The melancholy gay Mozart of New German Cinema. Fassbinder’s prodigious genius yielded an astounding 42 features in only 13 years. Despite ceaseless experimentation across a range of genre, discursive melodrama best served the tension between his seething contempt for bourgeois hypocrisy and his infinite tenderness for his tragic protagonists—compelled by their natures to seek love and do right but restrained at every turn by social, moral and sexual forces beyond their control. In masterpieces like Ali and 13 Moons, Fassbinder utilized static blocking and intricately staged visual tableaus to conjure perhaps the saddest framing in all of cinema.
The above is from Fassbinder’s masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Jim Clark–who has compiled a comprehensive database on Fassbinder’s flims specifically and artfag cinema generally–sets us up:
Fassbinder, only twenty-eight and already at the middle of his prodigious 14-year career, reached another pinnacle with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Although this is one of his most universally acclaimed (it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes) and popular films, it was made, from start to finish, in just four weeks. It is at once an homage to his cinematic hero, Douglas Sirk (Fassbinder here loosely riffs on his 1955 classic, All That Heaven Allows), as well as a brilliant use of melodrama’s emotional power to dissect racial and other deep-rooted social tensions. It allowed Fassbinder to explore not only tortured places in the heart, as he does in all of his films, but some of the more tender and loving ones as well.
In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, lonely, middle-aged widow and cleaning lady Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira – Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Chinese Roulette) goes into an unknown bar during a rainstorm and meets Ali (El Hedi ben Salem – The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends), a Moroccan auto mechanic over twenty years her junior. These two “outsiders” like each other immediately, fall in love (to their mutual surprise), and marry. That sends shockwaves through Emmi’s family and neighbors, as well as Ali’s co-workers and bar buddies. Emmi and Ali’s relationship is threatened not only by hostile outside forces, but by problems in themselves which they need to confront if they hope to find lasting happiness together.
This film moves me deeply as a heartfelt and simple, but never simplistic, love story, even as it fascinates with its revelations about Fassbinder’s growing artistry and insights into social politics.
Chris Fujiwara for the Criterion Collection:
The stillness of the ﬁlm is deeply sad. But in the middle of all this sadness lies the possibility Emmi and Ali create when they ﬁnd each other. The ﬁlm draws its immense force from its concentration on two simple facts: the world’s indifference and the couple’s love.
Much of the beauty of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes from the performances of Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. All the details of Mira’s Emmi are vivid and affecting: her resignation, her intelligence, the mixture of stubbornness and hesitancy with which she faces her life, the fundamental optimism implied in her graciousness with people (as when she chooses to ignore the malice of the neighbor who seizes an inopportune moment to repay a trivial loan) or in the pleasant way she serves Ali brandy. Mira shows us the social role that has been imposed on Emmi, while at the same time showing us her need to give and receive tenderness—a need that the role fails to satisfy. Ben Salem’s freshness and candor make him an ideal partner for Mira. As Mira does with Emmi, ben Salem makes the social attitudes that Ali has adopted instantly clear: his ready impassivity before German racism, his retreat into the haven of the bar.
As we enter more deeply into the ﬁlm, we may be surprised to ﬁnd that we feel for the other characters, too, with all their limitations: they, too, are trapped, vulnerable….Fassbinder praised Sirk as “a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do.” As Ali: Fear Eats the Soul shows, he gave himself too little credit.
Also for Criterion, Michael Töteberg discusses Fassbinder’s evolving dramaturgy from his origins in Munich’s “Anti Theater” through his mid-career shift into Brechtian melodrama.
Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson analyze a similar image to the two above in their freewheeling Fassbinder profile for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 1975):
A nosy neighbor spitefully watches the middle-aged Emmi and the handsome black Ali go up to her apartment. In this typical tableau a rack focus shot suggests all three, like all Fassbinder’s denizens, are caught in a shifting but nevertheless painful power game of top dogs and underdogs. The scene is dominated by aggressive decisions about décor and motivations; the camera, positioned directly behind the neighbor’s helmet-like black hairdo, pins the Emmi- Ali lovers behind an ornate iron screen that points up a tasteless magistrate and two rather gentle rule-breakers. The methodically worked-on event displays Fassbinder’s radical mix of snarl and decoration.
Here’s the opening graf of Fassbinder‘s famous essay on Sirk, anthologized in the Fassbinder dossier Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes :
‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore.’ America is really something else.
Jonathan Rosenbaum elaborates the relationship:
Both Fassbinder and Sirk tended to deal with characters incapable of understanding their own social victimization and, more often than not, unable to change. Regarding these doomed characters with ironic compassion, their films were arguably more defeatist than progressive, because their sophistication consisted chiefly of recognizing corruption and stupidity, not of imagining situations where they might be overcome. Even when love eventually seems to conquer all in Ali, the title hero’s fate still appears to be doomed once he develops a stomach ulcer from all his worry — a condition that his doctor says is characteristic of immigrant workers. In this respect, Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), a much closer remake of All That Heaven Allows, could be described as more progressive than either of its predecessors — even though being progressive about the American 50s half a century later is considerably less daring than offering any sort of contemporary critique in any period.
The worlds that both Sirk and Fassbinder conjured up resemble more stylish versions of the repressed world found in W.C. Fields comedies -– bounded on all sides by irritations and petty frustrations. (”There are no lighthearted moments in any Fassbinder film that I can recall,” Gary Indiana once wrote. “If a character’s happy, it’s because he hasn’t yet heard the bad news.”) Fassbinder differed strikingly from Sirk in focusing much more often on working-class and petit bourgeois characters, and in putting more teeth into his bite, but the sense of entrapment was no less pronounced.