FEAR OF FEAR is a made-for-tv movie, a ‘woman’s’ film, a chamber piece in which a small set of characters and their inter-relationships are used to evoke a world, a social setting, a condition and an individual’s relationship to that world. As the film begins, Margot (Margit Cartensen), a middle-class housewife, beautiful and competent, happily married to an understanding husband (Ulric Faulhaber), is expecting her second child and understandably anxious. That anxiety turns to full-blown depression once the baby is born. Her in-laws live upstairs and whilst sometimes a help with baby-sitting, her mother in law (Brigitte Mira) criticises her housekeeping, her sister in law (Irm Hermann) is jealous and aspish, and her brother-in-law (Armin Meier), whilst kind and supportive, might also have sexual designs on her. The in-laws here are basically the Küsters but with their worst aspects highlighted and brought into focus: narrow-minded, petty, judgmental; an agent of social control; and heaven protect those that deviate from the narrow constraints they hold to be proper.
Margot is anxious and afraid, tired, and in such a deep funk she thinks she’s going mad. Her husband works during the day; studies at night; and though sympathetic to her, is not quite there for her or the children. Fassbinder shows us Margot, in frames within frames, hemmed in by the doorways of her ugly apartment, filmed at an angle to show her disassociation from her environment. There are lots of shots of her looking at mirrors where she questions the person she sees. Who is she? Who is she to her self? What is her ‘self’? Her inner state is often indicated in point-of-view shots where what she’s seeing is indicated by a blurred, wavy image as if she’s not quite there, and can no longer be objective about what’s out there either. The loss of her grip on reality is often signalled by an electric version of the type of score typical for melodrama.
Margot’s husband is concerned and they go to a doctor, who prescribes Valium, which helps, but soon she’s hooked on it and has to supplement the Valium with alcohol. Her sister-in-law catches her drinking in the middle of the day (the slattern!);, her mother in-law finds her dressed up with full on make-up in the daytime (it makes her feel better); her brother-in-law sees her in the swimming pool doing frenzied laps (what’s wrong with her?) and soon the in-law are checking on her constantly: has she fed the children, does she cook, does she need aspirin?: she’s a bad wife and mother who always though she was superior to everyone else. Is Margot mad? Or is this what trying to live up to impossible social norms that make no space for the wishes and dreams of women like Margot do to women like Margot?
Soon Margot is a drug-addict and a drunk, whoring herself out to the neighbourhood pharmacist (Adrian Hoven) for Valium. One afternoon, she tells him she wants to leave her family to be with him and he basically tells her she’s wonderful but that’s not an option. When she gets home, she slices a wrist; not to commit suicide, there’s her children, whom she loves. But just to feel something.
Kurt Raabe appears as Mr. Bauer, with all the charisma and creepiness of Peter Lorre, as a neighbour; her doppleganger – he’s just come out of an institution — or her worst fear? He’s the only one who recognises what she’s going through. But every encounter with him on the street brings trauma. At the end of the film, when Margot has gone to a sanatorium, received help, and is back to normal, she looks out her window and sees that Mr. Bauer is in a coffin and hasn’t made it, the image begins to blurr and get wavey again. Is this a spark to regression? It’s ambivalent.
A tight, well-made film, like an un-glossy Sirk, that still feels relevant and lingers in the mind.