Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1974): Appearing almost exactly halfway through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s blistering forty-four title assault of a career — he died in 1982 at age 37 — this blunt yet forceful re-telling of Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows begins under a winter-black Munich night sky as an aging widowed cleaning woman named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) enters a seedy hangout for Arab workers and immigrants and falls almost instantly for the hulking yet gentle Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a shy, much-younger who asks Emmi to dance on dare thrown down by the blowsy barmaid (Barbara Valentin) he’s just rebuffed. The dance, which Fassbinder and DOP Jurgen Jurges shoot with typically isolating framing, is all that’s needed to seal a deal that will merely test the strength of the newly-sparked odd couple and the tolerance of the world they inhabit. Sirk’s movie pulled out all the Hollywood weepie stops to tell the story of a middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who falls for her Thoreau-reading gardener (Rock Hudson), striking a balance between almost deliriously over-stated studio artificiality and poison-tipped social critique. It was a stealth weapon dressed in tinsel, tears and Technicolor.

Fassbinder makes no attempt to disguise or justify his appropriation of Sirk. On the contrary, he embraces it at the same time as he stakes his own terrain. If you watch the moment where one of Emmi’s despicably intolerant grown children kicks in her TV screen at the news she’s married a black Muslim immigrant, what you’re seeing is Fassbinder’s call-and-response to the famous moment in Heaven where Wyman is given a TV by her despicably intolerant grown as form of electronic pacifier. Moreover, Fassbinder’s almost obsessive fascination with theatrical framing and multiply reflected images is Sirk’s style stripped and amped for blunter but no less potent effect. Fassbinder also walks a tightrope between flagrant non-naturalism — the earnestly stiff performances, the tightly (and multiply) framed compositions, the reduction of almost all peripheral characters to sneering, ugly-mugged, working-class stereotypes; the frequently nose-hammering bits of dialogue — and not-so-sly social critique, but in this instance the balance is deliberately destabilizing, constantly teasing our emotional affinity with this rather blandly oblivious couple — who seem almost comically unaware of just how volatile their attraction is — with a constant emphasis on the utter theatricality of what we’re watching. Fassbinder might never have fully abandoned or escaped his experience as a radical theatre writer, director and actor, but he never let that experience manifest itself in anything other than a paradoxically cinematic way. I have a feeling this was the kind of cinema Brecht himself imagined, a space where audiences might be genuinely moved and outraged by social and political conditions, but never treated as dupes requiring more sugar than medicine for the critique to take. In this hybrid theatrical-cinematic space — where certain New German Cinema contemporaries like Jean-Marie Straub and Jans-Jurgen Syberberg also worked — Fassbinder created a truly remarkable, singularly distinctive and unmistakably personal style. But if the magic in the method involved enlisting high melodramatic means to seal our investment in the otherwise arch theatricality of the drama, those melodramatic cues are themselves never simple, as is so pointedly demonstrated in the movie’s final third, when the married couple, having defied the will of nearly everyone by getting married, get on with their lives only to realize the external rot they’ve been battling against isn’t so external after all. Emmi, the self-avowed former Nazi party member (“Everyone was a member in those days,” she shrugs), starts to treat Ali as a kind of trained pet, and he starts to wonder if maybe he hasn’t been turned into working-class Munich’s version of King Kong. No one’s immune to racism, intolerance, poverty or judgement, and the final straw in this unlikeliest of alliances will come not from the outside but in, a reminder that all that claustrophobically tight framing isn’t just for show: in Fassbinder’s movies, the boxes we live in may appear as mirrors, windows, doorframes and disco lights illuminating a dance floor, but they might as well be made of concrete. Fear is a parasite. It eats the soul from the inside.  See also Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, another fascinating riff on Sirk’s Heaven that’s as fully aware of Fassbinder’s intervention as the original. (Criterion)

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