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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Blu-ray)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // September 30, 2014 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matt Hinrichs | posted September 26, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie:

A simple, sweet love story between a 60 year-old German widow and a working-class Moroccan half her age forms the basis of 1974's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, arguably the most popular film from German provocateur Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). The prolific Fassbinder quickly directed this in between two bigger films as a way to pay homage to one of his favorite films, Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder used the story to comment on the hang-ups of then-current German society, yet its authenticity and pure, genuine acting give the movie a timeless quality.

Ali begins in a rain-drenched city, as cleaning lady Emmi Kurowski (a subtle performance by Austrian actress Brigitte Mira) takes shelter in a Middle Eastern dive bar. Amid withering stares from the bar's patrons, Emmi quietly orders a cola while a tall, striking young man approaches her. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) initially seeks out Emmi as a dance partner, but as the night goes on the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Emmi's faith in basic human decency are a source of comfort for the immigrant Ali, while Ali's guileless honesty strikes a distinct contrast with Emmi's uptight neighbors and family. In a bold move, Emmi invites Ali to her apartment and the two become lovers. By the next morning, Ali and Emmi have declared their love for each other. The two eventually marry, toughing it out despite the constant disapproval and stares from friends and strangers alike. Ostracized by friends and co-workers, shunned by Emmi's adult children, the two soldier on and eventually find some allies, softening some attitudes towards their interracial, inter-generational marriage.

In taking on All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder wasn't so much paying tribute to Douglas Sirk (although there are a lot of Sirk-ish touches going on) as putting a spin on a durable story in his own distinct way. His attitude toward a Germany still dealing with the repercussions of Fascism is epitomized in the character of Emmi, radiating decency and trustworthiness yet also full of quirks (like her unseemly fascination with Adolph Hitler). As it's portrayed here, the Germans' contemptuous treatment of Middle Eastern immigrants like Ali seems peculiar to the '70s, yet it's strangely timeless as well (witness certain Americans' current aversion toward Mexican immigrants). One of his main points is that, despite appearances to the contrary, everyone has some innate prejudice. It's demonstrated especially well further on in the marriage, when Emmi starts treating Ali in a patronizing way (c'mon, all he wanted was a little couscous). Not realizing her own racism, Emmi's putdowns send Ali into the arms of the proprietress of the Middle Eastern bar (played by Barbara Valentin, also excellent). Where Douglas Sirk treated his soapy stories with a touch of contempt, Fassbinder's belief in the characters' integrity actually made him the more optimistic of the two.

Where Douglas Sirk exquisitely played with camera angles, lighting setups, and reflections to make a subversive commentary on the story, in Ali Fassbinder goes to great lengths to visually express the characters' self-containment. When people aren't shown in a meticulous still-life tableau, blankly staring into space for an eternity, they appear framed by doorways, in the slats of stair bannisters, cropped inside window frames. Emmi's busybody landlady is introduced peering out from behind a fancy metal lattice - literally and figuratively boxed-in. Fassbinder also does some interesting stuff with colors and patterns (most vividly with the despondent scene of Emmi and Ali placed in a sea of yellow chairs), although the intended message is a little less overt. At a time when Germany appeared to be a hodgepodge of old and new, Fassbinder was using projects like Ali to point out society's inherent flaws in the hopes that we can learn and move forward.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul kicked off a heady period for Fassbinder, who continued writing and directing interesting, layered melodramas such as Fox and His Friends (1975), Fear of Fear (1975), and Chinese Roulette (1976). It should be noted that Brigitte Mira and other Fassbinder regulars appear in these, as well. Although not yet available domestically on DVD (making for a nice Eclipse set, right?), Criterion offers a handful to view on their Hulu Plus streaming channel.

The Blu Ray:

Criterion's Blu Ray of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul pretty much replicates their 2003 DVD edition, although the packaging has been updated with the "crooked C" logo and what used to be spread over two discs is now housed on a single platter. A clear plastic snap-case holds it together.


Ali: Fear Eats the Soul's new 4K restoration has been supervised by the film's director of photography, Jürgen Jürges. The 1.37:1 pillarboxed image sports nice, lush colors (although a few scenes have a greenish hue), realistic skin tones, robust dark levels and a clean picture with a minimum of film grain. For a low-budget, quickly assembled venture, it looks great.


The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is also cleaned up, and it sounds fine despite the limitations of the source material. The dialogue track is solidly mixed and not too hissy. Instead of original scoring, the film uses a variety of vintage Middle Eastern pop tracks which sound a bit muddy yet add considerably to the film's atmosphere.


The bonus materials are all replicated from the 2003 edition:

  • An Introduction has filmmaker Todd Haynes (Safe; Velvet Goldmine) recounting his introduction to Fassbinder and the auteur's influence on Haynes' own films. He also discusses Far From Heaven, his then-new homage to All That Heaven Allows.
  • Additional Interviews are included with actor Brigitte Mira and Fassbinder's longtime editor/companion, Thea Eymesz (these and the Haynes intro all run about 25 minutes each).
  • Shahbaz Noshir's 2002 short film Angst isst Seele auf explores racism in contemporary Germany with an actor getting assaulted by bigoted thugs en route to a stage performance of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The film reunites Mira (playing the same role), Eymesz, and d.p. Jürgen Jürges (this is the only feature presented in 16x9 widescreen format).
  • The fascinating BBC program Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema, a 1976 episode of the series Omnibus, visits with Fassbinder and several other current German directors (Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders). In addition to behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the directors, the program presents a concise history of that country's independent cinema movement. Due to copyright restrictions, film clips have been replaced with stills.
  • A brief scene from Fassbinder's 1970 feature The American Soldier (available on Criterion's Early Fassbinder Eclipse set) shows the initial inspiration for Ali, with a hotel chambermaid recounting the tragic tale of a cleaning lady who falls in love with a Turkish laborer.
  • The film's Trailer and a Fold-Out Booklet containing an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara round out the extras.

Final Thoughts

The delicately told love story in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul makes it one of the warmest, most accessible films from Germany's prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Criterion's Blu Ray edition of the film demonstrates why this personal favorite gets better with every viewing. Highly Recommended.

Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.

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