Criterion Corner: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) - Reviewed

People talk. Words travel faster than anything else known to man- they can change the course of history and people's lives in a matter of seconds. Words can build up, they can tear down, they can help or hinder anything and everything. But one thing that history has shown is that people don't like change. They like to live in their comfortable spaces, living out their comfortable lives, without the disturbance of anything foreign or out of the ordinary. Society, once a refuge of conformism, has taken decades to progress; and even now, remnants of a time long past remain clung to the few hopeful fighters against cultural revolution.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at just twenty-nine years old, had already directed eighteen feature-length films for theatrical distribution and television broadcast by the time he reached Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and would go on to release two more feature films in the same year. The man was decades ahead of his time- it's a tragedy his life would be quickly cut short just eight years later. His films can be almost impenetrable at times: slow, silent meditations that take their time in fleshing out their stories and characters to the fullest extent (see also World on a Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz). Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is probably the most easily accessed of his films- being essentially a remake of Douglas Sirk's All that Heaven Allows, it easily serves as a deconstruction of classic American cinema and Fassbinder placing his own meditative spin on classic Hollywood films.

The camera in Ali has a life all of its own- it peers through a crack in the door or outside a window, as we are almost like outside strangers people watching, joining the other women of the apartment building in their gossip about this unsanctioned race-crossing relationship. For that alone, Ali finds itself outstretching its relevance far past the twentieth century and into the modern world. It's a magnificent commentary on universal acceptance and how quickly people will turn against those who refuse to conform. They may not show an outward display of hatred, but inside they're seething with rage.
On the other hand, Ali could serve as a cautionary tale of the follies of a love fast gained. After all, Ali and Emmi had barely known each other a few minutes before they were convinced they were madly in love- a mere few days before she would hastily declare marriage to him to ensure he can stay with her without experiencing a relatively uncomfortable amount of molestation. Love, if not properly nurtured and allowed to gestate and grow over a long period of time, can wither and disappear as quickly as it appeared if one isn't careful. Ali's consistent absence after their brief elope and cross-country trip- not to mention his own infidelity- indicates a quick and unfortunate erosion of what Emmi initially thought was made to last. The illusion quickly shatters and falls apart for the two of them in a matter of months, possibly weeks.

Even through all that, Emmi shows a kind of resilience that would be rarely found in any other partner. "That's not important," she says as they find themselves embracing again through a slow dance like they partook in when they first met. She doesn't care what he did- all that matters is that he's there with her now. She found a kind of love in him that she may not have had for years, a kind of love that she is convinced she couldn't find anywhere else. She didn't care what others said, she didn't care what they'd do (to an extent), all she knew was her love for him. In this way, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the perfect deconstruction of the typical Hollywood romance stories of the mid-1900's that Fassbinder had become so familiar with growing up. It reveals itself so unnerving in its realism and in part its takedown of public perception on race relations, condemning those who would think that anything other than a pure, unbridled kind of love was gestating from Emmi and perhaps, in part at least, from the confused Ali.
I've had a hard time getting into most of R.W. Fassbinder's films, but Ali: Fear Eats the Soul had me right from the beginning. Its gestating focal relationship becomes a soul-crushing endeavor that takes every ounce of breath away from you as its emotional pull finds itself burrowing deep into the recesses of your very soul. You feel for Emmi and, at times, for Ali as they struggle to push themselves against the winds of society to change it for the better or, at the very least, revel in their own newfound happiness. Every single frame is a painting itself- beautifully saturated colors in its cinematography bleed through Americanized cinema and find themselves coated with Fassbinder's own German New Wave style. To call this a masterpiece would be a vast understatement- it deserves it place as a pillar of cinema that demands social progression all on its own.

-Wes Ball