The film is about an older woman, Emmi, who meets a foreign man, Ali, from Morocco, and the relationship that they begin to have. He speaks broken German, and is out of place in German society. But she loves him. They are judged constantly - the film is full of silent people, all turned towards the couple, staring, judging. It's hard to watch...to see two people happy with each other and witness the discrimination they faced every day. Her own family disowns her, until they need something from her again. Although this all sounds very sad, there was something so tender and beautiful about the relationship that Ali and Emmi shared. The rest of the world doesn't care for them or want them, but they have each other.
It's a short, small film - a snapshot of two people's lives. Scenes are often shot through mirrors, railings, windows, or doorways, making the viewer feel voyeuristic, like they are standing by and watching everything unfold, right there with the characters. It creates a sense of intimacy with the characters while also expressing the alienation that they face in their lives. There was this masterful set of two shots that happened during the film that I cannot get out of my head. In the first one, Emmi, excluded from the cleaning ladies she considered friends, eats her lunch alone, caged inside the railings and pipes of a spiral staircase. The second shot happens when the ladies accept her again, because they can gang up and discriminate against a new cleaning woman from Yugoslavia. The new woman sits in the same spot as Emmi, equally caged and on display.
In Ebert's essay, he mentions that Fassbinder was gay, and his lover was the actor who played Ali. He writes, "Fassbinder himself was an outsider...It was not much of a stretch to see Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as the story of his own love affair with the tall, handsome El Hedi ben Salem" (The Great Movies, 25). This interpretation makes a lot of sense. It was horribly difficult to be gay when this film was made, and the predjudice that Emmi and Ali endure seems to reflect the prejudice that Salem and Fassbinder probably endured and felt. It is touching and moving to see the film this way - not just a metaphorical snapshot of a relationship, but a real snapshot of one. It is, in a sense, as personal and intimate as I was thinking it was before I knew this history behind this film.
I'm going to keep this short as to not ramble on too much during the holidays. This was a very beautiful and touching film. It felt very true and realistic, and it was very enlightening to learn from Ebert's essay that it probably was a true story of sorts. I really enjoyed watching this relationship play out, and I felt deeply for both of these characters. It was really fun to be able to see something so new and unexpected because of this project. The film is only 93 minutes long, time I'm sure that you have, and I highly recommend you rent this film and check it out. It feels very modern and current, and this helps to make it even easier to get lost in the world that Fassbinder shows us.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Trailer (not sure if it's original)