By Mike Dub
Italian Neo-Realist director Roberto Rossellini and Hollywood superstar Ingrid Bergman engaged in one of the most scandalous affairs of the 1950s. Each were married when they worked together for the first time on Stromboli (released in 1950), the first of five films they would make with each other. Not long after they met, a tabloid sensation exploded around their romance. Bergman became pregnant with Rossellini’s child, each divorced their spouse and married each other, and Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced Bergman on the floor of the Senate as “a powerful influence of evil.”
Given their history you might expect their final pairing, Fear (La Paura), starring Bergman as an adulteress, to be an introspective exploration of infidelity, perhaps even a justification for their affair. But Rossellini, to his credit, is not a filmmaker that would fall easily into such trappings. While there are parallels to his failing marriage to Bergman, ultimately his film is much loftier. By avoiding the most obvious overtones he not only tacitly rebukes the insipidness of tabloid sensationalism, he also creates a daring, insightful work about guilt, denial, and the still open wounds of the Second World War.
Based on the 1925 German novella Angst, by Stefan Zweig, the film takes place in Germany after the end of WWII. The story concerns Irene (Bergman), a married woman who has been having an affair while her scientist husband, Albert (Mathias Wieman), has been away in “prison” (probably a concentration camp). She breaks off the affair when he returns home in the hope that everything will simply return to normal. Soon, though, Irene is confronted by her lover’s ex-girlfriend (Renate Mannhardt), who threatens to reveal her affair. Irene spends most of the film in psychological torture, plagued by guilt over the affair and in constant fear of being exposed.
Somewhat surprisingly, the often stylistically austere Rossellini shoots Fear like a film noir. The opening shot, a car speeding down the road past a traffic light, is reminiscent of the opening shot of Double Indemnity, complete with a Hollywood-style score of brass and strings popping with intensity. Shadows haunt the city at night, contrasting the bright, familial rural countryside. Faces show true emotion only when no one else can see them.
The emotional brutality of the film is ever lurking just below the surface. Irene can barely hold her life together under the weight of her guilt and the threat of blackmail. Despite what seems to be everyone’s knowledge that something is amiss (Albert repeatedly asks her, “What’s wrong?”), Irene refuses to admit her affair. Though she lives in hell, the fear of being caught cannot outweigh the horror of facing what she has done.
As Irene struggles to deny her past, Albert returns to his science lab to develop a cure for paralysis. The serum works, but it’s not stable, and winds up killing many of the experimental mice it cures, but not all. Healing is a difficult and dangerous process, but some can survive the process.
Through Irene and Albert, Rossellini depicts a German society that is still unwilling to confront the atrocities of its past. Mired in postwar paralysis, Germany is submerged in guilt and denial. In order to progress, they must first come to terms with their history.
It would be almost another decade before Germans began confronting their cultural legacy in their own films. In the mid-1960s, a wave of young, “New German” filmmakers, including Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, and Rainier Werner Fassbinder, began dealing directly and indirectly with the scars left by the previous generation.
At the time, Rossellini was audacious in his depiction of contemporary Germany, but perhaps helped influence a generation of German filmmakers by forcing the conversation. In Fear, he is not preachy or vengeful. He is sensitive to a painful but fundamental truth: one cannot exorcise the demons of the past without first awakening them.