Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is a dowdy cleaning lady well into her sixties. One day, when it's raining particularly hard while she's walking home from work, she ducks into a bar to stay dry. The bar caters to African and Middle Eastern immigrants. One of those immigrants is Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a tall, handsome, taciturn man from Morocco who immigrated to Germany looking for work. Ali rather surprisingly overlooks the two very attractive women in the bar (one of whom is the bartender) and asks Emmi to dance. Then he offers to escort her home. Then they sleep together.
Soon they are married, despite the fact that Ali is barely half Emmi's age. Unfortunately this tender romance is spoiled by the virulent racism and intolerance of Emmi's family and all her neighbors and friends. German hatred for black people and for Muslims, the latter being at a fever pitch after the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, threatens to break the couple up.
- All of the Other Reindeer: Pretty much everyone is cruel to poor Emmi.
- Creator Cameo: Fassbinder has a small role as Emmi's son-in-law Eugen.
- Gossipy Hens: Emmi's nasty neighbors, especially Frau Karges, who literally runs to another neighbor's door to spread the news when she sees Emmi bringing a tall African man home.
- Green-Eyed Monster: While most people are racist towards the new couple, the ladies at the bar are jealous. The attractive young woman who's clearly interested in Ali calls Emmi a "whore."
- I Have No Son!: "You can forget you have children," spits Emmi's son Albert after Emmi delivers the news of her marriage. Later her other son Bruno comes back to make amends, but clearly only because he needs Emmi for babysitting duty.
- Leave the Camera Running: A hallmark of Fassbinder's career, here used for several shots of Ali and/or Emmi within doorways. First, there's a long, lingering shot from a distance of the two of them, alone at a table in a fancy restaurant. Then there's a similar shot of Emmi after Ali abandons her to go off to the sexy bartender's apartment. Then there's still another similar shot of Ali framed in the doorway of the bartender's bedroom.
- Local Hangout: The Asphalt Bar, which caters to Arab immigrants.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Hello, Ali's penis.... and hello again!
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Seems like Germany was super-racist in the 1970s. Upon receiving the news, Emmi's three children disown her, her son Bruno going so far as to kick in the screen to her television in a fit of rage. Her neighbors mock her, her coworkers shun her, the corner grocer deliberately humiliates Ali, and the staff at a bistro simply stand and stare at the couple while they try to have lunch.
- May–December Romance: A pretty rare example of one where the "December" is female; Harold and Maude is another.
- Mr. Fanservice: Tall, musclebound Ali. Emmi admires him in the shower, saying, "You are beautiful". Later she invites her friends to feel his muscles.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The only person who doesn't crap on Emmi for taking an African lover is the landlord of her dumpy apartment building. When Emmi's neighbor Frau Karges tries to draw the landlord into catty gossip, the landlord says merely that Emmi is a nice person and seems happy.
- Shout-Out: The opening titles has the epigram, "Happiness is not such a nice thing" from Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir.
- The Stoic: Ali rarely shows his emotions. When Emmi starts acting as racist towards him as all the other Germans, then shows off his muscles to her neighbors like he's a prize horse, his face is impassive. But he does leave the house and spend the night in the bed of the sexy bartender.
- Third-Person Person: Ali does this a lot, almost certainly as a result of his less-than-fluent German.
- Title Drop: In the first bloom of their romance, Emmi says "I'm so happy, but so full of fear too." Ali replies with "Fear no good. Fear eat soul up." The line, delivered by Ali in broken German as "Angst essen Seele auf," was translated into correct English for the English title. The line in correct German would be "Angst isst die Seele auf."