What Rainer Fassbinder’s Ali Says About Outsider Influence on Relationsips

“Sometimes I wish it was just you and me alone in the world.” So says Emmi (Brigitte Mira), the widowed protagonist in one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most poignant films, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Released in 1974, two years after the Munich massacre that took place during the Olympic games in Germany, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a scathing glimpse into the Germans’ perception and treatment of foreigners, stated like a dirty word throughout the entirety of the narrative. Not only that, but it is a film that explores a younger man with an older woman with unprecedented tenderness (barring, of course, Harold and Maude, another product of the 70s).

Ali's first encounter with Emmi at a bar he frequents
Ali’s first encounter with Emmi at a bar he frequents
The attraction Emmi feels to Ali is almost instant, encountering him at a “foreigner bar” on the route to her apartment as she tries to wait out a rainstorm by drinking a Coke. The owner of the bar (Katharina Herberg), a busty blonde who looks as though she’s been beaten, jokingly tells Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) to dance with the old woman that just walked in. When Ali does it, everyone is shocked to see him leave the bar with her. The two continue the easy conversation they started at the bar in Emmi’s apartment, where she offers him coffee with cognac. Before Ali can make it safely in the building, however, one of Emmi’s neighbors sees her going up to her apartment with Ali, prompting her to immediately gossip with another neighbor about it. And this signals the mere beginning of the condemnation Emmi and Ali will receive during the course of their relationship.
Emmi and Ali share a cup of coffee together in her apartment together
Emmi and Ali share a cup of coffee together in her apartment together
Horrified to learn that Ali sleeps in a tenement with five other people, Emmi offers to let him spend the night. Feeling closer to Emmi after confessing to her that he, too, often feels lonely with no one to talk to, Ali takes her up on the offer. In the middle of the night, he knocks on her room while she’s reading and asks if he can stay in her room, implying that at least some sexual hanky panky is about to go down.
Emmi confesses to her daughter and son-in-law (played by Fassbinder) that she's in love with a foreigner
Emmi confesses to her daughter and son-in-law (played by Fassbinder) that she’s in love with a foreigner
The next morning, Emmi and Ali leave for work together, both hesitant to part ways. Emmi, who is a cleaning woman for an office building, can’t stop herself from thinking about Ali as she off-handedly mentions that a foreigner hit on her last night. The other women are appalled by such behavior, saying that foreigners have no respect for anything, not even age. One of the women even tells them that she knew of an older woman who started going out with a foreigner and that now no one will have anything to do with her. All of these comments leave Emmi a bit rattled, and yet, it still doesn’t stop her from going to her daughter, Krista (Irm Hermann), and son-in-law’s, Eugen (Fassbinder), apartment to tell them that she’s in love with a foreigner.
Ali, warning Emmi that fear eats the soul
Ali, warning Emmi that fear eats the soul
The same night, Emmi returns to the bar to try to find Ali, only to be saddened by his absence. When she goes back to her apartment, she is elated to discover Ali has been waiting for her. From this point forward, they become inseparable, with Ali essentially moving in–much to the neighbors’ dismay. Their cloud of contentment is penetrated when the landlord’s son comes to tell Emmi that she can’t have “a lodger” staying with her. Emmi retaliates by saying that she plans to marry Ali, which, of course, she does.
The night they met
The night they met
Their marriage is spit upon by everyone they know, including Emmi’s three children, who disown her after she informs them of her union. The manner in which people treat them only gets worse, with Emmi’s grocer refusing to serve either of them and a co-worker of Emmi’s ostracizing her from the others at work. It gets to be so unbearable that Emmi has a breakdown outside of a restaurant one day, telling Ali that she tries not to let people’s cruelty bother her, but that it’s slowly wearing her down. Ali, too, has his own fair share of existential issues, turning to the owner of his favorite bar for physical and gastronomical (she knows how to make couscous) comfort.
Ali, grappling with some intense issues
Ali, grappling with some intense issues
What it all boils down to–apart from the xenophobia and gerontophobia people allow themselves to be consumed by–is that the opinions of outsiders on one’s relationship can have more detrimental effects on a person than the positive feelings one gets from being in love.