“Happiness is not always fun.”
Set in Germany in the 1970’s, Fassbinder’s masterful re-visioning of Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) begins with this seemingly simple quotation. However, as the film proceeds and we watch German house cleaner Emmi and Arab mechanic Ali fall in love then reap the unjust social consequences, this quote takes on a haunting and mournful tone.
What begins as a chance meeting between strangers in a bar turns quickly into a brief revitalization of faith in humanity and love. But as Emmi and Ali’s relationship grows, so does the resentment and hatred from the outside world, a sullen and deprived response to a situation outside the “normal” and acceptable realm of consciousness. Emmi and Ali pay for their happiness in many ways. She momentarily loses her connection with the familiar, outside world, and he any connection to independence or heritage. The fear they so bravely disposed at the beginning begins to eat away at the core of their confidence in each other, ultimately scarring a love that’s complexity should have been rewarded instead of looked down upon.
Fassbinder’s films remain a major gap in my studies and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the first I’ve watched since The Marriage of Maria Braun in college. I was frustrated with that film, but it had to do a lot with my age and the forum I viewed it within. Fassbinder’s talent is undeniable and his large filmography in such a short span of time is extremely intimidating to approach. His ideas about historical trauma’s overflowing onto present day social situations separate him from the typical melodramatist. His color schemes reveal a deep understanding of mood and character, using reds, blues, yellows, and greens instead of words to describe sadness, doubt, and loss.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul exemplifies this strategy, bringing these characters a depth and texture directly related to the mise-en-scene. Often framed together in long shots by doorways, windows, or stairways, Ali and Emmi are alone in this world, even when pseudo compassion and friendship reappear. But Fassbinder doesn’t paint his protagonist couple as completely just, showing Emmi and Ali as equally culpable in their own unhappiness later in the film, each objectifying body and soul for cheap thrills and momentary glimpses of acknowledgment from the outside world that earlier discarded their love.