“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” – Andrew Guarini

Lars von Trier once said in Trier on von Trier that he felt hurt when people thought things where merely coincidental within his films. He claimed that, “Every image has a thought”. What he really refers to here is the mise-en-scene, or a visual representation of unspoken aspects of the narrative. Certain films have forgotten about this crucial aspect and tend to let other elements of post production or technology dominate what meanings we can create with incredibly simple things such as props, costumes or makeup.


Perhaps this is why Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is such a subtle masterpiece. This is a film built upon repressed inquiries, burrowed longing, blank stares, loving assumptions and a myriad of other complications between people. Without a competent mise-en-scene construction this film would not be nearly as successful as it is at conveying the struggle in the relationship between the younger, foreign Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), and the older, lonely Emmi (Brigitte Mira) who throughout attempt to have their love survive despite prejudice of both strangers and close family. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,the mise-en-scene operates not to take away from the other pieces but to mend them into a more significant whole.


The cinematography throughout the film remains primarily static, rarely tracking or panning or tilting, but rather sitting and observing. The reason mise-en-scene plays into this is because it gives us more time to admire the still image in the motion picture: take in the details, and the composition of the scene as a whole. In the scenes where Ali participates in an affair with the seductive, blonde bartender, we are given long shots of Ali sitting on the bed looking down, centered within the doorframe. We take extended time in admiring the way the set is put together and how the different elements of the mise-en-scene interact with the direction of the scene, or even more importantly, the acting. Ali gazes subdued, leading us to deeper analysis on the sequence: is he aware of what is doing but feels indifferent, or is he doing it because the racism towards his race that they are “sex-driven” is true, and he can’t help himself? The doorframe hanging over him for the enormity of the situation drives him to be dumbfounded.


This is a way in which Fassbinder creates props, which is in effect short for property. Another example is in a shot that Fassbinder’s uses for parallelism. At one point the co-workers of Emmi are obviously ignoring her out their hate and intolerance at her new husband. The camera tracks the co-workers as they drift towards another windowsill away from her. The camera comes back to Emmi who is somber, looking down at the steps behind a set of staircase bars that in this scene function as symbolism for her imprisonment in social situations stemming from her new relationship. The shot is repeated towards the end when one of the other co-workers is accused of stealing. In this instance the environment becomes more than an object, it becomes a character, a marker of oppression and a subtle hint of the effects of being forcefully isolated. Even the stern faces and vocal tones serve to help the characters in Ali’s rampant racism ring truthful. In a film like Paul Haggis’ Crash (2006), the overwhelming racism seems contrived because of the exaggerated projection and acting when speaking the lines, because the actor’s clearly don’t believe in what they’re saying within character. Here the characters remain stone-faced, making the jumps from quirky humor, to real life bigotry even more alarming. Fassbinder doesn’t simply let mise-en-scene go as an unnoticed and into the background. He makes it a living, breathing, imperative aspect of the cinematic endeavor that interacts with all the other elements.


Apart from simply being a technically efficient film, is a damaging yet short (only 93 minutes) picture, because of its simplicity and its roots within the reality of Fassbinder’s tragic existence, whilst also being a spiritual re-imagining of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows. The film also mirrors Fassbinder’s personal demons in homosexuality, a film about a relationship and orientation shunned by society at large. When ben Salem, who plays Ali, killed three people under the influence of alcohol and then killed himself in a Franc prison, Fassbinder dedicated his last film before he overdosed on drugs, Querrelle, to Salem. A love letter from a dying man to dead man.


Rating: ★★★½


-Andrew Guarini

2 Responses to ““Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” – Andrew Guarini”

  1. david Says:

    where abouts did that quote from Von Trier come from?

  2. Drew Says:

    From “Trier on von Trier”, the section on Breaking the Waves.

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