Lie to Me
Chris Wisniewski on Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

My first encounter with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder was as an undergrad in a course on, of all things, Nazi cinema. The film: Lili Marleen. The setup: a handout with a set of words and names scribbled on it (Brecht, alienation effect, distanciation) and a clip from the Christmas sequence of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Needless to say, the whole thing flew right over my head. After class, I knew I didn’t like Lili Marleen very much; I still hadn’t the faintest idea what distanciation was; and I certainly had no inkling as to how the fusion of Brecht with Fifties melodrama could possibly yield Hanna Schygulla onstage feebly singing that damn “Lili Marleen” song over and over again.

Seven years and about 20 Fassbinder films later, I find something oddly perfect about that introduction to the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema. Were I to introduce a new set of undergraduates to Fassbinder’s somewhat daunting oeuvre, I would probably draft a handout similar to the one I received, and I would definitely include that sequence from All That Heaven Allows. After some judicious consideration, I might also settle on Lili Marleen—late Fassbinder being so endlessly exasperating and exhilarating—but I would add one small change to the program: sandwiched between Sirk and Schygulla would almost certainly be a bit from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a film that closely followed Fassbinder’s famous encounter with six movies by Douglas Sirk, which produced (either dialectically or complementarily, depending upon your perspective) his most significant artistic step forward.

After watching those Sirk films, Fassbinder saw, for the first time, the possibility of marrying his personal political project (in the tradition of the Brechtian epic theater) with an emotionally satisfying narrative. And it all coalesces, for me at least, in one single shot: Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) are sitting alone in the middle of an outdoor café while the café workers stare at them stoically, mercilessly, from a corner; Emmi and Ali declare their love for one another as Emmi hopes, against all odds, that if they leave on vacation and then return, the unforgiving society that condemns their interracial and intergenerational love will bring them back into its fold. We are with them, in medium-close shot, feeling their pain throughout this cathartic conversation—suddenly the camera pulls back and twists us around, until we, too, are staring at them from a distance, as they sit, alone and isolated.

Fassbinder, parodying Godard, once remarked that film tells us 24 lies every second. By my count, then, this one shot contains about 1,000 lies. This is, I believe, a deeply cynical position to hold, one that I suspect Fassbinder himself didn’t entirely subscribe to. Fassbinder initially saw his filmmaking as a mode of political expression, and his debt to Brecht can certainly be seen in his refusal to indulge in the kind of “lying” most narrative filmmakers indulge in with ease. He fashioned himself a social critic and used the camera—by having characters walk into what seem like their own point-of-view shots, by subverting identification with deliberately asynchronous sound and editing—to disrupt the illusion of narrative cohesion. All of his films deal in some way with the hypocrisies and exploitation implicit in social interaction; Fassbinder’s goal was to make us look at things—really, look at things—and resolutely refuse conventional ways of seeing.

When the camera pulls back on Emmi and Ali, we know that there’s a level of critique here, and many will know immediately that there’s something Brechtian going on, but if we could reduce this dolly shot to something as simple as distanciation or the alienation effect, it would hardly be worth a paragraph, much less an article. Ali actually came at a point when Fassbinder began to depart from his commitment to Brecht, because he saw a problem with making movies that were meant to teach a lesson: How on earth do you get most people to see them? When he encountered the Sirk films, he had a sort of epiphany: melodrama could provide the means to make people feel and think at the same time. He embarked on the most artistically fruitful period of his career, marked by the apotheosis of Ali, which itself was a remake of All That Heaven Allows. He was suddenly making movies that could rip your heart out and stomp on it, even as they made you question what you’re seeing and why.

“The cruelty is that we can understand them both, both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult.”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder on Imitation of Life in “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”

Emmi and Ali are ill-fated lovers. We see why each is drawn to this love affair. Emmi, an aging widow, has essentially been abandoned by her children. She is a Putzfrau, a cleaning lady; worth next to nothing in her social world, and then one day, someone notices her. He is himself an outcast, an immigrant. His German is meager at best. She walks into a bar and orders a Coke. He shows her attention, on the prodding of his friends, and for the briefest of moments, Emmi and her suitor have respite from a world that chooses to ignore them. They dance together, and though they are the objects of stares in the bar—everyone disapproves of the coupling from the beginning—at least they are noticed (by one another and everyone else) for once. And they realize, rather quickly, that each of them is kind-hearted. So it’s a love born of desperation, loneliness, and a bit of human goodness. But of course, many are.

At the outdoor café, after they’ve been persecuted endlessly for their marriage, Emmi and Ali once again express their love for one another. We are looking at Emmi head-on, her kind face in medium close-up framed above Ali’s left shoulder. He loves her so much, he says, and stretches his broad arms out so wide they seem as though they could embrace the whole world. She loves him, too, “from here, to Morocco.” Brigitte Mira’s face is a wonder. We see, in her eyes, a look of genuine affection and longing. Sure, Emmi never imagined she could fall for an “Arab” decades her junior, but, as Fassbinder gives us this brief moment to study her, we have no doubt of her genuine emotion. Perhaps she first looked at him out of selfishness or loneliness, but what she feels, now, from here to Morocco, is real. Looking at her, we know he feels it, too; she sees it in the expanse of his arms. It is heartbreaking, because the world won’t let it be, and because there really is no changing the world. Of course, everyone who sees it does indeed want to cry, except: when you least want it to, the camera pulls back.

“The camera is in motion all the time, and we understand a lot about loneliness and how it makes us lie. And how wrong it is that we should lie, and how dumb.”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder on The Tarnished Angels in “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”

At the height of our empathy, Fassbinder’s camera pulls us in another direction entirely. He snakes us back and around, until we are staring at Emmi and Ali alone, amidst a plentitude of empty tables, just like those café workers who stare at them. Sirk would do this sort of thing as well; he would place us in a position of judgment, a mediated sight-line that would undermine our emotional response to the content of the scene. Sirk has often been characterized—wrongly, I think—as Brechtian. His affinities with Brecht are part of the reason why Sirk’s sensibility resonated so powerfully with Fassbinder. Fassbinder saw conventional narrative as a mask for the reality of social exploitation, subverting it reveals these hidden machinations. Here, his moving camera pulls us out of our subjective identification, and we are literally moved from a position of empathy to a position of judgment.

By aligning us with the stare of social disapproval, Fassbinder advances a clear and powerful point: even as Emmi and Ali sit in this outdoor café and fantasize about escape, there is no outside, there is no way out of constraining social realities, and we are all complicit in the collective gaze that passes judgment and exerts social power. We sympathize with Emmi and Ali, but we never quite believe that their love is possible. This is a film built, unremittingly, in fact, on the unwavering presence of the judgmental stare, to the point that characters stand, time and again, in stationary poses, merely staring. We are always invited to judge Emmi and Ali, as we do everyone else, on the basis of race, class, and age, and in so doing, we are asked to ignore the overwhelming evidence of human goodness. How sad it is that it’s all too easy to take Fassbinder up on his offer and submit ourselves to his moving camera.

As spectators, though, we are no weaker than Fassbinder’s characters, who share responsibility for their own suffering. This shot marks a turning point in the film, after which the central pair themselves seem to destroy their love with their own weakness. It’s easy to assume that Emmi is lying to herself when she hopes that everything will get better and that she and her husband will be accepted back into the social world that has cast them off. The painful truth is that Emmi is actually right. After the fade that ends this shot, the selfishness and greed of the community around them motivate a return to the fold. Before she realizes it, Emmi is exploiting her husband for the sake of social approval and approbation. Ali, for his part, renounces Emmi and begins drinking, gambling, and cheating. It’s the film’s cruelest trick. Emmi and Ali become the instrument of their own repression; by the end of the film, Emmi stares at Ali the way that we stare at the two of them in the outdoor café. And we’re left with nothing beyond the sad reality exposed in the café, that there really is no outside, and that if we believe, as Emmi and Ali seem to, that it is possible to love purely and unselfishly in this fucked up, exploitative, miserable world, we’re lying to ourselves. But still, there’s a part of us that believes the lie.

“People can’t live alone, but they can’t live together either. This is why [Sirk’s] movies are so desperate.”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder on All That Heaven Allows in “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”

Perhaps Godard and Fassbinder were both right: the cinema tells us 24 lies and 24 truths every second. In Ali, Fassbinder found a way to express this contradiction—to make a film that, like the best of Sirk, could make us feel, even as it made us think, that could lull us into a position of uncritical sympathy even as it shocked us with its scathing critique. Because we can watch Emmi and Ali in that café and “get it”—we can understand the implications of Fassbinder’s Brechtian aspirations and political commitments, the layers upon layers of social criticism and incisive commentary loaded into a simple move of the camera—but somehow it’s not desperate at all. Ali finds Fassbinder’s art at its most engaged and transcendent. Even as we stare at Emmi and Ali, even as we see past the lie, still, in spite of all of that, we need to believe that their love is possible. We need to believe the lie. And so we let ourselves feel it, and for the briefest of moments, their ill-fated love seems like the most beautiful thing in the world.