Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Year: 1974. Running time: 93 minutes. Color. In German with optional English subtitles. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starring Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. From The Criterion Collection.

Review by David Ng

The weird, brutal, and chilling world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder took an irrevocable step into the international spotlight with the release of his 1974 masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The story of forbidden love between a Moroccan immigrant and a German cleaning woman nearly twice his age, Ali effortlessly marries Fassbinder's signature neo-Brechtian detachment with the operatic melodrama of a Douglas Sirk weepie. The result is a truly bizarre stylistic hybrid at once profoundly moving and bracingly analytic. If Ali remains one of Fassbinder's most popular films, its critical pedigree (and influence) has only grown with time. Last year's Far From Heaven, which explores similar meta-Sirkian-territory, plays almost like a remake of a remake: Sirk as channeled through Fassbinder as channeled through Todd Haynes.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Ali features a newly restored print as well as two extras indispensable to Fassbinder-philes: a talk with Haynes about Ali's influence on Far From Heaven and an interview with 93-year-old Ali star Brigitte Mira. It also features a BBC documentary on New German Cinema, a movement from the mid '60s through the '70s that saw the ascendance of a new generation of young German directors, including Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, and of course, Fassbinder. Only 28 years old when he made Ali, Fassbinder was a veritable cinematic wunderkind, directing over 33 films before his untimely death in 1982 at the age of 37. He filmed Ali in a mere 14 days from his own screenplay inspired by Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1956). The influence of the old German master on the young Fassbinder was incalculable, though Ali plays more like a deconstruction of the Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman classic than a traditional homage.

Borrowing his set-up directly from Sirk, Fassbinder takes his story in several unexpected directions. Mira's Emmi is a lonely widow who stops at a bar one rainy night where she befriends the equally lonely Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), a mechanic who speaks halting German (Fassbinder's title literally translates to "Fear Eat [sic] Soul"). The two eventually marry despite their age and socio-economic differences, angering friends and family on both sides. (In a nod to Sirk's film, one of Emmi's sons destroys his mother's television set in a fit of rage — the TV being a symbol of oppression in both movies.)

Shunned and ostracized, the couple decide to go on vacation with the hope that all will be better when they return — thus providing the movie with a crucial juncture/looking glass through which roles and power relations turn inside out. Emmi and Ali come home to find that their neighbors no longer despise them. Emmi's children (her loutish son-in-law is played by Fassbinder) have also accepted their marriage. Things get stranger: Emmi begins treating Ali as little more than a servant, refusing to cook his beloved couscous and declining to hang out with his Arab friends. At work, where the other women once censured her, Emmi is once again part of the in-crowd — the token outcast role now filled by a new arrival from Eastern Europe.

Ironically melodramatic, Ali emits an idiosyncratic vibe that oscillates somewhere between empathy and voyeurism. Shooting in an already tight 1:33:1 aspect ratio, Fassbinder further constricts his compositions by placing his characters in doorways and narrow stairwells. The double-framing, like a camera's iris, isolates the tiniest of exchanges even as it imparts a deceptive proximity. Watching Emmi and Ali writhe in their domestic hell therefore becomes an act of spying, more disconcerting than emotionally involving, and certainly more cerebral than Sirk's source film. Indeed, looking (or staring or gawking) gradually, almost imperceptibly, emerges as the movie's central motif — an act of hostility and curiosity that keeps us and Fassbinder's beautifully tragic characters faraway, so close from each other.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer. Special features: introduction by director Todd Haynes; interviews with actress Brigitte Mira and editor Thea Eymesz; a short film Fear is the Soul (2002); a BBC documentary, Signs of Vigourous Life: New German Cinema; an excerpt from The American Solider starring Margarethe von Trotta; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.