Fear of Fear
Angst vor der Angst
1975 (TV) — 88 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
Powerful, vividly-designed psychological drama about a housewife descending into insanity.
Although rarely seen since its premiere on German television in 1975, Fear of Fear is a powerful, vividly-designed psychological drama about a housewife fighting her inexorable descent into madness. Margit Carstensen, one of Fassbinder's greatest divas, gives a spellbinding performance in the lead. In fact, every aspect of the film is inspired, and it deserves a prominent place in Fassbinder's filmography.
Fear of Fear focuses on Margot Staudte (Margit Carstensen), a middle-class housewife who lives comfortably with her hard-working, pleasant husband Kurt (Ulrich Faulhaber) and young daughter Bibi (Constanze Haas). Nearby in another apartment are her scalding mother (Brigitte Mira), snooping sister Lore (Irm Hermann) and her husband Karli (Armin Meier), who has a crush on Margot. During her second pregnancy, Margot begins to experience uncontrollable anxiety which becomes so devastating that she fears insanity. To make matters worse, when she leaves her cramped apartment she is stalked by a sinister neighbor, Mr. Bauer (Kurt Raab). For relief she desperately turns to cognac and Valium, and soon begins exchanging sex for extra drugs from Dr. Merck (Adrian Hoven), an exploitative pharmacist. But nothing helps, and it becomes impossible to hide her condition from her family's prying eyes. Margot's mother and sister scorn her, while her patient husband, in a last desperate effort, commits her to a mental hospital, which begins the film's final section.
Margit Carstensen, always superb in Fassbinder's films (including the title roles in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha; here are all of her credits with Fassbinder), gives a riveting performance of nuance, depth, and quiet power. (It is 180 degrees from her fabulously crazed turn as the lustful noblewoman in The Niklashausen Journey.) She helps give this logistically-modest television film "based on a true story" which is radically unlike any U.S. movie of the week a force comparable to, say, one of Strindberg's major works. In fact, the year before making this film the phenomenally-productive Fassbinder had staged Miss Julie (along with three other theatre productions, while writing/directing three films). Strindberg's 1888 play is comparable to Fear of Fear, in general terms, in its exploration of a woman in profound conflict with herself. Fassbinder was likely drawn to Strindberg's combination of psychology, naturalism, and boldly concentrated style, which paved the way for expressionism. Although the framing of this film recalls Douglas Sirk's trenchant '50s Hollywood melodramas (All That Heaven Allows), the imagery brings to mind filmmaker/theatre director Ingmar Bergman (Persona), who considered himself a disciple of Strindberg. (I noted Bergman's influence on Fassbinder in my reviews of Katzelmacher, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Effi Briest.)
But Fear of Fear is, of course, pure Fassbinder, and it fits into the broader scope of his body of work, in particular to that group of films which explore people with such unbearable internal conflict that they implode. Paradoxically, this is one of his dramatically clearest yet most emotionally, and even politically, ambiguous pictures. As a "case study" focused on one character, it bears comparison to The Merchant of Four Seasons (which has been hailed by clinical psychologists for Fassbinder's depth of understanding of mental illness, as well as by cinema critics and audiences for its superlative filmmaking). And in its dissection of the complex social pressures which bear on the individual, it is comparable to Effi Briest. Yet in its compassion, it looks back the film which immediately preceded it, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. What sets Fear of Fear apart from those other extraordinary works is that here Fassbinder goes even further in internalizing the depiction of his protagonist, even to the extent that the design, not to mention all of the subjective shots, reflect Margot's singular point of view. I also believe that the ending is more complex, or at least ambiguous, than some people give it credit for; I will discuss that below.
Part of the film's power comes from the paradox that, while Fassbinder focuses with laserlike intensity on one woman, he simultaneously suggests a wealth of resonances which can be interpreted by those who are so inclined as allegorical (Margot as "everywoman"), or even existential (the particularity of one individual in an unknowable universe, vividly dramatized through image and sound). Always political, Fassbinder also makes the film suggest, without any ideological sledgehammering, the complex interplay of the individual, family, and society. Philosophy and politics aside, the film has a gripping immediacy; and my subjective impression of its length was not its 88 minutes, but more like five minutes. Fortunately, I have never experienced anything like Margot's breakdown; but I could feel the truth in this film, which brought to mind a few friends who have endured experiences akin to hers.
This "little" film achieves so much because of Fassbinder's mastery of both drama and visual/aural style. The film's momentum comes not only from its sharp focus on Margot, but from Fassbinder's taut and elliptical screenplay, which was suggested by an idea given him by journalist/novelist Asta Scheib. Each scene is brief, and feels both sharply focused on the relationships it depicts (either Margot with others, or with herself there are many intimate scenes of her alone), yet resonant with more. That suggestive quality is augmented by the many fade-outs which punctuate the film, sometimes sharply as they break a scene off in mid-course. Some, but not all, of these fades were to allow for commercials in the original television broadcast. But, as he did so often, Fassbinder turns a logistical snag into an aesthetic and emotional strength. All of those fades subtly suggest Margot's point of view, as her mind blanks out the sometimes hopelessly banal, or emotionally terrifying to her, scenes in which finds herself. The screen, and Margot's perceptions, shift into darkness only to reemerge much further along in the narrative than in a conventional TV movie. This creates a kind of brief, poignant confusion: Where am I? Oh, yes, I guess...
A typical U.S. movie of the week would try to package Margot's illness into a three-act structure of melodramatic setup, protracted hand-wringing development and climax, then tidy resolution. But while Fassbinder's screenplay is superbly constructed (yes, it does follow the classical three-act structure), he opens up the complexity of Margot's condition makes us feel what she feels, through Carsten's performance and his evocative visuals instead of reducing everything to a network "disease of the week" cliché.
As in Effi Briest, Fassbinder makes powerful use of ellision. To take just one example, he cuts from a scene at home with the bleeding Margot, who is about to go into premature labor, to a shadowy scene set days later (Jans birth is completely passed over), after she has returned home, when she says with chilling matter of factness, "I have two children and I'm going insane."
Some people may find the characters surrounding Margot to be underdeveloped. But this is a highly subjective film, relentlessly focused on Margot, and that is how she perceives the people around her. To her they are flat, just like her world. The shallow visual field, employed by Fassbinder throughout the film, is so effective because it reflects Margot's perceptions; it helps us feel what she feels about her surroundings.
The strangest dramatic element is Kurt Raab as Mr. Bauer, a shadowy doppelgänger figure who stalks Margot. [This frame with Mr. Bauer is one of the most powerful shots in the film] Every time she leaves his apartment, there he is, coming at her. Bauer is a deeply creepy figure in a trench coat (in broad daylight), following Margot, accosting her and her freaked-out daughter with lines about how he knows "her secret." It is like Raab stepped out of his own recent serial killer film, Tenderness of the Wolves (which he directed, and which Fassbinder produced, edited and appeared in), and into Margot's world. You almost expect Rod Serling to pop up and offer a paranormal explanation.
But this is another of Fassbinder's strategies for showing us the deep strangeness of Margot's world. It is a world haunted by several absences, including her infant son Jan (we skip over his off-screen birth, and virtually never see him), who is even more of a phantom than Bauer. (Fear of Fear is vastly more than what some people claim, namely that it is a mere dramatization of post partum depression.) Although it is clear that Bauer is real, since several characters see him, he also feels like a phantom which has emerged from the Margot's personal abyss.
An even more direct expression of Margot's perceptions are the simple but powerful "watery" special effects shots, which graphically depict Margot's unhinged perspective. (It would not be surprising if Fassbinder, a voracious filmgoer, borrowed the effect from the 1962 cult ghost movie, Carnival of Souls, in which the same "watery" effect signals the entry of the woman protagonist comparable in many ways to Margot into an eerie parallel world where no one can see or hear her.) These are introduced in one of the most unnerving shots in the film: Over the opening credits, Fassbinder uses a track and zoom (famously introduced by Hitchcock in Vertigo), which simultaneously makes the characters appear stationary even as their surroundings vertiginously lurch towards us. Fassbinder ups the ante by also introducing the first "watery" Margot POV effect, showing us not only what she sees, but viscerally what she feels.
More subtle, but no less effective, are the ways in which Fassbinder uses shape and color. Fassbinder makes even the claustrophobia engendered by composing for the box-like television screen work to the film's stylistic, and hence emotional, advantage. (Although originally presented in the standard 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio, the Fassbinder Foundation, in keeping with Fassbiner's wishes, has released the DVD in 1:66.1.) That literal constriction is right for Margot's trapped, and eroding, psychological state. Also the film uses many closeups, which both satisfies television's insistence on filling the screen with faces even as it reveals Margot's blindered field of vision. She perceives people as looming presences close, yet impenetrable.
Fassbinder also makes extensive use of mirrors, as he does in several other films (notably in Effi Briest and Chinese Roulette), and perhaps as an homage to that master of mirror use, Douglas Sirk. In this film, the oval-shaped mirror in the dressmaker's shop, which uncannily (or perhaps cost-effectively) reappears in Margot's living room, encapsulates the static nature of her life. She sees herself, literally and figuratively, in an infinitely diminishing regression. With all the mirrors in the film, Margot never finds a whole reflection of herself. As an aside, let it be noted that Fassbinder, sometimes accused of being an "un-visual" filmmaker (by casual viewers), is the common link between the three "mirror pictures" mentioned here – Effi Briest, Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette – each of which was shot by a different director of photography.
Even more visceral than the mirror imagery is Fassbinder's motif of fragmented people, showing them literally, and metaphorically, cut off. The narrow hallways and doors block characters from each other and, by implication, themselves. Fassbinder is especially deft at using this device to develop, through purely visual means, the enigmatic character of Bibi, Margot's young, often silent, daughter. Her fragmentation within the frame does not bode well for her future; but of course it adds to the poignancy of this sweet-natured but profoundly unfulfilled child.
Fassbinder's visual scheme works seamlessly with his dramatic strategy. And although the film is too rich to be just a simpleminded critique of bourgeois life, its use of color sometimes takes on a satirical cast. For instance, the wallpaper in the Staudtes' apartment surrounds Margot in what resembles a beige jail, the narrowly-spaced vertical stripes like prison bars. It is simultaneously dead-on accurate, as a typical style of the day, and drolly commentative on the blandness of Margot's "nice" life. If any wallpaper can inhibit self-reflection, that is it. Fassbinder sometimes uses his characters to augment the claustrophobia of the apartment, as when Margot's entire family intervenes her mother and sister to scald, her husband to help and she is literally pushed out of the frame. The design elements, simply yet evocatively, add to the drama.
Fassbinder also knows when to use color to give us a jolt, as seen in the visceral image of Bauer above. He is drenched in blood red, from a reflection on the window of the drug store. This quick shock image underscore the importance of the location. It is a place of exploitation (one of the central themes running through Fassbinder's work) where the respectable-seeming pharmacist forces Margot into a sexual affair. Only then will he illicitly give her ever-greater quantities of prescription drugs to stifle futilely, of course her psychosis.
Other times, Fassbinder creates images of enormous emotional, and thematic complexity. Late in the film, while Margot is near complete disintegration, look at the shot – held longer than one would expect – of her and Bibi. Mother and daughter nestled together, both in a foetal position, beneath a reproduction of a cheap reproduction of the Madonna and child. There is a raw tenderness in their huddling together; and we feel the relief that both are able to sleep, after the harrowing events we have gone through. Yet there is something a bit ironic, and distancing, about that cheap reproduction suspended over their head, and literally highlighted with a key light (reminiscent of how Fassbinder used the giant Poussin mural in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to comment on the women standing below it). Also a bit looming are the contrast of the disproportionately large potted plant (suggesting jungle life, as in Martha) and the tacky chandelier (man-made, mass-produced). Still, I am moved by this quiet moment of simple, heartfelt connection between the two most emotionally damaged characters in the film. Some people may feel that I am reading too much into one image; but it can be argued that part of Fassbinder's greatness is that the more closely you look at his work, the more layers of meaning, and emotion, you find.
This connection of the two women also points to the film's resonant conclusion, in which Margot seemingly for the first time connects with women. Soon after this moment with Bibi, she finds herself in a mental hospital. This penultimate sequence of the film is relatively brief, but evocative. At the hospital, she meets Dr. von Unruh, a woman psychiatrist (played effectively by Helga Märthesheimer, the producer's wife). At first, you might think that Fassbinder is using von Unruh ironically. The camera slowly, rhythmically pans back and forth on the good doctor (in a particular pattern which Fassbinder borrowed from Godard, and used often in his first ten or so films), a portrait of Freud hangs portentously over her shoulder, and her name is almost allegorical. Unruh literally means balance; but with the addition of a final "e" Fassbinder could haved completely changed the association of the name, since Unruhe is the German for uneasiness, even alarm (which suggests the "fear" of the title). Beyond the healing implications of her name, Dr. von Unruh seems genuinely to care about Margot, and to help her.
Even more than with the doctor, Margot connects on a deep, mysterious level with a taciturn patient. Although Edda (played by Ingrid Caven) seems to be in even more psychological straits than Margot, there is a palpable, and moving, silent connection between them. Fassbinder underscores this visually with a "Janus-faced" composition [frame is taken from the longer tracking shot]. It is comparable to the ones he employed so memorably in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It's also reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's indelible images in Persona of two women's faces merging into one. This brief relationship with Edda (whose name carries a suggestion of the Eddas, the ancient sources of Germanic myth) subtly implies that what helps Margot begin to reintegrate herself is her connection with another woman, and by implication with female energy. It feels like there is a good deal of subtextual, and allusive, weight given to these brief scenes at the hospital; and one wishes that Fassbinder had developed them more. On the other hand, their ambiguity does mesh with Margot's own developing perceptions; and the lightness of Fassbinder's (possibly) symbolic touch opens up the range of interpretation for each viewer.
As noted above, some people consider the conclusion of this film as hopelessly bleak as the ones in The Merchant of Four Seasons or Effi Briest. Margot returns home, supposedly "cured" by her stay in the hospital. Yet the final high angle through-the-window shot unmistakably from her POV not only contains the morbid image of Bauer's coffin being carted off (he committed suicide), it again uses the "watery" effect which signals her breakdown.
At the end of the film, Fassbinder again shows us the title, Angst vor der Angst, which literally translates as "fear before [the] fear." But is there room for at least a ray of hope? Perhaps we should take Margot's surname into account. Staudte is similar to the German Staude, the word for a perennial plant which dies down in winter but, a few months later, springs back to life. Also, her ominous doppelgänger Bauer so fond of reminding her of her mental disintegration is gone for good. On a less symbolic plane, also consider both Margot's progress at the clinic, including her nascent connection with herself as a woman, and her fervent desire to be healed. Perhaps if Margot's fear precedes fear, then afterwards now her personal reintegration can begin.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a very good transfer, with additional resources detailed below. Although this film was made for television, and hence would have been shown in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the DVD has released the film in Fassbinder's preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 24 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed July 14, 2003
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