Ali: Fear Eats the Soul at TIFF

October 25, 2016

by Adam Nayman

It’s a tired critical tactic to peg a screening of a great older film to some new topical malady or other.

So I won’t go too far with the observation that TIFF’s presentation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – widely considered to be one of the two or three best features by a director with almost fifty credits to his name – arrives in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the attendant wave of print-and-social-media handwringing over its intimations of ingrained racism, and ten days ahead of a U.S. Presidential vote that’s conjured up all kinds of ghoulish xenophobia. Let’s just say that truly enduring movies don’t just react to or reflect their respective social contexts, but can also anticipate the temperature of cultural climates to come – that they are films for all seasons, electoral or otherwise.


This is surely true of Ali, which generated a swirl of controversy upon its release in 1974: not only did the film depict a passionate, May-December romance between a sexagenarian bourgeois German woman, Emmi (Brigitte Mirra) and a much younger working-class Moroccan man – the Ali of the title, played by El Hedi Ben Selem – but he torqued the story to put its various cultural implications front and centre. By reconfiguring the basic plot of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows, featuring Jane Wyman as a housewife attracted to a younger landscaper played by Rock Hudson, Fassbinder presented his cinephile bona fides; by simultaneously imagining a relationship that daringly crossed lines of class, age, and race, he created a deeply politicized form of pastiche.

The political is always personal, of course, and one way into Ali is to see Emmi as a projection of Fassbinder the fragile libertine: many critics have pointed out the significance of Selem’s casting, as he was the director’s lover at the time of shooting. Not only that, but Fassbinder – whose close collaborations with actors and unusual on-set process were the stuff of legend even at beginning of his career – plays Emmi’s son-in-law, Eugen, who is the first of many characters in the film to express his displeasure and disgust at the coupling: as Eugen berates Emmi, the scene feels caught between critique (of Eugen’s repressed, prejudicial attitudes) and strangely cathartic, as if Fassbinder were getting off on briefly occupying the position of the judgmental German mainstream.

What makes Ali: Fear Eats the Soul so painful to watch is the way that Emmi and Ali each slip into culturally determined roles even as they flout convention by staying together; he becomes alienated and quiet, while she becomes imperious complains to her friends about his “foreigner mentality.” Fassbinder’s thesis that racism and xenophobia are internalized attitudes is literalized in a late plot twist that finds Ali suffering from a burst stomach ulcer – a condition that, in a moment of pure didacticism, is connected by a physician to the stress of both his job and his servile, pressurized position in the larger society (the other side of the “foreigner mentality.”) That Fassbinder gives his film a more open and optimistic ending than All That Heaven Allows – or even many of his other 70s films, which tended towards downbeat conclusions – doesn’t ameliorate the indignation percolating beneath Ali’s pristine surface.

Ali’s place in cinema history can be extended in two directions: not only back towards Sirk – whose influence Fassbinder readily admitted – but also forward towards the Todd Haynes of Far From Heaven (2002), which also remade All That Heaven Allows but through the lens of racial discrimination that Fassbinder used to colour the material. And then there is Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008), a film in some ways even closer to Ali even as it differs in plot, tone and style. Like Fassbinder (and Haynes), Petzold is a semiotically-inclined filmmaker who likes to play with cultural signifiers, including those derived from Old Hollywood; where Fassbinder gravitated towards melodramas, Petzold likes crime thrillers.

A still from Jerichow.
A still from Jerichow.

Jerichow is a remake of sorts of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), except transposed to contemporary Germany, where an ex-military man, Thomas (Benno Fuhrmann) begins an affair with Laura (Nina Hoss), the wife of a Turkish-born snack bar owner (Hilmi Sozer). In both James M. Cain’s source novel and the two film versions, the wife’s husband is older and putatively abusive, but Petzold adds a level of intrigue by also making him a Turkish immigrant named “Ali” – a figure who is played in Jerichow not simply as a patsy (as in the other films) but as a tragic figure sacrificed on the altar of the “heroes”’ mutual attraction. The implication is that their tryst is racially coded as more “correct” for the society they live in, with Petzold all but daring the viewer to see Ali through Laura’s eyes (or at least the view she relates to Thomas) as a frightening, obstructive “Other.” The ending that Petzold designs takes these feelings to their logical – and violent – extreme, and casts aspersions on both post-Berlin-wall rhetoric and post-EU ideals about Germany’s re-integration just as surely as Fassbinder dredged up the spectre of Aryan attitudes in Ali.

If Jerichow is not quite a classic on the order of Ali, it may be because its allegory is too obvious: Fassbinder’s accomplishment was to make a piece of political cinema that played primarily as an emotional experience. (I’d say Petzold’s subsequent Phoenix [2014] is an actual masterpiece, and will hold up for years to come.) The reason Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is going to be programmed at cinematheques and rep houses for as long as they stand is because its portrait of love borne out of surprise and then assailed and threatened by prejudice is perennial and universal.