Jan 11, 2014

Fear of Fear

When it comes to the totally singular and untouchable cinematic oeuvre of German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder (In a Year of 13 Moons, Berlin Alexanderplatz), even his secondary and less revered/known works are minor masterpieces of sorts, with his made-for-television melodramatic ‘women’s film’ Fear of Fear (1975) aka Angst vor der Angst starring Nordic diva Margit Carstensen being a perfect example of this. A semi-Sirkian melodrama with quasi-Hitchcockian undertones of the aesthetically minimalistic social realist sort, Fear of Fear is a sort of deconstructed sister film to Fassbinder's Martha (1974), which also starred Carstensen in the lead role, that centers around a hysterical housewife who is ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia and who mentally deteriorates after her second child is born and thus gets hooked on a corrosive cocktail of alcohol, valium, and Hebraic rock n roll. A feverishly foreboding yet rather clinical and realistic work in comparison to Martha, as well as a little sister film to Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? which also concludes with Kurt Raab's suicide via hanging, Fear of Fear is based on the real-life experiences of a crazy middleclass kraut chick in her mid-30s named Asta Scheib, but also informed by Fassbinder’s own mental illness and bourgeois upbringing. Emotionally overwhelmed by two tiny tots, a semi-detached husband who is totally occupied with school and passing a math exam, a bitchy busybody mother-in-law and equally hateful sister-in-law, scheming quack doctors who are not much more than glorified drug dealers, and a horny pharmacist of the superlatively swarthy sort who is willing to break his oath to get in an Aryan middleclass goddess' panties, Fear of Fear is ultimately a remainder why living a contrived and safe life as a member of the bourgeoisie can have dangerous mental health hazards. Rather strangely, despite playing a hopelessly hysterical woman who suffers from hallucinations and has sex with men for valium, Margit Carstensen gives a rather reserved and strikingly elegant performance in Fear of Fear, especially when compared to her rather radical roles in Fassbinder classics like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Bremen Freedom (1972), Nora Helmer (1974), and especially Martha. Indeed, like the protagonist’ drug of choice, valium, Fear of Fear is a somewhat misleadingly soothing yet ultimately dark and understated work that is rather ‘softcore’ in terms of Fassbinder’s signature Artaud-esque naked melodrama. And while not one of the filmmaker’s grand masterpieces, Fear of Fear puts phony, emotionally counterfeit, carelessly cliché Hollywood mental illness melodramas like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Girl, Interrupted (1999), The Jacket (2005), and other related celluloid swill that romanticizes and/or stereotypes mental illness to total shame in its uncompromising authenticity and sensitivity. 

 As a beauteous housewife with everything she could possibly need, Margot (Margit Carstensen) would be the last person one would assume suffers from acute mental instability, but after popping out a second child she begins to lose touch with reality and becomes incapable of carrying out simple motherly duties like simply watching her children. Among other things, Margot is beginning to see things that are not there because whenever she stares at something too closely (which is oftentimes herself in a mirror), her vision begins to blur as if she is looking at the world underwater. While Margot’s husband Kurt (Ulrich Faulhaber) is a man that has done more than his duty to provide for his family and is in the process of furthering his career, he sometimes ignores his wifey because he is studying for a career-changing math exam that could make his wife and children’s standard of living even better. One of Margot’s problems stems from the fact that her husband’s brother-in-law Karli (played by Fassbinder’s third and final great love, Armin Meier) loves and cares for her more than her actual hubby Kurt. As is typical of the so-called fairer sex, Margot faces the most scorn from other women, namely her hateful mother-and-law (Brigitte Mira) and jealous sister-and-law Lore (Irm Hermann), who spend a good portion of their time acting like caddy little busybodies who obsess over other people’s lives because they have no real lives of their own. Meanwhile, a sad strange neighbor named Herr Bauer (Kurt Raab) of the somewhat reclusive sort makes feeble attempts to talk to Margot, who is totally disgusted by the man and rejects his pleas, but little does she realize that he is suffering from a similar sort of Weltschmerz and is looking for the same thing as her; love, acceptance, and sympathy in a banal and conspicuously contrived bourgeois world that seems to lack all three. Due to her overwhelmingly debilitating ‘angst of angst,’ Margot eventually goes to a doctor and is simply prescribed valium as if she were the stereotypical neurotic housewife. On top of popping pills, Margot also likes to lose herself in wine and Leonard Cohen (an unfortunate favorite of Fassbinder’s!) albums.

 As is predictable, Margot eventually gets addicted to valium and runs out of pills, so she tries to charm the local pharmacist Dr. Merck (Adrian Hoven) into giving her an illegal prescription refill, but he wants sex and she is not ready to give it. Of course, after facing intolerable hostility from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law—both of whom seem to think that it is a form of mental illness for a mother to display love and affection towards her children—Margot finally decides to peddle her puss for a prescription. After reaching an all-time low after becoming a virtual middleclass prostitute and starting an unwanted extramarital affair with the local pharmacist, Margot makes a feeble attempt at suicide by barely cutting her wrists and her loyal fuck body naturally Dr. Merck stitches her up. A quack doctor eventually diagnoses Margot as a schizophrenic and things begin to look rather grim. When her husband Kurt breaks down and asks her why she attempted to kill herself, Margot denies that she wanted to die and did it because, “I simply wanted to feel the pain. I wanted to take my mind off my fear.” Indeed, fear proves to be Margot’s greatest enemy and after her husband catches her lying in bed with her young daughter, who is totally naked, he has her put in a nuthouse where the doctor eventually declares the hysterical housewife sane. Ultimately, Margot is ordered to take medication, which will allow her to “live like any normal person.” In the end, Margot goes home, takes a job as a typist, and seems ‘back to normal.’ In the final scene, Karli reveals to Margot that the weird neighbor Mr. Bauer committed suicide, to which the hysterical housewife responds in a most monotone manner by stating, “I’m not upset. I’m so calm. I’m completely calm. You can leave me alone, really” like a drugged zombie who is merely lying to herself so as to maintain a life of seeming bourgeois normalcy, which is undoubtedly all she can expect from life considering her quite sensitive mental state. Of course, despite her hostility towards the man, Mr. Bauer was nothing sort of the male equivalent of Margot as someone suffering from melancholy who longed for love and acceptance, but never got it, hence his tragic self-slaughter. 

 Despite his seeming lifelong seething hatred of the Teutonic bourgeois, R.W. Fassbinder—who one must not forget came from a cultivated bourgeois family (his father was a doctor and would-be-poet and his mother was a translator)—certainly made a number of distinctly boobeoise melodramas, with Fear of Fear being one of the most, if not most, obvious examples. After all, it is doubtful that many lumpenprole philistines would be able to relate to protagonist Margot’s seemingly petty personal problems. Indeed, not unlike the great self-loathing Jews of history like Otto Weininger and Jesus Christ, Fassbinder made for an excellent critic of the bourgeoisie and unlike a failed member of the bourgeoisie like Karl Marx, the filmmaker at least had a certain uncommon sympathy for members of his social class, namely bat shit crazy women. It should also be noted that the director’s mother, Lilo Pempeit, who has a small role in Fear of Fear, was a somewhat inept parent that, like the character of Margot, was known to be rather neglectful of her son, leaving him in movie theaters all day (which is actually how he developed his love of movies) and what not. Undoubtedly, Fear of Fear is deeply embedded in the Fassbinder cinematic universe as a work that is not only a sister film to Martha, but also the director's first color film Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970). Indeed, it is no coincidence that Kurt Raab plays the role of Mr. Bauer in Fear of Fear as he essentially reprised his role from Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? as a seemingly unremarkable yet ultimately fucked fellow who is undeniably the male counterpart of Carstensen’s character Margot, albeit minus the good looks. Sort of like Fassbinder’s own take on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), albeit nowhere near as depressing and strangely solacing, with nice little nods to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) in its playful depiction of window-based voyeurism and scoptophilia, Fear of Fear is a bold yet beauteous bourgeois ‘women’s film’ that reminds the viewer that there are some advantages to being a middleclass mental case, especially when compared to, say, a deranged bum, with ‘happy pills’ and a warm bed to sleep in being just some of the perks. While Fear of Fear might seem somewhat weak when compared to the dreamlike high-camp aesthetics and darkly humorous hysteria of Martha, it is still a minor masterpiece nonetheless that delicately demonstrates why so many seemingly spoiled women with relatively high living standards become unhinged and start destroying an ideal life that the majority of women in this world can only dream of.  A film essentially specially tailored for all the warped preppy soccer moms in America, Fear of Fear has indubitably yet to find its true audience.

-Ty E

No comments: