Friday, August 19, 2011


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.


  1. haven't seen harold & maude yet, but this made me want to even more than before

  2. Harold and Maude is a freakin' joy. I'm waiting to rewatch it for here for some time when I really need a film like that to pick me up.

  3. Good point about how ordinary these people look, and can add to the realism.

    A brave film I think, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was actually inspired by a 50s Douglas Sirk picture called All that heaven allows- I prefer Sirk's-he's a great director worth checking out.

    Of Fassbinder's films, I think The Marriage of Maria Braun is his best, although this one is good too.

  4. Sirk's film is on the list; I just haven't gotten to it yet.

    I think this is my first Fassbinder. I'm very curious to see more, though.

  5. This one leads to the Sirk film mentioned above (viewed last night) which in turn leads to Far From Heaven. I don't know where Far From Heaven leads to yet.

  6. Y'know, in many ways it would be easier to get through this list of films if I'd already seen all of them and knew what all of the connections were.

  7. TCM showed "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" recently and I watched it last night. I didn't know it was Fassbinder until Ben Mankiewicz started talking about it in the introduction. That brought back memories! I haven't seen any Fassbinder for a while, but I had a roommate in the 1990s who watched Querelle all the time and treated it like he was an MST3K robot.

    And I eventually saw The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronika Voss. I especially love Veronika Voss. I don't know if it's on any lists. I thought it was great.

    I liked Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a lot. There's a lot more to German cinema than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang, Herzog and Das Boot.

    I make fun of German cinema a lot, but sometimes I see something like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul or (a few weeks ago) Run Lola Run, and I feel like I'm being a little unfair. But think of movies like Zentropa (which is really bad) or The Tin Drum (which is great in its way, but COME ON!) and I'm OK with it again.

    1. I hated The Tin Drum. I loathed it so much.

      I don't mind German cinema. Wim Wenders makes a great film. It's easy to make fun of any country's national cinema if you look at the worst stuff.

    2. Compared to Italian or French or Japanese cinema, I think German cinema runs short on world classics a lot quicker.

      I thought of a low-budget German genre film that I LOVE for being so OFF-THE-RAILS! It's called THE HEAD. The best disembodied head movie ever!

      I love Herzog, Lang and especially Pabst. I've been working on a Top Ten German Films list and, tentatively, it may have three Pabst films.

    3. That may be true. It's definitely true that the biggest movement in German cinema happened during the silent era, so we're also pretty far removed from it. The same could be said of Russian films, where the montage style more or less died off before sound. But again, when talking German directors, aside from Herzog and Wenders, the names that come up are like Lang, Pabst, and Murnau, who did great work in the silent era or the early talkies.

      That said, Fassbinder, Wolfgang Petersen, Lubitsch, Tom Tykwer, and the awesomely named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck deserve some attention. It's also fair to bring up Douglas Sirk, who was German-born and raised and who cut his teeth in Weimar-era Germany.

      So, maybe less than you think.

  8. I think I missed the significance of the doctor's speech at the end. Thank you for clarifying.
    Loved the scene where her children were presented the marriage as fait accompli.

    1. There's a lot here to like. It's one I should probably watch again one of these days.