Home Video Hovel: Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, by Tyler Smith
R.W. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of the most accurate depictions of human nature as I’ve ever seen on film. He is a man with great affection for his characters, which one would think would lead him to gloss over their flaws, but actually allows him to see them more clearly. However, there is no condemnation here; only understanding. Like a couple married twenty years that have come to know the positives and negatives of each other so intimately, that the knowledge is itself a comfort.
The story is very directly influenced by the melodramatic works of Douglas Sirk, as the social norms of a small community are challenged by the love of two people. A lonely middle-aged German woman befriends and falls in love with a Moroccan guest worker. The two people see each other as kindred spirits, lost souls wandering alone in the wilderness. As they move in together, the neighbors get suspicious. And, frankly, we ourselves are a little cautious about this relationship. Does this younger, attractive man genuinely love this plain older woman, or is he merely using her for a sense of social stability? And does she really want to be married to this man, or is he simply the only one that she could find that could help her stave off the loneliness?
The answer to all of these questions is simply, “Yes, and so much more.” These are complicated characters, whose motivations are so layered that they themselves might not be aware of every nuance. They are both selfish and extremely generous at the same time, which makes them much more common than the neighborhood busybodies believe.
This is one of the things that I love about the film. It would be easy to act as though this relationship is simply “too pure for this world” and leave it at that. Fassbinder seems to feel that he owes his characters (and his audience) more than that, as he will often have us condemning their actions and attitudes in certain scenes, even after so confidently praising them moments before.
Fassbinder extends this complexity to the neighbors, as well. At first, they seem like an angry mob; prejudice bigots that can’t think beyond their own comfort level. However, as the story continues, they soon begin to accept the relationship, and even warm up to it. This isn’t because of any grand speeches given by our protagonists, nor any jarring shift in the social fabric. No, it’s just the way of life, with people slowly growing accustomed to the new status quo, then coming to embrace it. What was unthinkable years ago is now “the new normal” and we human beings have an astounding capacity to accept the circumstances that are presented to us. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to keep us from going insane; nonetheless, society seems to thrive on this instinct.
That is what is so exhilarating about this film. It is both optimistic and pessimistic, sentimental and unblinking. It gives us imperfect characters and then challenges us to judge them, knowing we can’t. It is written and directed with such maturity that we never feel condescended to. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we’re being told a story with characters and act breaks. Instead, it feels like we’re being allowed an intimate glimpse into the lives of two very real, very flawed people. Those flaws occasionally frustrate us, but we cannot condemn them. Instead, as we must, we simply accept them and move on, ultimately just happy that these two people found each other, and hoping the best for them.