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Salam, Fassbinder!

August 18, 2011

‘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.

For more than half of the film Emmi withstands the pressure cooker-levels of tension rising up around her, even as she grieves her friendless state. She clasps Ali’s hands.

Her children, however, are horrified by their mother’s announcement that she has remarried, and beyond that, to a brown-skinned foreigner nearly 30 years her junior.

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.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2012 15:21

    mmg, this is a difficult, WEST german film. Fassbinder was extremely politically aware in this film, and what’s not on the screen, RAF [red army faction] soaks the narrative. I’ve only seen this film once, what i remember, there was no acting [in a stylized manner], it was real, she was a putz frau, he was an immigrant. love was a thread, broken, in a germany, that was also broken.

  2. South/South permalink*
    January 14, 2012 09:56

    That’s exactly what I wrote: a West German town.

    The film is highly political but not for the reasons you give, e.g. the absent presence of army forces. The Kinnell quote at the beginning of this post alluded to why I find its politics so searing: ‘acting’ or not (and certainly they are actors) the despair produced by Ali’s fate is so deep that I’d argue we can’t experience it as anything other than real.

    One of the most profound stylistic choices Fassbinder makes is the trope of eating, from the value of making/eating cous-cous, to the cannibalism of racism, to the disease that eventually eats away at Ali (all three tenuously related, I think). To be clear, these tracings of domestic social wars are highly valuable to me above and beyond whether or not an army faction appears.

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