“Fassbinder’s probing camera shows us what the doctors fail to see . . .”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder accurately predicted the rise of the “medicated society” in his 1975 film Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear), where he has his severely depressed heroine, Margot Staudte, literally get into bed with her pharmacist, a suave “Dr. Feelgood.” This druggist eventually lets Margot down, rather sooner than later, like all the other mental health professionals depicted in the film — but none of them worse than Margot’s own family. Simmering with paranoia beneath its glossy surface, Fear of Fear is a forgotten masterpiece from Fassbinder’s wild and wooly mid-’70s period, when he became acutely interested in uncovering the social causes of mental illness.
Madness has long been a staple ingredient of Hollywood melodrama, including the films of Douglas Sirk, so beloved by Fassbinder. Faced with a stifling, oppressive society or an untenable personal situation, Sirk’s characters do not stage an open revolt, but instead succumb masochistically to a kind of negation, usually either madness or death. “Insanity,” Fassbinder wrote, “represents a form of hope in Douglas Sirk’s work, I think.”1 While Fassbinder was often criticized for wallowing in a pessimistic vision of universal victimization, it can be argued that, in a repressive society, madness and death may be more realistic options than outright revolution. When human beings become machines, the only way for the machines to become human again is to break down.
As early as Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), Fassbinder depicted the average middle-class family and workplace as deltas of Thoreau-esque “quiet desperation.” The stressed-out worker who snaps one day, killing himself and others, was arguably Fassbinder’s favorite trope, and figures into a number of his films. Fueled by his avid reading of Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society, Fassbinder made a whole string of case-history films featuring sympathetic portraits of “the madman hero,” including I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) and Despair (1977). But Fear of Fear is unique in this group, for its depiction of a madman heroine.
Margot Staudte is played by the luminous Margit Carstensen. Rising again and again to the challenge of playing dignified women masochistically enduring the tortures of broken love and male oppression, Carstensen functions as a kind of Joan Crawford figure in Fassbinder’s cosmology (Hanna Schygulla was his Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Caven his Marlene Dietrich). In Fear of Fear, Carstensen’s bony, angular body perfectly conveys Margot’s jitters; and the limpid intelligence of her face is such that we clearly see not only Margot’s variously shifting emotions, but her agonized thinking about her emotions. Margot is a middle-class housewife and mother, expecting a second baby, who suddenly feels that she’s going insane. Her anxiety attacks are emblemized by a visual effect whereby we see through her eyes and the entire screen goes “wavy.” Her point-of-view is literally disintegrating.
Margot’s husband Kurt is so worn out from work and school that he has no time or energy to deal with his wife’s concerns; when her water breaks, he makes it clear that he’d rather go on listening to Tristan und Isolde than jump up and drive her to the hospital. Kurt’s obtuseness extends also to their daughter, Bibi: at one point, Margot complains that she’d like to pull Bibi out of Kindergarten because the teacher is a bully, and Kurt sticks up for the teacher; later, in bed with Margot, he vents his frustration at one of the overbearing professors at his college, and Margot listens wearily, aware that he fails to connect his own humiliation with his daughter’s similar predicament.
But it’s Kurt’s cruel mother (Birgitte Mira) and sister (Irm Hermann) who create the real problems for Margot: they not only criticize everything she does, they literally watch her come and go like zealous Nazi-era spies. Because Kurt doesn’t earn much, Kurt and Margot must live in the same building with Kurt’s family, literally right on top of each other, and there are numerous shots of Irm Hermann peering through her window with sinister, narrowed eyes. In scene after scene, everything that happens to Margot gets inscribed within the invasive gaze of someone else watching her; she circles around and around the same suburban block, never escaping from the prism of other people’s looks.
Earlier Fassbinder films feature a similar hostility between people looking at each other. The aggressive, blank-eyed stare, in close-up, operates to mark off social territories, which no one seems shy about defining. It has been remarked that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) is organized almost entirely around this principle of hostile “looking”: in the famous opening scene, Emmi enters the Arab bar where she will unexpectedly meet Ali; frozen stares from a line-up of Arab patrons meet her like a glacial wall. (Later, this shot — and politics — gets reversed when Emmi’s family, introduced to Ali as her new husband, glares back at him with undisguised racism.) Equally, in Whity (1970) and Martha (1973), there are queasy moments where Fassbinder’s camera holds almost too long on someone staring someone else down, dramatizing the creepy, power-driven stand-offs that take place everywhere in a hopelessly stratified society, a society based on the food chain and the chain of command, the hierarchical structure of the industrial plant and the corporate office. In philosophical terms, this is the “Sartrean look,” as described by Fredric Jameson, identifying
the trauma of the existence of the other — that contingent and yet irreparable experience that confers on me an “outside” and an objectivity, at the same time that it converts all of my actions into a struggle with other people which I am not free not to enter into. For my relationship with other people is struggle in its very structure . . . it is the mere existence of the other that calls my existence into question in its very being and that constitutes struggle: . . . this charged electrical tension of a coexistence that precedes any concrete steps of antagonism or cooperation.2
Jameson could almost be describing the operation of certain shot-reverse-shots in Fassbinder’s films.
In a dehumanized, exploitative society, medical and psychiatric treatment can’t escape being as flawed, as “dog-eat-dog,” as anything else. Fear of Fear renders crystal-clear Fassbinder’s own ambivalence toward psychiatry (he told an interviewer that he considered entering into treatment with a psychoanalyst but wasn’t sure he could find a reliable one3 ). When Margot falls into the hands of the doctors, her situation grows worse rather than better. Her therapists can’t even agree on a diagnosis: one alarms her husband by irresponsibly branding her a schizophrenic, while another shrugs her off with a perfunctory prescription for Valium. She’s committed, briefly, to a psychiatric hospital, but her “cure” is reduced to a single, chilly interview with a psychiatrist who does little more than advise her to get a job. Huge portraits of Freud and Jung loom like stern patriarchs over the psychiatrist’s shoulders. But in fact Margot is not cured, for once she has returned to her malignant home life, her wavy hallucinations begin again.
Fassbinder’s probing camera shows us what the doctors fail to see: the relentless hostility of Margot’s family environment. Indeed, Fear of Fear follows the logic of such science-fiction/horror films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), where the protagonist finds herself “the only one still human” in the midst of a vast conspiracy masquerading as the established social order. The paranoia which the mother and sister foster in Margot drives her downward spiral, as she turns to a number of things to alleviate her depression, her chronic “fear of fear”: baking plum-cakes with her daughter, listening to Leonard Cohen, having sex, drinking Cognac, and most addictively, swallowing Valium by the handful. Valium also functions as the painkiller of choice among the wealthy women of Martha, and as Fox’s ultimate undoing in Fox and His Friends (1974): if the Third Reich was reputedly fueled by lager and amphetamines, then the rebuilt West Germany of the Economic Miracle, in Fassbinder’s vision, couldn’t sleep at night without its Valium #10.
Fear of Fear also contains one of Fassbinder’s most sardonic swipes at the hypocrisy of religious icons on gaudy display in dysfunctional households. There’s a huge oil painting of the Madonna-with-child hanging above the Staudte bed, where Margot is passed out with her daughter and an empty bottle of the Cognac that enables her to deal with the stresses of motherhood. This juxtaposition of a “loaded” icon with the grubby reality it’s used to cover up, corresponds to the crucifix that hangs in the marital bedroom in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), where Hans Epp beats his wife and, later, the wife cheats on him with a stranger; and there’s also the lachrymose Virgin Mary who presides over Helmut’s sadistic “re-education” of his wife in Martha. Asked once by a German grade-school class what he thought of “Christmas without a Christmas tree,” Fassbinder replied: “People who have been brought up so hypocritically that they need such symbols should just be left alone until we have a society where such things aren’t necessary anymore.”4
Pitching in on this investigation of familial claustrophobia are, ironically enough, many members of the famous extended “Fassbinder family” of actors. Birgitte Mira and Irm Hermann have a field day with their unsympathetic roles as Margot’s oppressors, trying to fatten Margot on cabbage so she’ll become plump and domesticated and “trustable.” (“We’re the normal ones!” Irm shrieks hysterically.) Fassbinder’s mother, Liselotte Pempeit, has a great cameo as Bibi’s schoolteacher, wary of lawsuits against the school and clucking her tongue at Margot’s drinking; in one memorable shot, she drags Bibi by the arm down the street to a raucous Rolling Stones song. Adrian Hoven plays the seductive pharmacist with supercilious smugness. Kurt Raab has a nearly wordless walk-on role as Margot’s outcast neighbor, Herr Bauer (German for “peasant”), who is even more profoundly depressed than Margot and who kills himself at the end of the film. Ingrid Caven turns up as a catatonic mute who seems to understand, all too clearly and disturbingly, that the mentally ill are really just lonely, starved for sympathetic human companionship. And Fassbinder’s then-lover, Armin Meier — himself a real-life victim of depression — gets recruited for a hunky (if wooden) swimming pool scene.
What’s most amazing to me is that Fassbinder made this excoriating film for West German television. The thought of families in middle-class homes gathering around their sets to watch this blatant critique of their lifestyle — though symptomatic perhaps of the radical openness of the ’70s — lends new meaning to the term “educational programming.” Fassbinder pulled off many remarkable coups in his all-too-brief but highly productive career, and Fear of Fear must be counted among the most incisive. As our current society bites its collective tongue to swallow the prescribed dosages meant to ward off every psychological epidemic, from depression to attention deficit disorder to erectile dysfunction, Fear of Fear has as much to say to us today as it did thirty years ago. Maybe even more.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination, (ed. Michael Toteberg and Leo A. Lensing, trans. Krishna Winston. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 82. [↩]
- Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form,(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 300-301. [↩]
- Life Stories (1977), TV interview with Peter W. Jansen, The BRD Trilogy Supplements (Criterion DVD, 2004). [↩]
- Fassbinder, Anarchy, 196. [↩]