When I first saw Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, years ago I did not record my thoughts or the film group’s. I just remember that I had a strong feeling that Fassbinder explored ageing and ageism as well as racism in this film. I viewed it again this month with a new film group.
Rereading some reviews I am appalled by the inaccuracy of some observations, and the bias of some interpretations. There are also questionable comments about the old woman Emmi. The film has provoked a lot of reviews, articles, analyses, essays from different points of view. It would be too big a task to challenge the many unwarranted interpretations and omissions concerning the old woman and will only quote a few. But I will also consult papers that are helpful in explaining my reactions to this complex film. I will assume that my readers know the film and only examine Emmi’s role.
Emmi and Ali get to know each other: It is impossible to read the film without taking account of Judith Mayne: One is tempted to say that in Fassbinder’s films all human relations, bodily contact, even social hierarchies, and most forms of communication and action manifest themselves (and ultimately regulate themselves) along the axis of seeing and being seen. …
Contact that is physical in Fassbinder (especially in the early films) seems less decisive than eye contact, which covers the entire spectrum from extreme hostility and aggression (as in an early bar scene in FEAR EATS THE SOUL) to tenderness and caress, as in GODS OF THE PLAGUE or a number of scenes between Emmi and Ali in FEAR EATS THE SOUL.
When in the opening scenes Emmi enters the bar and sits down, she is stared at by a group of people at the other end of the bar. She looks tentative in her black coat and her wet untidy hair. A wide angle shot makes her appear very small. A cut to the end of the bar reveals a blond woman behind the bar, two men standing at the bar and, in the background four more people. The bartender and owner (BO she has no name), walks towards Emmi (a zoom on two of the men at the bar. Ali is tall with abundant hair moustache beard and dark complexion.) BO is a statuesque blond-haired woman in a low cut black dress, and red boots. She bends towards Emmi. Emma with an embarrassed smile : Excuse me but it is raining so hard outside and I thought Emmi you better get inside that bar. I pass by here every evening and hear that foreign music. In what language are they singing? When she is told it is Arabic she replies Arabic, I see . But the bar owner continues: We have German stuff in the jukebox too. Nearly half. But they prefer stuff from back home. Of course – says Emmi and she looks at the group at the end of the bar. The group returns the looks. Then BO helps Emmi to choose a drink. During this exchange the two women look at each other and although BO is rather cold and distant she does not show antagonism. On the way back to the bar: She’s nuts. Talks a blue streak. A young dark-haired small woman in an orange T-shirt (OT) at the bar : Maybe she does not get a chance to talk otherwise. BO: probably.
Leaning on the bar OT stares at Emmi. She turns round to Ali Well are you coming or not? Ali: No . OT: Why? Ali: cock broken. OT: all right then. She walks away in a huff to the juke box forget it then. BO serves Ali and smiles at him when he says keep the change. There follows a series of quick takes ; OT stares at BO, turns her head to look at Emmi, back to OT staring, then again to Emmi who is drinking her cola, OT walks to Ali and her hand on his shoulder Why don’t you dance with the old girl?. Ali: Me dance with the old woman? OT: Why not? your legs aren’t broken are they? Ali’s companion enquires What’s up? Ali: She says I should dance with the old woman. Ali raises his hand to his head: OK.
Apart from comments on the cinematography these initiating sequences have been ignored or dismissed by many. Ebert even writes: Back at the bar, the blond tauntingly dares one of her customers to ask the woman to dance.
The gaze on Emmi as she enters the bar sets her up as a lone person against the group. By refusing to acced to OT’s sexual demands we can safely assume that Ali refuses to be objectified.
It is easy to overlook OT’s intention if one ignores the direction of her stares, but there is no doubt that she intends to humiliate the ‘old girl ‘Emmi, to take revenge. The term ‘old woman’ is spoken twice when Ali explains to his Moroccan friend this request.
Old girl, old woman, there is here a parallel between Ali who is treated as a sex object and Emmi who is cruelly mocked publicly by a younger woman.
Ali walks towards Emmi and stands behind her. Here again we see the importance of the ‘look’. He towers over her but as there is no face to face stance there is no threat. The dialogue reinforces Ali’s caring attitude. Ali: Will you dance with me?. Emmi: What dance? Ali: Yes you sit alone. Sad – not good sitting alone . Emmi stands up and starts to unbutton her coat. Why not , it must be all of 20 years since I last danced. Taking her coat off. Maybe I can’t anymore. He helps with the coat. Don’t matter, dance very slow.
As Emmi follows Ali to the dancing corner of the bar, OT asks BO to turn the lights down. In this dancing softly lit space that is usually associated with romance and intimacy Emmi shows genuine interest in Ali, where is he from, how long has he been in Germany, what works does he do. She comments on his good German. To his question are you married she replies her husband died two years ago. He tells her that he works with cars, and spend his evenings here with friends because the music is good. But feeling safe with this old woman he also expresses his feelings. He adds he knows no other place. Germans with Arabs no good, Germans not same people as Arabs. But it must be different at work she says . He replies German master, Arab dog at work. Better not think too much. Thinking much cry much.
During this episode the bar people stare at them dancing talking and looking in each other’s eyes. The music stops, they bow to each other and regain Emmi’s table. As Emmi tries to pay for her drink Ali: You talk good with Ali, Ali pay cola. He divulges his real name: El Hedi ben Salem M’narek Mohammed Mustapha. Feeling protective he accompanies her home.
In the confined space of the stairwell they converse waiting for the rain to stop. It is Emmi’s turn to confide about her life as a cleaner and the way she is looked down upon and laughed at. He assures her that he would not laugh. She looks at him and with a smile: No not you. She describes her working conditions. But cannot help herself from saying that he looks sad in his dark clothes. He is out of focus in the background and he walks towards her. Emmi : It is good to speak to somebody. I am alone most of the time. All the time really. My children have their own lives. Ali: you have many children?. Emmi: Three , two sons and a daughter, they all married .Ali: Where other town?. Emmi: No here but they live their own lives. We get together on special occasions but…Ali: With us in Morocco family always together. Mama never alone Mama alone no good. The expression on her face is of infinite sadness : Other countries have other customs. They look at each other. (Shots reverse shots.)
It is still raining and Emmi asks Ali to come and wait in her flat with a coffee and a cognac. It is no fun drinking alone.
In the framed kitchen the conversation continues. Emmi talks about her Polish – foreign worker husband – disapproved by her father who hated all foreigners and was a member of Hitler’s party . She also was a party member – everyone or almost everyone was. But she got on with her husband. Ali describes his Berber family. Making to go home he reveals that he lives a long way with 5 other workers in one room. She says it is not human he replies Arabs are not human in Germany. She decides to ask him to spend the night and prepares the spare room.
Ali cannot go to sleep and walks to her room. She is surprised: Ali: Much thinking in head and wants to talk with you (He sits next to the bed.) Ali: Much alone too, always working drinking nothing else. Maybe Germans are right, Arab not human. She reassures him: Nonsense you must not even think that, you said yourself thinking makes a person sad; though it is not really true that thinking makes you sad. of course not. (He caresses her arm). What else would we do with our time – all the years all the months and suddenly it’s over and what is there to show for it. Fade to black.
The morning after. She gets out of bed, looks back at him naked in her bed : MY GOD I… her expression is one of surprise, alarm. She runs to the bathroom and looks in the mirror. There are no close-ups of her face in the traditional mirror scene. The mirror surroundings are cluttered with sponges, towels, bottles. She briefly put a hand to her face. Ali opens the door good morning. They pause a moment looking at each other and fall into a loving embrace.
Cut to breakfast scene: Ali compliments Emmi for her good coffee: she boasts that she is a good cook and that he would like her cooking. On her way to a cupboard she puts her hands on his shoulders. and attempts to say something:
E: Maybe … Oh nothing… Its just that an old woman like me
A: You not old woman. You good. Big heart
E: Really pleased. My God! (goes to him and they touch again. She cries),
A: Why cry?
They hold each other.
E: I’m so happy and so full of fear too. (caresses his face)
A: Not fear. Fear not good. Fear eats the soul.
E: Fear eats the soul. That’s nice. Is it an Arab saying?
A: All Arabs speak so. I must go.
I have studied in details the first 20 mins of the film to demonstrate how biased are some pronouncements about Emmi as an old woman. The dialogue shows trust and understanding between her and Ali and contains not a trace of racism – overt or internalised – but a process of getting to know the other: their situation but also their common feelings of isolation, loneliness and need for love and tenderness. The camera work, framing, acting shows the relationship progressing from looking and talking, to touch and sex in a natural way.
Jonathan Rosenbaum claims: Emmi is an avowed former Nazi * who picks a particular Italian restaurant for her wedding dinner because Adolf Hitler once ate there; more generally, she’s frequently shown as being innocent to the point of stupidity.
Adam Bingham declares: Emmi, in particular, appears to have absorbed much of her society’s toxic attitudes to foreigners. **
Emmi is neither stupid nor racist. Fassbinder in these first 20 minutes shows a deep understanding of the isolation and need for intimacy that is the experience of both the old woman and the foreign worker.
Later on Emmi is shown dealing competently with the couples’ finances, or confronting the racist grocer. There are many scenes where Ali by caressing Emmi’s head comforts her when she is distressed. There are many instances where Emmi is ostracised for loving Ali, instances that stress her and eventually lead to her breakdown.
The look of others:
Coworkers: the staircase of a building where Emmi works as a cleaner during a break. In the foreground and speaking to the camera rather than her friends Emmi tentatively tries to share her experience and invents a story that an immigrant worker invited her to have coffee with him. The other women behind her in a group spout racist comments on foreigners and the German women who befriend them. She tries to defend the workers and the relationships to no avail: Maybe he talks to her and she does not need anybody else. Nobody can live without others is the response of one of the women. An apt prediction.
Daughter and son-in-law: I will quote: http://www.btchflcks.com/s=Fear+eats+the+soul
When Emmi first tells her daughter and son-in-law that she has fallen in love with a much younger man, they laugh. The thought of an old mother in love and lust is so impossible, so unnatural—horrific, in fact—that laughter is the only fitting response.
The landlord’s son: threatens Emmi with the eviction of her ‘lodger’. Horrified at the thought of losing her newly found happiness she blurts out that he is no lodger but that they are getting married.
Ah that’s different then I’ll be on my way then . You’re old enough to know what you’re doing. Says the landlord’s son.
Ali’s Moroccan friends:
Under the stare of the bar owner and OT the four men and Emmi celebrate and laugh together. Emmi is not aware of OT calling her a whore or spat at her. While BO shows a certain wisdom. Of course it won’t work. So what?
Waiter at the Hitler restaurant: from a distance the waiter stares disdainfully at the couple and when taking Emmi’s order purposely embarrasses her He really had me one the rack there. If you’re not used to things like that.
Family: quoting btchflicks.com again: When she introduces her children to her new husband, one son calls her a whore and another kicks in her television. In the eyes of her deeply conventional, racist children, Emmi is guilty of the most profane double betrayal—racial disloyalty and defilement of the maternal role. She is told to forget she has children. She cries and is comforted by Ali.
The grocer : After the grocer pretends he does not understand Ali, Emmi is on the war path and confronts the grocer with his racist attitude. To no avail he forces her out and bans her from his shop.
Neighbours: they demand that she should clean the stairs soiled by Ali’s presence. She protests and ask them to mind their own business.
Paula (a coworker)) flees at the sight of Ali in a bathrobe, refuses to shake his hand and escapes in horror.
Police: called by neighbours complaining about the noise of Ali and friends socialising in the flat. The two officers are civil and ask the music to be turned down.
Coworkers : their general racist comments in a previous scene are now directed personally at Emmi and she is overtly shunned and ignored. They walk away from her.
Emmi’s breakdown: while the policemen, the landlord, Ali’s friends and even the bar owner seem tolerant, it is the rejection of her neighbours, friends and family members that lead to her breakdown in the scene of the yellow garden.
In a 4 mins. sequence we hear Emmi watched in the distance by an immobile group of 4 men and 2 women confess to Ali how much she is affected by all the hatred directed at them. She goes from tears to sobs, distress to anger and shouts at the group. One can detect a very slight head movement of disapproving Ali. But he comforts her and there follows a mutual love declaration and a decision to go away. Emmi: When we get back it’ll be different. Everybody will be nice to us. Again the mise-en-scene (mainly camera movements, setting and acting) complement this dramatic outburst.
From racism to marital conflict: On their return the grocer instructed by his wife is overly friendly with Emmi to regain her custom. One of the neighbours greets her with false smiles only to ask her for some space in her cellar. Bruno, her son mentions the cheque he sent to pay for the broken TV and the fact that Albert has not forgiven her yet and then asks her if she would babysit because his wife needs to work. Ali whose body language expresses depression asks her if she would make couscous for him. Emmi had remained calm and cooperative but her acting is such that one reads on her face resentment and stress. Ali’s needy request is one too many and leads to her explosion.
How do the reviewers interpret these sequences? Both Laura Cottingham in the BFI booklet about the film and Fujiwara’s essay in the Criterion edition of the DVD skim over them. The general comments are that there is a reversal of Emmi’s attitude to Ali.
But it is possible to see these events from another point of view. It is true that Emmi orders Ali about in asking him to help the neighbours but the couscous episode has more depth. By examining Emmi’s facial expressions we can read that she remains aloof and dismissive of her neighbour’s smiles. On first seeing Bruno in the stairs she shows a glimmer of warmth that soon freezes and there is no more eye contact between them. When Bruno says goodbye Emmi does not even raise her head from the bowl where she is preparing some vegetables.
The couscous episode: Drink and food, coffee offering and breakfasts together, not mentioning the restaurant scenes play a part in Emmi and Ali relationship. Food is very important for exiles who bring with them their culinary traditions wherever they go. After contact with the racist neighbours, Bruno and inscrutable Emmi, Ali is depressed and needs some home food comfort. For Ali this request expresses an emotional need to be recognised after being objectified for his strength and youthful body. Emmi also feels used and sees this demand as yet another expression of her exploitation by others. She has a need to assert herself and lashes out: You should get used to the way things are done in Germany. People in Germany don’t eat couscous. … I don’t like couscous either.
This episode is more like a marital escalating row rather than a racist rant. It ends with Ali leaving Emmi to go to the bar to be alone. He reappears drunk on the floor in the middle of the night.
Fujiwara comments in the Criterion essay: The cruelest stroke comes when Emmi peeks out from behind her half-opened door at the prostrate Ali in the hallway, only to shut the door again.
It is also possible to see the scene as a familiar one involving a drunk husband and an upset wife without invoking ageist stereotypes as Fujiwara does: At this moment, she merges completely with the faceless role of a solitary, elderly urban apartment dweller living in mistrustful seclusion from the world outside.
In the subsequent breakfast scene the silence of a warring couple is glacial. They throw glances at each other but neither is prepared to talk. Ali leaves the table. Cut to Emmi’s workplace where she is greeted with pleasure and no ulterior motive. She sides with her two friends when they exclude a newly employed young worker from their deliberations on a pay demand: She is on a different pay scale. Emmi in her rift from Ali needs to belong and invites her two friends to discuss the matter in her house. There follow a painful scene to watch where Emmi displays Ali, his strength and muscles as a desirable object and where the women feel free to express their prejudices in front of him. Emmi comments on his youth. When Ali walks away Emmi compounds the insults. He has his moods. It’s his foreign mentality. It is the first and only time that Emmi expresses a view of Ali as ‘other’. It nevertheless feels like a saving face effort when she looks distressed as he walks away.
That night Emmi waits for Ali at the flat’s open front door and bursts into sobs when he does not come back. Cut to car workshop scene where three mechanics and Ali are telling jokes. Enters Emmi pleading: Where were you all night? I’v been worried sick. You shouldn’t do this to me Ali, you don’t have to say anything. Just come back. Ali remains impasssive. I need you Ali, I need you so much. This time the looks exchanged in shot reverse shots show no communication between the two. The other workers start mocking Emmi calling her Ali’s grandmother from Morocco. They laugh and for a split second we see Ali laughing also. They exchange looks again that ends on each of them bending their heads in turn and Emmi leaves.
The bar again. A group of men playing cards in the company of women. Ali is losing and asks his friend to get him some money from the flat. While he waits for the money he looks at himself in the toilet mirror and gives himself repeated slaps on both sides of his face. A wide-angle shot with game table and the group at the front and the door at the back. Emmi enters the bar and with more assurance than in the first scene orders a cola and asks the bar owner to put the Gypsy song that they danced to. Ali walks towards her and stands behind her again and asks her to dance. They embrace and dance together declaring their mutual love. But he falls on the floor groaning in pain.
Epilogue: In the hospital scene the two strands of this complex film come together in a positive but frail way embodied by the relationship between a young foreign worker and an old woman: the plight of foreign workers doomed to stress and ill-health and the love and determination of the old woman not to let this happen.
*About the meaning of Emmi mentioning Hitler often : L. Nottingham. In the the 1970s Munich Hitler is no unapproachable allegory or grotesque ghost from the past. He is simply in the air
** Emmi does mention her racist father who hated her husband because he was a foreign worker – Polish. She adds that she got on very well with him.