Monday, September 28, 2009

Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear)

Margot Staudte is a pregnant middle-class mother and housewife and she is going insane. She’s not sure why, but she’s terrified of losing her grip on the real world. Initially she clings to her daughter’s companionship for comfort, desperate when she makes to leave the apartment to go upstairs and see grandma, but at other times Margot is barely aware of her existence, and experiences with detachment the arrival of the new baby. Her hateful mother-in-law knows how to play the role of mother and housewife well, and is scornful of her abilities, while her sister-in-law contemptuously does her grocery shopping; her husband is a harmless dope, assuming without glaring signs to the contrary that she is happy and too absorbed in his upcoming exams to pay attention, and the doctor merely wants to seduce her. As the last puts it, she’s an attractive, healthy young woman, so why should she feel like she is going insane? The source of her fear is that she cannot answer that question herself, but she knows it’s to do with a fatal disconnection with the world around her, a fearful failure to understand it, and a fathomless inability to find meaning in the everyday (cf most other Fassbinder characters in one way or another). She dulls the pain with cognac and valium and starts a desultory affair with the doctor as some sort of action, something to do. The only person who tries to care – touchingly – is her brother-in-law upstairs, but he is helpless in his inability to understand her, and by that time she’s too far gone to notice this one expression of sympathy; she has already cut her wrist semi-accidentally, desperate in order to feel something, to take her mind off the fear.

As the title suggests, this fear of the world, fear of looking in the mirror, fear of insanity, is self-perpetuating. It is a very ordinary madness, born from a very ordinary and orderly existence, and born from an inability to find meaning in that order and to understand it. The extra-sensitivity that has revealed to her the emptiness of her domestic and social roles is the same that feeds her fear of going insane, of not being normal; she is unable to ask, as her sister-in-law does (fantastically steel-eyed Irm Hermann, her own face redolent of an abnormal, twisted psychology) “who’s normal?”. Certainly not Mr Bauer, the man not-right-in-the-head who lives across the street. With Kurt Raab’s red-rimmed eyes (and memories of Herr R, a close brother in this sort of inarticulate madness of frustration) he is a ghastly and sorrowful sight from whom Margot hides her daughter. But he’s the only one with understanding of her – he tells her so and we believe him – and her fear of him is a combination of recognition and denial of herself.

This is an (almost) dispassionate case study presented in vignettes, the narrative progressing only through the gradual disintegration of the heroine’s mind. But it is presented in such circumscribed and stock surroundings as to make it clear that her case need not be unique; she is a close relative of Gena Rowlands’s Myrtle under the influence, Deneuve’s Carole and Belle de Jour, Seyrig/Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Julianne Moore’s Carol White and others, tormented by the opaque and pervasive ennui of elision specific to the middle-class housewife, and in Fassbinder shares with Herr R, Nora Helmer (via Ibsen) and plenty of others (not least the ever-present shade of Biberkopf), that claustrophobic feeling of entrapment, confounded by an inability to make sense of and fit comfortably into an apparently ordered world. She is also an eerily subdued partner to Martha (whose insanity is presented and part-externalised through the melodrama of masochism – here Margot is effectively Gaslight­-ing herself), both roles taken by the stick-insect-like Margit Carstensen, with her clear-skinned toothy death’s-head, a perfect angular, awkward beauty to embody such a brittle emotional state so awkwardly unhinged. Both films too are amongst Fassbinder’s “women’s pictures” and in the best tradition of classical Hollywood he uses an ascending-descending woodwind motif to take us inside Margot’s madness, and undulating waves of focus for her point of view – it could almost be a Joan Crawford picture. But he also steps back to observe as Margot is watched repeatedly from windows and across the street, in the swimming pool and the psychiatrist’s waiting room (the sign on the door ominously emphasised: “praxis”. Practice at the customs of living is precisely what she needs). She is a specimen, constantly watched and constantly under judgment. Everyone but her husband, who scarcely looks at her, has formed a judgment, decided what she is, be it a madwoman, a fool who cannot step up to the demands of mother/wife-hood or simply a beautiful physical body (appropriate it should be the physician who holds this view). Part of her problem is an inability to make such a judgment herself but also, one senses, an inarticulate knowledge that to do so would be to accede to bad faith; her fear stems not only from incomprehension of the outside world but also from the unknowableness of self, deeper than simple incomprehension of what she is currently experiencing. In the end it is Margot who looks down from a window, but her gaze is entirely without judgment, without feeling, almost without understanding. She has been fully anaesthetised, prescription drugs severing all connection with the exterior world. Her inability to make sense of it remains but now the waves of focus are less a distortion of her view of reality than a barrier to it. The isolation brought on by her fear of the world still cripples her, but she can no longer feel it; the fear of insanity has been suppressed. In no sense has she gotten well. And this blind unknowing acceptance is made all the more devastating as what she sees from the window is her own likely fate.

d/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder p Peter Märthesheimer ph Jürgen Jürges ed Liesgret Schmitt-Klink ad Kurt Raab m Peer Raben cast Margit Carstensen, Ulrich Faulhaber, Brigitte Mira, Irm Hermann, Armin Meier, Adrian Hoven, Kurt Raab, Ingrid Caven, Constanze Haas
(1975, WGer[TV], 88m)


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