I consider Ali: Fear Eats the Soul to be the masterpiece of the iconic German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In the movie, Fassbinder confronts the taboos of a conservative German society with a story of race, migration, class, and intergenerational love.
Ali (El Hadi ben Salem), a newly arrived Moroccan, handsome, dark, young, steps into a ballroom bar and meets a woman. The mise en scène is how one might imagine the remnants of the Weimar Republic, burlesque Berlin trappings now occupied by a lonely and poor working-class crowd. Ali notices a woman in her sixties, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), nursing a drink. He walks up and asks her to dance.
The sex scene is brief, with narrow awkward angles revealing the uneasiness on both sides, and yet the relationship evolves into a precarious mismatch that persists.
The hardship and angst manifest in Ali are expressed in the famous German title: Angst essen Seele auf, fear eats the soul, words that sound like the remains of a Stoic or Nietzschean maxim. Emmi, who works as a cleaner, is seduced by Ali’s beauty and youth; she is wise and realistic. The words of the title are her own, spoken to Ali when his life seems bleak. Later, when Ali’s sadness turns into a physical illness, Emmi’s words seem, again, to summarize Fassbinder’s solidarity with a classless society and his advocacy of sexual liberation rooted in love. These people, she says, come here and experience hardship, and then they die young.
However, this hardship does not end with this film or the death of Ali. The angst carries on, away from the screen and deep into another generation. Viola Shafik’s documentary My Name Is Not Ali shifts the paradigm as it focuses on the reality of El Hadi ben Salem’s life, notably through the lives of his two sons. During filming, the children were flown from Morocco to Germany by their father, without their mother’s consent and to her deep and lasting anguish.
Fassbinder and his entourage courted El Hadi ben Salem into an alcohol-fuelled existence, sexual escapades, and hard drugs, which led to Salem utterly abandoning his children. In a foreign land without any money, unable to speak German, the children went hungry. One of the boys was sent back home. The remaining son was dragged from one party to the next and subjected to neglect and finally isolation; these were the circumstances of his formative years. The consequences of that brutal displacement and neglect accompanied him all his life. Much like the character his father played, he lived, first-hand, the experience of a newcomer to this society, where desire for belonging is met with neglect and marginalization, and solitude is besieged by the noises of liberation, political idealism, and success.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is monumental, but all monuments hide the brutality of sweat, slavery, and exploitation. That is the untold story of this masterpiece: it is not an exception.
Rawi Hage is a writer. His most recent book is Beirut Hellfire Society. He lives in Montreal.