This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
The first shots set up the theme: them against us. An older woman, dumpy and plain, walks into an unfamiliar bar and takes a seat at the table inside the door. The barmaid, an insolent blond in a low-cut dress, strolls over. The woman says she will have a Coke. At the bar, a group of customers turns to stare at her, and the camera exaggerates the distance between them. Back at the bar, the blond tauntingly dares one of her customers to ask the woman to dance. He does. And now the camera groups the man and woman together on the dingy dance floor, while the others stare.
“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974) tells the story of these two people. Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is about 60, a widow who works two shifts as a building cleaner, and whose children avoid her. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is about 40, a garage mechanic from Morocco, who lives in a room with five other Arabs and describes his life simply: “Always work, always drunk.” Ali is not even his real name; it’s a generic name for dark-skinned foreign workers in Germany.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder told their story in a brief film that he dashed off in 15 days in 1974, between the big-budget productions “Martha” and “Effi Briest.” He shot it on a shoestring. Mira was a little-known supporting player, and Salem, then Fassbinder’s lover, had played only bit parts. The story was inspired by “All That Heaven Allows,” the 1955 Douglas Sirk film starring Jane Wyman as an older woman who falls in love with her young gardener (Rock Hudson).
Fassbinder said he made the film just to fill the time between bigger pictures, but “Ali” may be the best of his 40 or so films; it certainly belongs on the short list with “The Marriage of Maria Braun” and “Merchant of the Four Seasons.”