Friday, June 20, 2008

Fassbinder: Fear of Fear

Fassbinder's Fear of Fear (or the better sounding German title Angst vor der Angst) is one of the best examples of films of the "desperate housewives", or in fact more accurately, the "housewives going nuts" genre. Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, Todd Haynes' Safe are other great examples. In fact Juliane Moore seems to be the reigning queen of the genre, she was terrific in similar role in The Hours and Far From Heaven too. I haven't seen Chantal Akermen's Jeanne Dielmen yet which has a very high critical reputation too.

Anyway, here we have Margit Carstensen (who is a veteran of angsty characters as well) playing the same role. She is as superb and spectacular here as she was in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. She is in every single frame of the film and she is just spellbinding. In the beginning of the film she is heavily pregnant with her second child when she starts having anxiety attacks. Fassbinder shows it from her subjective perspective as the screen goes "wavy" and background swells on a soft and melancholy musical note. There is also another problem of a mysterious Herr Bauer of her neighbourhood who seems to be stalking her. If all this was not enough, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live in the apartment next to hers, always intrude and pry upon her to give her good housewifey tips. She goes to a psychiatrist who prescribes valium and other medications but things get only worse as she gets addicted to valium and sinks lower and lower into isolation, despair and madness. The psychiatrist turns out to be the true villain in the film. He insists on sexual favours from her in return of drug prescription. She also tries to commit suicide impulsively by slitting her wrist but fails. (She herself runs off to the doctor after realizing what she has done.) In the end she is committed to a mental hospital where she meets another patient (played by Ingrid Caven) and forms an unspoken bond with her. After a while she is cured or at least that's what it seems. In the final scene we see the corpse of the mysterious Herr Bauer being carried away. He has apparently committed suicide. It is never clear who he is or why does he stalk her. The one sensible interpretation is that he is her double, the "insane" side of her personality and now that he has self-destructed she might be normal. But the ending is still ambiguous.

One important aspect of the film is that unlike other films mentioned earlier Fassbinder isn't really interested in analysing the root causes of Margot's nervous condition. He takes the soul-destroying effects of cold and impersonal life of domesticity as a given, he doesn't spend much time detailing and interrogating her daily routine or her past experiences. Instead he is more interested in how people in our society react to a someone like Margot. He is very prescient in his portrayal of our thoroughly medicalized society, where every nervous ailment can be cured through external psychiatric and pharmacological intervention. In the institution of psychiatry Fassbinder sees an agent of social and political oppression, one which makes possible for the status-quo to remain what it is by preempting any deeper scrutiny and questioning on the part of people who actually suffer from depression and anxiety and people who surround them. This is not the same as romanticising depression - something like wearing a cross for being sensitive in a brutal world - his criticism is entirely political. Quite a few leftist critics of Fassbinder while sharing his political position find his films too pessimistic but then they forget that despair and madness are forms of social protest too. In fact it is probably the only form of social protest available to someone like Margot who has an underdeveloped political consciousness or sense of self and is surrounded by such powerful institutional forces of normalization.

This excellent essay raises these points and others in more detail.


puccinio said...

I've never seen "Angst von der Angst". I heard it was a Miniseries. How do you think it ranks among R.W.'s films in tersm of quality?

Alok said...

Yes, it was originally made for TV but apart from Berlin Alexanderplatz and may be the BRD films his films were made on very low budget and had very similar style - stagy and heavily stylised framing, actors with accentuated gestures, set in closed cramped interiors etc. So TV or not it doesnt really matter, it is hard to tell by just looking at the film. Also you need to give German TV some respect :) it seems they are different from the rest of the world.

In terms of content I thought it was extremely good, very strong in fact. Both Herr R, and this one are fantastic.