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FEAR OF FEAR-TV (Angst vor der Angst)(director/writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; screenwriter: from an idea by Asta Scheib; cinematographer: Jurgen Jurges; editor: Liesgret Schmitt-Klink; music: Peer Rabin; cast: Margit Carstensen (Margot Staudte), Ulrich Faulhaber (Kurt Staudte), Brigitte Mira (Mother), Irm Hermann (Lore), Armin Meier (Karli), Adrian Hoven (Dr. Merck), Ingrid Caven (Edda), Kurt Raab (Herr Bauer), Constanze Haas (Bibi), Herbert Steinmetz (Dr. Auer); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Peter Marthesheimer; Wellspring/The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation; 1975)-Germany, in German with English subtitles
“An uncompromising look at the human condition.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fear of Fear was made for West German television. It’s German director and writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s homage to Hollywood dramatic films of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those of Douglas Sirk. It also seemed to be much like those serious dramas American television put on during its early days, like those from the Philco Playhouse Theater. Hollywood critics have pejoratively dubbed these sort of films as “women’s pictures,” where a hanky is needed for all the weeping.

This fiercely intense existential film is based on an idea of Asta Scheib, a housewife from Schweinfurt. It offers an uncompromising look at the human condition.

Margot Staudte (Margit Carstensen) is an attractive middle-class housewife who lives in bourgeois comfort with her pipe-smoking husband Kurt (Ulrich Faulhaber) and her 4-year-old daughter Bibi. As she nears the end of her second pregnancy, an inexplicable overwhelming sense of fear comes over her. After she gives birth to a son named Jan, she becomes more disoriented by her anxieties and her workaholic husband is too self-absorbed to understand this. Hubby is worried about furthering his career, as he crams at home for an upcoming math exam he needs for graduate school. The situation is exacerbated by the couple living in Kurt’s family house, where his overbearing mother and married sister Lore live in other apartments in the house. The women are deemed as witches by her, as these busybodies constantly are prying and barging in on the resentful Margot to tell her all the things she’s doing wrong. Lore’s husband Karli seems to be the only family member Margot has a friendly relationship with.

Because of Margot’s increasing tenseness and sudden fear of being alone with the baby as Bibi attends kindergarten, she sees her family physician–Dr. Auer. He finds nothing physically wrong and prescribes rest, good food, and Valium. The slender blonde with the pale skin soon becomes hooked on the pills, and when she can’t get the doctor to fill the prescriptions fast enough she begs the neighborhood druggist, Dr. Merck, to give her the pills without a prescription. Dr. Merck trades her Valiums for sex. Margot soon also turns to cognac, getting looped in the daytime hours, as the nosy mother-in-law and sister-in-law work as a tag-team match to catch her and report her to Kurt. Her nervous breakdown continues unchecked even after Kurt forces her to see a shrink, who labels her as a schizophrenic. After Margot slit her wrists in a botched suicide attempt, where she says she didn’t want to kill herself but only to get rid of her fear, she’s taken to a feel-good Freudian shrink, who discounts any mental illness and treats her with sleep-therapy, analysis and drugs.

Fassbinder makes it clear that there’s no professional help for Margot’s kind of pains. She’s a woman coming apart from her inner turmoil and all the demons let loose, but is not able to deal with her problems by herself and can’t communicate with others. The professionals have no real answers, except to offer the usual halfhearted moral support that everything will be alright if you follow their costly treatments. Also Margot is not verbal or comfortable enough to articulate her inner thoughts to her smug husband, who has distanced himself from her but who might understand if she could somehow communicate with him. Her mother-in-law and Lore are seen as monsters, only interested in snooping from their hidden nooks and railing against her because they assume she’s not normal like them.

Margit Carstensen gives a compelling performance as an alienated woman, someone who has lost hold of her reality and can’t find warmth in the world–not even from her own children, whom she loves. Margot is also haunted by constantly running into a harmless lunatic staring at her when she’s on the neighborhood streets. Margot knows the man as Mr. Bauer, a certifiable lunatic, as she pauses to stare back to measure her mental condition against his whenever they run into each other. When Margot learns the loony hanged himself, she doesn’t crack as expected but smiles because her survival proves she hasn’t gone insane. But to Fassbinder, she’s already too far gone to make contact with anyone else. The director colors the cold world through her sensitive eyes. Margot realizes the good life of materialistic trappings are not enough for her, as she’s having her life-force sucked out of her by all those vipers she’s in contact with but is not strong enough to make a clean break from them. She is hopelessly searching for a love that she can’t find in her social setting, or in drugs, or alcohol, or therapy, or in sex, or even through a Leonard Cohen song about trying to live alone that she plays while home alone.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”