Films about housewives losing their identity in a marriage or slowly going bonkers from the daily rituals of domesticity are plentiful enough to form their own distinctive subgenre. Among the most intriguing of these films, all of which reflect the specific time and cultural moment in which they were made, are Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Chantal Akerman’s landmark 1975 feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quia du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Dusan Makavejev’s Montenegro (1981), and the curious Canadian indie Dancing in the Dark (1986), directed by Leon Marr. But the one I’d like to highlight and which I had the pleasure of revisiting recently on DVD is Fear of Fear (German title: Angst vor der Angst, 1975), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Based on a semiautobiographical account by Asta Scheib, a housewife turned writer, Fear of Fear is not usually grouped with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and a handful of others that are considered high water marks in Fassbinder’s career. Yet, in some ways, this modestly budgeted psychological drama is one of his more easily accessible films for a Fassbinder beginner and Margit Carstensen’s inspired performance as an increasingly neurotic housewife is sympathetic and affecting on an emotional level which is not my usual reaction to a Fassbinder film. Many of his finest films often reflect an objective, even detached point of view as if you are observing life under a microscope or they present his subjects in a deliberately stylized and theatrical manner. Fear of Fear is another matter entirely since it was commissioned for German television and has the look and feel of a seventies made-for-TV movie.
Episodic in nature, the movie opens with a typical middle class family scene; Kurt (Ulrich Faulhaber), the father, arrives home from work while his wife Margot (Margit Carstensen) prepares a cake and their daughter Bibi (Constanze Haas) pouts because she isn’t allowed to help. But there is more serious trouble brewing and a telltale closeup of Margot’s hands, frozen in a momentary instance of paralysis, indicates something is not right in this household. It soon becomes apparent that Margot, who is pregnant with her second child, is beset with unexplained panic attacks represented by a momentary, wavy distortion from Margot’s viewpoint and announced by a brief orchestral flourish, courtesy of composer Peer Raben. We do not learn when the attacks started or what set them off but Margot’s fear of recurring incidents drives her to desperation.
At first Margot tries to ignore her fears by occupying her thoughts with other activities such as reading, playing with her daughter or listening to music. In one of the more memorable scenes, she is transported into a brief state of ecstasy while listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Lover” on the record player followed by a few bars of “Why Don’t You Try.” (Fassbinder is obviously a Cohen fan as his songs have been used in numerous productions such as 1971’s Beware of a Holy Whore (“So Long Marianne,” “Teachers”), 1975’s Fox and His Friends (“Like a Bird on a Wire”) and even one of his films, a made-for-TV movie, was called Like a Bird on a Wire (1975) after the Cohen composition). But nothing can distract Margot from her fears and after the birth of her second child, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. She goes to the doctor and tells him haltingly, “Recently I’ve been feeling….scared. It’s very strange. I have no idea why and…” Her words trail off as he advises, “Well, you’re a sensitive young girl. Very sensitive, in fact. Sometimes the autonomic nervous system acts up but many people are like that. There’s no cause for concern. I’ve prescribed some Valium for you. Take it whenever you feel on edge.”
The valium, of course, leads to a full blown dependency and soon Margot is mixing it with cognac. Yet, Margot’s downward spiral does not follow the easily predictable pattern of other drug/alcohol/mental disorder dramas that end on a hopeful note of recovery. Fear of Fear is more ambivalent in its conclusions and suggests that the problem may be a permanent condition that Margot has learned to control. In a revealing shot toward the end, she looks at herself in the mirror and says with happy, brainwashed conviction, “I have a deep depression and I need my pills to pull out of it.”
Fear of Fear is unmistakably a Fassbinder film with all the familiar trademarks on display such as frequent bursts of music to express an internal emotional state or depicting characters in an isolated space or private moments where the audience become voyeurs or detached onlookers. The soap opera elements draw clear parallels to the domestic dramas of Douglas Sirk in their depiction of protagonists being buffeted by social pressures and judgmental peers and neighbors. And the cast is filled out by most of the regular Fassbinder repertory company which includes Brigitte Mira as Margot’s mother-in-law, Irm Hermann as Lore, the sister-in-law, Lilo Pempeit (Fassbinder’s mother) as Mrs. Schall, the stern, disapproving schoolteacher of Bibi, Ingrid Caven as a fellow patient of Margot’s at a mental asylum, Kurt Raab as the ill-fated Herr Hauer, Armin Meier (Fassbinder’s former lover who committed suicide in 1978) as Karli, and Adrian Hoven, who is familiar to European exploitation fans (Mark of the Devil, Jess Franco’s Succubus) as Dr. Merck, the pharmacist who gives Margot unlimited access to valium in exchange for frequent sexual liaisons. It should also be noted that Fear of Fear is more briskly paced than most of Fassbinder’s productions and has a surprisingly lightness of touch despite the dark nature of the storyline.
This 1975 TV film was made between Fassbinder’s Mother Kuster Goes to Heaven and I Only Want You to Love Me, a golden period in the director’s prolific career. In some ways, as many critics have pointed out, Fear of Fear could be seen as a companion piece to his 1973 feature Martha, which also starred Margit Carstensen. A nightmare portrait of marriage and finding the perfect mate, the film presents the marital state as one of enslavement and the end result is a classic union of sadist and masochist. The title character’s gradual breakdown in Martha though is due to internal forces, both her own attraction to a strong, domineering man (Karlheinz Bohm, star of Peeping Tom) and his gradual manipulation and cruelty toward her. In Fear of Fear, Margot’s slide into madness appears to be agitated by outside forces which she feels but can’t name.
The only person who appears to recognize her distress and is a possible kindred spirit is her neighbor, Herr Bauer, and she shuns him as an oddball, only to identify with him later after he commits suicide. In the end, Fassbinder’s film reveals that you don’t have to be a mad housewife to feel the world can be a cruel and hostile place at times. For who isn’t affected by how others see and treat us? The angst felt by Margot is a universal and existential state experienced by most human beings at some low point in their lives.
Margit Carstensen gives a riveting performance as Margot and it is a more muted and subtle portrayal in relation to her highly operatic range of emotions in Fassbinder’s Martha. One of the most gifted actresses to work for the director, she appeared in some of his most famous early work such as The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Nora Helmer (1974), Fassbinder’s TV adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Carstensen had a parting of the ways with the director in 1976 after the making of Chinese Roulette. In Juliane Lorenz’s Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Werner Rainer Fassbinder, she recalled that, “..during the shooting of Chinese Roulette, the game was not only played in the movie but also after work. At the time, we were living on location at the castle near Stockach. By then, the tension between Rainer and myself had become unbearable…He provoked me and tormented me daily with his snide remarks. Finally things came to a head. During one of our nightly games of truth, I asked him – perhaps more bluntly than I should have – if he wanted to stop working with me. After a slight hesitation, he replied, “Yes.” I asked him why, and he said I did not seem sufficiently interested in him.”
In earlier days, their collaborations were brilliant and Fear of Fear is one of their best. “Rainer and I loved to present people’s shortcomings,” Carstensen said, “to disclose their psyche, their sentimentalities, those multi-faceted aspects which arouse sympathy. It was what bound us together. We never needed to discuss anything. During a shoot, he never indicated how a character should be presented or how certain results might be achieved. Sometimes he surmised that a certain expression of mine had been sparked by accident in the heat of the situation. I don’t think he always knew how carefully I had worked up to such accidents!” Fear of Fear is still available on DVD. (The original distributor Wellspring Films is no longer in business; it was absorbed by The Weinstein Company in 2006). The film was a new transfer made from a restored print but there are no significant extras other than a trailer for Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, which was finally offered by The Criterion Collection in a collection entitled Early Fassbinder in 2013.
And when is someone going to release the director’s rarely seen and long awaited Jail Bait (German title: Wildwechsel, 1973), an affectingly bleak made-for-TV melodrama about teenage lovers turned murderers with Eva Mattes and featuring Fassbinder regulars Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, Kurt Raab and El Hedi ben Salem (another ill-fated lover of the director). Or his critically acclaimed TV mini-series Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972 aka Acht Stunden sind kein Tag) starring Gottfried John, the malevolent Reinhold in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz?
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog.
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