‘Fear of Fear’: Fassbinder’s desperate Hausfrau

A Fassbinder movie made for West German TV in 1975, for the Deutschmark equivalent of $157,000 (about $625,027 today). An intimate, small-scale work, but hardly small in effect. In scale and subject matter Fear of Fear is akin to a Dogme film, but despite the low budget and the close quarters of the script, it’s fascinating to see the cinematic treatment Fassbinder is able to give this story about a middle-class housewife’s crack-up. No grainy, hand-held digital video here.

The camerawork isn’t flashy, but it bears little relation to that of any other made-for-TV movie, then or now. The film is set in just a handful of nondescript locations, the better to evoke the claustrophobia and suffocating banality of the milieu, felt all too intensely by Margot, the desperate Hausfrau played by Margit Carstensen.

But Fassbinder and his DP Jürgen Jürges keep finding new angles on the domestic interiors, so that we (and they) never get bored. The camera prowls the rooms, never settled — the locale may be mundane, but it’s anything but tranquil. Meanwhile the fade-outs and abstract close-ups that end some scenes convey the sense of a mind losing focus. The filmmaking creates a mood not of overt disturbance, but pervasive disquiet, and it’s impressive how much unease Fassbinder creates within the first five minutes of Fear of Fear.

That disquiet also manifests itself in ripples and shimmers that roll through the shots seen from Margot’s POV; characteristic of the movie, they’re a subtle but effective means of depicting Margot’s growing disorientation. Daily life itself is more and more of a strain for her. When things get so bad that Margot starts abusing alcohol and pills to soothe her pain, Fear of Fear becomes slightly more conventional, and less disturbing. That said, when she medicates herself with cognac and puts on headphones to listen to a Rolling Stones song from 1967, it’s sad to contemplate — is she hoping to regain some sliver of the more engaged, hopeful woman she was eight years earlier?

Fassbinder retreats as a presence here. The trademarks we might associate with him (the flamboyant decadence, the emotional sadism, the hard-edged sardonicism) are downplayed or nowhere in evidence, and the movie is all the better for it.

Working from Asta Scheib’s novel Langsame Tage, Fassbinder presumably had the status of women in the Federal Republic at the time on his mind, while also relishing how the story would let him hark back yet again to Douglas Sirk, as well as any number of old-school Hollywood “women’s pictures.” At times Fear of Fear even suggests Hitchcock (think Rebecca), drained of any thriller elements.

The story doesn’t require overt political commentary from Fassbinder. Margot’s plight can stand in for the situation of middle-class housewives in any number of places during this era. Like the heroine of Godard’s Une femme mariee or Mad Men’s Betty Draper 10 years earlier, Margot is defined to some extent by leisure, of being free from the need to work outside the home — but leisure is precisely the thing that oppresses these women, that seems to keep them from being able to form any self-definition that would lead to fulfillment. For Margot, there may be nothing more unsettling than one more silent weekday morning at home, where she is expected only to plan that night’s dinner for her family.

As always, it’s interesting to see how Fassbinder puts his repertory company of actors/camp followers to good use, no matter what the circumstances. Margit Carstensen is a gaunt yet arresting beauty whose features are almost archetypally Teutonic. Fassbinder may have thought so too: In a hallucinatory late chapter of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), he has Carstensen turn up looking like a glam-rock Valkyrie.

In the director’s earlier The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Carstensen reigns as a diva fashion designer, and her looks are imperious and forbidding, but in Fear of Fear that same face is unexpectedly forlorn and fragile. The many closeups of Carstensen are the only aspect of Fear of Fear that suggests a work made for television, but it’s as if with each closeup Fassbinder finds something new to contemplate there.

Elsewhere in the cast, for once Kurt Raab plays it straight. Often the embodiment of barely tamped-down hysteria in his roles for Fassbinder (he was also set designer on many of the films), here he is an unsettling, largely silent presence, as an emotionally disturbed man across the street who could be Margot’s secret sharer.

Not like anyone else’s idea of comedy.

The following year Fassbinder gave both performers something completely different to do (again) in Satan’s Brew (1976), where Carstensen plays a comically smitten, spinsterish admirer of Raab’s vainglorious anarchist poet. Looking at least 10 years older, Carstensen throws herself into acting ridiculous, in a broad, amusing performance that’s the highlight of Fassbinder’s one comedy.

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