Fear of Fear – Fassbinder predicts the medicated society. (Film Review)

One of Fassbinder’s very favorite places to play out madness and violence (besides supermarkets) is the family and suburban dynamic. Fear of Fear is a perfect example of a housewife, who starts to recognize severe anxiety and panic attacks while she is pregnant and perfectly situated within a ‘happy home’. She knows something is wrong, but what? She develops a severe fear of the panic attacks and then when the child is born, of course the panic attacks are exacerbated. She visits a chemist who turns out to be the classic “Dr. Feelgood” and ends up trading sex for medication. All the while she is spied upon by her heartless in-laws, desperate to catch her out in some sort of error, and pathetically supported by her husband who can do no better than shrug his shoulders and ask what’s for dinner.

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Depicting the internal struggles of a protagonist till they virtually explode is a common theme in Fassbinder’s films – the classics that come to mind right away are The Merchant of Four Seasons and Effi Briest – but Fear of Fear is unique in that rarely does Fassbinder delve so deeply into the terrifying emotional world of one person. As usual, the film teeters on the edge of the comic and the terrifying, so that the malaise and ennui of suburban life occur more as a desperate daily struggle against something.  One gets a strong sense of impending doom in Fear of Fear – the feeling Margot is living with all the time.

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Margot is played by Fassbinder legend Margit Carstensen, who stared in The bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Martha. Like many director/actor relationships, there is something remarkable that happens when Fassbinder films Carstensen. She is less visually striking here.  In Martha and Bitter Tears Fassbinder used her horrifying thinness and her beautiful doll-like face as part of the visual power of the film. In Fear of Fear Carstensen looks like an ordinary (if very beautiful) housewife.  The film is about the madness inside so a great deal of the work is internal, so small gestures and movements become crucial.  But this is what Carstensen directed by Fassbinder does so very well. I even prefer her to the great Hanna Schygulla, in a Fassbinder film. 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.

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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.”  (See the wonderful Website Jim’s reviews for more on this point)

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The character’s around Margot seem to be flat or underdeveloped, but this is no accident. This is part of the depiction of madness, as everyone appears to want something from Margot or want to affect her in some way.  This is part of what I was talking about above, about how close Fassbinder is willing to get to the madness in this particular film. The only character that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense is the man who haunts and stalks Margot and accosts her in the street, Mr Bauer (Kurt Raab).  It is when engaging with Mr. Bauer  that one of the films most powerful shots emerges, a split screen image with half the screen (Bauer’s face) flooded in red. If this is a relationship meant to depict the strangeness of Margot’s wold, it perhaps doesn’t quite work, because Bauer is a genuinely creepy man and we never know why he is doing this to Margot. I can see how he might contribute to her evolving madness, but I can’t work out how he simply represents it. This is one aspect of the film that might have done with one more line, or a slightly different shot that would help to work out what Fassbinder means here.  Many of the shots of people are cut off in Fear of Fear – as if people exist as half people, and everyone looks like a spy. This may be what Fassbinder is getting at with Bauer – that he isn’t quite as bad as Margot suspects, but his creepiness is amplified through her perspective. He’s a great character… I just had a little bit of trouble placing him.

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One more mention before I leave the review – I have to talk about the astounding beauty and complexity of the mental asylum scenes. I adore the shot made with Ingrid Caven, who plays an inmate at the asylum. The women are back to back and skewed – Janus faced – evoking the powerful film persona. Fassbinder uses many images like this in the film – I’m also thinking of the scene where Margot and her daughter lay on her bed, an image of the Madonna with child above the bed, the shot held on for a long time. In the hospital images of Freud loom from the walls, and the Doctor who tends Margot with care is named Dr. von Unruh, which means ‘balance’.  However, if Fassbinder adds an ‘e’ to her name it means alarm or fear.  Unease. I love the way Fassbinder does this sort of thing, pastes all his films will allegory and alternate meaning.

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Another brilliant Fassbinder and another you must get hold of if you haven’t seen it yet.

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