cure being a one-way ticket to another country.
Although their future remains unresolved, the consistent claustrophobia of Fassbinder's compositions indicates the bleakness of their
situation. Often Fassbinder presents the action through doors, thus decreasing the size of the frame, or in stairwells and hallways, limiting the compositional space. His exterior shots — if used at all — are characterized by the same sense of claustrophobia; one need only remember the 360-degree subjective pan shot in the courtyard near the beginning of Merchant. The actors, Brigitte Mira and El Hedi Ben Salem, move about inside Fassbinder's cramped compositional space almost paralyzed by their social inhibitions. The stylization of the acting and the portraitlike placement of actors (in shots often held a few seconds after the action has ceased) tend to reinforce the tension born from repressed passions.
The most striking example of this conflict between stylization and melodrama occurs when Ali collapses in the Moroccan pub while dancing with Emmi. The scene is an almost exact replay of their first encounter, only this time she is retrieving him after he has been unfaithful. Their movements take on a ritualistic quality, framed by silent onlookers aware of the unspoken emotions charging the atmosphere.
The miracle of Fassbinder's direction is that his characters remain thoroughly human. His anguish over the fate of Emmi and Ali is expressed without inhibitions. According to Fassbinder, it was his contact with Sirk that gave him the courage to choose such openly emotional subject matter. The result is one of the most original films to appear this year. [Jan-Christopher Horak, 10/3/74]
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