Barbara Leaming

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

In the past Fassbinder's films have often been concerned with isolated people—with the outsider. In Fear of Fear, once again the central figure is set apart—she is a woman whose world is largely a world of family, a family that perceives her not only as an outsider, an intruder, but more importantly as someone "abnormal." For them, there is no question of what it is which constitutes the norm, for her sister-in-law explicitly and flatly states, "We are normal." They are the ones certainly who hold power; they are then the ones who determine the norm. Yet it is not even this outsider status within her husband's family which seems to mark the critical point in Margot's passage towards madness. There is a far more crucial sense of strangeness, of alienation, which she feels: her failure to identify with her own image. And it is this alienation from image—and hence from role—which provides the central structuring device of Fassbinder's film…. The apartment is filled with square and oval mirrors, waiting to catch her glance, waiting—if she were "normal"—to confirm her identity, to confirm her sense of self. But for Margot this face in the mirror remains "other," remains an image and nothing more…. For us, however, in the audience, the recognition of the image has quite different effects. Seeing the image as an image, we, in turn, see the figure reflected in the glass and on the screen itself as an image as well. It is never a "natural," unchangeable reality which we face in Fassbinder's film. Rather it is always an image made by someone, and hence is subject to change….

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The mirror is not, of course, the only device serving to call attention to the status of images as images in the film. Fassbinder has further developed one of his earlier devices of framing within the frame of the screen. The interior frame which limits the material we see calls attention to the ordering and shaping of what we see; it calls attention to the "work" in the production of an image which is never posited as "natural."…

Unlike the filmmakers of the transparent classical realist cinema, Fassbinder uses frames within the frames and other devices to make it difficult for us to see. For example, Margot's sister-in-law functions as a kind of voyeur, watching Margot's every move out of the house through a window. It is significant that this window, the emblem for realist art, is not able to give direct access to the sights she watches below, for her view is obscured by a leafy tree or a curtain. She, like us, must look through something. (p. 14)

What happens when Fassbinder reveals his filmic frame of reference so clearly in this film and in so many other of his works is a question of crucial importance. When an image with which we are already familiar appears in a new context, something happens to the content of that image—our attention is shifted away from the signified to the signifier. Suddenly style becomes visible as style. In terms of his manipulation of the sign system, Fassbinder's work is similar to that of certain Pop artists…. In Fassbinder's films, materials exist in a realm of similar simultaneity: signifier becomes signified, yet echos in our memory as signifier still. The sign as convention has been revealed, its "naturalness" called into question. As in Pop Art, style has become "subject matter." The political significance of Fassbinder's interest in style as subject matter ought perhaps to be clarified, for in no sense is this an outmoded art for art's sake, a precious formalism. Rather, Fassbinder reveals to us an art made by people, an image made by people, a world made by people, a world, an image which is changeable by people. He reveals or demands active rather than passive spectators. People who transform. People who change.

Fear of Fear, then, is the politicization of style. Stylistic politics. As Jorge Luis Borges has said, "Each writer creates his precursors." In Fear of Fear, Fassbinder creates his precursors and thereby creates a politics. (p. 15)

Barbara Leaming, "Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Fear of Fear'," in Take One (copyright © 1977 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 5, No. 10, July-August, 1977, pp. 14-15.

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