Italian Neorealism and New German Cinema: National Film Movements and their Similarities


THE POST-WAR ERA that occurred after World War II inspired different film movements in a few different countries throughout Europe, including Italy, France, and Germany. The post-war film movements transcended their national boundaries and eventually became prominent in the art of film, the film industry, and to those who view films. Two such movements – Italian Neorealism and New German Cinema – occurred twenty years apart from each other, but nonetheless, share similar qualities. One film that stands out is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – a film that was made during Germany’s post-war film movement, New German Cinema, but one that contains many elements of Italy’s post-war film movement, Italian Neorealism, as well.

Italian Neorealism occurred directly after World War II and dealt with the concept of showing daily, ordinary life in an attempt to make films more realistic. As a movement that was reacting to the war and its effects, there was much focus on social issues, specifically surrounding socioeconomic status, unemployment, and working class people. Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), for example, deals with Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) who is a lower class man trying to get a job to support his family. He has to buy back a bicycle that he pawned off in order to have a job hanging up posters. While on the job, his bicycle is stolen and he tries desperately to get it back because he needs it to be able to keep the job. In addition to the “social problem” theme, David Bordwell comments that “Neorealist storytelling tends to flatten all events to the same level, playing down climaxes and dwelling on mundane locales or behaviors.[1] Other characteristics of Italian Neorealism include scenes shot on-location, the use of unprofessional actors, and open endings.[2]

Beginning in the late 1960s and occurring twenty years after the start of Italian Neorealism, New German Cinema became Germany’s official post-World War II film movement. Themes that often arise in films associated with New German Cinema include “loss, guilt, paralysis, and grief,”[3] as well as characters that are suffering in some way or are physically flawed.[4] In the early days of New German Cinema (initially named Young German Cinema), documentary film style was the preferred method of filming, which “[upholds] the tradition of other postwar cinema movements” such as Italian Neorealism.[5] New German Cinema also contains themes of “working through something”[6] (such as the aforementioned themes of loss, guilt, paralysis, and grief), which is similar to situations found in Italian Neorealistic films, such as dealing with unemployment in Bicycle Thieves or going through life during the Nazi occupation of Rome in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a German melodrama from the New German Cinema period that focuses on racism as a response to the racism that occurred in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s reign. Moroccan immigrant, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), and German woman, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), meet one night at a bar after Emmi walked in to escape from the rain. Upon seeing Emmi sitting alone, one of the women at the bar suggests that Ali ask Emmi to dance with him. The couple dances and converses with each other, and when the song ends, they walk back to Emmi’s table where Ali proceeds to pay for her cola. Next, Ali offers to walk Emmi home, however, when they arrive at her apartment building, Emmi suggests that Ali come up to her apartment so he would not have to walk home in the rain. Ali ends up staying the night instead of walking far to get back home and so that he does not have to sleep in his room which he shares with five other men. The next morning, Emmi wakes up to find Ali lying next to her and remembers what had happened just hours earlier. The pair begins to form a relationship and eventually marry, but Emmi is ostracized by friends, family, and strangers alike because she is in an interracial relationship with a man who is considerably younger than she is.

Throughout the film, Ali is discriminated against solely because he is a black immigrant. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul uses the “social problem” response to World War II that was often emphasized in Italian Neorealism, but puts attention on racism. The use of racism as the social problem is a delayed response (but a response, no less) to the Nazi Era ideologies on race and Hitler’s desire for a “master race.” Socioeconomic issues are also apparent in the film as seen in the last few minutes when Ali is hospitalized due to an ulcer. But, the doctor tells Emmi that this condition is not uncommon among immigrant workers because of the socioeconomic stress that they face in society.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul possesses qualities of two pre-Italian Neorealism films that were influential to Italian Neorealism: Luchino Visconti’s Obsession (1943) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Children are Watching Us (1943). These two films were particularly influential in the familial representations shown in Italian Neorealism films.[7] According to Gianluca Schiavo, the family setting was “no longer [the] place where traditional values were handed down, where a woman was an affectionate wife and a thoughtful mother (a pillar of the fascist view); rather, the family was the source of deep female dissatisfaction and of hot adulterine passions that in both stories led to tragic epilogues.”[8] In order to show how New German Cinema borrows from Italian Neorealism in this aspect, I will examine Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and then I will analyze the similarities found in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Rome, Open City involves a poor, widowed woman named Pina (Anna Magnani) who lives in Rome during the era of Nazi Occupation. Pina cares for her young son, Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) and is pregnant with another child from a different man, her fiancé Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Pina is not the traditional housewife figure found in many films from that time. Instead, she is part of a resistance group during an extremely conservative period in Rome. In addition, she became pregnant with her second child while unmarried which may also be seen as non-traditional when considering the important role that Catholicism played in her life as well as in Rome. While it is subjective that this factor may be considered as a result of “hot adulterine passions,” the story, nonetheless, ends in Pina’s tragic killing. Pina makes her dissatisfaction about her life known early on in the film. She says to the priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), “I feel like I’ve led a bad life…I love [Francesco] and he’s so kind. He could have found a better woman: [a] young girl, not a widow with a child, penniless – because I sold everything in order to live. How can we forget these sufferings, anxieties, fears?” By this admission, it is clear that she is not the carefree, simple housewife found in other narratives that dominate cinema.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the female characters exhibit this same idea as well. Emmi exhibits traits of the non-traditional woman because she, like Pina, is a widow, but all of her children are grown. She is a working class woman who is older and lives alone prior to her relationship with Ali, so she goes against the stereotypes of a traditional housewife. She also seems greatly dissatisfied with her life because of the fact that she is a widow and hardly ever sees her children. In light of these factors, her relationship with Ali may have just been out of loneliness or dissatisfaction with her own life. The woman who works at the bar (Katharina Herberg) and who is a friend of Ali’s lives alone from what the audience may conclude about her living space – a small, cramped apartment. The lack of a family or a significant other in her life challenges the stereotypes of a woman being the “affectionate wife” and “thoughtful mother.” Throughout the film, the bartender does not have much to say and almost always looks either neutral or melancholy – a sign of dissatisfaction. While this assumed dissatisfaction is never verbally expressed by the bartender, it can be inferred that the root of her dissatisfaction stems from her lack of a significant other. To explain, although Emmi and Ali were married, the bartender knowingly consented to sexual relations with Ali. This also relates to the theme of “hot adulterine passions” leading to “tragic epilogues” because by the end of the film, Emmi and Ali’s marriage is in jeopardy and Ali suffers from stress-induced ulcers.

The ordinariness of the scenes in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul complies with the concept of showing the mundaneness of daily life in Italian Neorealistic films. There are several scenes when Ali and Emmi eat at the kitchen table and occasionally say a few words to each other. In addition to the “kitchen table” scenes, there is a scene just after Emmi and Ali marry and they go to an Italian restaurant to celebrate. However, not much dialogue is passed between the two which makes the scene mundane. There is also a scene in which Emmi goes to the Arabic bar for a second time and, again, orders a cola. The bartender is shown taking the glass and cola bottle out and setting them both on the bar, she then picks them up, and the camera follows her while she walks from the back of the bar and to the front of the room where Emmi’s table is located. When she makes it to Emmi’s table, she sets down both the glass and the bottle, and pours the cola into the glass. This is all one continuous shot – a long take. There is no editing to “get to the point,” as there might have been in a Classical Hollywood style film, for example. By executing the scene like this, it further adds to the concept of showing mundane situations. Fassbinder is even quoted with saying that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a “simple melodrama,” and “a very straightforward film, not one it would occur to anybody to call art.”[9] The film shares these similarities with a scene from Bicycle Thieves. The scene occurs when Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) take a break from looking for the bicycle and go to a restaurant to eat. While in the restaurant, father and son converse, drink wine, and eat fried cheese – an embracement of the ordinary.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Italian Neorealistic films – including Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City – contain characters and settings that are unglamorous and flawed. Many of the scenes are shot on-location and give a more realistic representation of the film’s setting. Also, the actors are captured in a natural state, wearing very little make-up (if any at all) and dressing as average working class people. In addition, Italian Neorealism usually used people who were not actors. This holds true for El Hedi ben Salem in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul because he was not a professional actor, but Fassbinder’s lover instead.[10] These techniques capture the Italian Neorealism concept of using “non-actors filmed in rough,”[11] as well.

Unresolved issues are a trend throughout films of the Italian Neorealism movement, and are just as prominent in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. At the end of the film, Emmi is visiting Ali in the hospital after he had surgery for an ulcer; however, there is no closure at the end of the film. The audience does not know what will happen with Ali’s health or with Emmi and Ali’s complicated relationship. Examples of this in Italian Neorealism appear in both Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City. In Bicycle Thieves, Antonio and Bruno never succeed in finding Antonio’s stolen bicycle, and Antonio never succeeds in finding (or stealing) another bicycle. The closing shot of the film is Antonio and Bruno walking away from the camera and back into the crowd, because they are, after all, just part of “the crowd.” At the end of Rome, Open City, the priest, Don Pietro, is executed for not admitting to his activity as a messenger for the resistance group. A group of children who had a close relationship to Don Pietro saw the execution transpire and the last shot of the film is of the children walking off down a street. What all three of these scenes have in common is that there are no restrictions or limits to what could have happened in the world of the film. In addition, all three of these scenes end unhappily as a way to show that “real life” does not always end happily as it does in a majority of other films, which is another factor that contributes to the concept of Italian Neorealism.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, while part of the New German Cinema movement, shares several qualities with films that were part of Italian Neorealism, and just may have been influenced by Italian Neorealism. With its reaction to racial and social ideologies from Hitler’s Regime, its focus on showing daily life, its use of a non-actor and on-location filming, and its lack of closure at the end, the influence of Italian Neorealism is apparent and shows how the Italian Neorealism movement has had significance in a different national film industry.



[1] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, (New York: Higher Education, 2010), 333.


[3]Caryl Flinn, The New German Cinema: Music, History, and the Matter of Style, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 9.

[4]Ibid., 271.

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Ibid., 2.

[7]Gianluca Schiavo, “Language and National Identity: The ‘Revolution’ of Italian Neorealism,” Fu Jen Studies: Literature and Linguistics 45, (2012): 105.

[8]Gianluca Schiavo, “Language and National Identity: The ‘Revolution’ of Italian Neorealism,” Fu Jen Studies: Literature and Linguistics 45, (2012): 105.

[9]Michael Töteberg, “All That Fassbinder Allows,” Fassbinder Films 3, (1990): 1.

[10]“The Bitter Tears of Fassbinder’s Women,” The Guardian, (1999): 1.

[11]David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, (New York: Higher Education, 2010), 333.

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Amber Stankoff is a Junior at Oakland University majoring in Cinema Studies and minoring in Communication and History. Her ambitions for the future include becoming a film editor or working in film distribution. Her research interests are rooted in gender and sexuality in film, with special attention to marginalized groups.