Older Women Week: The Extraordinary Romance of an Ordinary "Old Girl": Thoughts on ‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
This is a guest post by Rachael Johnson
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a tale of interracial and intergenerational love set in West Germany in the 1970s. It was both written and directed by one of the key figures of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In his short yet productive life–he died aged 37 of a drug-related heart attack–the workaholic Fassbinder made countless remarkable films and pursued an equally remarkable private life. Anti-bourgeois and anti-establishment, the bisexual Bavarian earned a legendary reputation as a flammable wild child and libertine of extreme appetites. Influenced by Douglas Sirk’s socially subversive melodramas, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a fascinating exploration of sexual taboos and non-conformity as well as a searing critique of German racism. It is, also, a deeply affecting love story.
The lovers are Ali, a Moroccan-born mechanic in his thirties and Emmi, a white German woman around 60. Tall, bearded and muscular, Ali is played by El Hedi ben Salam, then a lover of the director. Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira, is a small woman of average looks with a pleasant, pudgy face. There is nothing glamorous about Fassbinder’s heroine, and it is this very ordinariness that endears her to the viewer and makes the story all the more poignant. A lonely widow with three married children she rarely sees, there is, it seems, little remarkable about Emmi either. Nor is she a privileged hausfrau. She cleans for a living.
The bar
The two meet in a bar frequented by Arab immigrants. Emmi takes shelter from the rain, but she is also drawn by the ‘exotic’ music. It is a fairly odd scene. The bar maid is a buxom, blonde German woman, and there is only a handful of customers. They stare impassively at Emmi when she enters. A long shot emphasizes her vulnerability and isolation. She sits by the door and asks the bar maid about her clientele and selection of music. She orders a coke and keeps her coat on. The women mock her and a female companion of Ali prods him to dance with ‘the old girl.’ He obeys her with a mock salute. The others stare at the couple, of course, but Ali is gracious, and they learn a little about each other. He accompanies Emmi home and their extraordinary romance begins in a sweet, ordinary fashion.
Fassbinder lays bare the nasty, pervasive nature of racism in West German society during the seventies. Ali, we soon learn, only calls himself Ali because white Germans have maliciously given him the stereotypical name. His life is hard. He works constantly and drinks heavily. He tells Emmi that he shares a room with five other foreign workers. ‘German master/Arab dog’ is how he describes race relations at his garage. Racism is a constant in the lovers’ lives. Emmi listens with unease as her fellow cleaning women dole out dehumanizing descriptions of immigrants as dirty, lazy, dangerous and hypersexual. Her female neighbors gossip incessantly about her affair and fix merciless eyes on her lover. Her son-in-law, Eugen, played by Fassbinder himself, is a lazy boor enraged at the mere mention of his Turkish foreman. When her landlord’s son accuses her of subletting due to Ali’s presence, Emmi tells him that the young Moroccan is her fiancé. The ruse becomes a reality when they mutually agree to tie the knot. Emmi’s children, neighbors and co-workers ostracize her and her new husband. She is forced to eat lunch alone at work, and he is humiliated by the local shop-keeper. Only the passage of time and naked self-interest mellow their attitude.
Ali surrounded by Emmi’s coworkers
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul explores the impact of racism on human relationships. Fassbinder specifically underscores how its evil even infects those of an intimate nature. Emmi’s relationship with Ali sours and she is shown to be capable of reproducing the racism of her compatriots. Impatient with his craving for couscous, a sign, of course, of deep homesickness, she tells her husband to adapt to German customs. On one occasion, she encourages her co-workers’ sexual objectification of Ali, an objectification that smacks of unsavory white voyeurism. When he quits the room, she puts it down to a changeable ‘foreign mentality.’ Emmi is, of course, a product of her nation’s past. In the 1970s, Germany’s history of genocidal racism was still a living, breathing memory. Emmi was a young woman when the Nazis were in power. When she tells Ali that she and her father were members of the party, it is a quiet, forever mind-blowing reminder that membership was the norm.
Emmi with Eugen and Krista
There are, nevertheless, indications that Emmi was always a little different. She crosses borders. Her parents did not want her to marry a foreigner after the war, but she married a Polish man. She is not a xenophobe like her father. She enters the immigrants’ bar because she is drawn to the sounds of others. Emmi is genuinely curious about other cultures and accepts cultural differences. She is hospitable and questions why white Germans and foreigners cannot be friends. She is appalled to hear of Ali’s intolerable living conditions. Curiosity, empathy, attraction and love make up Emmi’s feelings for Ali. Although she will never suffer the daily degradations and abuse he suffers, she is also a victim of racism. Although she tries to hide it, she is, in fact, tormented by the hatred besieging them. Emmi is derided and marginalized by white Germans for loving and marrying an Arab man. A neighbor asks, at one point, if she is a ‘real’ German due to her Polish last name. White women who have affairs with North African and Turkish foreign workers are labeled ‘filthy whores’ by her co-workers. Although a manifestly provincial product of her time and place, Emmi artlessly manages to challenge German racism through the simple, human act of loving. In the socio-historical context of post-war West Germany, she is a nonconformist.
Ali and Emmi
Seemingly unsophisticated, Emmi also breaks sexual taboos. She is a desiring old woman, and it is this desire that outrages and disgusts her children. Of course older women have traditionally not been allowed to be sexual beings, and mothers have always been held to a higher sexual standard than fathers. In fact, when a woman of any age does not conform or transgresses sexually she customarily suffers greater social condemnation. What Ali: Fear Eats the Soul makes clear is that the Whore-Madonna complex still reigned supreme in 1970s Germany. 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. 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.
Her daughter Krista mirrors her brothers. She calls Emmi’s home ‘a pigsty.’ There is, it must be said, little female solidarity apparent in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The older woman’s female peers and acquaintances seem for the most part to be slaves of convention, regarding issues of race and gender. Ali’s female friends are manifestly threatened by Emmi’s sexuality. One calls his wife ‘a filthy old whore’ behind her back. ‘It’ll never work out. It’s unnatural, plain unnatural,’ she spits, with some jealousy. Does Fassbinder identify women in particular with convention? Or does he see his female characters as parts of the patriarchal system?
Emmi and Ali embrace
Fassbinder’s portrayal of Emmi’s passion is, however, empathetic and quite revolutionary. He never depicts the older woman’s desire as warped and unnatural, and it is worth reflecting how rare an attitude this is on screen. Emmi’s sexual subjectivity is acknowledged. When she momentarily looks at Ali showering, she tells him, ‘You are very beautiful, Ali.’ Her looking does not here denote exploitative voyeurism. Her softly delivered words are addressed to her husband only. He smiles back at her. An older female gaze, of course, doubly reverses cinematic male-female conventions of objectification. In this very short scene, the director recognizes Emmi’s subversive female gaze while, it must be said, expressing his own sexuality. Ultimately, Fassbinder understands that his heroine is, at heart, driven by an entirely natural desire for intimate human companionship as well as a simple need for love.
Their intergenerational relationship comprises painful personal humiliations–issuing from racism and infidelity–but it is also an essentially loving one. Ali’s everyday interactions with Emmi are, from the very start, characterized by kindness, devotion and respect. He and Emmi share their insecurities, comfort each other and enjoy each other’s company. Her daughter’s so-called conventional marriage pales in comparison. There are many achingly poignant, well-observed moments in this love story. On the street where she lives, an anxious Emmi fearing that she had lost her new love, cries Ali’s name before running toward him like a little girl. The warm, relaxed way Ali strokes Emmi’s arm their first night together is another arresting sign of their unusual bond. Their supposedly impossible relationship always seems authentic. Fassbinder reveals the unlikely pair’s fundamental affinities. They are both victims of loneliness and social alienation, and they are both hard-working, working-class people.
Emmi and Ali have dinner
There is an essential humanity to Fassbinder’s characterization of both lovers, and their unusual love story is told with tenderness. Unsurprisingly, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was well received internationally. It honors the empathetic imagination and pays touching tribute to the outsider. It also shows how an ordinary ‘old girl’ can quietly tear down racial boundaries as well as defy conventional expectations of female desire.

Rachael Johnson has contributed articles to CINEACTION, www.objectif-cinema.com and www.jgcinema.com.