Fear of Fear

  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • West Germany  /  1975
  • German
  • 88 min
November 19, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Another fascinating Fassbinder here and, for the most part, a world away from the politics of Mutter Küster. Here instead we have a small scale melodrama detailing a young mother and wife’s (Margot) battle with mental illness. So it’s a little like Julianne Moore’s segment of The Hours blown up into a full feature. Luckily though, unlike The Hours, it’s not stupefyingly boring. This may be because Fassbinder textures this quiet and rather touching drama with a bunch of riffs from the Hitchcock book of filmmaking. Not sure how that works? Well neither am I, but apparently it does.

The story follows a young mother and wife (Fassbinder regular, Margit Carstensen) as she battles her own growing mental instability and meddlesome in-laws in the wake of the birth of her second child. Her husband’s attention is taken with studies for an upcoming exam while his mother and sister offer nothing but criticism and derision of her abilities as both a mother and a wife, butting in whenever they can. Actually it’s kind of strange to see Brigitte Mira, Emmi from Angst Essen Seele Auf (and Mutti Küster) playing such a venomous and poisonous influence. Then again these people are not without humanity; Fassbinder’s criticism seems to simply be that no one really bothers to think of an underlying reason for the young mother’s behaviour and simply condemn its superficialities instead. Not a world away from the tabloid group-think Mutti Küster had to deal with.

Fassbinder’s technique for capturing the young woman’s growing mental fragility seems somewhat cheap and stilted to begin with but grows in effect as the film moves on. Initially we simply have a trembling hand and a visual effect of waves moving across the screen. All very simple and a little silly, to be frank. Hitchcock used similarly blunt visual cues in Marnie and I think that’s partially what Fassbinder is riffing on. It mightn’t be a coincidence that in one scene Margot’s eyes lock on a bright red background, instantly reminiscent of Marnie’s conceit for depicting flashes of madness. As the film progresses certain moments of intense anxiety are charged by violent bursts of orchestral strings courtesy of Fassbinder regular Peer Raben. Or was that Bernard Herrmann? And finally we have the voyeuristic aspect, another Hitchcockian mainstay. As Margot enters and leaves her apartment to visit the local chemist, for Valium and sex, the prying eyes of her in-laws often watch through a window high up above street level.

In any case all these visual and aural cues make the whole thing feel so like Hitchcock that it adds immense potency to the scenes where Fassbinder immediately strips away the excesses and bombards us with the raw practical consequences of this malaise. Much of the film skirts close to spoof but that only makes the quiet scenes of genuine loneliness or violence all the more pointed and distressing. After all, Hitchcock interjected scenes of madness with, um, car chases and fetishised romance. He never just quietly sat the camera down to watch a woman, almost absentmindedly, slice open a wrist before registering, with terror, the full extent of her actions.

And so where Fassbinder’s film deviates from Hitchcock’s is in the limitations set on location and event. Hitchcock’s portrayal of madness, like his portrayal of pretty much everything else, is grandiose and overarching. His is ‘life with all the dull bits removed’ where as Fassbinder is very much concerned with those dull bits. And so he should be. The effect of this strange partnership, the mundane domestic and cinematic hysteria, is a strangely powerful depiction of a woman alone, despite a family around her. And though this woman’s struggle seems to conclude with some modicum of success, Fassbinder leaves the camera to linger, again as a high standing voyeur, on another failure that occurred just across the street. Society has got a lot more work to do it would seem. For all the Franz Biberkopfs of this world.

Speaking of odes to cinematic greats I might also mention this scene near the end, as the central character convalesces in a hospital. I see Persona, do you?… http://tinyurl.com/yg8j3pv.

Another near top-drawer Fassbinder and a fantastic example of his willingness to experiment, mixing and melding different cinematic techniques. Britain gave us both the ‘kitchen sink drama’ and Hitchcock but it took a German to try sticking the two together. Who would have imagined it would work so well?

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