Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seelen Auf) is arguably Fassbinder's best-known film. The 1974 film follows the doomed May-December romance between Emmi, a widowed woman in her sixties, and Ali, a young Moroccan immigrant. As a loose remake of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul offers social commentary on gender, race, and class in postwar Western Germany.
The working-class Emmi Kurowski, played by Brigitte Mira, falls in love with Ali, played by El Hedi ben Salem. Ali is in Germany as part of the contentious postwar Gastarbeiter (Guest worker) program, which brought many immigrants to Germany. Many Germans opposed this program for economic reasons (it was perceived as taking jobs away from Germans) and social grounds (Many Germans were xenophobic). Emmi, who is a working-class cleaner with little education, is portrayed as authentically loving Ali, at least at the beginning of their relationship. Ali seems more pragmatic. Nevertheless, the two marry.
As a mixed-race, intergenerational couple, they experience discrimination in the community. After they return from an extended honeymoon, this improves somewhat, but Emmi notices distance in her other relationships. She finally begins to regard Ali as her friends do: As a sexualized “other” who is inherently inferior to ethnic Germans. Ali is too marginalized to confront her, and instead sleeps with a bartender. He ultimately experiences ageist insults about his marriage from his friends. The dynamic between them illustrates some major tensions in Germany: Emmi’s working-class friends feel threatened economically; her more bourgeois children are threatened by Ali’s ethnicity, and their relationship tensions reflect the power imbalance of immigrants in Germany. It also reflects how ingrained gender roles are, since Emmi is ostracized for her presumed sexual desire and for having more power in the relationship. Ali begins to feel threatened by his peers when his masculinity is questioned due to his status as a subordinate partner in the relationship.
Therefore, the film reflects social tensions in West Germany at the time, seeming to defy the norms and to sharply criticize attitudes towards foreigners and about marriage. Salem, Fassbinder’s real-life partner at the time of the film, is sexualized by the camera in a way that is relatively unusual for film and that marks an important chapter in GLBTQ filmmaking.
Stylistically, Fassbinder’s remake of All that Heaven Allows seems to comment on the genre of melodrama. Stylistic elements like cuts and blocking increase the emotional stakes, and reinforce the tragedy of the pair’s relationship. Although Fassbinder directed forty-four films in his short career, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of his best-known films. It was made during a period of his career when he focused on the melodrama genre. Considering that the entire film was shot in fifteen days, it is a remarkable achievement.