On a rainy night in Munich in 1974 a lonely 60 something widow walks into a bar enticed by the sounds of Arabic music. Emmi orders a coke and Ali a 40 something Moroccan ‘guest worker’ asks her to dance. Their friendship deepens and they decide to marry. The reaction that their relationship provokes and in turn, the effect that society has on their life together is told in this tale of intolerance and prejudice.
Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) offend everybody just by being together. Spurned by everyone including her children, the subject of gossip and name calling, Emmi’s isolation builds until she finds herself adopting the same xenophobic attitudes as her friends and neighbours to feel included.
A sparse, deliberate style of acting and dialogue and rigid framing through doorways and windows shows the characters uneasiness, even Emmi and Ali often have a lot of space between them. A shot where we see Emmi sitting alone at lunch is paralleled a short while later when Emmi is the insider gossiping with her friends and ignoring a new worker from Yogoslavia who is left alone on the stairs.
And Ali joins in with his friends laughing over Emmi and her age, as they joke that she’s his grandmother from Morocco. Our need to be included can be so desperate it leads to so much unthinking cruelty. But the film ends with a whisper of hope as their tender romance does survive and Emmi’s solution for them is simple: ‘when we’re together, we must be nice to one another.’
Written, directed and produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in just 15 days, Roger Ebert says in his review that he made the film so quickly he only had time to tell the truth. And the truth isn’t very easy to watch. Fassbinder plays Emmi’s obnoxiously racist son in law, but the casual remarks and looks and assumptions held by her co-workers and neighbours felt very familiar.