Back in 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder met Douglas Sirk at the Munich Film Museum, where Fassbinder saw six of his German-born muse’s films. The directors quickly became friends and Sirk’s famous Hollywood melodramas, including All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Written on the Wind, would forever change the way Fassbinder made films. It’s easy then to divide Fassbinder’s career into two distinct time periods: before The Merchant of Four Seasons and after The Merchant of Four Seasons. In a January 2003 interview with the Criterion Collection, 93-year-old German legend Brigitte Mira hailed Fassbinder’s “remarkable talent for mimicry.” But contrary to popular belief, Sirk’s influence on his young German upstart was more theoretical than aesthetic.
Though Fassbinder’s famous metaphor-laden exposés of heartless social ostracism were more cushiony post-The Merchant of Four Seasons, his directorial “touch” still remained very much the same. Fassbinder admired Sirk’s remarkable ability to encode social commentary in his mise-en-scène. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a loose extrapolation of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, remains Fassbinder’s most famous film, but because it unravels like a bittersweet post-industrial German fable, it’s also considerably less rigorous than any of Sirk’s famous melodramas. Throughout their careers, Fassbinder and Sirk were falsely accused of being pessimists. Master ironists, yes, but their goal was not to subject their characters to misery as much as it was to expose the social mechanisms reeking havoc on their characters.
In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a lonely cleaning lady, Emmi (Mira), falls in love and marries an Arab worker, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), subsequently incurring the scorn of the separatist world around her. Fassbinder foreshadows Emmi’s dilemma from the start, when the woman walks into the bar where she meets Ali and the people inside seem frozen around her. Throughout the film, Fassbinder employs a series of remarkably simple framing devices to reinforce the isolation of his characters—from the harsh German culture, each other, and, ultimately, themselves. Doorways, windows and a sea of yellow chairs have a way of stranding Emmi and Ali away from the rest of humanity, just as Fassbinder’s dialogue deliriously—almost innocently—references their every step toward buying “a little piece of Heaven.”
The film’s original German title reads Angst essen Seele auf, which actually translates into English as Fear Eat Soul. Deliberately ungrammatical, the original title references both Ali’s limited German and his naïve innocence. Ali’s terse speaking matter is ripe with aphorisms (“Think much, cry much” and “Money spoils a friendship”), but it’s also another way for Fassbinder to evoke the suspended animation of his character’s lives. It’s this haunting stillness that makes Fassbinder’s facsimile of All That Heaven Allows a more minimalist expression of the similar cultural predicament explored in Sirk’s film. Or maybe it’s just a rawer interpretation, like the food Emmi orders at her honeymoon dinner when a waiter has her “on the rack” (about to indulge in a plateful of caviar, she is asked by the seemingly elite gentleman to choose between “raw” and “medium”).
The great irony of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is that the film’s victimizers exhibit the very uncivilized behavior they see in Emmi’s marriage to Ali: They smash in television sets (a reference to All That Heaven Allows, though grittier considering the social milieu), engage in idle gossip, and hurl nasty accusations at the kind-hearted Emmi. The film’s famous sea-of-yellow-chairs sequence can be seen then as a rhetorical shift of sorts through which Fassbinder sees the push-pull effect of racism. Suddenly it’s as if Emmi’s tears have healed the world and the film’s racists are seemingly redeemed: Emmi’s son Bruno (Peter Gauhe), who may or may not have killed the family cat when he was younger, sends his mother a check for a new television, and Elli’s neighbors begin to ask for favors and commend her on her remarkable kindness.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ends on a more hopeful note than All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and even Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. Fassbinder recognizes that change—however sudden, surreal, or magical—is a natural part of progress. But is it really progress if a local shopkeeper makes nice with Emmi—despite the color of her husband’s face—because she doesn’t want to lose her business? Ali: Fear Eats the Soul‘s second half documents in part how the silent Ali is effected by his sudden social acceptance. The once evil neighbors who accused Emmi of bringing dirt into their building ogle the man’s big muscles, sending the fetishized “other” into the arms of a local bar owner. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul evokes the sliding-off effect of racism and though the ends on a romantic high-note, Fassbinder recognizes that there’s still much social work to be done.