A middle-aged cleaning woman named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) takes refuge from the storm and walks into a local German bar, straight into the territorial gaze of its predominantly Arabic patrons. It is one of the few places in town where foreigners are openly welcomed, where the owner populates the jukebox with Arabic music and occasionally prepares couscous. In here, the tables are turned, and Emmi is the stranger. The owner goads her former lover, a handsome, young Moroccan mistakenly called Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) to dance with Emmi, and soon, they are kindred spirits, brought together by a mutual sense of profound loneliness. But if society were cruel to them as individuals, it grows more cruel and acerbic when they are together. The neighbors gossip incessantly about Emmi’s “lodger”, prompting the landlord to inquire about their living arrangements. A local grocer mocks Ali’s speech and refuses to serve him until he can speak better German. Emmi’s revelation of her new love to her family is initially met with derision, then contempt, resulting in the destruction of her television set. After a coworker encounters Ali in Emmi’s apartment, Emmi is shunned by her cleaning team.
In his tragically abbreviated, self-destructive, yet remarkably prolific career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder often explored the lives of people who defy conformity and social convention. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder uses space and framing to reflect society’s isolation of the atypical, interracial couple: the long, confined shot of the dance floor as Ali and Emmi dance to a gypsy tune; the cramped kitchen of Emmi’s apartment; the framed shot through the doorway of an exclusive restaurant (ironically renowned for Hitler’s patronage); the empty surrounding tables of an outdoor bistro, exaggerated by the distance of the staff from the sole patrons. Resisting formulaic melodrama in favor of social commentary, Fassbinder shows that even as the scrutinized couple learn to cope with unwanted public attention, societal pressures continue to “eat the souls” of Ali and Emmi, creating a fissure within their fragile relationship. Can such a union of lost souls survive? Hollywood seemingly manages to find a way. But in the real world of chosen ignorance and needless cruelty, the answer is never as simple.
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