The Gaze Equals Judgment in ‘Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974] achieves an empirical objectivity that breaks the system of visual pleasure described by Laura Mulvey using its forms to show, not efface, society’s objectification of the “other.” He focuses on characters marginalized by society: old women and foreigners, in a couple that breaks both age and race lines in post World War II Germany. Emmi deflects passive objectification by not fitting the standards of the erotic sexualized female and because she refuses to be silent and static. Ali, othered by his race, is sexualized in the manner usually reserved for women and is passive and silent unlike Emmi. The bearers of the gaze are often groups or women judging Emmi or the couple, instead of the man and the audience sexually objectifying the woman. The gaze presents society’s judgment of the “other” and by implicating the audience critiques society as a whole.

Laura Mulvey proposes that cinema is constructed to privilege the male protagonist and pleasure the male spectator. The mainstream film narrative constructs the woman as “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Her role in film, like her role in society, subjects her to male desire:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been spilt between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects phantasy on to the female figure…In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.

Emmi breaks the trope of female to-be-looked-at-ness and is not coded for strong visual and erotic impact. Instead of the ideal bombshell object of desire, she is an old, fat woman who speaks her mind. She is constructed as “other” and lacking a role since has already fulfilled that of wife and mother. She is outside the realm of sexual objectification and society expects her to quietly disappear. She cannot be objectified like the women in mainstream cinema. Making her the object of sexual gratification for the audience would only serve to make her ridiculous and grotesque. Instead she is portrayed with sensitivity to her emotional state and respect for her humanity. By focusing on her Fassbinder moves away from the image of the sexualized woman and sheds light on a group that rarely receives attention. He illuminates how society marginalizes aging women.

In Ali Emmi’s emotions are equally important as what she evokes in Ali, often more so because her emotions are clear while he remains impassive. Close-ups of Emmi reveal her anguish and fear, instead of connoting an erotic image for the male spectator to enjoy. Fassbinder contradicts the idea that “the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Emmi is not spectacle in Ali and moments that in a mainstream narrative film would be for “erotic contemplation” by the male spectator freezing the narrative instead further it, giving us a deeper awareness of Emmi’s subjectivity and the ways in which others’ prejudice affects her. It allows the audience to sympathize with her in a different way than mainstream film’s identification with the hero. Fassbinder uses the same techniques as mainstream cinema to achieve a different effect. The close-up of the woman is not an expression of scopophilic pleasure. Instead it connects the audience to her emotional situation. She is not idealized or objectified. The camera shows her in moments of greatest emotion, not as a damsel in distress but simply a person in tears. A close-up of Emmi at work, though it stops the narrative, reveals emotion: her reaction to the other German’s prejudice and the discrimination she foresees. The best example of this is where Emmi cries against the door frame as her landlord walks by, apathetically ignoring her pain. He views her public tears as indecent, perhaps even more so because she is not supposed to attract notice in general, but Emmi refuses to hide or give up on life merely because she has passed a certain age.

Unlike cult stars such as Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich her body is not fragmented in the film, but shown holistically in long shots. She is not reduced to her sex appeal, legs, or face. Her portrayal reveals her subjectivity more than her body and gives her a real space to control. “One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen.” Instead of flattening the space Fassbinder distances the spectator from the image using long shots. Long shots allow audiences emotional distance and objectivity, giving them the opportunity to analyze the narrative instead of simply experiencing visual pleasure. Fassbinder gives both male and female characters a “three-dimensional space…[reproducing] as accurately as possible the so-called natural conditions of human perception” yet they seem as lost and incapable as the average human being. In contrast to the idealized power typical of the film character who “can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator” Ali and Emmi seem at the mercy of events and just as unable to control them as the subject/spectator, breaking the system of identification in mainstream cinema. The male spectator cannot receive pleasure from the “ego ideal” because the hero is not idealized, with no more control over events than the spectator.

Though the film is about a love story between Emmi and Ali, it does not follow the narrative structure of a mainstream film. In most films the man subjugates the woman. She loses her sexuality which is possessed only by the hero: “as the narrative progressed she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalized sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.” In contrast, Emmi is sexualized only by her relationship with the male hero. Ali is the only character to perceive her sexuality in a positive way. The other characters in the film, such as Ali’s female friends, find their marriage disgusting, while the Germans believe any woman who chooses a foreigner is sexually perverted, a whore. Her children are disgusted as well by her marriage, abandoning her more than they already have and condemning her along with the rest of society. The camera moves across their faces as they stare at her, judging her. According to the expectations of society at her age she should be dying not falling in love.

As Emmi and Ali’s relationship becomes more accepted by those around them Ali is increasingly made the object of sexual objectification. He, unlike Emmi,  is shown naked, though not in the same manner as a female in mainstream film. Like the portrayal of Emmi, it allows the audience an empirical objectivity and the ability to analyze for themselves. There is an almost clinical distance, showing him first in the mirror and then later at the other woman’s apartment in a long shot. “According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” yet the film objectifies Ali more than anyone else. Emmi’s friends admire his youthful body and muscles, examining him like a show horse and Emmi encourages them. In the hallway of her building after their first meeting Emmi becomes the subject of the frame, talking while Ali watches passively. She is foregrounded while he is in the background, though normally the man would be active and emphasized in the frame. Throughout the film she remains active, taking on the “man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen” while Ali takes on the feminine position of passive image. It is his construction as a passive sexual object, which seems to propel him to cheat on Emmi and causes his dissatisfaction with the relationship. As long as they as a couple are the object of scorn and disgust the adversity bonds them closer together, but when Ali becomes the emblem of young strong beautiful foreign man he loses his humanity. This is problematic since the dominant culture and mainstream cinema often push the male other into the subordinate female position, so in this area the film is not breaking with the dominant culture but enforcing it.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul someone is always watching. The bearers of the gaze are always completely still, negating the idea of the bearer of the look as the active male. Usually there is a group of people staring at Emmi, or Emmi and Ali together, and when there is only one gazer it is most often a woman. The gaze is an exchange, not simply a man staring at a woman. Emmi stares at the group and the group stares at her, but the way the film constructs the gaze equates it with judgment. The group judges her and she recognizes their judgment. Each character at times is both subject and object of the gaze and the shots trade back and forth. The camera establishes the gaze with eye-line matches between shots never showing the object of the gaze and the bearer of the gaze in the same shot. The first sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. Emmi enters and sits down at a table, the camera cuts to a shot of the people in the bar looking at her, cuts back to a shot of Emmi, and back to the people looking at her. This simple construction of gazes conveys her position as “other,” her awareness of that position and her discomfort.

The entire film is built around looking and the idea of looking: most importantly how the gaze affects others and positions people as object and “other.” At first they do not acknowledge the gaze. In the café they dance, unaware of the appalled, frozen gaze of the people in the bar. The object of the gaze is active while the subject is static. Later Emmi is forced out of the bar by the gaze of the woman who owns it. The woman looks at her, she looks back then out at the door. They repeat this several times until Emmi, disheartened, leaves the bar. She is not welcome. Others perceive Emmi and Ali as a spectacle but throughout the film they only acknowledge this position once. The couple sits at a table outside and Emmi begins to cry, we see a shot of people staring at them, and she begins to yell at them. He is her husband and there should be nothing wrong with that. To observers they are strange and “other,” an indecent relationship that should be hidden, but they perceive themselves as merely a couple in love.

They are watched from a distance instead of close up and are often watched through harsh geometric patterns, barriers to the couple as well as to sight. The methods Fassbinder uses to reduce the screen field reveal the limitations of society for the couple, using harsher lines and shapes to limit them in the frame unlike Sternberg’s “light and shade, lace, steam, foliage, net, streamers” which idealize the woman. Her neighbor watches them climb the stairs and calls out to them through a window grating. The harsh lines cut up the figures and make them appear small. Fassbinder also limits the frame with walls or other objects narrowing our view of the couple. In the apartment we peer through the gap in the walls to observe the characters. Likewise in the restaurant the two are set up in a tableau, looking out at the audience, seemingly aware of our gaze. Even when the characters on screen are not watching them the audience is. The camera makes us intruders, but instead of giving way to unconscious voyeuristic pleasure as in mainstream cinema we feel the intrusion. This creates a “distancing awareness in the audience.” The framing seems set up for us to peer in on the characters, making the audience aware the importance of our gaze. Cinematic conventions demand a “hermetically sealed world” that is “indifferent to the presence of the audience.”  Ali delivers this, but through the framing and distant shots positions the audience to be aware of our intrusive gaze. Ali without breaking the illusion of “looking in on a private world” is aware of it, and makes the spectator aware of it. Though the film invites us to judge the characters along with the representatives of society in the film we recognize our position and are able to analyze it. Mainstream film does not give spectators that option.

Fassbinder suggests with this film that the cycle of judgment through looking will start again. As the Germans accept Emmi, the new foreign cleaning woman is pushed into the position of “other” that Emmi has escaped. Fassbinder shows that the need to eradicate the “other” has carried over into post-War Germany as fear and prejudice towards the “other.” “Formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsession and assumptions.” Mulvey and Fassbinder seem to agree that the only way to create an alternative cinema, or an alternative society is to break the system of prejudice encoded in its forms. Fassbinder creates a socially progressive film by bringing to light objectification of the “other” and contradicting the typical mainstream forms. He illuminates some areas of marginalization and invites us to criticize them while remaining influenced by the dominant culture’s perception of race and the beauty standards.

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