What’s a Sirkian love story doing in a place like this? Based mostly on the plotline of All That Heaven Allows with additional allusions to characters and themes from director Douglas Sirk’s other successfully sudsy ‘50s melodramas (including the racial and sociological implications of Imitation of Life in particular), Ali's ingenious blend of old and new put its helmer Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the global cinema map.
However, the film marked a sharp turn from the much edgier Godard inspired political experimentation utilized in Fassbinder’s earlier fare which helped give rise to the New German Cinema ‘70s movement ushered in by the prolific filmmaker and his likeminded colleagues.
Adhering to Sirkian tradition, a lonely woman is at the heart of Fassbinder’s Ali – coming in out of the rain to take shelter in a bar populated by foreign workers of Arab descent who spend their evenings listening to the comforting sound of home epitomized by imported records blaring the songs they grew up with from an old-fashioned jukebox.
With a stormy night providing the right atmosphere for romance, Fassbinder fights against the natural tendencies to play up the rain for swoon-worthy temptation. No, intriguingly in Fassbinder’s film, it’s the woman who winds up serving the part of the human umbrella despite appearing onscreen in need of one in a gender role reversal that would never have been considered in Sirk’s pre-sexual revolution studio days of '50s Hollywood.
After a few of the bar’s regulars jokingly goad the handsome, hardworking titular character Ali (played by El Hedi ben Salem) to ask the "old woman" embodied by Brigitte Mira to dance, she eagerly – if cautiously – accepts.
And before long, the regulars realize that the true joke is on them as a simple dance flows into surprisingly easy conversation – the melodic rhythm of which takes over for the records spinning in the jukebox as it becomes the real-life soundtrack of two unlikely strangers falling in love.
After the Moroccan native does the gentlemanly thing and walks the much older widow home to her door, it’s Mira’s turn to give him shelter from the storm. Via a subtle segue that comes out so naturally it seems to even surprise herself, Mira's Emmi offers him first a drink and then impulsively a room for the night.
As the implications of the proposition begin to take shape romantically, Mira transforms from a pitiable prospect used for the amusement of strangers into the umbrella-like protector of the equally lonely man.
Yet what in Hollywood might have provided the makings of a My Man Godfrey like love story infused with laughter instead finds the two bonding from a humanistic place —seeing in one another a fellow outsider that’s been not only neglected but treated callously on levels that they might not be able to imagine but can definitely understand.
Dubbed "Ali" by racist German locals who just assume all foreigners have the same name – whereas the man’s been dehumanized by strangers, the elderly woman has been similarly mistreated by those she knows.
Ignored by her grown children unless there’s something they need, Mira’s characterization as a forgotten widow plays like something out of Ozu’s Tokyo Story – until that is – Fassbinder puts a sociological spin on his heroine as well.
Giving her a status as both a cleaning woman and wife of a now-deceased foreign husband who’d left her with his very Polish last name, Mira’s kindhearted, headstrong widow Emmi is looked down on as something non-Germanic by neighbors who view her with almost as much suspicion and disdain as they do her new live in Arab lover the very first time he walks down the hall.
Yet as much as it centers on Emmi, Fassbinder has a much tighter focus on the male character whom the filmmaker dares to follow into the most surprising of places as – after the second stage of boy gets girl finds the boy losing the girl – Fassbinder decides to bring us on a journey to the bed of another woman.
Hurt after too much conflict builds up between the two characters and blows sky high, Ali retreats from Emmi and finds solace in the arms of a metaphorically old (yet literally much younger than Emmi) flame.
Nonetheless trusting his audience to see the leads as fully complex people, Fassbinder’s risk pays off as we see both characters at their worst and best in order to better appreciate the moments of sunlight that exists in between the many storms – from the one that brought them together to the one that threatens to tear them apart.
Painting a daring canvas of an interracial multigenerational romance and the many double standards of gender inequities and hypocrisies that are woven within, although Ali could be set anywhere – in the post-WWII backdrop of Fassbinder’s portrait – we’re reminded through symbols, images, songs and all of the other elements at his disposal that people will always find a reason to hate what they fear.
And sure enough, those who inhabit Fear’s crowded frames find themselves pinned in a corner because they’re unable or unwilling to see – not the forest for the trees – but the individual people in their line of sight for the many labels they’ve applied to them.
Not understanding that the best answer to fear is love and finding someone you can wait out the storm with regardless of the weather, Fassbinder’s beautifully conflicted, existentially complicated yet elegantly simple humanistic search of his country’s Soul has been given a tremendously vibrant docudrama level transfer to Criterion Blu-ray.
Although it's infused with a variety of revealing bonus features that offer new insight into this contemporary classic including a BBC produced documentary about the New German Cinema movement, an interview with Mira as well as director Todd Haynes who paid homage to Sirk’s Heaven and Fassbinder’s Ali in his breathtaking Far From Heaven, one of the most fascinating extras is a mere two minutes long.
A clip from Fassbinder’s 1970 black and white film The American Soldier, the pivotal extra features actress and fellow New German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta telling a story in character that would go onto inspire the melodramatic Ali.
While the fates of his characters deviate greatly between the two pictures, it shows writers what a difference just four years can make — particularly for someone with as voracious of an appetite for storytelling, art, and film as Fassbinder possessed.
Similar to the way that each new experience in art or life nourished his soul, he set out to do the same for his viewers by serving them a new variation of a Sirk staple the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.
And unlike the May/December relationships on display in the first rate American comedies The Graduate and Harold and Maude that played their material for laughs (while repeating that it’s better to be free than worried about you and me), Ali started where the thesis of those films stopped.
Employing greater extremes in everything from character to concept, he worked into his narrative questions of race, class, and gender which he presented while using an entirely different perspective and tone.
Daring to deviate from the modus operandi of the Me Decade, Fassbinder used a we mindset in Ali while asking us how free we (in fact) were to be you and me if culturally – instead of celebrating two together – we were being pushed apart and forced to choose between one or the other instead of the much more powerful and purposeful “we."
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