Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin
“You know Hitler?”
Emmi (Mira) asks Ali (ben Salem) that question twice in this film. The first time, it’s the same night she’s met Ali. They’re sitting at her dinette maybe a couple of hours after they met for the first time on a rainy night in Munich. Like virtually all Germans of a Certain Age, Emmi was a member of the Nazi Party; she and her late husband (who’s been dead for something close to twenty years) were both members. He was Polish. It didn’t mean much at the time, but like just about everyone else who was around in 1930s and 1940s Germany – cops, teachers, soldiers, judges, civil servants – she is an ex-Nazi in the 1970s. It’s hard to forget that as you watch Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a movie which is barely ninety minutes long but is layered delicately and repeatedly, like a filo pastry.
Emmi is a kindly older woman, someone whose only stops are work, the grocer, and home. She has three children whom she doesn’t interact with. It’s something of a miracle that she walks into the (practically vacant) bar where Ali and his “Arab buddies” hang out and drink. Where she never seems to go out, we find out that Ali goes out all the time. There are six men living in a single room, and he does little more than sleep there; as he tells Emmi, his life is work, sleep, drinking. The two of them share a dance in the bar. Emmi invites him back for another drink, and there are a hundred reasons why that’s not sexual; she’s too old for him, he’s a Berber from Morocco, she has a granddaughter, and most importantly, they are both so lonely that sex seems leagues away from either of them. (Ali is sexually active, although from what we come to learn about his sexual habits, they give the vibe of couples’ masturbation rather than passion.) Of course, they do have sex, and not long after that they fall in love.
Ali has a spiritual kinsman in American cinema; that’s Far from Heaven, the Todd Haynes joint which is not quite as stunning as Ali, but makes up some of the difference with Julianne Moore and a bigger budget that creates a convincing period film very different from the cheap indie aesthetic of Ali. Both Ali and Far from Heaven play off not just the plots but the aesthetic of Douglas Sirk films from the ’50s. (I swear, Sirk is the most influential director who no one wants to call a “great director.” Someone owes Douglas Sirk an apology and a spot in the mid-70s on some “Great Directors” list.) Sirk’s melodramas frequently featured people who couldn’t have one another. Though Ali is more or less a remake of All That Heaven Allows, I prefer Magnificent Obsession, which features Rock Hudson as the guy who was resuscitated instead of Jane Wyman’s husband (no, not Ronald Reagan, but I can dream), and then when Hudson is trying to make a pass at Jane Wyman, she’s hit by a car and blinded. That’s when Hudson pretends to be someone else and gets her to fall in love with him. Far from Heaven has Julianne Moore as the beautiful, composed wife of Dennis Quaid, who is successful and as gay as Rock Hudson. While her husband is trying to overcome being gay (with the help of James Rebhorn, who never does seem to make anything better regardless of who he’s playing), Moore falls for Dennis Haysbert, her gardener. Within this context, the story of Emmi and Ali fits in pretty neatly.
What makes Sirk special – because let’s face it, anyone could have made suburban weiße Leute cry as long as Wyman was in the cast – is his ability to reflect the overzealous emotion in the characters in ridiculous, colorful sets and settings. I’m not sure any movie has ever used the color green as much like a hammer as Magnificent Obsession. (If you’re thinking about Vertigo, I would counter by saying that Vertigo uses green like the icepick the doctor uses to give you a lobotomy.) Far from Heaven is full of rich reds and velvety dark blues. And Fassbinder, making the most of the ’70s architecture and interior design that I find fascinating forty years out but would never want to live in, strikes with yellows and oranges and lime greens, the red light that envelops the dance floor whenever Emmi and Ali wind up there. Fassbinder even manages to make light grays sing; the stairwell of Emmi’s apartment as well as the stairwell of Emmi’s workplace, the suits that Ali starts wearing after Emmi tells him that he should wear lighter colors because they favor him. Fassbinder’s willingness to put his camera just about anywhere and frame the shot from behind a window or in front of a doorway creates a portrait effect whenever someone sits still for a moment. While he despairs, there’s a shot of Ali sitting on a bed in an otherwise vacant room, which is outlined by the brightly colored doorframe; every color in the shot has an approximate twin in a pack of Skittles, and that brightness is not cheery but a reminder of how sad and alone Ali is.
Magnificent Obsession chooses to tackle the responsibility of the more fortunate to the less fortunate. Far from Heaven examines our perceptions of interracial love affairs and homosexuality. Ali looks at racism in contemporary Germany, and the mindset of immigrants, and post-WWII German politics. Emmi and Ali get married so quickly, but they are so caring with one another and so obviously invested in one another that it hardly seems strange at all. Nobody else thinks so, obviously. It’s 1974 and I don’t know where on earth those two could have gotten married without getting nasty looks from everyone else. When Emmi introduces Ali to her children, one son calls her a whore and another kicks her TV in. When Ali was just hanging out at Emmi’s apartment, her neighbors have the landlord come in to tell her off for subletting her apartment. (This is, in fact, how Emmi and Ali get married; she tells the landlord they’re getting hitched, tells Ali what she’s said, and Ali basically says, Why not?) Emmi’s coworkers shun her. It’s funny, but none of Ali’s Arab buddies have a problem with his white wife. They come over at one point and play board games. (Of course, as we find out much later in the film, it’s likely that he hasn’t actually told them; at the same time, though, it’s not like they didn’t know he was living with a white woman, and they seem to be just fine with Emmi’s presence.) At one point, Emmi breaks down when everyone from the restaurant she and Ali are at starts staring at them. She cries out for them to stop; they stand there the same as ever. She has never been ostracized before, or hated, or even given a second glance. Ali, who is extremely mindful of what Germans think of Arabs like him, seems to take the ridicule of others with a saintlike serenity. It would have been bad regardless, but just two years after the Munich Olympics, as Ali notes, anti-Arab sentiment is still at its apex.
Ali is remarkably sympathetic to its title character. I say “remarkably” because the most sympathetic black character in an American film in 1974 is probably Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart. Blazing Saddles lampoons racists; Ali makes a person of color a human being. Ali’s most impressive quality is his gentleness. He speaks quietly, touches Emmi lightly, holds her firmly without squeezing or constricting. He is endlessly helpful; he and Emmi return from a vacation and he is immediately volunteered to heft a racist neighbor’s junk into his cellar. It’s that gentleness that makes his hurt that much more affecting. At one point, Emmi tells Ali that she doesn’t much care for couscous when he asks her if she’ll make some; it’s not a very German thing to eat. It’s the first really cruel thing that they’ve done to one another, the first of several cruel things they do to one another in the back half of the movie. Not long after that, Ali picks up an affair with an old girlfriend, leaving the apartment for hours at a time, leaving Emmi alone and worried and clueless. He starts gambling away significant amounts of his paycheck in the bar. As Emmi becomes more connected with her German life again – as her son who kicked in the TV gives her a check for it and asks her if she could babysit, as her grocer starts serving her for the first time since she married, as her neighbors and coworkers lift the shunning – she needs Ali less. We begin to think about the fact that even his wife calls him “Ali,” which is not his real name but what white people call him; his actual name is El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha. The utter loneliness that the two of them saw in each other is becoming a loneliness that one of them bears, made worse by the fact that just a few weeks ago he wasn’t lonely at all. Sleeping with Barbara (Barbara Valentin) doesn’t ever imply that he loves her any more than eating her couscous does. He’s flailing desperately for something he can grab hold of after watching his grip, through no fault of his own, begin to slip.
Ali ends curiously, in the sense that I wasn’t quite prepared for the metaphor Fassbinder comes up with. Emmi and Ali make up at the bar, dancing to the song they danced to on the night they first met, but Ali collapses, groaning violently. At the hospital, a doctor tells Emmi that Ali has a perforated stomach ulcer. It’s not the first time he’s seen an Arab in that kind of condition; he says it’s fairly common for immigrants to turn their stress into ulcers. All he’s allowed to do is operate; six months from now, Ali will be back in the hospital, and six months later just the same. The message is clear enough; even if they make peace with each other, lasting peace, build the relationship that they both deserve to have, even if they cohere in a way that defies their society and their upbringings and their neighbors, they’ll have no peace in their setting.
Emmi and Ali go out for lunch on the day of their wedding. They wind up in front an Italian restaurant. Emmi tells Ali she’s always wanted to eat there; apparently it was Hitler’s favorite restaurant.
“You know Hitler?”