What's Eating Ali? Rassenschande & The Queer Undertow

Please note that this text contains spoilers, discussion of racism,  a photograph of real public shaming, and a screenshot depicting nudity.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the 20th’s Century’s most important queer filmmakers. While much of his work explores expressly queer themes such as the main character of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) who falls deeply in love with another woman, or the highly homoerotic Jean Genet adaptation Querelle (1982), Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul can be seen to explore queer themes, styles, and messages that lurk more subtly within its frames.

The term “queer” has many different definitions; its meaning has changed over time and continues to evolve. When we think about relationships, desires, or expressions that diverge from the norm, we rightfully tend to think about people who are not heterosexual, those who are transgender, and those who are intersex. The protagonists of Ali do not fall within any of these categories, yet they importantly embody a certain kind of forbidden desire, one regulated by norms of age and race.

The twenty-year age gap between Emmi and Ali is a significant one which serves as a source of much tension throughout the film. Historically, however, the aspect of their relationship that has a greater legacy of persecution is its interracial nature. Emmi is a white German woman and a citizen, Ali is a Moroccan man in the precarious position of Gastarbeiter (the term for migrant workers who came to West Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s).

Cross-cultural or cross-racial relationships have been forbidden or looked down upon in many different social contexts throughout history. Focusing on German history, it is important to remember that Ali takes place only a few decades after an era of punitive Nazi rule. Within Nazism’s implementation of authoritarianism and genocide, the regime also introduced the concept of Rassenschande - literally, racial shame - into German law. These laws, which came into effect in 1935, forbade relationships between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans”. Discovery of interracial relationships would warrant punishment varying from arrest and public shaming to concentration camp detainment and death.

The German context of Ali is significant in part because of the cultural residue left behind by the country’s Nazi legacy. While Rassenschande was no longer a commonplace term and its laws no longer in effect, societal unease around interracial relationships endured. In Ali, it is the underhand comments of Emmi’s colleagues or the shopkeeper who refuses to understand Ali’s requests that speak to a kind of racism that, while less explicit, is no less pernicious. After Emmi and Ali get married, they travel to Munich’s Osteria Italiana, where Emmi comments, “This is where Hitler used to eat.” We are reminded of the weight of history and reflect upon the sheer audacity of the interracial couple’s presence in a space that once signified leisure for one of the most prominent proponents of a racist ideology.

Yet Fassbinder’s story does not simply depict Ali and Emmi as righteous lovers beset by a racist society. One of Ali’s successes is its representation of the complex minutiae of interracial relationships. When first confronted with the everyday racism Ali faces, Emmi is incredulous. Yet her strident proclamations in the face of discrimination that “this is her husband” are met with a knowing fatigue on the part of Ali. He understands this ground well and is too inured to everyday racism to be surprised.

Emmi’s ignorance of certain aspects of Ali’s racialised lived experience also creates rifts between the two of them. When Emmi’s friends visit, they comment on Ali’s cleanliness and the size of his muscles. Emmi invites them both to touch him and when the three surround Ali and begin to grope him, he walks away. When Emmi’s friend asks, “What’s eating him?”, Emmi responds “He has his moods. It’s his foreign mentality.” Here Emmi’s failure to realise how objectifying these actions are, the way they reduce Ali to a mysterious and exotic foreign body, speaks to her own naïveté. Further, her explanation that his behaviour is rooted in a “foreign mentality” shows the way in which even within the context of an interracial relationship, racist assumptions persist.

Yet white Germans are not the only people for whom this interracial relationship causes concern. The Arab women who work in the bar Ali frequents show a pointed disdain for Emmi and her relationship with Ali. Yet it is important to discuss this differently as these fears come from a different context and locus of power. These women’s fears around interracial relationships are rooted in the perceived threat of whiteness, a threat ossified through generations of European colonial occupation and everyday marginalisation in West Germany.

When Ali cheats on Emmi with one of these bartenders, this not only provides an escape from Emmi’s microaggressions, but also an opportunity to eat couscous, a dish that Emmi refuses to make for him. The couscous serves as an important signifier of Ali’s Moroccan culture, an aspect of his identity that Emmi repudiates. In the apartment of the bartender Ali is reunited with this dish and he proceeds to make love with a woman who is able to empathise with his diaspora experience in a way that Emmi cannot.

The complex ways in which social and cultural pressures shape a forbidden love like Emmi and Ali’s overlap greatly with the concerns of “queer”. To engage in queer analysis is to ask how and why a society regiments our genders and desires. There is important shared ground between those who find themselves attracted to others of the same gender and those who find themselves attracted to others of a different racial group. Fassbinder occupied both of these spaces.

In Ali, Fassbinder not only told a story of forbidden love but also directed his own partner El Hedi ben Salem in the role of Ali. The two met in a gay bathhouse in Paris three years prior and Salem moved to Berlin with his sons to live with Fassbinder. Their relationship was tumultuous and ended a year after Ali was released. Salem then allegedly stabbed a group of people in Berlin before being extradited to France and committing suicide in prison. The tragic ending to Salem’s life was not known to Fassbinder until five years later, moving Fassbinder to dedicate his last film Querelle to Salem.

What continues to be moving to this day is the way in which Ali captures the love between Fassbinder and Salem as filmmaker and muse. The knowledge of the relationship between the two allows for the forbidden love storyline to take on further meaning, one that can be transposed to the queer relationship outside of the picture. The issues of societal racism are augmented similarly when recognising Salem’s experience as a new arrival to West Germany. Yet further, in the thoughtless prejudices Emmi shows Ali within an intimate setting, one might see Fassbinder himself working through the issues of love across racial lines.

The loving and gentle way in which Fassbinder shoots Salem evinces the humanity in his desire. Within a European artistic tradition that often represented nonwhite men as oversexed, perverse “Other”s, Ali serves as a loving corrective. Unlike Emmi’s friends who fetishise and grab at Ali as the phantasmic object of their desire, Fassbinder takes a step back to admire the man he desired in the expansive beauty and complexity of what makes him human.

by Jacob Engelberg