January 2016 Blindspot: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

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The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2016. Kicking off the year is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

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For my first blindspot of the year, I decided to take after my January blindspot of last year and start with my German selection. This year, I went to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, probably his best known film. Dealing with the prejudices of German society after WWII, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul might take its plot directly from Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama, All that Heaven Allows, but it does so in a way that adapts it to German society and becomes more formal and theatrical in the process.

Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), a 60 year old cleaning lady, drops into a bar one night to get out of the rain. She comments on the novelty of the Arabic music at the bar and orders a coke. As the barmaid (Barbara Valentin) fetches her the coke, another woman in the bar (Katharina Herberg) jokes that one of the men should ask the old woman to dance. One actually takes her up on it, an immigrant from Morocco who introduces himself as Ali (El Hedi Salem). What begins as a sort of joke turns into a full blown romance; the two marginalized members of German society, the old woman and the immigrant, soon fall in love, move in together, and get married.

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Soon, though, there is trouble in paradise. Though both are happy with each other, they feel dismay over the circumstances in which their relationship takes place. They try their best, but eventually the ostricization from their peers gets to them, especially Emmi, who as a German is not as used to it as Ali. They decide to go on vacation where they know no one, and when they return, several people seem to start to accept them. However, Emmi starts acting the more typical German and treats Ali as inferior to herself. Ali is dismayed, and starts acting the more typical young man, staying out late drinking and picking up an old affair with the barmaid.

Though I would say watching Ali was a similar experience to watching the only other Fassbinder film I’ve seen, Veronika Voss, it’s also kind of different. In Verkonika Voss, I was very blown away by the style of the film, but Ali has a much more naturalistic style and packs a rawer emotional punch because of it. However, like Veronika Voss, it didn’t quite get to me in the way I had imagined it would, like the Sirk melodrama it comes from. I became way more inscensed after watching that film, and not just because of the disappointing writing.

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I don’t mean this as necessarily a bad thing, but I definitely had to get used to it as the film went on, especially with regards to the acting style. You could see it when the actors were doing something as simple as walking across room. They would often do it as if they thought to themselves first, “now I’m going to walk across the room” and would seem to keep concentrating on it throughout the action. It was a very, very deliberate style and you are always aware of everybody acting in this movie. It plays into the larger themes of how society is controlling everybody and their treatment of each other, but still, this takes mannered acting to a whole ‘nother level.

There was one moment early on in the film, where Emmi comes home after waiting at the bar for Ali. She thinks that she’s not going to see him again after there one night together. However, when she’s about to enter her apartment building she sees him and forgets herself for a moment and just runs straight over to him. It’s an expression all the more powerful because she’s a an older woman, you don’t see that process of “here I am, a 60 year old German woman, and now I have to think about what to do next.” No, she just runs over to him like a young girl. You know she’s simply happy. It’s quite touching, those small moments that don’t happen often but they do happen.

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Ali‘s style is not as ostentatious as any of the other films I’ve mentioned as comparison thus far, but as the film went on I grew to appreciate more and more what Fassbinder was doing. He stages many scenes looking in through door frames, making a frame within a frame and an effective proscenium. The action will they play out with the camera at a distance, further simulating a theatrical experience. Then, there will usually be a slow fade to black, and though the shape is not the same, the rate at which this fade happens feels like curtains coming down over the scene. This will happen again and again in the film, and it always has a rather sobering effect.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may have initially not seemed like much, and indeed, it was shot in under two weeks between two of his other films, but it eventually turned out to be quite a movie with a lot to say. It was nice to see Fassbinder’s take on Sirk’s story, especially so soon after seeing a similar story with yet another approach in Todd Haynes’ Carol (that I saw Far From Heaven last summer doesn’t hurt either). If I ever revisit the film, I’ll definitely have to pay greater attention to when exactly the frame within a frames were implemented, because I couldn’t really pick up specific pattern this time around. In the tradition of most of the movies I watch for the blindspot series, it might not be a complete and total favorite of mine, but I enjoyed and I’m really glad I caught up with it finally.

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Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
White City Cinema article about melodrama in All that Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Todd Haynes speaks about Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

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One response to “January 2016 Blindspot: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

  1. Pingback: Blindsided by SOPHIE’S CHOICE | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective·

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