Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) is showing March 28 - April 27, 2017 in the United Kingdom in the series Fassbinder: The Exploitability of Feelings.
By now many will have encountered Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (German: Angst essen Seele auf, 1974) even if they are not hardcore devotees of the director’s oeuvre. Along with his BRD trilogy, Ali stands as one of Fassbinder’s most acclaimed and viewed works. The film follows 60-year-old cleaning woman Emmi (Brigitte Mira) who becomes involved with much younger Moroccan mechanic Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) after one of his friends dares him to dance with her when she walks alone into the bar one rainy evening.
Ali has been frequently praised for the moving performances of its leads and for how it so effectively portrays racism against migrant workers living in Germany. But there is more involved in creating a masterpiece than simply having some talented actors and a great script, although these are beneficial as well. Since Fassbinder had intended Ali to be an exercise, and because he had a vision behind it, what exactly distinguishes this film technically upon close study? Let’s take a look.
The opening of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is perhaps flawless in how it provides exposition of its main characters and establishes the acting and cinematic style of the film right within its first few frames. Emmi walks into the bar framed narrowly in a deep shot at the end of a row of tables. She pauses by the door and becomes still for a few moments; in reverse shot, Ali, his friends and the proprietress (Barbara Valentin) gaze in her direction. These actors are also frozen, their faces and body language connoting curiosity but also more than a little suspicion and readiness to judge. Emmi takes a seat at the table and while the others are still motionless, the proprietress comes and serves Emmi at the most remote table by the entrance. It is hard to imagine any of these shots being more effective, even down to the ashtrays on the table which seem to place Emmi, lonely and equivocal, near a vanishing point of outsider status. Without the deep opening shot, the stylized performances and Emmi’s remote position behind the horizontal barrier of the table, this scene would not nearly resound with the same force. It is a visual allegory of the social problems addressed in the film, and the actors’ postures serve to remind us that they are portraying events which are timeless.
Fassbinder, still thoroughly tied to his background as the Anti-Theater director (its name, like Brecht’s Thaeter declaring its rebellion against tradition), was devoted to bringing the Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect of Epic Theatre into his cinema. This of course was not at all unusual for films of the time. What distinguishes Fassbinder’s use of distanciation is that it is almost entirely evoked through the actors themselves rather than through cinematic language. In fact, you might notice in watching a number of Fassbinder works how very spartan the use of the camera is, often static and with very few pans, zooms or close-ups. “The technical possibilities which the camera offers only destroy a clear dramaturgy and spoil the clarity of a film,” Fassbinder said in a 1969 interview with Christoph Knebusch.1 In another interview, cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann claimed that in the making of Katzelmacher (1969) (perhaps the only other film of Fassbinder’s where artificial gesture is of as much importance as in Ali) they were forced of necessity to compose in all static shots due to the weight of the enormous 300 Arri “blimp” camera which they had borrowed for free from Bavaria Studios.2 Even if this happens to be true, it seems that Fassbinder decided early on that having a relative lack of camera movement was a kind of freedom for him, and an ideal way for him to approach his filmmaking.
After Emmi and Ali dance together we see that they have struck up an immediate friendship. “You talk good with Ali, Ali pay for cola,” he insists, in broken and yet charming German. When they leave, Ali offering to walk Emmi home, we see the proprietress frozen in a look of disdain, Ali’s Arab buddies blurred in the background. It emphasizes so well how none of our actions occur in a vacuum. There are always others lurking in the environs, waiting to ridicule and judge. While the leads in this film have been frequently praised, Barbara Valentin’s performance as the bar owner should be duly noted for its expressiveness, most of which is evoked silently through facial expression and gesture. In the tradition of Epic Theatre, all characters in Fassbinder are essential because the films are not merely about the lives of the lead characters, but are commentary on society as a whole.
When Ali stands with Emmi in her foyer waiting for the rain to stop we again have the actors blocked in a provocative way. When Emmi talks to Ali about her job as a cleaning woman, Ali stands at some distance blurred in the background by the doorway. When he speaks, he comes briefly into focus, and then is blurred again. It is the same kind of blocking as is used for the figures in the bar, and yet—because of the patience and kindness intoned by the voices—instead of the feeling of lurking and judgement, we only sense the patience and act of listening in these figures, which of course is the basis of Ali and Emmi’s love. In this blocking and camerawork, it is as though Fassbinder is suggesting to us, and possibly he is correct, that perhaps all relationships should be structured like Brechtian theatre.
Ali spends the night with Emmi; they become lovers and get married. The acting moves in waves of levels of stylization, from impassive mannequin-like figures into those of melodrama. Some who don’t understand what Fassbinder was trying to achieve here will be put off by the artifice and dismiss it as being camp. Although a couple of Fassbinder’s films qualify as being rather campy (Querelle  or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant ) and which of course should be viewed in the context of the tradition of the best of gay cinema, it should be noted that while camp is always artificial, everything with artificial elements doesn’t qualify as being camp. If you examine the performances in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), on which Fassbinder’s Ali is partially modelled, you’ll find that the actors are quite dramatic although very natural in comparison. It is interesting to note that the only figures with very stylized gestures in Sirk’s film are bourgeois women in the act of asserting their superiority, adopting very pinched voices and affected mannerisms. The character of Mona Plash (Jacqueline de Wit), who is constantly belittling others, is the most persistently artificial character in the melodrama, but we see also how at times Cary (Jane Wyman) adopts an artificial tone and demeanour when trying to distance herself from Ron (Rock Hudson), who in the eyes of society is her social inferior.
While artifice is used as a vehicle of classism in All That Heaven Allows,in Ali there is no theme of classism because most characters are working class. Stylized elements are rather reserved to create distanciation. Sirk’s films have a decided lack of alienation effect, although of course in his commitment to creating a cinema of social conscience Sirk was as Brechtian as any of the leftist filmmakers of later European New Wave movements. In Ali, the social ills which are Fassbinder’s target are those of racism and ageism. Emmi is called “an old whore” and we hear many typical slights against Arabs and immigrants: “They don’t work,” “They don’t wash,” etcetera. As many know, this story sprung from the director’s own experience in his relationship with El Hedi ben Salem, who would tragically end his own life in prison in the wake of his failed relationship with Fassbinder. The racism shown in the film was encountered by the couple, but the gay relationship was in Ali replaced by an intergenerational one no less scorned and mocked by society.
A powerfully-evoked moment of bigotry occurs when Emmi announces her marriage, presenting Ali to her family. The siblings are blocked at varying distances from the couple, her daughter (Irm Hermann) and son-in-law (Fassbinder himself) in the middle, and her sons (Peter Gauhe and Karl Scheydt) in front and behind them. The camera gives us a very lagging pan here, conspicuous because it occurs in a film shot mostly from stationary viewpoints. The actors’ faces are frozen, and it is not only their individual expressions but how each seems to work in accordance with the whole that is so very striking—in what Brecht termed gest or gestus, not simply individual gesture, but the communal gestures and attitudes conveyed by the troupe as a whole. Gest is not pre-conceived, but achieved through trial and error, and as actress Hanna Schygulla has noted, Fassbinder’s great gift as a director, even if difficult to work with at times, was that he was able to guide his actors into giving the best performances they could possibly give. If in a melodrama we would be met at this moment with hysterics and vitriol, there is just as much emoted here, although achieved in complete silence. Through their perfected gest, it is as though the actors’ faces and bodies inscribe ciphers of hatred. “A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar,” says Brecht on the use of Verfremdungseffekt.3 From alienation arises a dialectic between audience and creator. The beauty of the use of alienation in this film is how these waves of stylization reach their apex at points of greatest story tension, and then recede into more natural performances. In reserving a more discernible alienation for these key points in the narrative, Fassbinder confronts the viewer with a double dialectic. As well as the perennial relevance of its story, this double dialectic is perhaps requisite to the enduring resonance and success of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.