Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ulrich Faulhaber, Brigitte Mira, Kurt Raab, Irm Hermann

Margot, a lovely housewife who lives in a middle-class apartment with her husband, young daughter, and infant son, begins to suffer from depression. Her husband and daughter are not particularly understanding and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live in an apartment upstairs, are controlling, judgmental, and watch her every movement. Margot fears she is going insane and has vision problems, anxiety attacks, and is followed by Herr Bauer, a neighbor who claims that he understands. She shuns him and flees into the arms of the local pharmacist. She has sex with him for an unlimited supply of Valium, which she begins mixing with alcohol, leading to a downward spiral.

This Made-for-TV psychological melodrama is one of Fassbinder’s lesser seen films, but has quickly become one of my favorites. Cinema is certainly no stranger to films about people going mad in domestic spaces for no apparent reason – another of my favorite films, Jeanne Dielman, considered a classic of this subgenre – but Fassbinder has made a career out of this theme, including Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, Effi Briest, Whity, Bremen Freedom, Martha, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Despair, I Only Want You to Love me, Nora Helmer, and even – to different degrees – Jail Bait, Fear Eats the Soul, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. Along with Why Does Herr R Run Amok and The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fear of Fear is among the most overt, with a simple plot structure that follows one character through a descent into madness and despair.

Margit Carstensen, perhaps my favorite of Fassbinder’s actresses, is exquisite here as Margot. She depicts frailty, paranoia, and mania with grace and sympathy and she sheds all of the histrionics of Martha. Her portrayal of Margot transcends simpler depictions of bourgeois depression, post-partum mania, and feminine hysteria. She reaches a more universal, almost martyred level of suffering and it is easy to forget that this is fundamentally a melodrama that takes place in a cramped apartment. Fear of Fear is certainly an example of the influence of Douglas Sirk, one of Fassbinder’s favorite directors, but it also bears things in common with the drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, something Fassbinder evoked earlier with Nora Helmer. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (and Nora Helmer), Margot’s madness is not a sign of submissive defeat, but of rebellion and revolt.

The gangly, tall, and rail-thin Margot seem too large for her apartment. Fassbinder has filled the set with mirrors, angled hallways, and bisecting door frames that add to the air of paranoia and claustrophobia. The environment is also psychologically restricting. She doesn’t fit in with her in-laws (Fassbinder regulars Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann) who tell her she does everything wrong, from eating to parenting, dressing, and behaving. Irm Hermann, Fassbinder’s one-time girlfriend, has played a number of these disdainful characters that thrive on paranoia and control, including Fear Eats the Soul, Mother Kusters, and Effi Briest. Here, she is Margot’s opposite. They are both tall and fair-haired, but Margot is beautiful, well-dressed, and spends her days relaxing in leisure. Her frumpy sister-in-law lashes out at her as often as possible, likely due to jealousy, and she watches Margot obsessively through a second-story window, tracking her every movement outside the apartment building.

Her only true ally is Herr Bauer, a sad-eyed, shadowy figure who often appears on the street. Played by actor Kurt Raab, also Fassbinder’s artistic director on many films, Bauer has an almost supernatural quality. His eyes plead with Margot, but she is terrified by him and runs away from him for no reason. She doesn’t begin to feel real sympathy or understand their connection until he kills himself. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly desperate – she tries to escape from the world by taking pills, guzzling alcohol, and listening to Leonard Cohen on her headphones. There is something regressive and almost immature about this behavior. She rebels against her restrictive home life, but also against family and domesticity itself. As in Effi Briest and Bremen Freedom, Fassbinder does not depict the birth of her second child (though she is shown as pregnant early in the film), and effectively deletes the baby from the film, turning it into an unseen but constant source of anxiety.

In several of his films, the family unit is combined with themes of moral conservatism and religious belief.  In Fear of Fear, a painting above Margot’s bed of the Madonna and Child stands out and contrasts her behavior with her own children. There is similar religious imagery in his other films about crumbling families, such as Jail Bait and Merchant of the Four Season, where the camera seems to emphasize a wooden crucifix as the lone decoration on a white bedroom wall. It is easy to conflate Margot with both Hanni of Jail Bait and Hans of Merchant of the Four Seasons; the former is a teen rebelling against her parents conservative bourgeois values, while the latter is an adult man who despairs at the life his cruel mother and cold wife have chosen for him.

Fear of Fear comes highly recommended and will interest everyone from Fassbinder fanatics to fans of art house bourgeois films, to anyone who enjoys movies about a descent into madness. Fascinatingly, it prefigures a pill-obsessed society – such as the US psychiatric drug binge that began in the ‘90s -- with Margot’s desperate Valium popping, her subsequent induction into a mental hospital, and her chilling declaration at the end of the film that, “I have a deep depression and I need my pills to pull out of it.” Pick it up on DVD here, though hopefully one day it will see a Criterion release alongside Martha.

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