She’s a stout 60-year-old widow and cleaning lady of Polish origin. He’s a tall thirtysomething Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, from Morocco. We’re in Munich in the mid-70s. They meet one evening when she steps into the mostly empty bar she’s passed so many times, drawn in by the sensuous, foreign-sounding music. He’s at the bar, dressed in brown suit and brown shirt, hanging with his Moroccan buddies, turning down the sexual favours of a fellow barfly. “Cock broken,” he explains in broken German. The older woman orders cola and sits at a table. The younger man, egged on by his buddies, approaches her. They slow-dance and converse, and the conversation goes on and on, into the night, out of the bar, into the older woman’s foyer, where they take shelter from the rain, and, eventually, into her apartment. Despite its seeming unlikeliness, despite the overwhelming obstacles of rampant, ubiquitous racism, ageism and xenophobia, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) become lovers, and the story of their love, as told in New German Cinema wunderkind-enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), is that rarest of things: a truly believable movie romance. It’s also a masterpiece. Criterion’s just released it on a beautiful Blu-ray, with a menu featuring a beautiful montage of Emmi and Ali slow-dancing.
Fassbinder wasn’t even 30 when he made this, his 18th film, which was inspired by two other films: The American Soldier (1970), Fassbinder’s early feature in which a character relays the story of a cleaning lady in love with an immigrant worker, and All That Heaven Allows (1955), Douglas Sirk’s melodrama in which Jane Wyman’s bourgeois widow falls in love with Rock Hudson’s young gardener. (In turn, Todd Haynes would draw inspiration from All That Heaven Allows and from Fear Eats the Soul to produce his 2002 film Far From Heaven.) Though Emmi and Ali’s love is threatened at every turn by the stupidity and cruelty of friends, neighbours, strangers, family and co-workers, Feat Eats the Soul, echoing Sirk, ends on a sombre but more optimistic note than the American Solider anecdote. But I would argue that more than anything that happens in its story, what makes Fear Eats the Soul so moving, fascinating and generous of heart is Fassbinder’s singular directorial approach—the same high style that you’d think would make the film alienating.
Few filmmakers have utilized aspects of theatre in any meaningful way. One of those few is Fassbinder, whose theatre practice was as prolific as his cinema practice. Right from the start, with those deep reds and yellows, there’s a sumptuous unity of production and costume design, lighting and photography, that both bears the influence of All That Heaven Allows’ Technicolor palate and at an expressionistic theatrical style—which creates a captivating contrast with the clean, muted acting of the cast, most especially Mira, a veteran thespian, and Salem, who appeared in several Fassbinder films and was for a time Fassbinder’s boyfriend. Above all, what distinguishes Fear Eats the Soul is Fassbinder’s loving, counterintuitive mise en scène. In scene after scene Fassbinder’s characters share the most intimate exchanges while his camera watches from a considerable distance, often with telling objects or framing devices in the foreground. There’s such tenderness is this distance, as though Fassbinder is holding his actors, cradling them, in the centre of the screen. He would continue to use framing (most memorably in a romantic scene that becomes a murder scene in Berlin Alexanderplatz), but I don’t know that any subsequent Fassbinder ever achieved quite the same feeling of belief in love as is found here.