Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

By Markus Heide

The director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82) shaped 1970s German cinema like very few others. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Ali: Angst essen Seele auf) stands out as a particularly significant contribution to New German Cinema because of its minimalistic cinematography, the acting that references the Brechtian alienation effect, and the focus on highly relevant social controversies in post-war West German society. However, unlike most auteur cinema of the time, Fassbinder employs a melodramatic emotional guidance of the audience through shifts in camera perspective and dialogue. The romance between a Moroccan “guest worker” and an elderly German cleaner was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s that Fassbinder became interested in in his later period of filmmaking (Reimer 1996). Fear Eats the Soul, in certain ways, is a remake of Sirk´s All That Heaven Allows (1955) that tells the love story of a wealthy widow and her significantly younger gardener in a New England small town. The social environment of the well-respected family strongly objects to the marriage across class boundaries. However, Fassbinder’s melodrama reshapes the plot by adding racialized and national difference as central issues that make the relationship controversial. Moreover, he uses German society as a setting, a society that is shown to be still struggling with the history of its Nazi-past while at the same time having to come to terms with the presence of migrant workers and racist anti-Arab sentiment, which intensified after the PLO-linked attack on the Israeli team at the Munich summer Olympics in 1972 (which the film refers to a few times). Even decades later the complex filmic treatment of anti-migration sentiments, anti-Arab prejudices, and racism still seems to be highly relevant as a critical analysis of not only German but European societies that currently face new populist nationalism and anti-refugee politics. Fear Eats the Soul can be read as a symbolic treatise on mechanisms of social control and exclusion and on the destructive power of ideologies defending community cohesion and notions of purity in modern societies. The metaphorics of the guest and the host mold this disillusioning and painful love story.




The 60-year-old German cleaner Emmi (Brigitte Mira) meets the Moroccan guest worker Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) in a tavern. Ali is more than 20 years Emmi’s junior. Emmi lives withdrawn as an aged widow, while Ali suffers from the isolation of migrant workers (so-called “guest workers”) in 1970s West Germany. The loneliness of both brings them together, and, despite experiencing growing social pressure, they decide to get married. Emmi is shunned by neighbors, insulted by her work colleagues as a whore, rejected by her children, and banned by the neighborhood grocer whom she has known for many years. Meanwhile, Ali experiences incomprehension and ridicule for the marriage with an elderly woman. As a way to temporarily escape this pressure, the couple goes on a vacation. After their return, their social environment seems to accept the unusual bonding. But what superficially seems to be progress, is actually triggered by the individuals’ and communities’ self-interest and new forms of discrimination: Now the elderly neighbors see the advantage of Ali’s physical strength, the colleagues of the cleaning crew re-adopt Emmi back into their circle, and Emmi’s son apologizes. Emmi’s cleaning crew members spot a new object of discrimination and exclusion when a woman from Yugoslavia joins them. Emmi is no longer the scapegoat. As the social pressure on Emmi and Ali is dwindling and both return to their previous circles, the bonding and commitment between the two begin to crumble. For Emmi, Ali is no longer an emotional counterpart solely devoted to their partnership, but he – as a worker in the house, as a fascinating stranger and as sexualized attraction – turns into an object that others make use of, that others find exotic and attractive. Eventually Ali has an affair with his former lover Barbara. In the end, the relationship becomes saturated with differences and conflicts between the genders, between the old and the young, between the native and the foreigner. The couple meets again in the pub where they first spotted each other. When the couple dances, Ali breaks down and is taken to a hospital. A doctor diagnoses a burst ulcer. It is left open how the couple will proceed.


The Other and the “Act of Looking”


Fassbinder’s immigrant drama employs the imagery of hospitality in a complex way as it renders the immigration topics of cultural contact and social integration in the form of a love story. Welcoming, accepting, embracing the Other are reflected on the level of society as well as on the most private level, sexual practice and marriage. The mise-en-scène creates spaces that signal limitedness and control. A temporal escape from ostracizing and hostility becomes only possible for the lovers in their private space. In the end, however, even the private space, as a hopescape of the ostracized, loses its optimistic and subversive quality when internal conflicts and altered relations to the outside world dissolve the unity.


The first images, accompanied by Arab music, show Emmi opening a door and entering a pub. She faces an almost empty room. At the end of the bar a group of young men and women stares at the elderly lady who is clearly “established as an outsider” (Mayne 1977, 62). Emmi sits down at a table distanced from the group. She tells the waitress that she came in as it is raining and that she has passed by often and wondered about the foreign music. She asks what kind of music it is. The waitress responds: “Arab. They want to listen to music from their home.” Emmi thinks, looks at the Arab men, and comments in a friendly way: “Naturally, of course.” With this first dialogue, Fassbinder’s film introduces cultural contact, prejudice, and curiosity as topics. The following scenes deepen these topics and add new dimensions of migration history, gender relations, and racism. One of the German women picks a traditional popular song from the 1950s. As the jukebox starts playing “Du schwarzer Zigeuner” (“Play a Song for Me, You Black Gypsy”) she prompts Ali, as a joke, to dance with the “old woman.” Emmi accepts and the couple dances while the others stare silently. He tells her that Ali is not his real name, but that Germans call him by this name, “German is master, Arab dog.” The pub emerges as an exceptional place of interaction, where the Arab migrant workers are not perceived as threatening and where they come in contact with German women on a friendly and even sexual level. Once Ali – and the camera – leaves the pub, the German characters react with open dislike to Ali’s presence. The camera angle switches to the subjective perspective of those characters – turning them into diegetic viewers reproducing the spectator’s gaze –, staring disapprovingly at Ali and at the unequal couple. The spectator’s attention is drawn to the “act of looking” (Mayne 1977, 62) – which may be read as a critique of ideological domination. Emmi’s vicious neighbor is introduced with a camera shot that gazes at Ali who returns the gaze with a frozen face. Once the couple is out of sight, the neighbor quickly informs another neighbor that “Kurowski (Emmi’s surname) brought a foreigner into the house, a black man!” The couple, as well as the camera (and by implication, the spectator), move in a world controlled by racism, prejudices, and anxieties.


Guest/Host: The Repressive Function of Communities


After dancing in the pub, Ali offers to accompany Emmi home. As it continues raining, she invites him to her flat. Despite the age difference and Ali’s limited German, they quickly develop an extraordinary familiarity and understanding for each other. She tells him of her work as a cleaning lady and of her life during World War II when her family were members of the Nazi party, of her deceased husband who came to Germany as a Polish forced laborer during the war, and of her parents’ opposition to marrying a Pole after the war. Ali speaks of his family in Morocco, the life in Germany, the cramped living conditions in his room, which he shares with other migrant laborers. Once she heard how he is accommodated, Emmi offers her spare bed and insists that he should stay for the night as she considers his housing conditions unbearable. He accepts the offer. Ali, however, stays awake in the guest room, apparently thinking about his new acquaintance. He gets up and comes to Emmi’s bedroom to continue to chat. Finally, the two sleep with each other. The next morning the closeness between them continues, and Emmi is so overwhelmed that she begins to cry. In this situation, one of the emotionally intense dialogues of the film unfolds in the otherwise – intentionally – distanced and stiff method of acting. From this exchange between the new partners, the title of the film stems:

Ali: “Please do not cry. Yes? Why cry?”

Emmi: “Because I’m so happy and because I’m so scared.”

Ali: “Fear, is not good. Fear eat soul up.”

The scene establishes the metaphorics of guest and host in Fassbinder’s immigrant drama. Emmi, the host, offers her home and does everything to please her guest; Ali, the guest, accepts her living conditions and rules, adapts to her lifestyle, and works hard to speak the host’s language (Derrida 2000). Being hospitable, Emmi steps in for the failures of the host society. Her hospitality compensates for the coldness, the exclusion, the ignorance of the society that profits from Ali’s labor while treating him like a “dog” as he puts it in the first scene. The triangular relationship between private host, host society and guest structures the narrative and its complications. Fear Eats the Soul is a filmic reflection on group formation and the often repressive function of communities in society, as Ruediger Graf (2009) so eloquently analyses in his influential essay on Ferdinand Tönnies’ notions of community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft) in Fear Eats the Soul.


Emmi’s fit of weeping in the scene described above is caused by her contradictory feelings: happiness and fear. She becomes aware of the fact that the communities she interacts with consider her action as transgressive: She danced publicly with a “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker), she admitted a person of color to her home, and she had sex with an African. What scares her is the awareness that her private space has turned into a refuge not only for her guest and lover but also for herself. Her home is transformed into a refuge that protects from hostilities provoked, first, because she is regarded as having stepped out of her “German” communities (communities of neighbors, of family, of colleagues) and, second, because he is neither accepted in Emmi’s German communities nor by his community of Arab friends and young German women at the bar, who do not support his bonding with a woman senior in age. Following the scenes of the ‘first encounter’ in the bar and the inception of the love affair in Emmi’s flat, the film concentrates on depicting how these communities regard her as a traitor, a threat, an immoral transgressor, a perception that sets in once Ali – literally – steps over the threshold of her home.


Private Space as Refuge


While in the first scenes – when the couple still gets to know each other – the private space functions as a playground entirely under their control; subsequently the outside world successively enters the space and eventually destroys the private hopescape of the interracial bonding between elderly woman and young man. The first step in this transformation is the idea to marry. One day the landlord visits and informs Emmi that her lodger has to leave the place as her lease does not allow subletting. The thought of losing her guest/lover terrifies Emmi and she tells the landlord impulsively that Ali is not a lodger but her future husband as they are going to marry soon. Thus, marriage comes up from an emergency lie in order to save the shared private space. The landlord accepts and leaves the couple in their refuge planning their wedding – a form of official, state-legitimized bonding that appears as a way of rescuing their private hopescape. However, when newly-wed Emmi invites her children – her closest and most intimate community – in order to introduce her new legal status and her husband, the hostility of the outside world, prejudices, racism and sexism enter the room violently. When Ali appears in the living room the three children and their partners stare in silence at Ali, with vacant expression, as if in a state of shock. Then one of the sons gets up, kicks the TV set, smashing the screen angrily. The group leaves the flat immediately after insulting their mother as a disgrace and a whore.


Ostracized by their communities of family, colleagues, and neighbors, the couple is shown concentrating on creating and imagining their life in harmony. As Ali transforms from guest to partner and Emmi from host to partner, they form their own micro-community as a counter community to the outside world. Emmi proudly keeps track of their monthly earnings and dreamily remarks, “Some day we might buy a piece of heaven just for the two of us,” picturing their hopescape that, in reality, remains limited to the fragile boundaries of their flat. When a group of waiters stares at the couple and refuses to serve them, Emmi breaks down publicly, declaring that she cannot take the hostility anymore. She shouts at the group, angry and desperate. This breakdown produces the plan to go on vacation, “where nobody stares at us.” Here Emmi introduces, next to their flat and their “piece of heaven,” another hopescape, where the two might live undisturbed by hostility and social opposition.


When they return from their vacation, the outside world enters and reshapes their private space even more intensely. Now, however, this occurs in form of friendly maneuvers. Some of the former communities of Emmi and Ali make efforts at re-integration. Each community is driven by economic considerations: Her son visits the flat in order to ask whether Emmi may take care of their children; the neighbors need storage space for their son’s furniture as his employer sends him to Norway; the grocer wants to regain customers; her fellow cleaners need Emmi to support their claim for a pay rise; Ali’s Arab speaking friends visit the flat as it is less expensive to drink there than in the pub. The sudden acceptance of the couple by these communities affects the dynamics within the private space. For example, when her colleagues visit their flat, Emmi asks Ali to show off his muscles, wherby the women admiringly touch his arms. Thus, activities that have so far only taken place in the private space between the two, are shared with the community of women. Through Emmi’s perspective, the camera sexualizes Ali’s body when Emmi – and the spectator – watches him in the mirror image while he is naked in the shower. At this point not only Emmi’s fellow cleaning ladies but the spectator as well partake in the couple’s intimacies. The opening of the private space, their refuge, also affects Ali’s activities. When he longs for cous-cous – that Emmi refuses to prepare – he visits his former lover, Barbara, the pub owner, who used to serve him cous-cous dishes. They then revive their sexual relationship.


Community Pressure, Internal Conflict, and the Disintegration of the Private Hopescape


The final disintegration of the private space in Fear Eats the Soul – which is at the same time the falling apart of the refuge that protected the couple and kept them together in their hopescape –, is perfectly visualized when one night, Ali does not come home. In the scene we see Emmi rushing to the door in the morning when she hears a noise that makes her think that her husband is returning. However, it turns out that it is only the landlord on the staircase. Emmi is devastated and instantly breaks into tears while standing on the threshold of her apartment, leaning against the doorframe while the landlord watches her from the staircase. The imagery of this scene emphasizes that the boundaries between inside and outside, between private and public, between hospitality and hostility have vanished. The flat opens to the outside. Emmi and Ali’s refuge opens to a society in which different communities struggle against each other. The hopescape that the flat provided, dissolves. Following Emmi’s breakdown at the threshold, all encounters between Emmi and Ali take place outside the flat.


In search of her husband Emmi shows up at the auto repair shop where Ali works. The workplace is introduced stage-like with a static camera. Before Emmi shows up, the spectator faces a group of four males, one of them telling jokes while they work on a car. It is the first – and only time – in the film that we see Ali among his colleagues. Emmi enters the garage and asks Ali why he did not come home. One of his fellow mechanics jokes: “Ali, who is this? Is it your grandmother from Morocco?” He repeats the joke once more and the men – except Ali – laugh out loud while Emmi and the spectator wait for Ali to respond and to clarify. However, he remains silent. Here, as a member of his male community of workers, he rejects Emmi – structurally similar to the communities of neighbors, family, and colleagues earlier in the film. He watches the elderly woman leaving the garage and walking into the street alone.


The Hospital as Hopescape


The next scene shows Ali in the pub, drinking and gambling with some of his colleagues. As he runs out of money, he goes back to get more hidden in Emmi’s flat – money that the couple saved, as Emmi put it: “to buy a piece of heaven for both of us”. Emmi enters the pub and they dance to the same tune (“Black Gypsy”) as in the first scene of the movie. She explains that she doesn’t care whether he sleeps with younger women but that she would like to get him back living with her in the flat. Suddenly, Ali collapses on the floor and Emmi calls for an ambulance. The following, final scene is set in a hospital. We see Ali in a sick-bed, unconscious, with Emmi standing next to a doctor, both looking at the patient. The setting of this final scene provides a rupture in, and a resolution to, the spatial politics of the film that juxtaposed hostile public space to the private space of hospitality. For the first time in Fear Eats the Soul – from this perspective, suggesting a conclusion – the main characters are shown in a public space where hosts care for the guests. In contrast to most of the characters of Fear Eats the Soul the doctor does not speak in the voice of a community (of Germans, or of men, or of blood, or of family ties) but employs the perspective of civil society, giving individual needs more importance than community ties. The hospital and the doctor, as hosts, aim at helping and curing the individual, who is cared for independently of place of origin, racialized characteristics, gender, religion, or age. From such a perspective, the hospital replaces the couple’s private refuge, the hopescape that the flat provided for the interracial couple. The spatial imagery implies a happy ending to the love story – like in Sirk’s melodrama where the doctor encourages the female protagonist to ignore the social pressure and where the couple similarly reunites at the sick-bed in the final scene (Reimer 1996). In Fassbinder’s more complex happy ending civil society (Gesellschaft) – that favors individual wants and needs – replaces community (Gemeinschaft) – that approaches the world in terms of social association. However, Fassbinder’s melodrama suggests an ambivalent commentary on the conflicts his protagonists have gone through. After all, the doctor’s diagnosis, although speaking in a caring and hospitable tone to Emmi, at the same time introduces a tragic component. He explains that ulcers are very common among migrant workers and predicts that the ulcer will come back, “usually within six months,” due to the living conditions and “the very special kind of stress they have.” He adds: “It is quite hopeless.” His diagnosis –also the final spoken words of the film – articulates critique of the treatment of migrant workers in society and a sceptical perspective on society’s willingness and capacity for integration. The ending, set in an institution of civil society, implies that thinking and acting in terms of communities of association (Gemeinschaft) – such as the spectator witnesses all through the film – will continue to exclude certain groups of people and will continue to produce outsiders in society. Suggesting that there is no happy ending in sight, the doctor’s and the film’s last words are: “Auf Wiedersehen” (literally: See you again).


The situation of migrant workers and their descendants in German society has changed dramatically since the West Germany of 1974 – with second and third generation migrants taking part in most spheres of civil society, politics and the media. However, more than 45 years after its premiere, Fear Eats the Soul still provides a complex and very useful cinematic exploration of the mechanisms of anti-migration sentiments, anti-Arab prejudices, and racism. By means of its masterful avant-garde cinematography that makes camera perspective – the “act of looking” (Mayne 1977) – one of its major topics (and in this sense reflects on what Laura Mulvey (1999) has famously termed the “male gaze” of Hollywood cinema), gendered and particularly racialized relations between individuals and groups of people are staged in a way that is still highly relevant as a critical analysis of our contemporary European societies. This is particularly so, as contemporary Europe faces new populist nationalism and anti-refugee politics that aggravate the situation for those parts of civil society that work on providing space for hospitality, as well as for those who seek refuge in European societies.




Derrida, Jacques and Anne Dufourmantelle (2000), Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mayne, Judith (1977), “Fassbinder and Spectatorship,” New German Critique, 12:3, 61-74.

Mulvey, Laura (1999), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 833-44.

Reimer, Robert C. (1996), “Comparison of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and R. W. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; Or, How Hollywood’s New England Dropouts Became German’s Marginalized Other,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 24:3, 281-287.

Rüdiger Graf (2009). “’das hinterhältigste und wirksamste Instrument gesellschaftlicher Unterdrückung’: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft in Rainer Werner Fassbinders Angst essen Seele auf,” Die Kunst der Geschichte: Historiographie, Ästhetik, Erzählung. Eds. Martin Baumeister, Moritz Föllmer, Philipp Müller. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 373–392.