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Essay by Rhys Delany

Fear Eats the Soul: Reflections on a Masterpiece

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. From the gutters of a dark German street, Arabic music drones over a title sequence. But what does Rainer Werner Fassbinder fear? Germany, love, himself?

Set in what could be any German city in the 1970’s, the shadow of the 1972 Munich Olympics hangs over the film. Intended to be a complete rebrand from the Hitlerian show of 1936, the games were disrupted by a different kind of conflict. As a response to the Israeli invasion of two Palestinian villages, a militant group of Palestinian-Christians took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage, the culmination of which resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Following the massacre, both rises in immigration and unemployment led to suspicion and conspiracy result of which was islamophobia.

And so, enter our leading man, the tall, handsome and stoic Moroccan, El Hedi ben Salem, or as we come to know him, Ali. It is within the first few minutes of the film he encounters his soon-to-be lover, Emmi (Brigette Mira), an elderly German widow, who has wandered into Ali’s regular haunt out of either curiosity, loneliness or both. A stranger in a strange land, Emmi’s entrance is met with cold stares. Following pitiful remarks, one of Ali’s friends convinces him to give her a dance.

The scene is awkward and the dialogue clunky, but somehow, through all of its mistakes, a humanity shines through in the conversations and mannerisms of Ali and Emmi. When getting a true, human performance out of an actor, John Cassavetes described his directorial technique by saying, the camera isn’t content to just follow the character’s words and actions. I focus in on specific gestures and mannerisms. It’s from focusing on these little things — the moods, silences, pauses or anxious moments — that form arises.” This is what makes Fear Eats the Soul such an intimate film, its beauty comes from the performers as much as it does the filmmaker.

With whatever he worked on, Fassbinder was always unashamedly emulating his Hollywood hero, Douglas Sirk, and in ben Salem he found his own personal Rock Hudson. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an example of some of Fassbinder’s most artfully crafted shots and scenes. Often times using doorways to frame his stars Fassbinder turns the viewer into a voyeur as he exposes his characters in both body and mind. The diegetic distance set by the cinematography reminds us that this is after all a fantasy, and we are merely peeping through the window into what could very well be someone’s reality. The relationship Fassbinder presents to us feels heartbreakingly real in all of its beauty and ugliness.

But the film also shows us something more, an internal reflection of Fassbinder looking at not only himself but also the nation to which he belongs. Fassbinder casts himself as Emmi’s misogynistic son-in-law who blames job-seeking immigrants for the demise of the Germany’s working class. This kind of backwards nationalism is a common theme in Fassbinder’s films, whether looking at social and political downfall in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) or the class dynamics of love in A Fox And His Friends (1975), Fassbinder’s social commentary was often revealed in the form of real-life characters reflecting real-life situations.

The intersectional romance he portrayed so elegantly with Fear Eats the Soul has its own ties to his personal relationship with ben Salem. Meeting in a Parisian bathhouse, ben Salem left his wife and children behind in Morocco to be with Fassbinder. Fassbinder persuaded ben Salem to bring his two teenage sons to Germany but they struggled to acclimatise to a bohemian European life and were faced with frequent racism. The relationship dissolved amongst a haze of intoxication. Then one night after a drunken rage, ben Salem allegedly stabbed three people (non were fatal) and Fassbinder had to smuggle ben Salem into France which was where the couple parted ways. In 1977 ben Salem was apprehended and deid of either a heart attack or suicide in his prison cell. Fassbinder would not find out until five years later.

Fear Eats the Soul has a rather anticlimactic ending. Following a sudden ruptured stomach ulcer, Ali ends up in hospital. The doctor tells Emmi this happens to a lot of migrant workers and will no doubt happen again shortly. You can argue that Fassbinder might not have known how to round of his masterpiece, but Fassbinder was a man that truly understood the fragility of romance. For a film that supposedly took two weeks to make, it appears to have a lifetime of sentimentality poured into it.

With Fassbinder’s relentless work ethic, I can image he barely cast a thought to this film once it was completed. His films often have a dreamlike dosed-up aesthetic to them almost as if they were dreams themselves. Perhaps this is how Fassbinder saw his own life through his often opiated and sedated eyes. Whether he knew it or not, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a genuine gestamkunstwerk. Its context, its nuance and its humanity shine through as one of Fassbinder’s many highlights in cinematic history.

Rhys Delany

Twitter: @RhysDelany

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