Some films reach into the heart of society and rip it out, displaying it on a gibbet for us to see and feel. The timeless nature of these films is a compliment to the film-makers’ art, as well as a comment on the failings of society. Things never really get better, only more angsty and painful, especially for the marginalized.
Fassbinder’s “Angst essen Seele auf”, or “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” is one such film. The sparse, formal realism of this film about an unlikely May-December romance between a lonely German cleaninglady and an Arabic/Moroccan mechanic in 1970s Germany is all the more topical today.
The romance, and subsequent marriage of the two protagonists is delineated against a backdrop of jealous petit-bourgeois, barely masked racial intolerance and weak egos, tortured lovers, vicious truths. The romance is opposed by all, including the woman’s hitherto uninterested children, her workmates and discordant neighbors.
Soon after their marriage, Ali visits a small grocer to purchase a brand of margarine. The grocer feigns misunderstanding of the immgrant’s German and does not sell him the margarine. Emmi confronts the grocer, who is defiant, and refuses to serve her too. This minor incident occurs countless times across countless globalized villages of the heart, urban battlefields, sometimes amplified, often unopposed.
Emmi is termed a whore by her fellow-citizens, yet it is perhaps the kind, lost, confused, con-fucked Ali who is her whore, her trophy. Ali, for the most part, stays away from confrontation, like many minorities the world over. This indeed, is what the title of the film refers to.
The tension gets to both of them and they take a vacation. When they come back, things change for both, in different, personal ways. Emmi’s baiters and tormentors each finds they need something from her, and in their own self-interest, interact with her in the old manner. Ali, on the other hand, has just about had it with the pressure, and returns to his erstwhile drinking buddies, and moves in with a barmaid, who’s had the glad eye for him for a while. This too, does not quite satisfy him, and he returns to Emmi, at least implicitly, before falling ill to a stress-related disease.
The straying of Ali is more than it seems on the surface. In Fassbinder’s world, as in the real one, motives are always more than they appear. In the case of Ali, he is looking for solace and understanding, and good couscous, which the barmaid provides. In the case of Emmi, she needs company, someone to talk with, and rejuvenate her spirit. As for society, it needs to confront its petty phobias, paranoid fears and recognize the self in the other.
Excellent Criterion Collection DVD – two discs with oodles of extras, including short films, essays and retrospective material. The correlations between this film and earlier, related ones, such as “The American Soldier” and “All That Heaven Allows” are brought out, as are the constant reinterpretations of the material in the modern context.