What Is That, Me?: Fear of Fear

Janus Films

The details are all red. They’re red lipstick and red nail polish, distractedly applied while sitting down, while standing up, one hand hovering over the other in a quiet delirium. They’re stripes on a button-down shirt and the shiny leather surface of an armchair, not there for comfort, but for surrender. Hair colors are ubiquitously red-toned: a close-up shot, and she runs those red nails through her red hair, those nails impossibly, perfectly lacquered. In the roster of melodramatic filmmakers, perhaps none was as attuned to minutiae as the young and prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In his 1975 film Fear of Fear, housewife Margot Staudte (Margit Carstensen) dries her hair in front of the mirror, gripping the faded red blow dryer as her line of vision blurs. Panicked, she reaches, as she often does, for her Valium.

In 1975, fear and paranoia regarding the housewife condition had folded into the women’s liberation movement and reached a fever pitch. Betty Friedan had written about “the problem that has no name” a decade before, and by the time Margot was drying her hair, the problem had been pathologized in lieu of being named: women were depressed and addicted to tranquilizers. Women’s discontent, and its treatment as an illness, have been fertile creative territory for a long time, at least since Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her maddening yellow wallpaper. But as the second wave of the feminist movement gained mainstream strength throughout the postwar years, narratives centering housewives started to turn into fables. Cautionary tales began to appear, lest one of us turn into the robots of Stepford, lest one of us go crazy again. “Mother’s Little Helper” had proved itself to be a false solution—not as definitive as political awakening, in any case. (Mother’s Little Helper, in fact, would start taking on the suspicious contours of an executive office, the silhouette of a pantsuit.)

All of this may have been true for American middle- and upper-class white women everywhere—or at least in every suburb—but Fassbinder made Fear of Fear for West German television, where the audience may have been no less white or affluent, but where the territory of their materialism had a different shape, bordering as it did other ideas of affluence. Maybe a housewife’s desperation is as universal a story as you can get, anyway—the story of the impossible reconciliation between looking after and being seen.  

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 As the film critic Justin Vicari points out in Bright Lights Film Journal, in the 20th century melodrama only one of three fates was possible: death, insanity, or complicity. Freedom might have been a more appealing option, though infinitely less conceivable. As a genre particularly suited to the trials of domesticity, and, by extent, the fateful pain of the women trapped in it, the melodrama is a fitting lens through which to think about the second wave’s maxim that the personal is political. There is reason to believe that Fassbinder, in his melodramatic craze, was not only aware of the maxim but preoccupied by it.

Fear of Fear opens to the sound of a wooden spoon hitting a bowl; Margot rests one hand on her back, bearing the weight of a pregnancy. Her husband suggests that they have a cozy, quiet weekend in, and in the next scene the red begins to flood—the nail polish, the armchairs—and Margot’s vision blurs. She shrugs it off the best she can, but when she looks in the mirror she can’t help but ask herself: “What is that, me?” Then, her water breaks. The birth of her son is left offscreen, as is all of the drama that follows the arrival of a newborn. In this film, the drama is not the one of life but of hanging on—of the painful realization that the days go by, unceremoniously, even when everything else seems to be out of whack. Fassbinder shot the Staudte family in contained frames: through a threshold, out the window, in between two opposing mirrors on the walls, as if we were sneaking a look into a terrible, claustrophobic intimacy. When we arrive, like the newborn, Mother has already started to lose it. Margot’s first spoken line, after giving birth: “It’s starting again. I’m going insane.”

From there, Margot’s condition worsens. She starts an affair with the pharmacist across the street who will give her Valium in exchange for a detached, sober kind of affection, and eventually she takes a razor to her wrist, not in an attempt to end her life but because she “wanted to feel the pain. I wanted to take my mind off my fear.” She says this to her husband in the passenger seat of the car, with a deranged, amused look, while he drives with silent tears running down his face. His tears aren’t particularly moving, partly because his attitude toward Margot had been less than satisfactory until the moment when the stability of their marriage was seriously threatened, but also partly because the very reality of him, from Margot’s perspective, is in question. The blur in her vision distorts the containers––the thresholds, the windows, and the perfectly centered space between, say, a lamp and a table––through which Fassbinder gives us a version of the family’s existence, and by extent, their reality. Margot begins to question this reality in front of the mirror, wondering what it means to be her; for the rest of the film, the regularity of her distortions becomes the rhythm to which the logic of her life moves. The routines that are the tempo of a devoted housewife––breakfast, lunch, and dinner; washing, drying, ironing; unmaking, making, unmaking again––are lost to the delirium of feeling uncontained in the Staudte household: watching Margot, I got the sense that it’d been a while, anyway, since there was a particular schedule. We wait for the house to look like it’s underwater, its lack of definition the only constant. For Margot, the stability of routine is an unmanageable pressure, drowning her in inexplicable fear.

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For all the times throughout the film when Margot expresses, clearly and directly—to a husband, a doctor, or a lover—how scared she is, not one person, instance, or image gets close to unearthing what it is she’s scared of. The people around her perceive her fright as another manifestation of her derangement, a symptom to be treated. I kept waiting for a doctor to send her out for a seaside cure, to get some fresh air—and indeed, at one point, she goes swimming in a gym. Dripping poolside, she looks like an oddly opposing image of blood-stained Carrie. Throughout her ailment, she only mentions particularly being scared of her fear (hence the title), but what the fearsome fear actually comprises is never elucidated. The problem that has no name sneaks its way in. The viewer can’t help but rush to fill in the gaps. I wonder if perhaps Margot is afraid of disembodiment, or maybe she’s afraid of being stuck in the dead-end role of the housewife (a Friedanian reading); it could be she’s afraid that she’ll never be able to make of her life anything more than this, the flooding red of the nail polish, of her in-laws’ hair, and the armchairs on which they sit to judge her. There lingers a sense that what Margot is afraid of is precisely what she’s living through—an inability to articulate, a fear that makes the body a battleground, toggling between a heightened sense of purpose (like motherhood) and a disembodiment that detaches a person from her role. It’s hard to be a mother when you can’t even see straight. In the abundance of mirrors in the Staudte home, images beguile, inspire mistrust. The invisible line that ties the relationship between the reflection and the person standing in front of it gets cut loose for Margot. There is only a strangeness.

Surely, the effects of harboring an unnamed fear in the body and in the mind (enter the psychiatrist and his Valium-stamped prescription pad) were a preoccupation for second-wave feminism, which encouraged women, and especially housewives, to narrate their issues to each other. Sitting in their living rooms, they told each other tales of desperation, raising each other’s consciousness. By the mid-‘70s, consciousness-raising groups were the staple of local feminist efforts, and their discussions were the breeding ground for an organized and concerted effort to get women off Valium, to refuse the mind-numbing solution proposed by doctors for their discontent. They’d become increasingly aware of their own misguided pathologization, and fought back so effectively that, by the close of the ‘70s, Valium use declined sharply: more than half of the women hooked on it had abandoned their habits, according to David Herzberg, a scholar of licit drug addiction.

Yet, neither the psychoanalytic craze of the period nor the consciousness-raising groups were ever able to finally give the infamous problem a name. Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, fails to provide it, as well as to define exactly what the feminine mystique was in more than the vaguest terms. Half a century later, we still don’t have a name for the psychological torture that housewives of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were going through. We throw our arms up, resort to the idea that anyone living such a purposeless life of cleaning, changing, and cooking would go insane; what other reaction is there? But the problem was more deeply rooted—it was melodramatic, existential, the stuff of the impossible choice between death, insanity, and complicity.

Over and over, Margot tries to describe something indescribable, and over and over she gives in to the obstacle: “I can’t explain it, the fear,” she says. In her convoluted attempts, the problem becomes rhetorical. Watching her trying to come out with it, I gripped the edge of my blanket, pulled it closer to my chest. If only Margot could explain! Then, maybe, they would understand. The first doctor that Margot sees puts her on Valium. The second diagnoses her with schizophrenia. The pharmacist in between gets into her pants. The third and final doctor, a woman at last, simply tells her to get a job. But what medication, what career path is there for such demoralizing insufficiency? What workplace, what sense of purpose outside the home could give the closing walls definition, put the frames back into their containers, stop desperation from leaking everywhere?

It’s not an insignificant detail that Fear of Fear starts with Margot’s pregnancy, and that it touches on her motherhood a number of times, from her excessive attachment to her kids to a loss of the poise we so compulsively and automatically expect of mothers. In her 2018 book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, writer and feminist thinker Jacqueline Rose argues that, according to man and history, “to be a mother, something has to give.” Something always being, as Rose reminds us, a woman’s sense of self. About the unending, unconditional love we demand of the mother towards her child, Rose writes: “Like the injunction to be spontaneous, a state that can only arise unbidden, the demand to love crushes its object and obliterates itself.” Just as motherhood is not and can never be a solution for a woman’s tumultuous inner life, nor can domesticity, a routine, or Valium serve as a cure. Much like living itself—or, for that matter, being a woman—we are presented with an impossible problem. And so the fate is set: madwoman it will be.

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Margot’s descent into madness is not only rapid, but established before the film even starts. Apart from her frustrated stirring in the first scene, Margot as a functioning housewife never fully comes into relief. She picks her daughter Bibi up from school daily, and at one point she feeds meat into a grinder, but the patterns and rhythms of a domestic existence have been broken before the audience comes into the scene. Margot’s identity as a housewife is only defined by negative association––by constant reminders of all the things she does not do. In Mothers, Rose argues that this is the ultimate corner into which mothers have been backed: always falling short of an unreachable ideal, always culpable for any and all wrongdoing. In fact, were it not for the constant reminders of everything Margot should be doing, we might not be able to tell that she is a housewife in the first place. The reminders come from Margot’s mother- and sister-in-law, who not only own her apartment but live one floor above her, giving them a bird’s-eye view of everything Margot fails to do (or everything she does in a failing way). Passive-aggressively, they bring Margot groceries, make comments about her thinness and her paleness, about how scrambled eggs and toast is a nutritionally inadequate lunch; they’re skeptical of her attachment to her daughter, her ways of showing affection. They take perverse, self-righteous joy when the second doctor mistakenly diagnoses Margot as a schizophrenic.

Speaking in a brief lecture almost 30 years after the release of Fear of Fear, Todd Haynes talked about Fassbinder’s melodramas and the influence that Douglas Sirk waged on them. Coming of age artistically in the same era as Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave’s exploration of film as a political tool, Fassbinder found himself discontented with his central European counterparts’ ideals. The real stuff of revolution, he thought, came to the viewer after watching the movie: the role of cinema was to animate, rather than present itself as, political action. Haynes continues that although Fassbinder’s work has often been deemed bleak or pessimistic, the filmmaker himself intended the opposite effect; in portraying society’s rigid structures, his aim was that his audience would then be inspired to break them, to introduce in whatever way they saw fit some fluidity. That, for him, meant hope. Articulating his love of Sirk’s melodramas in 1975, Fassbinder wrote: “Women think in Sirk’s films…Usually women are always reacting, doing what women are supposed to do, but in Sirk they think. It’s something that has to be seen. It’s great to see women think. It gives one hope. Honestly.”

The idea that watching a woman think—unbearable thoughts or not—could transform a viewer’s passive watching experience into political action is the best articulation I have ever come across of the value of the domestic melodrama. Sirk started it with his thinking women, trapped as they were in their ivory towers and consumed by their raging need to break free. In that hopeless, expectant way, they never quite did. The ending of All That Heaven Allows, in which Jane Wyman’s protagonist falls in love with a much younger and poorer man than her, is tinged with ambient sadness: although they end the movie together, they know as much as we do that their love is doomed to fail. In Sirk, making their impossible choice, the characters tend toward complicity. It was his own way of making studio hits—blockbusters of a time before them––that pleased the crowds but left a crumb for those inclined toward political animation and critical thinking. Events would conclude in a respectable, impossibly sad way, recognizing the grip of an unjust system on the lives of those who live not only under it, but often in function of it. The critiques were subtle, discreet, dosed.

Like the leaking frames of Fear of Fear, Fassbinder took the spirit and pried it open. His approach to housewives differed from the other cautionary tales of the mid-‘70s—and before that, the melodramas of the ‘50s—in that it refocused the pressure point: he wasn’t cautioning women so much as he was cautioning anyone, shifting the blame from the individual (don’t go crazy; do, be something more) to the systemic. The critique was anything but subtle, his characters tending, in their impossible choice, toward insanity. Margot is not any particular woman, but the insane housewife in general, her domestic patterns obscured to the point of negation. The flooding red that surrounds her is a reminder of everything that could be, an animation toward political action. Watching it, you can’t help but feel a tingling on the soles of your feet, a disbelief throbbing in your head that makes you want to scream. There has to be something else!, Margot thinks, tries to articulate. The rigidity of the social structure in which her reality takes place is her only constant, her disturbance of it her only activity: perversely, what saves her is her refusal, however distorted, however insane. 

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With the very first stirrings of Margot’s insanity, in the first 20 or so minutes of the film, we understand on what basis her mother-in-law forms her claims: Margot begs Bibi to stay near, asking even if she’d like to skip school to hang out at home instead. She kisses and cuddles, but her grip has a desperate quality to it, the strength of someone who holds onto a buoy for fear of drowning. Shortly after she declares that she’s going insane, a sense of maternal rationality dawns: “What’ll become of my kids if I go crazy?” She asks herself. “You can’t let that happen, God,” she pleads, with a shaky voice. The portrayal of Margot as a mother is both emblematic and unremarkable for its commonality, echoing Rose’s suggestion that we demand mothers to be so much for their kids that they obliterate themselves. All of Margot’s insufficiencies are judged by standards different than her own, making her culpable in the eyes of her family, and, by extent, the world at large: her identity as a mother disappears, unceremoniously, into her ‘failures’ as a housewife. Her successes, on the other hand, are all there, invisible.

The difference between Margot’s visibility—how she recognizes herself as a person, mother, and housewife—and the perception of others becomes irreconcilable; Fassbinder puts the invisibility of the housewife at the center of his critique of the structures that perpetuate it. Because Margot is not recognized for her work, she becomes invisible even as her job includes seeing everyone elselooking after them, anticipating their needs, and fulfilling them with an essential ease that is supposed to be part of her nature. Worse, when Margot is seen, after all, it’s for all the things she is failing at, all the things she is not; in other words, to borrow from Rose, she’s seen only as a mother. Looking at herself in the mirror, blow dryer in hand, she knows that something is off in this house that isn’t hers, in this bathroom, as a woman, housewife, mother, all supposed parts of the answer to that question: what is that, me? As her condition worsens, Margot becomes infective, quarantined, exiled. (Towards the end of the film, Margot gets put in a psychiatric institution where she receives “sleeping therapy” and is later told by that third doctor to get a job. Her roommate, Edda, looks not totally unlike her.)

A film is, after all, an amalgam of images, and in the relations of looking explored by Fassbinder, the viewer becomes implicated. What we’re looking at is this: Margot, increasingly insane, constantly beautiful, her outfits and her makeup immaculate as her sense of self comes undone. The dissonance between her existential pain and her presentation is gaping; she has nothing of the disheveled mental patient. Her red hair is brushed, her red lips are outlined, and her red nails stand intact even as she takes pills in front of the psych ward’s mirror. If the mirror represents, for Margot, a visual rendition of her shattered selfhood, then it also gives her the opportunity that her life doesn’t: she can see herself, and in the act of looking, recognizing, she can prove that she’s real. In order for something to break, it needs to be intact first.

In her book Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, feminist scholar and organizer Silvia Federici makes the point that in “naturalizing” the unwaged labor of the housewife—that is, weaving it into a common understanding of what a woman should be—capital has come to attribute to feminity a natural fulfillment in domestic tasks. “Cooking, smiling, fucking,” as Federici defines them, are part of the job. The other aspects of what can be thought of as a feminine presentation become functions of this labor, the woman ever more beautiful and feminine as she becomes more and more attached to her housewifedom. Under this logic, it’s the duty of the housewife to look attractive. We can stretch this logic further into Margot’s crisis: if her failures as a homemaker and mother deny her the status of woman—leading her to question her very reality—then to make herself beautiful is some desperate way to try and assert it, to push back against the denial. We can think of this as Margot’s own version of the fluidity Haynes mentioned as a goal of Fassbinder’s project: trapped in the insane housewife trope, Margot is animated towards making it her own, painting it her distinctive shade of red. 

Considering the power of consciousness-raising sessions in the essay that first explored the connection between the personal and the political, feminist organizer Carol Hanisch wrote, “As a movement woman, [she had] been pressured to be strong, selfless, other-oriented, sacrificing, and in general pretty much in control of [her] own life,” and that it was in consciousness-raising sessions that she could “face the awful truth about how grim [her] life really [was] as a woman.” As we know, facing reality turned out to be a powerful political tool: powerful enough to get women off Valium and organized into a movement. And what was Margot doing, in her insanity, but facing the grim reality of her life as a woman? And more, the reality of her life as a mother under pressures like the ones Hanisch described? It may sound bleak, but it’s a Fassbinderian bleakness, which is to say, again, that it gives one hope. The exploration of sentiment and humanity that drives the melodrama as a genre is of a piece with a quiet ambition to explode the inner life, and, in so doing, inspire the sort of recognition that Margot was looking for in the mirror. In Fear of Fear, women’s discontent moves through pathological lines and out of them, evoking, in Fassbinder’s expectant way, the kind of collective action that may finally set us free.