Revisiting this for the first time in a number of years there’s little doubt why it’s Fassbinder’s best known film. Within the director’s own ouevre it marks an arrival at a maturity and control that could never quite fully manifest in his earlier works while, to the general filmgoing public, the film’s simple story and honesty allow it to vault over any barriers of language or time. The story’s probably pretty well known at this stage but why not brush over it one more time? An elderly widow (Emmi) and a Moroccan immigrant (Ali, but actually El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha), twenty years her junior, find solace in each other’s company and marry, much to the outrage and disgust of the woman’s children and friends. In time, through the continued positivity of the couple and the potential for gain both social and material, the various people who disowned them start seeking to repair the lines of communication. For a while things seem quite well until Ali collapses, suffering from a non-fatal but pervasive stomach ulcer, and the film finishes in the hospital.
What marks Fassbinder’s film out as being so exceptional is that this seemingly very simple and broadly drawn story is constantly afforded extra layers and shades of depth and detail without ever losing focus on its core goal. In that sense this is likely (I have more to watch) Fassbinder’s most perfectly pitched melodrama. It evades both the pervasive bitterness of The Merchant of Four Seasons and the saccharine falsity of typical Hollywood tales. And so this may be his finest ode to the work of Douglas Sirk too, another German who told great tales of love but undermined the sweetness with unsettling inferences.
A usual criticism I might draw against Fassbinder is his tendency to overemphasize contrasts in order to make his point. His films are usually not staffed with rounded characters but rather varying degrees of raving lunatics or shrew-like victims. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but it does weaken some of his earlier films as it places them in a specifically distorted world. I might draw a similar formal complaint against someone like Alan Clarke in his film Scum. The attacks these films seek to levy against society are so pointed and shrill that they weaken themselves by lending themselves to parody rather than proper analysis. The contrast between the goofy, one-sided goodness of Fassbinder’s immigrant worker and the shiftless, malicious Germans in Katzelmacher (a direct forebear of this film) never really convinced without a lot of audience complicity. Indeed it threatened to reduce the foreigner to a stereotypical sketch akin to those that racists like to bandy about. That complaint may not hold too much water though since the native Germans are every bit as abstract and random as the foreigners. Even in Ali, Fassbinder uses a fair amount of shorthand to sketch out the Moroccan character. It’s not meant to be, nor does it feel, malicious or reductive because it simply acknowledges surface differences without seeking to explain them. That would be the subject for another film.
Originally the fear of similarly uneven contrasts threatens Angst essen Seele auf too. If Ali is honest and industrious then Emmi’s son-in-law, played by a rather lean Fassbinder, is so far removed as to seem a bit out of proportion. Luckily not much is made of this and as we are introduced to Emmi’s two sons we see a more successful incarnation of native German industriousness which is, again, not overly dwelled upon. I think this is the central strength of the film’s design. It often tilts strongly to one side or the other, moving through positives and negatives both in the central couple’s relationship and in the attitudes of those around them, but the constant shift in perceptions acts as a balancing mechanism. If Ali looks too industrious compared to the shiftless son-in-law then the other two brothers balance that out. If the Arabs seem too terse and simplistic then the surrounding Germans hardly offer more complex views of life. The steering might be a tad erratic but in the end it holds a steady course.
And of course this cyclical element becomes a central part of the film’s statement about human behaviour, that prejudice and otherness manifest in us all and that it is not a single barrier to be overcome in a single step. Fassbinder ably demonstrates this through showing the various characters’ habit, and it does seem habitual with no conscious thought behind it, of shifting and altering prejudices so that they always exist in some shape or form regardless of reality. The prejudice is innate, existing aside from logic. So while Emmi has many friends, her relationship with an Arab immediately justifies her isolation. In turn her former friends regard her surname, a remnant of her first marriage, and how that marriage to a Pole marked her out already as “compromised”. Of course her first marriage didn’t matter to them before, but once you’ve decided to dislike someone then everything can slip into place.
And vitally, Emmi’s ability to see Ali as an individual and find happiness with him doesn’t preclude her from prejudice either. When her friends start talking to her again Emmi easily falls into her clique and then colludes to exclude another foreigner (a Yugoslav cleaner lady) just as naturally as her friends had excluded her. While on another occasion she reduces Ali to a piece of meat and denotes his displeasure with the experience as simply “his foreign mentality”. Everyone makes steps to overcome some barriers, but it’s always at the cost of failing to see other walls, some seemingly more obvious.
In fact it’s telling to note that Ali’s name is not Ali at all. His actual name is too long and too foreign to be recalled easily and thus is dropped by all, including his open-minded and loving wife. Ali concedes to this as does everyone else. All interactions are give and take. After all, the reasons for the eventual acceptance of the couple all stem from selfishness, be it custom at a shop or the need for cellar space. Fassbinder makes it clear that self-interest drives all social interactions. It is not necessarily immoral that people work like this. They simply do. If it is a flaw it is just one in a whole tapestry of humanity.
And so in that final scene—with Ali in his hospital bed and Emmi sitting over him, framed against a brightly lit window—both hope and further strife are suggested. The couple are together with their love and its basic righteousness affirmed, but Ali’s ulcer will continue. The doctor informs us that all the foreigners get them and that they persist. Of course by now we know it is not any dietary or lifestyle habits that shape this malaise but the pervasive nature of otherness; of being foreign not only in culture and custom but in being. A state we can all recognise but daily have to work to overcome.