Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – Older Woman Younger Man Fassbinder style (Film Review)

Since the dawn of time older chicks and younger dudes have been gettin’ it on, but it’s remained a societal taboo despite its ubiquity. There’s definitely something about it that offends us –  misogynistic mythology will be at the heart of the offence and there are probably countless decent books on the subject. However, film being a primarily visual medium, has accidentally exposed part of the problem; and as usual Fassbinder recognised it before anyone else.


Ali: Fear eats the Soul is Fassbinders take on the older woman younger man thing coupled with the horrors of prejudice. From my reading about the traps, Fassbinder did his melodrama series as a kind of homage to the great director Douglas Sirk. His film All that Heaven Allows, a film recreated in 2002 by Todd Haynes which he titled Far From Heaven, is from what I can see the earliest film that deals with the subject matter. Sirk was a master of revealing the subtleties that go to make up a judgemental society, and this talent was greatly admired by Fassbinder. Sirk made All that heaven allows in 1955, and Fassbinder made Ali: Fear eats the Soul in 1974.  Before and after Fassbinders film there were others, the most notable being The Graduate in 1967. However, it was in an interview with Hanna Schygulla where I heard Fassbinder was  irritated with the way women were represented in these films.


Problematic for Fassbinder was the physical portrayal of the older woman. The issue as identified by Fassbinder, we still see played out in film and media today. In the fetishisation of the so called taboo, the older female has been drastically altered to seem younger, or at the very least, incredibly attractive for her age. Women who play “older women” in these kinds of films are Uma Thurman, or Julianne Moore, or Michelle Pfeiffer (who has played this role many times).  They are all physically attractive women. An exception to this is Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, but in that case both the characters are sufficiently fetishised – or rather charicatured – so that they in no way resemble “real” people of their age bracket. Even so, Ruth Gordon does not look 80 in that film, and indeed was in her early seventies when she played the role. Another possible exception you may say is Piper Laurie in Tim.  Piper Laurie is very beautiful, but she has a typical older woman figure in the film. However, Tim is low-functioning mentally, so again, we have excused ourselves from confronting the ‘real’ of the older woman younger man.


I think the worst example of this is The Graduate.  There is only six years difference between Hoffman and Bancroft even though she is supposed to be “twice his age” proving that pop culture thinks – and maybe it is true – that we can’t quite stomach a “real” older woman with a “real” younger man.

Fassbinder as usual, is all over this problem. In a stroke of cinematic genius, he makes his older woman poor, lonely and ordinary. There is no “excuse” for the very handsome man more than twenty-years her junior to love her, except that he loves her. The casting of Brigitte Mira is a genuine confront with whatever taboos we may have around the older woman as sexually desirable. A hot cougar MILF she aint. Fassbinder even has Mira offer her young husband the freedom to see other women, because she “sees what she looks like in the mirror every day” but he rejects her offer, claiming he only wants her. No other film in this genre has had the courage to confront this taboo head on, even though they lay claim to be doing so.


Incredibly, Fassbinder did not alter the script from his first draft and then the film was shot in four weeks. I’m going to take a quote from the great Fassbinder Blog, Jim’s Reviews:

Fassbinder was clearly inspired by this project. Recently rediscovered by Juliane Lorenz (editor of his last eleven films and now head of the Fassbinder Foundation) in an archive was his handwritten original of the script. As Ms. Lorenz notes in a filmed interview (in the BRD Trilogy set), incredibly, he did not change a single word from that “draft” to the finished film. Unfortunately for the harried editor, Thea Eymèsz (her interview is on this DVD), the actors often ad libbed, since the film was shot rapidly without synchronized sound. All of the dialogue and sound effects were added in post-production. Those dialogue changes made editing, especially with an unbreakable four-week deadline, a herculean task. It should also be noted that Fassbinder, as with many of his films, often shot only one take. Not only did knowing this strategy encourage the cast and crew to concentrate fully, it also helped keep the film within its tight budget. The ultimate achievement of this film, which some people regard as Fassbinder’s masterpiece, seems almost superhuman under these circumstances.


Given the absolute power of the performances, one can argue that it is Fassbinders pace that solicits those “best first take” type roles. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem are both incredible in their roles, with Salem portraying an enigmatic, beautiful man, at once self possessed and in control of his choices and lost and adrift when conforming away from them to fulfil societal expectations. The subject matter is complex and often philosophical.  Fassbinder softens this with some dark humour but also with the still moments of the actors. So strong are the performances here that we feel deeply connected to Emmi and Ali as they try to make their life together work along side some sort of societal acceptance. It’s the understated power that adds a lightness so the film never gets bogged down in its own political motivations. I’ve rarely seen a film where I care more about what happens to two people.

Like all Fassbinder films, its essential viewing.