November 4, 1974 [Ali: Fear Eats the Soul/Angst essen Seele auf]

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul took me by surprise: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was extravagant--almost decorative in its excesses--not a lot of fun, but fascinating, like a sculpture made from sharp objects still moving. But here he remakes All That Heaven Allows--and as fraught with peril as Douglas Sirk’s movie is, it still had Technicolor and Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman to soften the blows.

Fassbinder replaces Rock's silky, manly gardener with a stolidly anxious Moroccan, pot-bellied and unblinking--but also sort of a catch, muscled and affectionate. And Jane Wyman's eager-for-love, well-to-do suburbanite becomes a puffy cleaning woman, Emmi, yes as sweet and lost as Wyman, but also blotchy and stiff. And what happens when I accept their love as much as I accept their blocky, assertive normality? The movie invites me to see them more clearly, and the fear that runs beneath.

More re-imaginings follow: Wyman's upper-crust coterie becomes Emmi's fellow charwomen--but still they keep their noses upturned and move from Emmi as swiftly and surely as Jane Wyman's cocktail set. And then there’s the almost-comic rejection of the marriage by Emmi's children. In the Sirk movie, they stiffen and sniff, petulant and final. Emmi's children, though, gape at Ali as though he had two heads--or horns?--and then, remarkably re-inventing All that Heaven Allows's Merry-Christmas scene, the TV replacing Rock (Wyman’s stricken face reflected in its blank gaze, like the wife in The Fly confronting her new husband), the son deliberately kicks in Emmi's TV set--only to later bring her a new one, as part of a sequence that goes beyond Sirk into a more sober view of the weight of conformity and the mercenary heart of prejudice.

Just as things between Emmi and everyone else--including Ali himself--are at their worst, her enemies realize they need her--as a customer, as a workplace support, as a babysitter; and, in the case of Ali, as an all-purpose strongman, cleaning out storage areas and so on; and the couple falls into favor with the world--just as they feel a rift between each other, widened by race. Everyone around Ali either disregards or even openly insults his humanity. He is driven to plodding adultery--abetted in part by Emmi herself, who also begins to allow the world's prejudices to seep in. She makes minor but telling comments about his "foreignness," and, in a quietly painful scene, even invites her friends to feel his muscles, as though he were a particularly appealing pack animal.

Ali collapses--like Rock Hudson's sudden tumble down the mountain--from stress: ulcers as the pain of racism simultaneously made physical and internalized, literally eating at him. The film ends like Sirk's, with Emmi standing over her man, determined to help him--but fearful the pain will not go away. And the movie respectfully steps aside so that we can taste the fear that draws them apart, the pain bright and sharp, the room quiet.


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