Ali : Fear Eats the Soul

Ali : Fear Eats the Soul aka Angst essen Seele auf (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Emmi, a woman truly in the second half of life, falls in love with Ali, a Berber guest worker more than ten years younger. When they both decide to marry, everybody seems to be against them. When the folks calm down a bit, Emmi and Ali get deeply unsure about their relationship.

Shot in 15 days, this “throwaway” film by German New Waver Rainer Werner Fassbinder became his most famous and recognized movie. Based on Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is far from being a remake of the 1955 gem. It is a film that portraits a situation that creates reactions from the audiences. Almost forty years later, it is easily conceivable that a couple of a German woman in her sixties and an Arab man in his thirties will be rejected and seen as “dirty”.

Emmi (Brigitte Mira), is a sixty or so widower that works as a cleaning lady. One night she enters in the Asphalt Bar to warm herself and to have a break from the pouring rain. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) asks her for a dance. They end up passing the night together. Not much later they get married and it provokes their relatives to ostracise Emmi. Her three children, the manager of the grocery store won’t service her since her spouse can’t speak a proper German. The neighbors of the building say that it is now dirtier since a foreigner lives there. What stick out first is how the couple is surprising and how the relationship begins. We quickly understand that the two leads aren’t intellectuals and they don’t quite understand the feelings and the rejection that happens to them. While Emmi is outraged about the ostracism, Ali is more of a philosopher and is more acquainted to these behaviors.

The contradictions of the characters like Emmi who first married a polish man she also was in the Nazi party. After her marriage with Ali they go celebrate to Hitler’s favourite restaurant. Representing probably the Fuhrer’s worst nightmare with a German woman married to a foreigner Fassbinder demonstrates the ambiguity of his propos. Emmi, still thinking that the dictator was a great man and that his tastes were rightful.

Just like Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Fassbinder; he was a misanthrope and indulging his characters those contradictions and limitations makes them a little easier to be the object of our contempt while being the strongest reminiscent of the film: the union of those two unexpected lovers. Another thing about the director who overdosed in 1982 at only 37 years old having directed 45 films, including seven in 1970, he was the lover of El Hedi ben Salem and he wanted to picture moments of rejection they lived when they were together. Even, if the link between this film and Sirk’s film is easy Fassbinder’s Ali is not as simple as a film as it seems. The emotions and the characters have so much to say so much vérité that we have to be careful not to oversimplify the situations.

Ali was my first encounter with a film from Herr Fassbinder; it’s simple but efficient mise en scène, the social observation, and the sheer brilliance of its use of themes makes him one of the filmmakers I will be interested to discover more from his oeuvre. Moreover, in my quest of the 1000 Greatest Films of all Time I’ll have to check five of Fassbinder’s other films: Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, In a Year with 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Veronika Voss


  1. Ali was the first RWF film I saw too (and still the only one), but I hope to correct that soon. This really was a wonderful simple story.

    1. Simple but yet so effective and lovely with many sublayers of the malaises of our silent societies. Fassbinder was a misanthrope and knew how to demonstrate his points simply with an in your face attitude.


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