The prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is credited by some with revitalizing his home nation’s cinematic culture following the devastation of World War II. Of course, he wasn’t alone, but his influence—both in that time and years and decades later—is undeniable.
Many of Fassbinder’s films were experimental in nature—blurry-lined dramas about stage and screen—but even still, they carried with them a melodramatic tone and attitude that recalls, above anyone else, Douglas Sirk.
Sirk, of course, was born in Germany, though his most well known and beloved films were heartily American, including All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a thoroughly German adaptation of this heartbreakingly beautiful Rock Hudson vehicle. As such, it’s similarly moving but with an edge and peculiarity that’s mostly missing from Sirk’s original.
The 1974 film tells the story of an older German widow named Emmi [Brigitte Mira] and Ali [El Hedi ben Salem], a thirty-something Moroccan migrant worker. They spend some time together and ultimately fall in love and marry. At the beginning of their relationship, they’re blissfully unaware of how disapproving the world around them is of their pairing. Later, they grow defiant, and eventually, they begin to wear down from the prejudice from loved ones, friends, and strangers, and begin to take their frustration out on the other.
The film is as much an homage to Sirk as it is a statement by Fassbinder about the fascism he clearly felt still permeated the collective German identity. Ali frequents an all-Moroccan bar, which is where Emmi meets him when she steps in for an impromptu reprieve from the rain. A German woman simply being in there is strange, nevermind becoming friendly [and more, eventually] with one of the regular patrons.
How do Emmi’s children react? They call her a whore [and in a blatant nod to All that Heaven Allows, her son-in-law, played by Fassbinder, smashes her television set in disgust]. She’s no stranger to derision from family about a romantic partner; Her husband was a Polish immigrant during the reign of Hitler—something her father found utterly unacceptable. Hers is a tragic life, not made easier by her unavoidable and undeniable feelings toward this gentle foreigner.
Just like All That Heaven Allows, in which the forbidden love it depicts carries a greater meaning when we consider Hudson’s sexuality, the tragedy surrounding Ali: Fear Eats the Soul didn’t play out exclusively on the screen. Fassbinder cast his lover, El Hedi ben Salem as the title character for this picture, and within a decade both would be dead. Their relationship became extremely tumultuous after the release of this film—Salem had a temper, and they both had substance abuse problems. Fassbinder would essentially smuggle Salem into France after he stabbed three men in Germany. They never saw each other again, and after Salem hanged himself in a French prison, Fassbinder would dedicate his film Querelle to the man. It would be the last film he made before passing away following an overdose.
Fear Eats the Soul lacks the polish of Sirk’s film, but that’s the Fassbinder way. His films were often made on shoestring budgets in very little time. He was notoriously not an easy man to work with, but he maintained a dedicated entourage of fellow artists and performers that clearly hung on every word he wrote and every frame he shot. And Ali: Fear Eats the Soul contains some of his most meaningful words and most beautiful—visually and thematically—shots. It’s worthy of his inspiration, the unheralded but incomparable Sirk.