Ali (Salem), is a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker) in his late thirties, and Emmi (Mira), is a 60-year-old widowed cleaning woman. They meet when Emmi ducks inside a bar, driven by the rain and drawn by the exotic Arabic music (Al Asfouryeh by Sabah) she says she has heard so often on her walk home from work. A woman in the bar (Katharina Herberg) who is part of Ali's Arabic-speaking cohort tauntingly suggests Ali ask Emmi ("the old woman") to dance, and Emmi accepts. A strange and unlikely friendship develops, then a romance and soon they are living together in Emmi's flat. Out of a professed sense of responsibility but also hopefulness, Emmi first confides in her newfound love when she goes to visit her daughter Krista (Irm Hermann) and her tyrannical son-in-law Eugen (Fassbinder himself) and announces that she is in love with Ali; Eugen thinks she is screwy and Krista as well can only think that her mother - who has been a widow for years - is fantasizing.
The first real threat to their relationship comes with a visit by the landlord's son, who has been sent on the assumption that Emmi has taken in a lodger to point out to her that sub-letting is against Emmi's tenancy agreement, and that Ali must leave within a day. Impulsively, and fearful of losing this new joy in her life, Emmi claims that she and Ali are planning to marry to alleviate this little difficulty. This changes everything for the landlord's son, the only character in the film who consistently accepts their relationship as unproblematic. After he has apologized for the misapprehension and departed, Emmi speaks to Ali with embarrassment of her having invented the idea of their marrying but, to her surprise and delight, Ali concurs that it is an excellent idea, and we next see them emerging from the civil court, married.
What follows is a bitter and noxious reaction over their relationship, revealing every character in their lives, especially every German in Emmi's former life, as being mired in prejudice against foreign workers as dirty and now castigating Emmi as a "whore." Gossipy neighbors and shop vendors treat them with contempt, fellow tenants complaining that their (already noticeably dilapidated) tenement building has now become filthy. Emmi is shunned by her coworkers, and Ali faces discrimination at every turn. When Emmi, whose first husband was a Polish worker whom she married against her Hitler-loving father's wishes, invites her three grown children and son-in-law to meet her husband, they openly reject him. One of her sons smashes in her TV set in anger, her other son declares she must have lost her sanity, and her daughter and son-in-law follow them in making a rude and hasty exit, Emmi's daughter now calling her mother's apartment a "pigsty" and her mother a "whore."
Emmi's tearful despair at this ultimate rejection washes away as her bright optimist resurfaces and concludes that she and Ali should take a long vacation together to escape the discrimination, convinced that upon return, they will have been missed and will be welcomed back. After their return, they suddenly face the prospect of social acceptance but, as we quickly see, only because neighboring tenants and shopkeepers see the utility for them in keeping Emmi in their good graces, not because they have changed their prejudices, thus we witness them hypocritically masking the latter out of self-interest.
Out of longing to hang on to this resumption of her old friends' apparent renewed respect, Emmi begins to neglect Ali or to adopt some of their attitudes toward him. She becomes very "German" - more readily ordering him to do things. When co-workers visit and remark on how surprisingly clean he is and comment on his muscles, she shows him off as if he were an object. This is the trigger for Ali to exit, with our sympathy as viewers, and to seek comfort in the arms of the female bartender Barbara (Barbara Valentin), with whom he has apparently had dalliances prior to meeting Emmi. When he leaves Emmi to her friends, she attributes it to his "mood swings," and notes that it must be his "foreigner mentality", adopting the xenophobic attitudes of her friends in order to fit in. Some days later, Emmi would not cook Ali couscous or go out with him to eat couscous somewhere either, symbolizing her re-Germanification and her own new wall built up against the sensitivity to foreigners she displayed at the outset, she insists she wants him to eat German food, and generally become more German so they would fit in. We see Ali not stand up to Emmi because of the insecurities he faces as a hybrid. He has accepted the German society's mentality that he is the "lesser" man. He then turns back to the bartender, who used to cook for him, and spends the night with her. Emmi grows desperate at his being out all night and visits him at work, where he pretends he doesn't know her as his workmates make fun of her age, calling her Ali's "Moroccan grandmother."
Just when it seems as if the relationship is beyond repair, Emmi goes back to the bar to meet with Ali and has the bartender put the same song on the jukebox that led to their first-ever dance. He responds to the implicit call for reconciliation from Emmi and asks her to dance again. While dancing, Emmi emphasizes that she knows she is old and that he is free to come and go, but urges him to see that the only thing that’s important is that when they are together, they must be nice to each other. He agrees and they declare their love for each other. In this moment, Ali collapses in Emmi's arms from what turns out to be a burst stomach ulcer. We last see Emmi with Ali in the hospital, where the doctor tells her the illness is common among foreign workers because of the stress they face in everyday life; the doctor adds that Ali will have surgery to remove the ulcer, but will probably be back in 6 months with another ulcer. Emmi declares that she will do everything in her power to prevent this and, as the film ends, she is at his bedside, holding Ali's hand.Brigitte Mira - Emmi Kurowski
El Hedi ben Salem - Ali
Barbara Valentin - Barbara
Irm Hermann - Krista
Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Eugen
Karl Scheydt - Albert Kurowski
Marquard Bohm - Gruber
Walter Sedlmayr - Angermayer
Doris Mattes - Mrs. Angermeyer (as Doris Mathes)
Lilo Pempeit - Mrs. Münchmeyer
Gusti Kreissl - Paula
Margit Symo - Hedwig
Elisabeth Bertram - Frieda
Helga Ballhaus - Yolanda
Elma Karlowa - Mrs. Kargus
Anita Bucher - Mrs. Ellis
Katharina Herberg - Woman in Bar
The film was shot in just under two weeks, and was planned as an exercise in film-making for Fassbinder, to fill in the time in his schedule between the work on two other films, Martha and Effi Briest.
Ali is played by El Hedi ben Salem, who was Fassbinder's partner at the time. Barbara is played by Austrian actress Barbara Valentin, who was in the 1980s a partner of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen. Fassbinder himself has a cameo appearance as Emmi's son in law. Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira, shares some life experience with the actress's own life, Mira's father having been a Russian Jewish immigrant, whose heritage the actress had hidden in order to survive Nazism and in fact had collaborated by acting in Nazi propaganda films for a time. Emmi's daughter, Kristin, played by Irm Hermann), had herself a turbulent relationship with Fassbinder in real life, having been quoted as saying of Fassbinder, "He couldn't conceive of my refusing him, and he tried everything. He almost beat me to death on the streets of Bochum ....". And Fassbinder himself grew up under some of the domestic effects of immigrant prejudice, given that his mother immigrated back to Germany from Poland after the Soviet Occupation and Fassbinder grew up in a turbulent and eventually divorcing household where immigrating relatives stayed with them. Thus the production set was rife with the themes of the film having played out in the personal histories of the actors and director.
The original German title Angst essen Seele auf is deliberately grammatically incorrect, translating literally as "Fear eat soul up." The correct German form would be "Angst isst die Seele auf" - which (without the definite article "die") became the title of a related 2002 short film also starring Mira. The title is one of the title character's lines. As an immigrant, he speaks in what can be referred to as "broken German" consistently throughout the film. The line of dialogue he utters is simply "Fear eat soul up." Since Ali's poor German grammar is translated literally in the film's English subtitles, the subtitles for Ali's dialogue are similarly riddled with grammatical errors ("You no make couscous?").
Ali is in part an homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, in particular Imitation of Life (1959) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). The most overt homage is the scene in which Emmi's son kicks in the television (an important symbol in All That Heaven Allows) after finding out that his mother has married a north African.
Fassbinder drew controversy in Western Germany for numerous reasons. Firstly, he was considered a politically radical person for having sympathized with anarchist, instead of capitalist, societies. Second, even though he was twice-married and had affairs with women, Fassbinder was openly gay. He featured one of his lovers, El Hedi ben Salem, as the star of Ali — Angst essen Seele auf. On top of his political stance and homosexuality, Fassbinder openly criticized German racism by having foreign men as lovers and was just as open about his drug use.
Stephen Brockmann wrote “Fassbinder was also by all accounts an extremely difficult man to live and work with — something of a tyrant to those around him, as he also openly depicted himself in Deutschland im Herbst, shouting and humiliating persons around him”. One can also see him behaving as such in the movie Ali: Fear Eats Soul. Looking at Fassbinder’s films though, it slowly becomes transparent how his background played an influence. Critics have commented on the remarkable aesthetics, political radicality, and the romantic and erotic human relationships in every one of his movies. In Ali — Angst essen Seele auf, we have two lovers from polar opposite backgrounds: an Arab immigrant and an elderly German female. The erotic nature of their marriage challenges Emmi’s children, neighbors, and co-workers as their oppression is then aimed towards the couple. We, as the audience, are then left to rebuke/justify the German racism of Fassbinder’s concern through this story. In addition, his works have always involved romantic relationships that experience a “nexus with power.” Fassbinder considered love to be an effective form of social oppression, and it seems that in his love relationships that “the more one of Fassbinder’s characters loves another, the less power he or she has; the more one of Fassbinder’s characters is loved by another character, the more power he or she has.”
The audience first witnesses their struggles once they’ve become “accepted” upon their return from vacation in Steinsee. Fassbinder shows us that when Emmi has power over Ali being a German in Germany, he is still younger and more sexually powerful— which he uses to resume his affair with the bar owner.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has been released as a region 1 DVD with English subtitles.