Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Fear Eats The Soul
I saw 2007 to the dregs with Fassbinder's Ali : Fear eats the soul and it was a very melancholic note to begin another day. Fassbinder occupies a distinct position in European cinema, and for those who have watched him perform in his movies and his interviews, his presence is a mix of intellectual fury and cinematic melancholy and symbolic shards are not his mien.
Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter in Germany, meets an middle aged woman Emmi in a bar. Out of pity and curiosity at her loneliness, he offers to dance with her which she accepts. Thus begins a friendship which quickly leads to love and marriage. However, Ali is not accepted by Emmi's grown up children and her neighbours. She is ridiculed and faces social ostracising, and in an attempt to escape this, the couple go on a holiday hoping that things will change. On returning back, things seem to change as Ali finds his old loneliness returning yet Emmi finds a positive change in her neighbours. Feeling like a showpiece when Emmi's friends see him at home, Ali returns to his old bar, gambles but eventually, their estranged marriage finds its way back home.
This movie is a unique one not just because of its theme or story but its treatment of those. It does not just mention things but cuts into the heart of things. We find two things at the outset.....a lonely guest worker and what he represents....a difficult low paid job in a hostile city, an immigration complex which feeds paranoia, a sense of not belonging to a new culture and a sense of duty towards the job at hand, to send money home. Ali is thus a lonely man and like other such people, he immediately senses the aura of desperate loneliness around Emmi. Emmi lives alone, her children are married, her husband is dead and she remembers belonging to the Nazi party, as every one did. She lives the life of lower class sensibility, which is at least less conformist than bourgeois affectation. For Ali's advances find her breaking her silence and isolation, for no one talks to her.
Thus both individuals are similar though different apparently. Ali is the foreigner, not so black but an outsider still while Emmi is now an outsider because she knows him and has married him. However, the bar owner, with whom Ali occasionally sleeps is not pointed at because that relation is covered with the film of respectable hypocrisy. Emmi senses Ali's isolation in a genuine effort of finding a person to love, to surmount her isolation. Maybe Emmi's love is not really so, only a response to her silence but then what is love? Emmi does not know how to make couscous and reminds Ali of adapting to life in Germany which estranges them temporarily till they rediscover their love. Thus both know their differences as well as their affinities for these reveal to themselves as they live them.
Fassbinder's unique success lies in allowing his characters and situations develop into significant questions, into the workings of psychology, the inner changing needs where hypocrisy and selfishness feed paranoia and racism. Fassbinder, unlike other European directors who have skirted with similar themes does not play or flirt with ideas but pores deep into raging fires. The product is a movie of intense humanity and angry underpinnings yet all balanced with the unique orange glows of the bar where Ali and Emmi meet. Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira is easily a winner, for she brings a deep humanity and a sense of expectation to her role. Ali, played by El hadi Ben Salem, Fassbinder's partner is equally well done. There is also a silent melancholy at work here, with the orange bar, the bar-owners spent, exhausted sultriness and the melancholic wails of an Arabic song setting the tone. Throughout the movie, one senses a precarious togetherness between Ali and Emmi, for they are under siege, surrounded by an urban pessimism, Ali's foreignness, Emmi's colour and age, social prejudice, inherent bias, desperate loves, and on their very lives hangs a sword, a German master Arab dog world as Ali sees it.
Think much, cry much, says Ali and that reflects the immigrant position, for he is resigned to be unhappy, for happiness is not always fun. Emmi understands that Ali is younger than him and is ready to allow indiscreet relations too. Ali's bar friends, Germans themselves, do not wince at Ali and Emmi as much as the others do, for they seem less shocked at this union. This position does look strange but shows a movement within the circles, a degree of Ali's acceptability. Recurrent stress ulcers, Emmi is reminded at a hospital where Ali is being treated, is the fate of guest workers, them. But Emmi is resolved that Ali will not suffer a similar fate. Fassbinder ends the movie on a positive note though his and the world in general is surrounded by darkness.
In Europe now, Arab immigrants in particular and immigrants generally are the outsiders, foreign, opposing established social and environmental European values. One can ask questions and like this one, in 1975, a critique of some mores can produce solutions. Without blaming anyone, one can see Europe approaching the earlier climate of antisemitism, which only some decades ago led to annihilation and war. This is not a paranoid assertion but recognition of a unique fear, which eats the soul.