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The question of race permeates every pore of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German melodrama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

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An inter-racial romance seems apt to talk about in these #GeorgeFloyd times, especially when race colours every aspect of the “romance” in question. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul —Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German melodrama from 1974 — is about a lonely woman and a lonely man getting together so they’ll no longer be alone. But that’s just the beginning. And that’s just the surface.

The man is Ali, a 30-something Arab. He works in Munich, but he’s from Morocco and his birth name is El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha, but you can see why he’s called Ali. It’s easier to fit in, conform, than to wear your identity on your sleeve. It’s easy to go by Ali instead of insisting that the people of Munich call him El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha — especially given the way they look at foreigners. “They’re filthy pigs... The way they live! Whole families crammed into one room. All they’re interested in is the money… None of them work… They live here at our expense. You only have to read the papers: full of rapes and so on.”

 Fear Eats The Soul

These words come from the colleagues of a 60-something cleaner named Emmi, who’s white but is still considered a “foreigner” by some because her late husband was Polish. (“She’s not really German herself. With a name like Kurowski!”) Her children are married and settled, and when she falls for Ali, she does so without a second thought. His skin colour does not matter for a minute. All Emmi sees is that he is alone, like her. And they get married.

Even the “proposal scene” is tinged with racism. Emmi’s neighbours complain to their landlord about Ali’s visits to their building, and she soon receives a visit from the landlord’s son. He looks grave. His words are graver: “I have something serious to talk about with you.” But it turns out he’s thinking she’s sublet her apartment, which is against the rules in the lease. Emmi can’t think straight, and she blurts out, “But Ali’s not a lodger. We’re going to get married.”

We wait for the look of horror or disgust on the man’s face. But there’s no reaction at all. He simply says, “Well, that’s different. I’ll be on my way then. You’re old enough to know what you’re doing.” Some Germans apparently have a practical, transactional approach to life. As long as he’s getting his rent, as long as Emmi is not breaking the rules of the lease, the landlord’s son doesn’t care about Emmi’s personal life. Much later, when two women in the building ask if they can’t do something about Emmi and Ali, he says, “Why? They seem very happy together.”

But are they? Emmi and Ali get married and we get a superb scene in an outdoor café. The camera looks at them from a great distance, placing a very literal spatial divide between the audience and the couple. A similar distancing is being felt by Emmi. Her children have reacted violently to the marriage, and her son tells her to forget she has children. (Before leaving, he also calls her a whore.) Her neighbours continue to sneer at her and ask her to double her cleaning duties in the building because the dirt piles up “with people like that” around the house. Her colleagues won’t even have lunch with her.

This is the distancing that the camera emphasises, along with the fact that they are the only customers there and the staff is staring at them — from a distance. But when Emmi and Ali begin to talk, we see them as they see each other. The camera moves closer and captures them in the conventional set-ups we’d get in a conversational scene, bringing us into the same space as these characters: mid shots, two shots, over-the-shoulder shots. Emmi breaks down about her predicament. Ali consoles her. But after the conversation, the camera backs away again, and leaves Emmi and Ali at a distance.

What’s tragic is that this new distance will be caused by Emmi herself. At the outdoor café, she told Ali, “I can’t bear it anymore. All this hatred! From everyone! Sometimes I wish I were all alone with you in the world, with nobody around us. I always pretend I don’t care, but I do. I do care! It’s killing me.” So a little later, as the people who rejected her come crawling back for favours — her son needs a babysitter, a neighbour needs some of her cellar space — she sees them for who they are but she’s also happy about being “accepted” again.

At the beginning of the film, Emmi had acceptance but no love. Then, when she found love, she lost this acceptance. And now, though she loves Ali, she craves to be back in the fold again. It’s for the same reason El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha changed his name to Ali: to conform. Emmi cannot stand being an outsider.

This is the dilemma many people of an older generation grapple with. The bold younger generation will find it easier to defend their marriage to an Ali, because they know that equality does not need to be “justified” to those who don’t get it. But people like Emmi want it both ways. She wants Ali. She also wants her neighbours to look her in the eye again. The older generation will slowly pass on and equality will (hopefully) simply be something we take for granted, not something to be “grappled with”. But then, Twitter and WhatsApp tell us otherwise.

 Fear Eats The Soul

Some viewers will simply not identify with Emmi: in their eyes, there’s simply no choice. You just have to “do the right thing”, as Spike Lee said. Others will echo Fassbinder’s words: “The cruelty is that we can understand them both, both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult.”

Fassbinder wrote these words about Imitation of Life, in an article titled “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a reworking of another Sirk movie, All that Heaven Allows, where a wealthy widow falls for her much-younger gardener. The class issue there becomes a race issue here. The title comes from the scene where Emmi begins to cry because she’s so happy and yet so afraid. In his pidgin German, Ali assures her, “Not fear. Fear not good. Fear eat the soul. Fear eats the soul.”

Three-and-a-half decades after Fassbinder’s film, things seem to have changed — and yet so much is still the same. One of the plot strands in the magnificently melodramatic Imitation of Life is about a black woman with a daughter so light-skinned that she can pass for white. (And Sarah Jane, the daughter, wants to be white.) Fassbinder, in his article writes: “It’s not because white is a prettier colour than black that Sarah Jane wants to pass for white, but because life is better when you are white.”

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

All images from Facebook.

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