Like the work of Douglas Sirk, his adopted mentor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films are often obsessed with the conflict between fantasy and an acknowledgement of the horrors that fuel it. Both men were drawn to films that functioned as full-tilt melodramas, while also operating as coded dissertations on the insidious, privileged implications of stories that celebrate the attainment of happiness for wealthy or good-looking protagonists at the taken-for-granted expense of the have-nots. (Todd Haynes, appropriately included in a feature on this disc, would be their most prominent contemporary American heir.) These directors encourage your awareness of their manipulative tricks even while practicing them, and the alternating distancing/enveloping devices yield movies that are continually switching back and forth between moods that are sweet and sour. Ultimately, the effect is one of profound empathy, as you’re left as emotionally unmoored as the characters in the narratives.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder’s most direct artistic conversation with Sirk, works as both a spiritual remake of the latter’s All That Heaven Allows, as well as a pointed analysis of the sort of tunnel vision that results in Sirk’s unintentionally ironic celebration of Rock Hudson’s conformist stud. Everyone is both a victim and an oppressor in this film. Fassbinder is particularly and startlingly critical of his heroine, Emmi Kuroswki (Brigitte Mira), an aging, homely, lower-working-class Polish-German woman who takes into her bed a much younger Moroccan man, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), who’s quietly working and drinking himself to death. The filmmaker mixes scenes of extraordinary pathos, such as Emmi’s lonely entrance into the deserted bar where she meets Ali, with moments that emphasize the exploitive legacies that inform the white/black, May/December, resident/immigrant, male/female relationship, such as the jaw-dropping scene when Emmi shows off Ali, who appears to bitterly get off on playing along, to her friends as she might a new horse on the farm.
As their romance develops, the director tellingly omits love scenes that might conventionally draw us closer into Emmi and Ali’s relationship on a fantasy level. We’re never entirely invited into their circle. Most of the film’s duets end on a note of awkwardly prolonged aloneness, with characters frozen in their regret and confusion in images that, as Haynes says in his introduction on this disc, repeatedly feature rigid tableaus of people looking and judging. This concept is further literalized by stylized blocking that frequently likens doors, windows, and stairwells to cages (this film abounds in visual equivalents to All That Heaven Allows’s famed television reflection shot). The authorial distance that Fassbinder maintains is both chilly and weirdly humane, as it casually insists that we have no right to demand understanding of an internal world that’s none of our business. A more complicated effect is also achieved: The work of maintaining a conventional relationship, let alone an unconventional one rooted in a good half dozen social taboos (not to mention the free-floating political tension of a post-war Germany), is emphasized over the effortless soap-operatic fulfillment that comprises the entire purview of most romantic films. We’re often aware of the rituals of Emmi and Ali’s relationship: the eating, the drinking, the occasional dancing, and particularly that tedium, familiar to any couple, of synchronizing your schedule with your mate’s.
Though it may sound like purposefully alienating Marxist homework in theory, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul remains beautifully irresolvable. Fassbinder achieves an emotional, socio-political hyper-awareness scene by scene that culminates, nevertheless, into a film of considerable romantic mystery. As merciless as Fassbinder can be about this relationship’s impurities, we’re eventually pulled into it emotionally anyway. The filmmaker bravely refuses to reduce this union entirely to a theoretical dissection of a bad racist, classist joke. The comfort Emmi and Ali derive from one another, rooted in a commonality of discarded lower-class despair, is legitimate, and the couple’s games of escalating exploitations are also understood to be driven by insecurity and by a profound hunger for companionship and acceptance.
This quest for acceptance is affirmed by one of the great prevailing attributes of the New German Cinema: Its often authentically democratic sense of grunginess, which is more convincing and considerably less exclusive than the vérité of, say, the French New Wave. The streets and the bars and the apartments of this film have the spare, squat, anonymous, authentically lived-in texture of the world as it’s known by the perpetually broke proletariat, which is charged with maintaining a more comfortable society’s infrastructure for virtually nothing in return. (Fassbinder’s greatest and most freeing deviation from Sirk’s films is his stripping away of the audience’s ability to vicariously enjoy the hero’s wealth.) The juxtaposition of these settings with Fassbinder’s bold aesthetic, which might be termed Brechtian Technicolor, conveys the contrast of reality and fantasy that Emmi and Ali wrestle with on a daily basis, dramatizing the pull between their drudgery and their romantic dreams of salvation. The ending, a bald symbolic plea for post-war moral clarity, is also one of the most romantic in all of cinema, as it leaves us with a recognizably troubled, yet fundamentally decent, woman who reconciles fantasy with reality in such a fashion as to unexpectedly expand the scope of her humanity. She sees her lover, truly, finally, and not in terms of herself.
This transfer is significantly, subtly spruced up from up Criterion’s 2003 DVD. Colors are considerably more vibrant, particularly the reds, which play a crucial role in the film. Flesh tones and textures are more detailed, sometimes mercilessly, which is almost certainly consistent with the filmmakers’ visual intentions. Blacks are deeper and well-differentiated; whites are purposefully harsh but varied. Grain has been reduced from the 2003 edition, yet remains, importantly preserving the film’s gritty atmosphere. This mono track has been further scrubbed of hisses and ticks, and boasts a significantly improved sense of spatial nuance and dimension.
The supplements have all been ported over from 2003 DVD. They’re solid, but this package could use an update. The best of the lot is director Todd Haynes’s introduction to the film, which covers Fassbinder’s themes and formalities with an impressive and infectiously open level of conversational erudition. (One really wishes that he could’ve been nabbed for a full-on audio commentary.) Taken together, the 2003 interviews with actress Brigitte Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, represent two sides of the Fassbinder film experience: the pathos (Mira) and the deceptively rigorous attention to formal detail (Eymèsz). Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short, Angst Isst Seele Auf, a tribute to Fassbinder in which Mira briefly reprises her role as Emmi, is a one-note stunt that’s interesting only in a completest context. "Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema," a 1976 BBC program, and a snippet of Fassbinder’s The American Soldier provide additional social/aesthetic context surrounding Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s inception. The theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara round out the package.
Our consumerist "me" culture could use more films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most penetrating examinations of the social challenges of extending and receiving true, uncompromised empathy.