Fear of Fear (1975)

It’s impossible to watch Angst vor der Angst (the German title is just so much better, don’t you think? Just say it out loud!) without thinking of Martha. Both films feature Margit Carstensen as a high-strung housewife crushed by marriage. Both are adaptations made for German TV (Martha was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich; Fear of Fear on an “idea” of Asta Scheib). Both prominently feature Roche Valium with it’s blue-diamond–labelled bottle. But, as with so many RWF “reworkings” of his own films, the short span between original and revision—only a year between Martha and Fear of Fear—made a world of difference. As should come as no surprise, the later film handles what is more or less the same subject with considerably greater nuance and depth. This is my favorite RWF melodrama yet. (I know, I know, I say that every time. But it’s true every time, I swear.)

The film opens—and is set almost entirely in—a middle-class apartment in Bonn. Margot (a blonde Margit Carstensen), pregnant with her second child, is dreamily making a cake while her four-year-old daughter, Bibi, angrily sulks because Margot won’t let the child help her for fear she will make a mess. Kurt, her husband (Ulrich Faulhaber), comes home and patiently explains this simple truth to the little girl.  Tranquility restored, the three agree to spend a quiet weekend at home; husband and wife embrace lovingly in what should be a simple and idyllic portrait of family life. And yet even before the next scene (brilliantly coinciding with the opening credits) when Margot experiences the first of a series of strange and disturbing attacks of vertigo—conveyed by means of a classic Hollywood-style POV shot from Margot’s perspective; you know, the kind where the image swims—we know that something is wrong. Margot’s unease in her quiet brown and blue apartment is obvious from the first carefully-framed deep-focus doorframe-bisected shot.

The attacks of dizziness continue after the baby is born; Margot fears she is going crazy. Kurt, preoccupied with his upcoming exams (he’s some sort of grad student?), pays no mind. Margot’s behavior is not logically motivated—he knows she’s happy, after all—so not worth indulging. A visit to the doctor confirms that there is nothing physically wrong with her. The doctor writes her a prescription for Valium and soon Margot is hooked. When she runs out, she makes a beeline for the pharmacy, conveniently located just across the street. The handsome but creepy pharmacist, Dr. Merck (Adrian Hoven), explains that although he cannot legally dispense medicine to her without a prescription, he has always loved her round eyes, her clear skin, her hair . . .  And so begins a dance that involves rejecting then soliciting Dr. Merck, bouncing between Valium and cognac, deflecting the mounting insults of her mother- and sister-in-law (Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann, respectively), and trying to avoid the sad, spectral Herr Bauer from across the street (Kurt Raab), who haunts her like a guilty conscience. (Margot explains to Bibi that Herr Bauer is “sick in his head.”) Inevitably, Margot is overwhelmed by her illness, which the kind doctor at the sanatorium she is eventually sent to tells her is simply depression. Margot, however, has no words to describe her condition, and refers to it simply as fear. Fear of . . . she doesn’t know what. The film ends much as it began, with Margot, medicated and seemingly on the mend, suffering this unnameable angst yet again. And we realize, with Margot, that there can be only one end to this interminable suffering.

If Martha was a roller coaster ride (and yes, that’s a deliberately chosen metaphor, a pivotal image you might remember from that movie), in which the heroine’s journey is physical, shaped by events and experiences external to her and propelled by the threat of actual violence, Fear of Fear is an existential crisis, a depiction of a state of mind and a state of being. True, Margot’s mother-in-law, Frau Stautde, is nagging and unrelentingly disapproving (in a really delightful performance by Brigitte Mira, unexpectedly against RWF type), and Lore, her sister-in-law, is an unrepentant bitch (played very much to type by Irm Hermann, whom the director appears to have consigned eternally to this place of nasty shrewish bitterness), but they do not constitute an actual threat to Margot as Helmut did to Martha. Kurt, self-absorbed and clueless though he is, does genuinely want to help his wife, if only to the extent that he’s capable of understanding what that might entail. Even Frau Staudte believes she is doing what’s best for the children when she scolds her daughter-in-law for her dreamy absence, her vanity, or her inadequate cooking.

RWF has no need of monsters here, which is what makes this film so effective and so disturbing. The threat to Margot’s sanity is not her husband, or her mother-in-law, or Herr Bauer, or even Dr. Merck, it is a function of what she is (Kurt’s wife, Bibi and Jan’s mother, Dr. Merck’s lover, Mutter Staudte’s daughter-in-law), which is another way of saying, what she is not (a fully realized individual). Margot’s angst, in other words, is the product of her own dawning awareness, which she cannot articulate even to herself, of the network of relationships that constitute the fabric of her very being, which are themselves a product of cultural standards not of her choosing and over which she has no control. Margot’s fear, ultimately, is that she does not actually exist.

Fear of Fear is beautifully restrained compared to the explosive emotional pitch and saturated technicolor styling of Martha. The sunlight, the streets, even the blocks of flats along Margot’s street in Bonn are suffused with a lightness that is totally different from the rich color of Constanz. The furniture is sensible and comfortable looking (no gothic grandfather clocks or man-eating ferns as in the Victoriana-inflected Martha). The palette is consistently muted (earth tones and quiet blues), against which Margot, with her pale skin and hair, is practically lost. (And against which her coral nail polish and lipstick don’t stand a chance, although they do harmonize nicely.) Brigitte Mira’s blue paisley apron actually blends in with the wallpaper. This, of course, is the point: Mütter is part of the gestalt, like the furniture, while Margot . . . well, Margot just disappears.

As in earlier films, beginning with The Merchant of Four Seasons, RWF masterfully uses frames within frames in domestic interiors (doorframes, corridors, mirrors) to convey fundamental truths about the characters’ place in their world. But it’s the windows that really tie the whole thing together. They are the source of all that light, for one thing. Lightly screened by gauzy white lace curtains (classic signifier of bourgeois propriety: they’re what old ladies peek through to spy and pass judgment on the neighbors), they dominate the interiors and frame many of the exteriors as well.  In fact, they are the predominant framing device throughout the film. Margot’s trips to and from Dr. Merck’s cabinet of medicinal wonders and her encounters with Herr Bauer, for example are always shot (at least initially) through a window in Margot’s apartment building, which automatically constrains them as images within a frame, literally defining and delimiting Margot’s world, the box in which she is trapped. Quite often, too, such scenes are shot not from Margot’s but from Lore’s apartment upstairs as the latter gathers evidence against her erratic sister-in-law. It’s a perfect device for capturing and communicating Margot’s growing sense of hopeless entrapment.

One other thing I’d like to note: While Herr Bauer claims a dark understanding of Margot’s malaise, the one character who actually sympathizes with her while demanding nothing in return is her brother-in-law, Karli (played by Armin Meier, as Brigitte Mira’s son and passive husband to Irm Hermann’s shrew, just as in Mütter Kusters—I love it when Fassbinder does this. If only he’d cast Karlheinz Böhm as the pharmacist!). And this is where some knowledge of the director’s biography proves useful. I didn’t know this when I wrote about Fox and His Friends, but Meier, to whom RWF dedicated that film, was the director’s lover at the time, on whom RWF reputedly modelled the character of Fox. (I still stand by my take on his relationship to Fox as a character, however. RWF wants you to identify him with Fox.) Meier committed suicide in 1978, which makes his sad, gentle depiction of Karli—who delivers the news of Herr Bauer’s suicide to Margot, thereby ensuring her relapse—prophetic and chilling.

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