Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ivorismo Rating****

Rainer Werner Fassbinder met Douglas Sirk at the Munich Film Museum in June 1971. As the history of cinema goes, this truly was a momentous event. Having sobered himself up and steered clear of the rough trade bars for more than two weeks, Fassbinder's aching temporary self-denial from his addictions put him into a state of agonized bliss. Buoyed at basking in the light of the maestro, Fassbinder sat next to him through six of his German-born idol's films. The directors became uber close friends, sharing a correspondence, and Fassbinder--up to that point viewed by Germany's small coven of art critics as a clever former television director with a chip on his shoulder, a provincial East German exile with a penchant for self-advertizement--was able to re-imagine his personal cinema in a completely new way. Sirk, famous for such Hollywood melodramas as All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Written on the Wind, walked across Fassbinder's mind like a colossus. Sirk's influence on the flaming young German upstart was both theoretical and aesthetic. Finally freeing himself from the kind of rigid, proto-Marxist thinking that compelled him to spawn what he snarkily referred to as "an oeuvre of orthodoxy," Fassbinder leavened his thinking.

Fassbinder’s metaphor-laden exposés of heartless social ostracism in West Germany had already became more gentle after The Merchant of Four Seasons. Yet his sometimes brutal directorial "touch" still remained very much the same. What Fassbinder adored about Sirk was his remarkable ability to fuse social commentary with soap opera in his screenplays. What we have in Fassbinder's masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a sort of loose bebop version of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. It may not be his most famous film, that kudos tends to go toward Fassbinder's more rigorous, politically correct and historically specific tomes to German history, Veronika Voss, Lili Marlene and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all of which were box office hits throughout the world. Far more eternal than Fassbinder's ironic takes on the modern German state's history, Ali’s story unravels like a bittersweet ball of steel wool. A postindustrial Deutschkeit fable about the fruits of racism and intolerance, it entertains just like Sirk's famous melodramas. Fassbinder's goal as an auteur was not just to subject his characters to the soap operatic beauty of pure misery so much as it was to expose such social mechanisms as racism and suburban conformity reeking havoc on his characters before they have ever loved.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a lonely, depressed cleaning lady, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), falls in love with and marries a Moroccan worker, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). This leads to her being vilified by everyone in her world, especially her immediate family. Indeed, Fassbinder wastes no time in foreshadowing Emmi's dilemma from the start. Walking into the tavern where she first meets Ali, Emmi sees everyone freeze as she makes conversation with the big awkwardly handsome Arab. Fassbinder frames his scenes within windows and doorways and from within a room full of bright yellow chairs. Racism and a sense of isolation dog these characters in this 'new' West Germany. At the same time, Fassbinder's dialogue is filled with the clichés of middle class wannabeism. "All this work," Emmi says with a remarkable sense of gravity and innocence, as if she's pontificating upon a manifesto, "to get a little piece of Heaven."

I've been doing my German homework. I got in touch with my Swabian friend Martin and he pointed me in the correct direction. This is because the film's original German title reads Angst essen Seele auf, which actually translates as "Fear Eat Soul", while the correct German form would be  Angst isst die Seele auf. Deliberately rendered grammatically incorrect, the original title alludes to both Ali's terrible German and his shockingly naïve innocence. Ali's speech is ripe with Chance Gardner/Forest Gump-style aphorisms --"Think much, cry much" and "Money spoil friendship"--to the point where his talking seems canned and mechanical. Consequently, Fassbinder's genius is that, while he has created a sort of transposed facsimile of All That Heaven Allows, the cultural predicament explored in Sirk's film pales by comparison.

The wicked are everywhere in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. They constantly refer to the Turk and his uncivilized behavior. Yet they are the ones who smash in television sets, engage in vicious scurrilous gossip, and make nasty accusations toward the kindhearted Emmi. The film's infamous sea-of-yellow-chairs sequence clearly presages a rhetorical alteration in its view of a society's ambivalence about racism. Out of nowhere, people change. Emmi's crying and oft stated forgiveness for everybody have suddenly healed the wicked world. Inexplicably, the racists have gone through a period of redemption. Even Emmi's obnoxious son Bruno (Peter Gauhe), clearly a racist and never forgiven by his mother for killing the family cat, sends his mother a check for a new television. On the street, Emmi's perverse gossipy neighbors stop to make conversation and ask for favors, complimenting her for her constant kindness.

Change and forgiveness, for Fassbinder, forever the butch masculine queer outsider, whether it's sudden, organic, surreal, or magical, is a natural part of human progress, but still ought to be viewed in a cynical way. Still, the audience may indeed ask if it's really progress if a local shopkeeper begins to act politely with Emmi—despite her husband's brown face—because, really, she simply doesn't want to lose her business? Indeed, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul's second half shows how the constantly silent Ali is also affected by his sudden social acceptance. The 'good' neighbors who used to rant about Emmi bringing dirt into their building ooh and ah over the Moroccan’s big muscles. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may even evoke a sort of Reaganite ideal to cure a racist world. The trickle-down effect of new money can conquer all resistance once the locals become willing to take a seat on the gravy train.

Still, when it comes to the human soul, neither words nor deeds are quite enough. Fassbinder insists there is still much construction work to be done. Ali is his masterpiece!

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