Jan 25, 2013
Movie miscegenation has been blatantly beaten-to-death for quite some time in Hollywood, yet the Tinseltown agents of melodramatic agitprop have yet to produce a race-mixing propaganda piece nearly as provocative, true to life, and ripe with subversive strife as German New Cinema master of melodrama Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) aka Angst essen Seele auf; an uniquely uncompromising look at a decidedly doomed love affair between a lonely 60-year-old widow and a 30-something-year-old Moroccan immigrant worker of less than meager means. Part subversive homage to Danish-German auteur Douglas Sirk’s intensely idiosyncratic Hollywood melodramas All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul proved that Fassbinder learned much from his spiritual cinematic guru, but not without transcending the elder director's studio-system-shackled sense for cinema by giving it a revolutionary West German twist. Starring Fassbinder’s then-boyfriend El Hedi ben Salem – a poor Moroccan-born immigrant who lived with his family (a wife and two kids) in a French Arab ghetto before becoming a Fass-bande Superstar – as the colored guest-worker who finds unlikely love and warmth in the form of a socially naive German widow, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul carries a certain audacious, if not exaggerated, authenticity to it that was even more brutally reflected in real-life with both actor and auteur being six feet under less than a decade after the release of the film that would prove to be their greatest collaboration with one another. While Fassbinder’s friend Werner Schroeter – the greatest ‘dandy’ of German New Wave Cinema – held the filmmaker partly responsible for El Hedi ben Salem's death due to his belief that, “he had let down a friend who, to a certain extent, was not his equal. Salem was not an educated person; he was not at all sure of himself,” the auteur certainly displayed his sensitivity to his exotic lover’s precarious plight in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; a striking cinematic work that, although coming from an ostensibly ‘far-leftist’ perspective, if not a rather distinctive and highly individualistic one, demonstrates that all ‘forbidden loves,’ especially racially mixed ones, are predestined to social ostracism and, more likely than not, inevitable obliteration. Filmed in two weeks in between shooting Martha (1974) – another early Sirk-influenced film – and the black-and-white epic period piece Effi Briest (1974), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul proved to be just another reason as to why Rainer Werner Fassbinder is probably the most prolific German filmmaker who ever lived as an absurdly active auteur who made more cinematic masterpieces in a year than most filmmakers make in a lifetime.
In an essay he wrote on Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder remarked regarding the curious conclusion of All That Heaven Allows – the film that the German New Cinema auteur loosely remade as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – that, “Then later Jane goes back to Rock, because she keeps having headaches, which happens to all of us if we don’t fuck often enough. But when she’s back, it isn’t a happy ending, even though they’re together, the two of them. A person who creates so many problems in love won’t be able to be happy later on…Human beings can’t be alone, but they can’t be together either. They’re full of despair…” And naturally, such is the world of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but Fassbinder takes things to more misanthropic and even nihilistic extremes. The main difference between the younger filmmaker and his filmic father figure is probably best symbolically summed up in two different yet similar scenes from each respective filmmaker's films involving adult children and a lone television. While a TV is used as a soulless bourgeois gift so as to appease their mother, who has just broken up with her younger lover (played by Rock Hudson) and is quite lonely and melancholy, by the conspiring children in All That Heaven Allows, the son of the female protagonist of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul kicks in his mother’s boobtube and another son calls her a "whore" after his mommy reveals she has married a young Arab. Working in arguably the most revolutionary period in German filmmaking history, Fassbinder was able to depict a sort of hopeless honesty in his films that Douglas Sirk never had the privilege of, at least while working somewhat servilely for the monetary-inclined money-men of Hollywood.
One rainy night after getting off after a tiring day of work, 60-year-old Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) – a widowed cleaning woman from a working-class background who was once a Nazi party member – finally decides to investigate the exotic foreign music (Al Asfouryeh by Sabah) coming from a local bar that has always intrigued her on her nightly walks home, so she goes inside the somewhat seedy saloon and meets her soon-to-be-husband Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) by happenstance. Inside, she encounters a couple German women, one of which being the bar owner and Ali’s sometimes-lover Barbara (Barbara Valentin), and a handful of Arab men. Ali’s “cock is kaput,” so he turns down the sexual offer of a haggard kraut whore, but he does agree to dance with “the old woman” Emmi after his racial compatriot tells him to do so in a somewhat heckling manner, thereupon ushering in the unconventional relationship between the ignorant, half-literate 30-something-year-old Moroccan guest-worker and the lonely widow who does not have a bad word to say about Uncle Hitler. Although Emmi and Ali face derision and denigration from the bar patrons, it is nothing compared to the virtual hell on earth they will experience from the gentle German woman’s family, friends, and neighbors after getting married on a wild whim. Emmi’s grown-up children essentially disown her (despite the fact that their father was a Polish foreigner himself) and her neighbors cruelly gang up on on her like a bunch of conniving bitches in heat seeking to sever her soul, in part due to their jealousy of her newfound happiness, and it even gets so bad that the owner of the local grocery store refuses to serve the couple despite the weary wife’s many years as a loyal patron. Initially facing seething hatred and social ostracism due to their unconventional mixed blood marriage, the extraordinary odd couple still attempts to prove “love conquers all” and Emmi theorizes that taking a long vacation will provide for a nice change of scenery and that when they come home, everything will return to normal. Magically, when the couple returns from their short sunny sabbatical, Emmi’s wish is granted and suddenly everyone has ‘accepted’ the two rare lovebirds, albeit in a most condescending, two-faced, and even parasitical sort of way. Finally relieved she has been once again accepted among the petty Teutonic proletariat, Emmi ignores the fact that they treats Ali as not an individual, but as a perennial foreigner and novelty quasi-Negro-Arab Übermensch of immense strength and sexual potency, even showing his strength off to her crudely curious friends like he is a monkey doing tricks and forcing him like a virtual slave to move objects around for her neighbors. Clearly hurt, Ali goes back to his ex-lover Barbara for sex, comfort, and couscous (a native dish Emmi now refuses to eat/cook for her homesick husband as she wants him to learn to eat sauerkraut). Emmi eventually comes to her senses, but it seems too late as Ali shuns his rather worried wife, even pretending not to know who she is when she randomly shows up at his place of employment where his work pals describe her as his, “Moroccan grandmother.” It is only when the two dance to the same song at the same bar where they initially met that the two can reconcile their differences and once again feel the particularly ‘platonic love’ (as indicated by Emmi's remark that she does not care if over-anxious Ali sleeps with other women) that brought them together in the first place, but Ali’s health takes a turn for the worst due to a bursting stomach ulcer, thereupon leaving his body temporarily kaput. As Fassbinder once stated in an interview, “Of course, the ending’s meant to take this private story, which I’m crazy about and also happen to think is very important, and give it a thrust into reality, including in the mind of the moviegoer.”
Indeed, a lot has changed since the release of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but Fassbinder’s cinematic depiction of the social turmoil and cultural suicide that is globalization and “multiculturalism” – an oxymoronic word if there ever was one – has only proved to be all the more true nearly four decades after the film’s initial release. While the ‘Nazi Generation’ – Fassbinder's mother's generation which he many times cinematically criticized – has all but totally died out, only to be replaced by ethnomasochistic Germans with nil sense of kultur nor community, the foreign guest workers of Ali’s generation have spawned kids who are less keen on work and more prone to criminality (even making certain sectors of Germany “no go zones” for indigenous Germans) and hostility to the adopted anti-homeland that pays for their existence. It is worth noting Ali remarks to Emmi regarding kraut-towelhead relations during their first conversation, “German master…Arab dog,” because although the foreigners from the South might still be seen as unsettled savages even by 'well-meaning' blockhead liberals, they have now began to bark and bite while their pathetically passive Aryan masters become elderly and emaciated. After all, no matter how rich or powerful the elderly master is, he is no match when cornered in his home by a pack rabid canines who have been kicked one too many times. In real-life, Fassbinder essentially brought El Hedi ben Salem out of the ghetto and turned him into an international cinema Superstar, thereupon going from literals rags to designer clothes, only to turn his back on him when the filmmaker no longer needed/desired him. While drunk, Salem ended up violently stabbing three people and was subsequently deported to France where he killed himself by way of hanging in 1982 while in prison, thus marking the second suicide of one of Fassbinder’s ill-fated lovers/stars, another to whom he would dedicate one of his films. In an interview with German auteur Frank Ripploh (Taxi zum Klo), Rainer Werner Fassbinder – a homosexual man of many calamitous love affairs – admitted that filmmaking was a substitute of sorts for love, stating, “When I was very small I already knew I was supposed to make many films. I can only tell you that when I shot my first take it was more fantastic than the most fantastic orgasm I ever had. That was a feeling, indescribable.” With that in mind, it should be no surprise for those that have seen Ali: Fear Eats the Soul that the film is more than an imitation of life as a reflection of Fassbinder’s idealized empathy for a minority lover that he could not express to any notable degree in real-life. Although Fassbinder was buggered by a seemingly non-gay brown-man from a gutter, for which he returned favor by humanizing him and his people via cinema, he ultimately kicked him to the curb just like the common latent-Nazi Germans he portrays in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Still, while a black Hollywood star like Will Smith does not add up to much more than an artistically-vacant Hollywood affirmative-action case on showbiz steroids, El Hedi ben Salem has been secured a place in cinema history that few melanin-strong actors can boast as the archetypical 'unknown foreigner' with strengths and aspirations, but also with flaws and failures, thus being given a 'human' form, although I am sure he was more thrilled about being the first man – be it black or white – to do a nude sex scene with buxom blonde beastess Barbara Valentin.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:18 PM
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