Film: Angst Essen Seele Auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass DVD player.
National identity is a strange thing. There’s nothing wrong with pride in one’s country, but it walks a fine edge between national pride and racism. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Angst Essen Seele Auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) is a sort of exploration into racism and relationships that cross racial barriers. It’s a strange film for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the central relationship of the film.
Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is an old widowed cleaning woman. During a rainstorm, she ducks into a bar that is frequented by foreign workers, particularly Arabic workers. Almost on a dare, one of the men, El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha (El Hedi ben Salem), who goes by the name of Ali, asks the old woman to dance. The two enjoy their dance together, and he offers to walk Emmi home. She invites him in for coffee and he ends up spending the night.
Emmi and Ali begin spending more time together and fall into a routine that is comfortable, at least for them. It’s not comfortable for anyone else, though. Her neighbors being squawking immediately about the presence of a tall, black man 20 years Emmi’s junior spending a great deal of time in her apartment. When she is confronted by her landlord about her subletting to Ali, she tells him that they are planning on getting married. To her surprise, Ali immediately agrees to the plan, and the two are married.
This causes huge problems for Emmi at home, at work, and with her adult children. The minute she marries Ali, the gaggle of middle-aged hausfraue begin gossiping about the pair, complaining to the landlord, calling the police to break up gatherings of Ali and his friends, and shunning Emmi socially. The same thing happens at her job, and her children reject the marriage as well. Emmi wants nothing more than to be happy again, but it seems that no one will treat her or Ali with anything like respect. Even the local grocer refuses to let Ali or Emmi shop at his store.
The two go away on a short vacation, and it is here that we discover the real intent of the old woman with the trip. She envisions coming back home and having everyone treat her with respect and dignity. And this is what happens, at least for a time.
What also happens is that Emmi starts to show off Ali to her friends, essentially treating him like a piece of meat. Ali, angered, leaves their flat and goes his own way for a while. The real question of the film is whether or not this extremely unlikely couple can not simply find happiness, but find their way back to each other amid all of the problems that happen because we’re talking about a relationship and problems always happen as well as the added burden of racism against the foreign workers like Ali.
This is an unusual film for a number of reasons. First, these people are not Hollywood stars. I do not mean this in terms of their acting, which is pretty good in general. What’s more impressive is just how ordinary these people look. Made by the American studio system, this film would be filled with attractive people and glamorous photography. Instead, everyone looks very plain and average, which translates in a movie as homely at best. The woman who works in the bar Ali frequents is a perfect example of this. Meant to be something of a temptress, she is a tall, wide-hipped woman with sunken eyes. Emmi looks her age, too; she is not a preserved woman in her early 60s but a woman who has worked hard all her life. This adds a level of realism to the film that would be impossible with routinely attractive actors.
Ali himself speaks in a broken German that appears to be accurately translated. He refers to himself in the third person, doesn’t conjugate verbs, and tends to leave out articles. Statements like “Ali no sleep” maintain his foreign status in the film, never allowing us to forget that he is from Morocco and that communication for him can be difficult.
What I find very interesting is the extent of the racism in the film. This is Germany about a generation after the Germany military attempted one of the most significant atrocities in the name of racial purity. Where is the outrage for this kind of behavior from everyone around Emmi and Ali? Much of this racism seems to stem as almost a hangover from World War II—foreign workers are held in great distain, and frequently reference is made to their uninformed statements.
If Fassbinder moralizes at any point in the film, he moralizes at the end. I am sure that he scripted the doctor’s comments in this scene, but it is given to us almost as if the doctor were putting the final period on something he’d written, convinced the language will sway the audience. I don’t think I buy it, honestly. The film doesn’t need this speech; we’ve already been handed the message that the foreign workers aren’t all bad, but that racism is bad.
A strange but worthwhile film.
Why to watch Angst Essen Seele Auf: It’s marvelously realistic.
Why not to watch: It’s Harold and Maude without the funny.