Rainer Werner Fassbinders's prolific output is legendary, some 41 films between 1966 and 1982. One of his most notable and acclaimed films, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was filmed in 15 days in 1973. Even for his quick output on low budgets, Ali ranked among his quickest and cheapest, and it's impact on his career and foreign cinema remains cemented as a great and influential work.
The film tells the story of Emmi Kurowski (Brigette Mira, Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), an unlikely couple who find love but are surrounded by a world of prejudices, both because of their age difference and of race. Emmi is a lonely old woman just looking for some compassion and warmth. To her surprise, she finds it in a man many years her junior, a foreigner who speaks in fragmented sentences, but embraces her because she doesn't treat him like an outcast. It is a hard road of love. Emmi finds herself ostracized by her neighbors, co-workers, and her children and Ali begins to yearn for his homeland and its tastes. The obstacles their romance faces may be too much and maybe, despite there love, being surround by so much scorn Ali's Arabic saying will ring true, "Feat eats the soul."
Fassbinders trademarks of formal framing, use of rigidity in his actors posture, scenes of minutia, and simple detail could sometimes make for distancing in his films, but in Ali's case, as with the best of his work, it is a artistic choice, a point of view that enlivens the material. Ali and Emi find themselves being observed by stone faced onlookers, her neighbors, cafe owners, her family, and their looks are ones of judgments and disapproval. It wraps a great emotional weight over film.
The premise was inspired by one of Fassbinder's favorite American filmmakers, Douglas Sirk, and his Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman vehicle All that Heaven Allows. It is completely fitting that Fassbinder found a kinship with Sirk. Both primarily worked in the genre of melodrama and were at times written off by their critics because of this, their sometimes sappy stories and execution not living up to the more naturalistic or abstract tales of their contemporaries. Admittedly it is what initially turned me of when I first watched Fassbinder films, preferring his 70's German cinema brother Werner Herzog because of Herzog's leanings into surrealism. And, it is a deserved criticism because Sirk and Fassbinder were often sappy, that is, after all, the nature of melodrama. What people seem to forget is that just because it is sappy that doesn't mean it also cannot say something of substance even though it is packaged with all of the subtlety of a discounted Hallmark card. Fassbinder certainly had far less polish than Sirk, and therefore his social conscience has a griminess and realness that Sirk's romanticized vision lacked and subsequently could cast a veil over Sirk's message.
Melodrama has its limitations, however if executed right, like Fassbinder does in Fear Eats the Soul, when Cruel Terminal Fate comes along, there is nothing limited in the scale of melodramas emotions. A prime example of this is Emmi's breakdown at an outdoor cafe. For filmgoers it is a thing of emotionally devastating acting on the behalf of Mira. It is pure, simple, honest, true, and very rewarding.
While keeping the basic All That Heaven Allows premise of an older woman and a younger man, Fassbinder injected Ali with his views of the German class system and its views on race. They not only face the prejudice of age, but the greater hurdle of Ali being a foreigner in a country where they are looked down upon, much in the same way they are here in the States where migrant workers meet disapproval over "taking our jobs" yet those jobs are ones most people don't wont and they accept the work at petty wages employers find hard to resist. As Ali says in his fractured Enlgish. "German Master. Arab Dog". While they each face the scorn with doubts, anger, and tears, they are resilient. But, even as they face the various rejections from family, friends and their community, when Fassbinder gives us a light of hope it is not one of pure acceptance. While Emmi's children seem to grudgingly embrace her choice, it is only because they need her. Her co-workers and neighbors look at Ali as an oddity, and once again, only put on smiles and friendly gestures when they need Emmi's help. So, he gives the surface of happiness, yet it is far more bleak then the open rejection they initially faced.
The DVD: Criterion Collection
Picture: On a normal television the image will be standard 1.33:1 but for widescreen televisions it is blown up to 1.77:1. I've only seen Fassbinder on video, and this is a real revelation. While Criterion doesn't present a spotless transfer- there are still a few flecks and a brief bit of print dirt here and there- it is a real revelation compared to the muddy Fassbinder videos I've seen. The colors are sharp and vibrant with striking reds and blues and subtle browns. Typical of 70's cinema it is a bit grainy and not always the sharpest an image can be, but Criterion presents the elements very well with good contrast, grain level, and sharpness. I think its pretty fair to say it is light years better than the video, and I doubt it looked this nice projected in theaters.
Sound: Mono German language with optional English subtitle translation. Sound is clear and distinct. Once again, bearing in mind the age and budget, you aren't going to get much in terms of dynamics, but Criterion's transfer has no troublesome deterioration and is quite good. The new subtitle translation is great, easy to follow, and eloquet.
Extras: Informative Liner notes--- Disc One features the film, chapter selections, and its original trailer--- Disc Two is the supplements.---Angst Isst Seele Auf literally "Fear Devours the Soul", (12:32). Short film featuring Mira as Emmi, made as sort of a tribute to Fassbinder. --- Todd Haynes Interview (22:45). Filmmaker Todd Haynes speaks in detail about Sirk's influence on both himself and Fassbinder--- Interview with actress Brigitte Mira (24:59) 93 year old Mira is charmingly self deprecating, witty and insightful as she discusses her relationship as a Fassbinder actress.--- Interview with editor Thea Eymesz (22:26) .--- Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema from the program Omnibus (32:18). Herzog, Wenders, Schlondorff, and Fassbinder are featured in this special detailing the rise of the new German cinema after its post World War 2 creative drought.--- From "The American Soldier" (2:44). Scene from Fassbinder's 1970 film that features a conversation that would eventually become the film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Conclusion: Criterion delivers. It is pretty rare when they don't, and this two disc DVD is another great addition to their catalogue. If you are a Fassbinder fan it is a must. If you are curious to discover him and his style, there is probably no better introduction than this film. Criterion packages the film pleasingly with a great transfer and astute extras sure to leave buyers satisfied.