The wildly prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage to his cinematic hero Douglas Sirk with this update of that filmmaker’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows. A lonely widow (Brigitte Mira) meets a much younger Arab worker (El Hedi ben Salem) in a bar during a rainstorm. They fall in love, to their own surprise—and to the outright shock of their families, colleagues, and drinking buddies. In 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,' Fassbinder expertly uses the emotional power of classic Hollywood melodrama to expose the racial tensions underlying contemporary German culture.
While not a direct remake of Douglas Sirk's 'All That Heaven Allows', Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' updates the premise of society's reaction to the taboo love between an older woman involved with a younger man by increasing the conflict with the addition of a racial component to the mix. Fassbinder was well suited to tell a story of a love judged by society as at the time of production he was involved in a relationship with lead actor El Hedi ben Salem.
As the film opens, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a 60-something German cleaning woman, enters a bar where Arabic music is playing in order to get out of the rain. Ali (Salem) is a 30-something Moroccan immigrant who has been in the country for a couple of years and works as a mechanic. He is told to ask Emi to dance as a bit of a joke from his friends, but the two appear to enjoy each other. Earlier, the audience was shown Ali blowing off one of the ladies at the bar who wanted to have sex with him. Later, it is revealed that Emmi is a widow and her children are off with their own families. Regardless of how many people are around them, it's obvious they are both lonely and they quickly form a bond.
After Ali walks Emmi home, she invites him up for coffee to wait out the rain, earning the sneers and jeers of gossipy neighbors. Giving the viewer a sense of race relations in Germany at the time, Ali states how tougher things have become for Arabs since the 1972 Munich Olympics, without stating it is because the Palestinian terrorist known as Black September were responsible for killing eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer. Just that he is brown-skinned is enough excuse for some people to treat him as less than a human being. When she learns he shares a small apartment with five other men, she offers him a room of his own to stay the night. Their talking together in her room cuts to him waking up shirtless in her bed and her exhibiting shock and disbelief, revealing what has happened between the two.
They begin an unlikely love affair, but Ali seems sincere in his feelings. Emmi is overjoyed at her happiness but suffers the racism of her co-workers, her family, and even a local storeowner. In one shot, Fassbinder shows her isolation. After her co-workers have left her on the stairs, the camera shows her seated on the stairs behind the staircase railing, making her look like a prisoner behind bars. He makes similar choices throughout, showing the characters isolated through the camera framing.
When Emmi has a chance to reconnect with people, she does so at Ali's expense, and only pays attention to her feelings. She tells him to help one of the rude neighbors move things in the basement. She allows her co-workers to gawk and paw at him like he's a pet. And the one time we see him ask for something, for her to make couscous, she not only refuses because she doesn’t like it, she tells him to eat German foods. With their relationship obviously changed, it leaves the viewer wondering what the state of things will be between the two characters when the story concludes.
Fassbinder has created a very realistic story centered upon a compelling relationship that evolves in a very believable way. The viewer knows people like Emmi and Ali, might even have been in a similar situation at one time, and it makes the film more accessible. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem give such captivating performances the film almost feels like a documentary because the characters are so authentic. 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' is a classic from the New German Cinema Era.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' (#198 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 10-page booklet containing "One Love, Two Oppressions," an essay by author Chris Fujiwara.
The video for 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC that is displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The liner notes reveal that under the supervision of director of photography Jurgen Jurges, "this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original camera negative at ARRU Film & TV Munich, where the film was restored."
The image is clean, free of dirt and defect. The hues are vivid and were impressive for a 40-year-old film. Emmi has a few dresses that really pop with a mix of colors. The golden furniture at the outdoor restaurant and the reds in the Arab-friendly bar are other particular standout. Fleshtones appear consistent. Blacks are solid and contribute to good shadow delineation.
A satisfactory amount of film grain is present. There's great clarity in the images. Depth is strong as seen in the bar when Emmi comes in as a small figure in the background as Ali is gambling at a table in the foreground. Details are plentiful as seen in the texture of the dirty, old walls in the interior of Emmi's apartment building.
The audio is available in German LPCM 1.0 and "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from 17.5 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 3."
The entire film has been dubbed causing the dialogue to sound flat and show a bit of its age, though not through wear or damage. This causes the dialogue to not blend well with the effects. The source music played at the bar is on a jukebox, resulting in the songs having limited fidelity. The entire track has a narrow dynamic range and uses little bass.
All the extras have been ported over from the 2003 Criterion DVD.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Ali: Fear Eats the Soul' is one of world cinema's classic love stories because of its realism. It also serves as a great reminder of our shared humanity regardless of what country we are from.
The high definition video looks great, but there is only so much that could have been done with the audio, so expectations should be sey low. The extras offer a good look at the film and the director, even if it's a slight disappointment nothing new was created for this release.