Romance Rift with Xenophobia

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” Film Review

A man and a woman sit at a table with a bouquet of flowers before them.
Photo Credit: Peter Gauhe

Dating is strange. Sometimes the movies your date chooses to watch are strange — if you’re lucky. I was on a second date with a guy awhile back, we were at sushi stuffing our faces and talking through what movie we were going to watch at his place after dinner. He had a list of “to-be-watched” sci-fi films on his phone and went on to read them off until coming to “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”. Now, this is no sci-fi film — not an alien or space-age aspect to be found, but somehow this strange 1974 film directed by catalyst of the New German Cinema movement, Rainer Werner Fassbinder ended up on the list. The synopsis sealed it for me:

“A lonely widow meets a much younger Arab worker in a bar during a rainstorm. They fall in love, to their own surprise and to the outright shock of their families, colleagues, and drinking buddies.”

An older woman of German descent (ahem, my mother) and a younger Arab man (*clears throat*, my father) fall in love, how could I resist? Read on to find out how this movie, dubbed a masterpiece by some, boosted my date’s cool points and took me on a cinephile’s rollercoaster ride.

A woman and a man sit at a table holding hands.
Photo Credit: Peter Gauhe

What’s in a name? That which we call an immigrant by any other name would be as deserving of hope? In “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” the romance is layered into a bigger, and in some cases more emotion-driven narrative: xenophobia. By definition, “having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries”, this terrible word sits in the belly of this film like sour milk.

Sure, the film is indeed a romance: Emmi (played by Brigitte Mira), a 60 year old German widow with shitty children and shitty coworkers meets Ali (played by El Hedi bin Salem), a 30-something Moroccan gastarbeiter, or “guest worker” in a bar on a rainy night and to everyone’s surprise — themselves included — fall deeply in love. Emmi’s daughter doesn’t even believe her when she tells her, which is just so rude. It’s from that point forward that we viewers are forced to bear witness to a whole lot of disgusting xenophobia, which for myself, an Arab-American woman, was particularly hard to watch.

Hate doesn’t keep Emmi and Ali apart — at first. Yearning for acceptance, even at her age, Emmi falls into a cloud of wanton peace — even if that comes at Ali’s expense. Showing him off like a prize to be won to her shitty, xenophobic friends forces Ali away and into the arms of another woman. After a series of events that end in a visit to the hospital, they come back together but is the damage already done?

A woman stands behind the bar, a man leans on the bar.
Photo Credit: Peter Gauhe

The interesting thing about this film is the connection and trials the actors had with director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who makes a cameo as Emmi’s son-in-law) in real life. El Hedi ben Salem met Fassbinder in a gay bathhouse in Paris after which they began a relationship that was fueled by alcohol and rage. Salem abandoned his wife and children in Morocco to move to Europe and be with Fassbinder. The two had an extremely tumultuous relationship that ended in three people being stabbed by a drunken Salem who ultimately hung himself in police custody.

Parting words: pay close attention to the way the film is shot, keeping in mind the theme of acceptance and distance. Fassbinder may have been no peach of a person but he had an eye for using the camera to emote feelings. You can find this strange hidden gem on Amazon Prime, it’s well worth the watch. Just be prepared to be uncomfortable, something we all need to do more of. The kind of films that yield difficult subject matter are crucial to understanding ourselves and the world.

A man and a woman embrace.
Photo Credit: Peter Gauhe

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Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Bahraini/Baloch Audience & Revenue Strategist II, Community a la Camber Creative + independent film fan with a casual writing style & a pocket full of thoughts.