Saturday, August 6, 2016

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear)

out of focus
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (screenplay, based on an idea by Asta Scheib), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear) / 1975,  USA 1976

What is the problem with Margot Studte (Margit Carstensen)? She’s beautiful, the wife of a clumsily loving husband who daily works and is studying at the university at night, and is the mother of a beautiful young daughter and a soon-to-be-born son. Their house has been, apparently mostly paid for my her husband Kurt’s (Ulrich Faulhaber) family, whose mother, daughter, and husband live upstairs and are willing to babysit at any second, besides daily bringing in piles of cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts, and other food stuffs? If they’re a little intrusive, they might be simply calmed by appreciative nods, and a more careful closing of the front door, which the moody Margot generally slams.

Obviously, everything’s wrong. Margot is not only beginning to experience a wavy, watery view of the world around her and, more importantly, of herself in the numerous mirrors that Fassbinder offers up as decorative trinkets in her apartment, but she is suffering from a kind of undiagnosed sense of imprisonment, which even her wall-paper seems to confirm in its endless row of decorative 1970s paisley, arabesques and calicos. Even their furniture, we later discover, is not their own choice. Certainly, the potato pancakes, “stinky” cabbage, and numerous other typical German dishes, regular delivered up by her Mother-in-law and her daughter are not appealing to her or her family.
      More importantly, she finds it impossible to describe any of her increasingly disturbing feelings to her busy husband. Although Margot almost manically attempts to distract herself through her intense love of her daughter, she is everyday beginning to fall apart, fearing for her own sanity. 
      Her kindly doctor (who also lives across the street) insists nothing is wrong with her, and nonchantly proscribes Valium and other drugs, to which Margot, in her increasing “angst of fear” begins to consume her with greater and greater frequency.

      To add to her fears, her own husband, at moments, seems to doubt her sanity, and her brother-in-law, Karli (Armin Meier) describes her swimming regiment (through which she daily attempts to control her fears) as maniacal, reporting that back, of course, to her immediately family. In fact, nothing that Margot does is not observed by her nosy relatives, who like Nazi-era neighborhood snoops, note her increasing trips to a local pharmacist, Dr. Merck (Adrian Hoven)—with whom she happily exchanges sex for increasing dosages of drugs—and observes her bizarre behavior, including regular street encounters with a truly local madman, Herr Bauer (Kurt Raab), who recognizes her as developing psychological problems similar to his own, and who accosts her, perhaps, out of sympathy, but in his constant following, seems to be further threatening her stability.
      Many of Fassbinder’s films demonstrate the breakdown of individuals (particularly The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and In a Year with 13 Moons), but Margot’s situation is the closest of his work to a Hitchcock and reminded me of Mia Farrow in Polanski’s 1968 Hitchcock-inspired Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, we wonder, supported through one of Margot’s insults against the intrusive mother and daughter-in-law, whether her new son, Jan, might not grow up to be another “cabbage-eater.” Certainly, given the film’s self-absorbing fixation on the growingly mad mother, we rarely get even glimpse of the new child after his birth, we can only wonder, will he, too, be as monstrous as “Mutter” (Brigitte Mira) and daughter Lore (Irm Hermann)?


      Finally, even her ignoring husband cannot dismiss the fact that his lovely wife, after she has seemingly attempted to commit suicide, is now addicted to drugs and alcohol, and, after the local hack doctor insists she is a schizophrenic, commits her to an institution. There, through the help a friendly woman doctor and a healing patient, Edda (Ingrid Caven) (who on-line critic Jim Clark has connected with the Eddas, the ancient source of German myths), Margot is healed—at least temporarily. Although when she hears of the suicide of the local madman, Bauer, she again seems the watery, wavy pattern that has first led her to believe she was losing her sanity, I’d argue she has now become a survivor, a woman who understands that she must fend for herself in a world that has long been attempting to turn her into an infantile, a woman with no purpose outside of motherhood and cooking—the movie began with her making a cake.
      She and her daughter Bibi can now come out of their shadows (throughout the film, Margot’s daughter stands behind doors and screens, overhearing her mother’s intense interchanges with her husband) and claim their rights in the relationship she has with Kurt. We cannot know where that will end, particularly given Kurt’s reliance on his monstrous family; but even Lore’s husband, Karli, has encouraged her to turn away from the family through his simple gift of flowers. This beautiful woman, who at film’s end has obviously turned to a career of typing, will clearly survive—after all, the local madman, Bauer, has now died, and she, who has so feared his presence, has been renewed by her brief interchange with fellow females. If her view temporarily goes out of focus, her spirit, I would argue, has been renewed after her outspoken battles with her mother-in-law and her daughter. And, no matter what happens in her relationship with Kurt, she will surely move on as a stronger individual.
      That all of this was first presented on German television—at least from a US perspective—is startling. Yes, Bergman—who highly influenced Fassbinder—had presented even more involuted psychological dramas on Swedish television, but to present such startling visions such as this and later, Berlin Alexanderplatz, to an audience which it was obviously critiquing, is fairly amazing, particularly at a time when, just across the wall, in East Berlin just such family and neighborhood surveillance was a daily occurrence and was still highly instilled in the German mindset. In 1975, once again, Fassbinder was far ahead of his times, in filming about the past—and a future of drug dependency—that was amazingly prescient.

Los Angeles, August 6, 2016

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