What Can Fassbinder’s Emmy and Ali Teach us, Americans, in the Beginning of 21st Century?

At what moment does Abraham reawaken the memory of his being-foreign in a foreign, land? For Abraham does indeed recall that he is destined by God to be a guest, an immigrant, a foreign body in a foreign land (“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house,” “your offspring shall be guests in a land that is not their” [Genesis]).
Jacques Derrida, “The Work of Mourning”, 2001, p. 186 – 187


This shot measures the alienating distance between people who perceive others, and are in turn perceived by them as an alien (personifying otherness). Here the physical distance exaggerated by a special lens becomes a metonymy for psychological alienation between individuals and groups.


A break in alienation is achieved by the courage to follow their human needs in both, Emmy and Ali who resist megalomaniacal dogmas as a psychological compensation for the repressed human need in equality, companionship and love. While in the discriminating groups megalomania is expressed directly (in the superiority myth and behavior from the position of power), in the discriminated group it is expressed in a resentful sulking that is childish, regressive and a masochistic response on being discriminated.


It is not easy just to come together when prejudices about superiority are rooted so deeply in one or both sides (megalomania is the mother of ethnicity, and the necessity to overcome it is the ultimate challenge for human beings). This shot demonstrates that the distance of alienation between Germans and Arabs is present even between people who have sympathy for each other (equality between Emmy and Ali is not yet natural – Emmy takes the posture of a hostess: she unconsciously plays the “servant” not to look like the “master”). It took an incredible emotional effort on part of both heroes to make alienation between them to shrink to the size of a common kitchen (the next step will be a shared meal).


Emmy and Ali decided to celebrate their marriage in an expensive restaurant famous for having had Hitler as a regular customer years ago. In this shot we see how our newly weds are solemnly framed by Fassbinder to emphasize that they want to show “people” their happiness and victory over human ethnic prejudices, and to assert their right to be together. The film’s reference to Hitler makes the viewers to instantly imagine him sitting at the table where we see our couple, and to feel the benevolent difference between the Nazi past and Germany’s democratic present. But Fassbinder immediately problematizes such benign perspective. By the symmetrical composition of the shot and by the presence of an additional frame of the greenish drapery, the director creates a strange feeling that what we see is the reflection of our two heroes in the mirror, and with the mirror motif comes the eerie effect of de-realization. Our couple’s attempt at self-centralization in the consciousness of the community, as Fassbinder picturesquely depicts in this shot, doesn’t automatically mean the de-centralization and elimination of Fuhrer as an ideology of superiority. The composition stimulates yet another association – that Emmy and Ali are located in a visual space of a door frame where Hitler’s giant portrait could be located (if history had turned out differently), as a kind of democratic invaders into the “sacred” space of German “purity/superiority” over the otherness of the world. This shot is constructed to suggest that fight with Nazism (with the ideal of international inequality) is not over – it is continuing today by the extraordinary efforts of exceptional ordinary people like Emmy and Ali.


When Ali knocked at Emmy’s bedroom door, her worried facial expression shows that she is alerted, because prejudice, a skillful propagandist, almost Karl Rove, suggests, that Arabs are “rabid rapists”.


Eros and agape dance together


Ali is not completely confident in Emmy’s place.


According to the shot, Ali is isolated and “imprisoned” – “caged” by the suspiciously alert gaze of Emmy’s neighbors.


Emmy is isolated and “imprisoned” by her co-workers (helped by the composition of this shot), who found a petty pretext not to eat in Emmy’s company for the first time in many years, after they learned about her marriage.


The empty tables around emphasize the loneliness and isolation of our couple for having “transgressed” the monarchic prejudice of one nation’s superiority over others that makes so many people feel good.


It is not too pleasant to be a pariah, Emmy is almost praying for help, but help is not coming from above – help is in front of her.


When a person is humiliated by ostracism s/he tends to feel like a child refused/not accepted by the mother and then emotionally regresses to the condition of a motherless child. To return into adulthood one needs another human being determined to help.


Emmy’s children are indignant about her intimate connection with an “Arab”. People are ethnically prejudiced because they need to feel that they are superior to others, and they need to feel superior because without this self-supporting feeling they feel they’re nobody and then they cannot respect themselves. The more educated people are, the more channels for self-realization are at their disposal – the less they need megalomania to keep up their self-image. Ultimately, megalomania of ethnic superiority is the destiny of those who are on or close to the social bottom and who are uneducated in liberal arts.


Fassbinder plays the role of Emmy’s son-in-law, Eugene (derivative from eugenics). Why isn’t he happy or at least indifferent about Emmy’s marriage? By the same reason why our American soldiers in Iraq continue to believe in Saddam’s involvement in 9/11 in spite of official American Government’s reports, and why our soldiers in Afghanistan believe that they are fighting not because of Afghanistan’s national resources but to “spread democracy”. Young soldiers and flagriots (jingoists) of all ages need to believe in what is not true because false justification of American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan makes them happy – it puts them in comparison with Iraqis, Afghanis and the rest of the world on the pedestal of glory as belonging to a superior nation and a superior political system. Similarly, Eugene is not happy because his mother’s in law marriage puts him down, hurts his pride, and makes him as if less white, less European. He feels that he himself become as if Arabized, a little bit an Arab. People like Eugene perceive everything through hierarchical vision – who is higher/stronger/richer and who is lower/weaker/poorer. These people have a better-worse mentality; they don’t understand equality as a human value. They feel good only when they feel above others. The socio-psychological essence of ethnic prejudice is unification with group through excluding the third side, through being against. That’s why prejudice exists – people who feel “not-united”, not-accepted, worse than the others, for example, those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, are prone to produce/to use prejudice (to mark somebody else as “worse”) to unite/to unify with group. It is not a stupidity the basic characteristics of the ethnically prejudiced person – it is a feeling of exclusion and desperate desire to unify with a referent group.


Emmy’s daughter Kristal and Eugene laugh at the reason for Emmy’s attraction to Ali as they imagine it. They are obviously enjoying the BP joke about Ali’s anatomical prowess as a trigger for Emmy marrying him. Here Irm Hermann and Fassbinder create a mimic equivalent of BP joke, a facial expression that can be immediately grasped by people of different nations, the obscene iconicity of racist joke. They as if engrave racist joke on human face.


During the whole post-WW2 liberal period in US – realistic representation of right wing louts – megalomaniacal and scapegoatingly oriented people, in arts (what Fassbinder as an actor does in “Ali”), was as if forbidden, not by ideological reasons, of course, but aesthetically. It considered of bad taste, too direct, straightforward, not nuanced enough, not too artistic. According to many American liberal specialists in cinema who try to avoid the terrible truth of right wing totalitarian perception of the world, Fassbinder’s performance as an actor in “Ali” could be judged as aesthetically too crude, too obvious, not mediated by emotional overtones. Only now, after eight years of Bushmerican intellectual and emotional primitivism and its offspring – tea baggers’ illiteracy and psychological totalitarianism we can appreciate Fassbinder’s courage not only as a director but as an actor.


One of the important characters of the film – the local grocer (Walter Sedmayr), personifies for Fassbinder the very transition from traditional xenophobia to its “civilized” (economic) version, from repression to exploitation.


Ali is estimated and appreciated by Emmy’s co-workers. And he who resisted direct “racism” with his monolithic psychological wholeness became emotionally traumatized exactly by this “racism” with an economic face. If you are paid and superficially accepted – you are as if paid either in spite of or for being discriminated, and this trick is perceived by people who are habitually deprived of the right for any existential initiative (and only react on the moves made by the richer and the stronger people) – as less of a discrimination. So, they simultaneously feel as insulted as before but deny and repress this feeling. They become psychologically split, and their reactions take a regressive and infantile turn. Ali returns to the posture of revengeful sulking that he was capable to overcome in the beginning of his relationship with Emmy and because of this relationship.


Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) feels as though he has voluntarily sold himself into slavery while he was never before appreciated as much. He started to lose the psychological borders with those who like his muscles, modesty, and “tender skin”. He feels seduced into becoming corrupted, positioned against himself, that he never felt when he was the object of direct hate. But by admitting her vulnerability, by being strong enough to appeal to his humanity, Emmy began to restore the feeling of equality between them and started to cure his soul.


Emmy’s (Brigitte Mira) face expressing a fusion between private and public emotions, between intimate attachment and human responsibility – became a cinematic icon of immanent agape. In two last shots we see her face ageless, iconically universal.


Relationships between Ali and a bar-owner are symbiotic – she gives Ali a self-assertion (the illusion of being worthy enough to have sexually an attractive German woman), while he gives her the warmth of human contact and the feeling that she can sooth somebody’s despair and through this satisfy her own need to be needed.


Ali’s innocent revenge against Emmy – the lovers are ironically double-framed by Fassbinder to emphasize not only people’s right to have inter-ethnic sex, but truth about a psychological regression (created by insult and emotional trauma), that is capable to trigger sexual acting out (with its kicks).


After Ali’s ulcer attack, personal feelings in Emmy become combined with her responsibility as a German citizen and a human being vis-à-vis the world. “Consciousness is ‘the urgency of a destination leading to the Other and not an eternal return to self…an innocence without naiveté, an uprightness without stupidity, an absolute uprightness which is also absolute self-criticism, read in the eyes of the one who is the goal of my uprightness and whose look calls me into question.’ [Emmanuel Levinas]… an unlimited responsibility that exceeds and precedes my freedom, that of an ‘unconditional yes’…’yes older than that of naïve spontaneity,’ a yes in accord with this uprightness that is ‘original fidelity to an indissoluble alliance’.” (Jacques Derrida, ibid, p. 201)


At the end of the film a personal story unexpectedly becomes a public issue when Emmy’s decision to help Ali recover after social and personal psychological trauma becomes her public stance. That’s why; contrary to many critics’ opinion, Fassbinder’s film is not a weepy. Emmy and Ali’s bedroom is transformed into a public hospital where her role transcends that of a wife and lover. Fassbinder unites private and public realms as the only real approach to solving human problems.
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With a semantic virtuosity Fassbinder constructs a type of human relationships (the misalliance between Emmy and much younger Ali) which gives him chance to simultaneously address the problems of private relationships and the problems of social relations as having common psychological roots.

It is “asexual” – based on a common humanity, Emmy’s response to Ali’s existence what makes him want to be near her and ultimately to desire her sexually (Fassbinder’s point here is that the response of the soul to another person’s existence is really never “asexual”, it always includes an erotic component which is “dissolved” in the reaction of the psychological wholeness and sublimated as such.

The reaction on the presence of the other which is based on the recognition of a common humanity is response of the human wholeness. It is opposite of the reaction of the psychologically fragmentary need that sees in other the enemy, an ally or an object to be used in some way. The film’s informal definition of racist position toward the other is psychological – racism as a psychological posture is the reduction of the other to this or that parameter of otherness.

Fassbinder breaks up racist position in its individual and collective aspects to its ingredients (megalomaniacal self-assertion and scapegoating posture). Because the relationship between Emmy and Ali become the basic image of the human relationships in general, Fassbinder, to complete the picture, adds to the film relationship with a stronger sexual overtone (that is between the bar owner and Ali) which he immediately “desexualizes” by analyzing the psychological function of the very sexual ingredient of their relations. According to the film, then, there is a personal relationship of psychological attraction towards each other, with sexual ingredient in it, and, on the other hand, a relationship of sexual attraction with the psychological motivation hidden inside it.

Affair of the soul and, on the other hand, an affair based on sexual consolation (the bar-woman consoles Ali with sex and couscous) become the main vehicle of Fassbinder’s investigation into racism as a human complex and give him the opportunity to demonstrate to the viewers the two aspects of racism which Ali encounters as its two phases (direct: marginalizing and banishing, and more sophisticated: exploitative one).

The psychology of racist position toward other people, according to Fassbinder’s “Ali”, is the dramatic feeling of “proper inequality” between “us” and others which we desperately need to have to keep ourselves reassured in our superior value and our right to treat others mainly/only according to our needs. Megalomaniacal need to feel our superiority is a consequence of our psychological immaturity when only position of power (of a guaranteed advantage over others) is considered as able to provide us with the feeling of security and stability of our life.

The position of power has an incredible potential for creating in others a psychological and spiritual trauma of non-recognition in them a common human nature – human nobility. Emmy from the very beginning of her relations with Ali is able to recognize in him a common human nature, and this makes their relationship the basis for (democratic) togetherness. Her solitude and her openness to otherness made her yearn for relations based on psychological equality, and not on power and its derivatives – superiority, despotism, authoritarianism, obsession with material achievements, the “right” to be judgmental and contemptuous. She gave Ali the recognition of his humanity he never met before. Emmy-Ali’s relationships are rare but congruent with human nature.

The difference between Emmy-Ali and the bar-woman-Ali relationships gave Fassbinder the opportunity to investigate sexual desire as a fragment of psychological wholeness. When a person is traumatized by the non-recognition of a common humanity – sex very easily becomes a vehicle of psychological regression (people often need sex as a compensation for feeling of being humiliated by non-recognition in the public realm). When Ali becomes traumatized by the advanced racism of Emmy’s neighbors and co-workers he, who sustained a more obvious – traditional racism with self-respect, became confused, disoriented and deeply traumatized and in need of immediate sexual compensation. Sex very easily can be used as a revengeful triumph compensating for the lacking recognition of a common humanity (stories about Blacks and Arabs’ super-sexual prowess reflect the reality of xenophobia keeping the members of minority groups in need of psychological compensation through sex by over-cathecting their sexuality). Antonioni spent some screen time in “Zabriskie Point” (1970) on the explanation of American “sexual revolution” as a compensation for the deficit in human relatedness. And, like in American history starting from 60s on, sexual regression (sex as consumption) was going on together with oral regression (obsessive-compulsive eating), Fassbinder depicts Ali’s intuitive attempts to compensate himself for the trauma of non-recognition (of his humanity as) taking two forms – oral (need to eat couscous) and sexual. To follow the film’s imagery, a compensatory (soul-restoring) sex for Ali then is a kind of genital couscous, while couscous as such is a kind of “oral sex”.

Fassbinder takes time to describe the two phases/aspects of racism, eliminative and exploitative. When Ali was “not accepted into a decent society” and was reminded, like in the scene with the grocery store owner, about “his place”, he was a victim of traditional racism, but when he was object of admiration for his physical strength and the smoothness of his skin – it was a mistreatments according to the norms of exploitative racism. Because of its tricky nature (use of somebody is a combination of acceptance and debasement) exploitative racism is much more difficult to block psychologically, and that’s why Ali becomes psycho-somatically fragile.

In US, like in Germany, the two racisms are mixed, and in US quite creatively developed. In case of recent American wars traditional racism expresses itself in bombing of the civil populations, but in “global economy” exploitative racism dominates and brings in incredible profits. A very interesting form of racism which supports the idea of racism’s symbolic nature is the situation when Americans become objects of “racist” treatment by the corporate leadership in comparison with foreign workers. American corporations not only prefer foreign workers to American ones, but go outside their country searching for the cheap labor while firing American workers into a poverty and homelessness. These are new, “creative” forms of exploitative racism, when “real” American workers have reached the status of foreigners in their own country.

“In business you have to hide your aversions” – says the racist store-owner in “Ali”. Today’s American corporate slogan would be “In business you must create new aversions or you’ll lose profit”. Ali feels that the new xenophobic “positivity” is even more insulting than old open contempt. It’s much more difficult to be psychologically protected from it. It misleads you, it deceives you, you become open, and in this moment it humiliates you, and you feel that the racist position is there and deeper than ever.

Of course, foreign workers in US (“legal” or “illegal” emigrants) are not as sensitive as Ali – the difference between U.S.A. and Europe and much more serious difference between the 1970s and the 21st century can explain this dissimilarity, but Fassbinder’s analysis is penetrating and near universal because of its philosophical quality that is in tune with visual imagery.

*The German title of this film “Angst Essen Seele auf” stylizes Ali’s “grammatically approximate” German. The adequate translation of the title in English will be “Fear Eat Soul”, not “Fear Eats the Soul”.

Posted on Dec 4 2014 –   “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1973) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder  by Acting-Out Politics