‘Since Ali’s poor German grammar is translated literally in the film’s English subtitles, the subtitles for Ali’s dialogue are riddled with grammatical errors (“You no make cous-cous?”).’
‘If [art] is to be useful, it has to give hope, but if it is to be realistic, it has to cause despair. Despair is built into the subject.’ (Galway Kinnell)
James Baldwin wrote that a gesture—a hand outstretched but never met in recognition—can blow up a town. Imagining the response of a powdery-faced white woman at a Tallahassee airport to his held-out hand, Baldwin conjured the ‘Southern cabala’:
[I]f I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.
In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), those pooled gestures of hatred (the unwillingness to recognize an other) quite literally eat away Ali’s innards.
Ali is a Moroccan immigrant and guest worker (Gastarbeiter) at an auto plant in mid-1970s Germany. (In real life, El Hedi ben Salem was Fassbinder’s lover, despite maintaining a wife and two children in Morocco, and eventually committed suicide in jail toward the end of a highly tumultuous relationship with the director.) One stormy night Emmi (Birgitte Mira), a matronly widow many years Ali’s senior, steps into the bar near her house seeking shelter from a downpour. Ali’s friends prod him to ask the older woman to dance—whether this is a ruse or not isn’t clear—but to their dismay Ali seems to actually enjoy Emmi’s company. Theirs is an unshakeable mutual recognition of loneliness and auto-despair. Emmie’s husband has died and her children all live their own lives without much fanfare about their mother’s well-being (to Ali’s horror), and she cleans homes because she never learned a trade or skill. Ali longs for his homeland, albeit his expressions of nostalgia in broken German are limited to craving couscous, which is given a maternal and even sensual significance as the film unfolds. Morocco may be home, but Germany is the country of jobs.
In his essay ‘I Know You Are, But What Am I?’ Sartre wrote that ‘hell is not merely other comprised of “other people,” but more specifically next-door neighbors and family members.’* Soon after their first encounter, 60-something Emmi and 30-something Ali marry, to the sheer disdain and mockery of their neighbors and friends. Upper lips snarl in disgust, Emmie’s friends ostracize her, and Ali’s friends laugh uproariously about his new ‘grandmother.’
The owner of the goods store where Emmi has shopped for decades refuses to serve Ali, whose German he pretends not to understand. Emmi quits buying things at his store, and it’s only later that he realizes that not covering up racial hatreds is bad for the business.
Emmi’s neighbors refuse Ali’s hand. But it isn’t before long that they realize they need Emmi (for her business, for her extra storage space at the apartment, etc.) and before long they have a (superficial) change of heart.
This time Emmi is filmed standing in the foreground of neighbors, in opposition to Ali. She instructs him to say hello, despite the brewing cold war. Their horror and fear of Ali subsided, the female neighbors ooh and ahh over his muscular physique, speaking about him as if he isn’t in the room. They still haven’t offered a handshake, but they press Ali’s forearms and barely contain their sexual excitement.
On the surface it begins to appear that tensions have cooled. But instead of this small West German town blowing up as Baldwin predicted, Ali winds up collapsing on the floor of the bar room where he met Emmi. Doctors at the hospital don’t flinch when they tell her that Ali’s body is full of ulcers, much like the rest of their patients. ‘He’ll be back here in six months.’
* Quoted in Meredith, Michael, ‘For the Absurd.,’ Log (Spring/Summer 2011), 15.
(All screen grabs taken by South/South.)