Consider the film’s opening scene, which lays out all of the film’s themes with uncommon precision and subtlety: An aging widow walks into a bar to seek shelter from the rain. The sound of Arabic music fills the soundtrack. Dominated by the line of tables that stretches all the way to the foreground on her left and the door frame above her, she appears small and isolated. In the following shot, we see the patrons, all gathered at the other end of the counter, silently looking at the new arrival with cold interest. Among them, four Arab men. Opposite axes, opposite worlds. Emmi (an astounding Brigitte Mira) is neither welcome nor rejected, just an unsolicited intruder disrupting an ordered society.
After the shapely young bartender explains her clientele’s taste in music – “They prefer the stuff from back home” – as well as her choice of drinks, we see one of the Arab men, Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem, dubbed by Wolfgang Hess), reject a white female patron’s offer to take him home – “Schwanz kaput” he explains in broken German. Jilted, the woman changes the Raï music to a slow Bohemian folk song and playfully dares Ali to dance with the old lady. Nonchalantly, he accepts. So far, the bar has been diegetically divided into two spaces: Emmi’s table and the patrons at the counter. Only in the subsequent shot, after Emmi accepts Ali’s proposal and follows him to the dance floor, are these two spaces united by the camera’s synchronized movement with the characters.
Through diegetic music, sparse dialogue, still shots and composition choices that emphasize vertical lines and thus static positions, Rainer Werner Fassbinder subtly conveys the discomfort and sense of defamiliarization felt by many white Europeans – particularly older folk – when faced with otherness in their surroundings. More importantly, his choices also put a different light on his characters’ words and actions, which would appear fairly straightforward in mainstream films: Ali’s rebuffed would-be lover’s act of provocation (replacing “his” music with “hers”, daring him to dance with the little old lady) has a tinge of genuine curiosity that she herself may not fully acknowledge; Ali and Emmi’s dance, during which they exchange personal information, comes across both as romantic table-turning so much as an experience in re-acquainting oneself with familiar customs – Emmi notes she hasn’t danced in 20 years – in strange and unfamiliar circumstances. Throughout the entire film, these two individuals struggle, resist and negotiate with various groups over their identities, habits and desires in an endless psychological maze that separates, reunites and blocks them from each other depending upon circumstances.
This struggle is visualized through various scenarios in which Emmi’s relationship with the much younger Arab man makes them the subject of racist comments from her friends, neighbours and children, and others in which their relationship finds itself challenged by their own feelings of alien-ness. But Fassbinder isn’t content with merely illustrating the grade-school humanist platitude of everybody being somebody’s stranger; he explores it in intimate detail that belies initial impressions of broad strokes.
Like in his previous theatrical film The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, Fassbinder makes considerable use of deep-focus shots to create meaning. Shots in which one or both of the main characters are isolated by the décor, framing and positioning of other actors are legion, as are shots in which all or part of the important actions are seen through an opening, a filter or a reflecting surface. Even when the camera’s point of new is neither subjective nor semi-subjective, our attention is drawn to both our own gaze and those of the people we are watching. Consequently, we empathize even with those whose words and actions make out to be either one-dimensional bigots or, in the case of Ali, a seemingly patronizing “noble long-suffering immigrant” stereotype.
That is what makes Ali: Fear Eats The Soul so miraculous: With purely visual means, it reveals complex human mechanisms behind commonplace attitudes and aggressions that most movies would either treat as self-evidently evil or dissect via thorough examinations of individual characters. Through Ali and Emmi’s relationship, all the obstacles and compromises people impose upon each other and themselves for the sake of happiness are gradually unveiled to us. Racism is thus dissected to appear not as the abstract evil that most of us would prefer to imagine, but more as a frighteningly natural expression of the human instinct to feel safe and validated by being part of a unit of similar people, whether they share the same skin colour, the same ancestry or the same drinking establishment.