One needs to be an expert neither on Douglas Sirk nor Rainer Werner Fassbinder to know that the former informed the latter. Fassbinder, that leather jacket-garbed, openly bisexual enfant terrible -- and if any artist ever earned that term, it'd be Fassbinder -- clearly infused not only his films with Sirk's brand of outrageous melodrama but, in many ways, his short and libertine life. Sirk used his over-the-top theatricality to more easily slip in broadsides against the constricting, conformist attitude of 1950s America, and Fassbinder did the same to explore his own concerns with contemporary Germany. With Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a loose remake of Sirk's classic All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder examines prejudice and xenophobia, in a manner far beyond Sirk's societal limitations even as the German director exercises a great deal more ambiguity.
That is not to say that the message of Ali is anything less than inexplicably clear. Rather, every shot communicates the pressures placed on its central couple by the bigoted and narrow-minded, from its use of hollow long shots that convey the icy stares of ogling onlookers to the close-ups that show how the scorn in those looks has built like a wave until it crashes on the sandbank of their self-consciousness. But Fassbinder omits easy conclusions and concrete answers, unable to reflect Sirk's optimism even in such an overblown world.
Fassbinder introduces us to the lead characters in a bar. With rain pouring outside, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a widowed, late-middle-age cleaning lady runs inside a sticky dive to get out of the rain. Inside is a group of Moroccan patrons, blaring Arabic music to remind them of home. The German bartender takes Emmi's order, while the initially cautious patrons begin to whisper. They dare Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, then Fassbinder's lover) to dance with the old woman, and he does so to be nice. He also walks Emmi home out of chivalry. Emmi thanks the charming man and, unwilling to send him back out into the storm, invites him up to her room for coffee. She even sets out some blankets for Ali to stay the night, as it is so late and he lives so far away. Then Emmi wakes up in the morning to find Ali not on the sofa but in her bed.
At this point, one feels obligated to write, "All hell breaks loose," but that is not how the world deals with its outcasts; it does not do them courtesy of openly stating its hostility. Instead, society drops clear but masked hints of disapproval, emerging in full opposition only once the ostracized know completely that they do not belong. Even before Emmi and Ali sleep with each other, fall in love and marry (in surprisingly quick succession, but it is only a 93-minute film, after all), the neighbors in Emmi's apartment complex begin to gossip. Fassbinder zooms in on a shot of two of them setting the rumor mill in motion as the widow takes the Moroccan to her room for the first time, visually constricting as they lower their voices in conspiratorial tones.
Fassbinder brilliantly frames the mounting resentment toward the couple from the community. When Emmi enters that tacky, rundown bar at the start, the director sets down the pattern for most of the film's scenes, as well as demonstrating the way that he experiments with his actors' blocking: Emmi enters, and Fassbinder cuts to a master shot that shows the regular barflies suddenly frozen and staring. Fassbinder then moves into a closeup of these people, scanning over each face as it gazes motionlessly at this new patron. The stillness of the actors recalls Resnais' frame-freezing in Last Year at Marienbad, but Fassbinder then has one woman, the bartender, move to take Emmi's order, revealing that their immobility owes to their own response, not the director's. For the rest of the film, Fassbinder oscillates between the cold long shot and heartrending close-up, though from this point it is the strangers who gaze through the camera at Emmi instead of the other way around.
This visual pattern also allows for a heaping dose of irony and visual callbacks. Fassbinder replicates the frozen blocking of the patrons when Emmi tells her children of her new husband. The connection is clear: neither group of steely faced onlookers knows this woman, or at least not anymore. The moment also quotes and reworks a key scene from Sirk's film, in which Cary's children successfully convince her to sump her "socially unacceptable" gardener husband and provide her with a television set to compensate for the lost "companionship." The TV is a heavy symbol in Sirk's film, but Fassbinder is dealing with a different situation: the kids' mother not only married a man 20 years her junior, she married a black man and a foreigner. This sends one son into such a froth that he destroys Emmi's television to channel his outrage. To celebrate their elopement, Emmi takes Ali to a nice restaurant. "Hitler used to eat here," she oddly proclaims, but that statement becomes an omen when the maître d' places the two in the backroom, away from the dining room that is completely empty. Their waiter treats them with outright hostility, grilling them for their order as if attempting to extract enemy secrets. The scene plays out in reverse to the other shots, starting with the two at the table before ending with a long shot of the two tucked away, the already condensed 1:33:1 frame constricted further by the frame that separates the main dining room from their area.
Of course, one can hardly watch the prejudices inflicted upon Emmi and Ali and not think of Germany's fresh past in bigotry. Fassbinder, born at the end of World War II -- three weeks after Germany's surrender, in fact -- grew up in a Germany meant to atone for its national sin. Yet he sees discrimination and bile still ingrained in the culture, and not only in the older citizens. Yes, they're the worst, comparing the Arabs to swine and demanding their removal from the country (sound familiar?), but Emmi's children reaction in the same fashion. Her son-in-law also calls foreigners "pigs," yet he sits in his recliner in dirty clothes, sipping beer and rudely barking at his wife in monosyllabic cavemen grunts. In the heightened melodrama of Emmi and Ali's relationship is a burning question: How can Germans still harbor such hate? Should not reflection upon the Holocaust have taught the country about xenophobia? The director stresses this point further when Emmi mentions that her Nazi-supporting father hated her first husband, a Pole, simply for his ethnicity.
However, Fassbinder does allow for some brightness in his film. He shows that not all people react to the relationship with scorn: the neighbors call the police on Emmi and Ali on a noise complaint that clearly holds no water, and when one of the women begins to speak her hysterical fears of Ali and his Arab friends being bombers, the officer gently reproaches her, reminding her not to paint every Arab with the same brush. As he and his partner move upstairs to talk to Emmi, the women cluck in amazement that the officer sported long hair. Later, the same women speak outside with the landlord's son, Gruber, and ask if he can do something. Gruber responds that he sees nothing wrong or indecent about the couple, happy that the two appear to genuinely love each other. Even the mise-en-scène can be sunnier at times: the interiors of the German buildings are dilapidated and dull, worn browns and stained whites, but Fassbinder alleviates their uninteresting tones with a few objects of striking color. A red tablecloth, Emmi's multicolored dress, for example. We can see the bond between her and Ali form in an instant when Ali offers her that dance and takes her from the faded walls behind Emmi and the two move into an area cast in red light, bathing the two in the color of passion. After the dance, the deep focus long shots of ogling patrons are replaced by a shallow focus profile of the two sitting at a table and talking, the daunting faces now a blur in the background as the couple forms.
The most touching and uplifting scene is also one of the most heartbreaking. Emmi and Ali sit al fresco in a bistro, where Emmi has a breakdown as people stare from a distance. Both she and Ali have weathered the judgment as best they can, not accepting all abuse without response but also never fully standing up for themselves. The pressure finally snaps Emmi, who sobs uncontrollably until Ali lays one hand on hers and strokes her hair with the other. She chokes out an "I love you" and Ali's broken German gives him a dopey, childlike charm. "Me more," he replies. "How much?" Emmi asks, and Ali spreads his great arms and says, "This much."
The film might reasonably have ended at this point, but that would have been too kind. Ali and Emmi depart for an extended vacation to get away from everyone, a vacation Fassbinder does not choose to show us; after all, they're getting away from it all. In the space of an edit, however, Emmi and Ali return to a home that might as well be a vacation area. Somehow, nearly everything changed in the interim: the neighbors figured out the value of having a big strong man around the place to do chores for them, and Emmi's kids sure would love it if she could babysit their own children without having to pay some seedy youth, and the local grocery vendor who threw the two out of his store came to realize the price of banning one of his most loyal customers. Sure, no one underwent a change of heart, but at least the stares subside. Hell, even the interiors seem brighter, and Ali trades in his gray suit for a red T-shirt and blue jeans.
But the vacation loosened something within the couple. Away from prying, judgmental eyes, the two clearly realized that not all their problems came from outside elements. Both feel alienated from their friends, to the point that Emmi shows off her husband to newly receptive friends like an object, inviting them to feel how strong his muscles are and calling his resulting displeasure a mood swing owing to his "foreign mentality." Ali acts no better, shunning Emmi at work as his friends and co-workers derisively refer to her as his "grandmother," and he even enters into an affair with the bartender. Where long shots opened so many scenes in the preceding hour and 15 minutes, Fassbinder now tightens the frame; the pressure is no longer external but internal. When he does use long shots, they lack perspective, merely gazing objectively as two lonely people drift apart because their loneliness only compounded when together.
I would be remiss not to mention the acting of the two leads, having put it off in this review for an ideal spot only to reach the end and say, "Well, it's now or never." Mira, never ashamed of her husband yet clearly frazzled to the point of a breakdown by her social anxiety, recalls another magnificent portrait of a crumbling, middle-aged woman, that of Brenda Blethyn in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, albeit not as jittery. While Fassbinder's visual segregation of the character from the barflies at the start communicates her separation, it is Mira who conveys years of sad loneliness as she looks at her oglers with curiosity, not fear nor superiority. As the leers grow increasingly hostile, however, her veneer fades, and her mental collapse at the bistro is so affecting precisely because she held it all together until that point.
Ben Salem manages to be even more confident and kind than Emmi. His affair with Fassbinder would end in the same year, thrusting ben Salem into a violent depression that led to the nonfatal stabbing of three people and culminated in his suicide in 1982. How strange it is, then, to watch him here and see a moral fortress, capable of reassuring his wife. Ali certainly gets mad, but ben Salem does not register full anger, saying more with disappointment in his eyes than he ever could with fire in his throat. Ali's attempt to cheat with the bartender ends with him lying motionless on top of the woman, suggesting even from the edge of Fassbinder's long shot that his impotence stems from regret and true love for Emmi than it does from, as he told one prospective hook-up at the start, being "cock broken." Fassbinder subsequently hands ben Salem an impossible scene, in which he goes into the bathroom of the bar and slaps himself as penance for straying. A person slapping himself inherently draws a chuckle, but he stares into his reflection with intensity, hitting himself over and over and over, creating a scene that terrifies.
The film's title almost looks like a script reading, with a character name followed by a line. Ali does indeed speak the line, which becomes literalized after the couple's reconciliation. Emmi's breakdown was emotional, but Ali's is physical. He suffers a ruptured ulcer, placing him in the hospital just as he and Emmi renew their commitment to each other. The doctor explains that Ali suffered his ulcer from the stress of dealing with everyday prejudice; fear did eat away at him, only it was the fear of others directed toward him, which in turn engendered fear of that fear. Emmi rushes to his bedside, but Fassbinder undermines the moment by showing it first via a long shot that films their reflection in a mirror, enhancing the falsity of the move. He then cuts to a closer proximity as Emmi holds her husband's hand with worry, allowing for the possibility of hope even as he closes the book on this relationship, threatened by social scrutiny and personal isolation and no less touching for all its turbulence.