Ali: Fear Eats the Soul  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eat Soul Up) is a 1974 West German film written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, starring Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem. The film won the International Federation of Film Critics award for best in-competition movie and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. It is considered to be one of Fassbinder's most powerful works and is hailed by many as a masterpiece.

The film revolves around the romance that develops between Emmi, an elderly German woman, and Ali, a Moroccan migrant worker in post-World War II Germany.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is partly based on All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk.


The film takes place an unspecified number of months after the Munich Massacre in West Germany. Emmi (Mira), a 60-year-old window cleaner and widow, enters a bar, driven in by the rain and wanting to listen to the music being played inside. A woman in the bar (Katharina Herberg) tauntingly suggests Ali (Salem), a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker) in his late thirties, ask Emmi to dance, to which Emmi accepts. After they dance, they develop a friendship and Ali follows Emmi home, staying at her apartment for the night. After more interaction, they start to fall in love and Ali continues to live with Emmi. Emmi decides to visit her children to introduce them to Ali; daughter Krista (Irm Hermann) and her tyrannical son-in-law Eugen (Fassbinder himself); Eugen thinks she is losing her sanity and Krista thinks that her mother – who has been a widow for years – is fantasizing.

Their relationship is threatened when the landlord's son, who has been sent on the assumption that Emmi has taken in a lodger, tells Emmi that subletting is against Emmi's tenancy agreement, and that Ali must leave within a day. Fearful of losing Ali, Emmi claims that she and Ali are planning to marry to alleviate this problem. After the landlord's son apologizes for the misapprehension and leaves, Emmi speaks to Ali and apologizes for having invented the idea of her marrying him, but is surprised by Ali when he says that it is an excellent idea. The film then shows them in a civil court, married.

Their marriage is looked upon negatively by those who live near them, which include apartment tenants and nearby shop keepers. Emmi is shunned by her coworkers, and Ali faces discrimination at every turn. When Emmi invites her three grown children and son-in-law to meet Ali, they openly reject him. One of Emmi's sons smashes in her TV set in anger, her other son declares she must have lost her sanity, and her daughter calls her apartment a "pigsty" and calls Emmi a "whore", before the four of them leave.

Emmi's sadness towards this rejection washes away as her optimism resurfaces and decides that she and Ali should take a long vacation together to escape the discrimination, convinced that upon return, they will have been missed and will be welcomed back. After their return, they face less discrimination, but only because neighboring tenants and shopkeepers see the gain in treating Emmi better, not because they have outgrown their prejudices.

Wanting to get back with her old friends after their apparent renewed respect, Emmi begins to neglect Ali and adopt some of their attitudes toward him. She becomes more strict, ordering him to do more things. When co-workers visit and remark on how surprisingly clean he is and comment on his muscles, she shows him off as if he were an object. This causes Ali to leave, and to seek comfort in female bartender Barbara (Barbara Valentin), with whom he has apparently had a relationship prior to meeting Emmi. When he leaves Emmi to her friends, she attributes it to his "mood swings" and notes that it must be his "foreigner mentality", adopting the xenophobic attitudes of her friends in order to fit in. This causes them to drift apart, with Ali not standing up to Emmi because of the insecurities he faces as a foreigner. He returns to the bartender, spending the night with her. Emmi visits him at work, where he pretends he doesn't know her as his workmates make fun of her age, calling her Ali's "Moroccan grandmother."

When it seems as if the relationship is beyond repair, Emmi goes back to the bar where they first met to meet with Ali and has the bartender put the same song on the jukebox that led to their dance in the beginning of the movie. They decide to dance together, and, while dancing, Emmi emphasizes that she knows she is old and that he is free to come and go, but tells him that when they are together, they must be nice to each other. He agrees and they declare their love for each other. In that moment, Ali collapses in Emmi's arms from what turns out to be a burst stomach ulcer. The film then shows Emmi with Ali in the hospital, where a doctor tells her the illness is common among foreign workers because of the stress they face in everyday life; the doctor then adds that Ali will have surgery to remove the ulcer, but that he will probably be back in six months with another ulcer. Emmi declares that she will do everything in her power to prevent this and holds Ali's hand.


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