For all the menace emitted by "Caligula" (Stig Järrel), the sadistic teacher in Alf Sjöberg's Torment, for me the most chilling moment in the film comes when young Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin) returns home in the early hours of the morning after having slept with Bertha (Mai Zetterling), instead of staying home and studying for his upcoming exams. He slips into his darkened room and turns on the light only to find his father (Olav Riégo) sitting there. The father rises and leaves the room without a word, creating a miasma of guilt so thick you could hack chunks out of it. Torment is a deeply unsettling movie that foreshadows some of the ways its novice screenwriter, Ingmar Bergman, could cloud over even the sunniest disposition with the films he would later direct. It also anticipates Bergman's occasional resort to overkill in his own films, piling misery upon misery. He wrote the screenplay to get even with his own education, to show how the very system of schooling thwarts creativity in the name of discipline. Jan-Erik is a dutiful student who really wants to spend time practicing the violin, but he's forced into the mold provided by the system, which includes a mind-numbing drill in Latin grammar that brings out the will to power in the teacher students call Caligula. It has been suggested that Caligula, who reads a Nazi newspaper in one scene, is also a veiled portrait of the Nazi presence in officially neutral Sweden, but that's only one element in the character's sinister villainy. He's mostly a despoiler of youth, including not only handsome Jan-Erik but also the tobacco shop clerk Bertha, whom he secretly terrorizes, and when Jan-Erik falls for Bertha, Caligula makes the most of it. Torment is a disjointed film, with Sjöberg and cinematographer Martin Bodin laying on the expressionist shadows and camera angles perhaps too heavily, and it never really comes across as an indictment of the education system -- there's a cheerily forgiving teacher and the headmaster really seems to be a well-meaning man -- so much as a somewhat truncated coming-of-age melodrama.
When I say that Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is a plain, rather dumpy German woman in her 60s, and that Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a dark, well-built Moroccan man in his late 30s, I'm not just describing them, I'm "othering" them, depending on your own age, nationality, and other physical considerations. The fear that eats the soul in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's social problem drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the fear of the other. And what draws Emmi and Ali into their odd coupling is their willingness to set aside the fear and accept each other. The film is not quite as formulaic as that sounds, of course: As writer and director, Fassbinder is willing to go beyond that and show that even acceptance can be a kind of exploitation. Emmi and Ali exploit each other for sex, for companionship on Emmi's side, for comfortable lodging on Ali's side. Inevitably, their relationship stirs outrage: The other residents of Emmi's apartment house are outraged at Ali's close presence in their snug German world; Emmi's family disowns her; her co-workers among the cleaning ladies at an office building snub her; the owner of the convenience store across the street refuses to serve Ali ostensibly because he doesn't speak proper German. And then things turn around when those who shun Emmi and Ali discover the potential for exploitation: The female residents realize that Ali can be useful to move things in the apartment house's basement storage area, and when Emmi invites them in, they circle Ali and admiringly feel his flexed biceps. The family accepts Emmi again when it turns out they need her babysitting services. The co-workers draw Emmi back in when they need her support in negotiating a raise and to exclude a new lower-paid woman recently immigrated from Yugoslavia. The shopowner welcomes them back as customers because a new supermarket is stealing his trade. And then there's another twist: Emmi and Ali become alienated from each other. He resents her displaying him like a trophy to the neighbors. She refuses to cook couscous for him because she doesn't like it. They split, and only come to a tentative reconciliation at the end when they allow each other their freedom. But fear doesn't just eat the soul, it also eats the stomach lining: Ali collapses from a stomach ulcer, which, a doctor explains to Emmi, is common among German "guest-workers" -- the immigrant laborers like Ali who helped bring about the Wirtschaftswunder of postwar German recovery. Ali will survive but the ulcer will recur. What saves Fassbinder's film from the didacticism of its problem-drama setup is first of all the credible performances of Mira and ben Salem, whose very ordinariness makes the situation feel real in ways that it might not have if the characters had been played by movie stars. But mostly it's the artfulness of Fassbinder's direction and his use of setting, framing the characters through doorways and in stairwells that create a world of confinement. Things never quite seem settled or easy for anyone. Even when Emmi's son angrily kicks in her TV set -- a detail Fassbinder borrowed from Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows -- it takes him a frustratingly long time to succeed. In the post-9/11/2001 world, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul looks perhaps a little dated. There's an allusion to the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and someone groups Ali with "bombers," but anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of terrorism don't play the overt role in the prejudice against Ali the way they might today. The fear in the title is a more abstract and pervasive one.