Here’s an oddity, a film with a complicated production background and the status of a rarity among Rossellini’s output. It is perhaps the least seen and least discussed of Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman and the least successful for both critics and audiences. But this also makes it a fascinating study and it was re-released, after restoration in Italy, by the British Film Institute as a limited edition Blu-ray in 2015 and also as a DVD. It’s the DVD version of the film that is discussed here. The film was shot in two slightly different versions in German and in English. The film is described as ‘dubbed’ version in various publications but since dialogue was routinely post-synched in Italy at the time, this is slightly misleading. If dialogue is dubbed, it is done very well in most cases. As far as I’m aware the leading players in the film, and certainly Ingrid Bergman, use their own voices in the English and German versions. There would have been an Italian dub of the English version but because of expectations of poor box office returns, the Italian distributor released a second version in Italy under the title Non credo più all’amore (I no longer believe in love) cut by around 7 minutes to 75 minutes. I watched the English version running at around 82 minutes (including text on the Restoration). I’ve since watched a YouTube clip which illustrates the English dubbing of a character in a scene with Ingrid Bergman. This seems odd in that the Swiss actor Kurt Kreuger dubbed by Anthony La Penna had actually worked in the UK and in Hollywood on English language films – but then Italian cinema in the 1950s was unusual.
In this period the marriage of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman was in trouble and they would be divorced formally in 1957. The strains of marriage had already been explored by Rossellini in Viaggio in Italia in 1953 but in that case he had co-written an original script. Fear is an adaptation of a story by Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer best known to me for his story that became the Max Ophüls film Letter From an Unknown Woman (US 1948), but contemporary audiences probably know him as responsible for the story that became Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (US-Germany 2014). The result in Rossellini’s hands is a strange film that some critics think more accessible for an (American) audience, while in Europe it is often summed up as a ‘stultifying bourgeois melodrama’ precisely because it is too conventional.
The best way to approach the film is to simply take what it offers and try to make sense of it. Rossellini returned to Germany to make the film, setting it in the early years of West Germany’s recovery as the ‘economic miracle’ is about to become noticeable. Rossellini had made Germany Year Zero (Italy-France-Germany 1948), shooting in Berlin 1947. Seven years later he travelled to München to make Die Angst. Even by 1954 the impact of economic growth in West Germany was evident and especially in Bavaria, which arguably had suffered less war-time damage than the Northern or Rhineland cities. The back story is not spelled out but it appears that Irene Wagner (Ingrid Bergman) manages a factory and her husband Albert (Mathias Wieman) is the chief scientist developing new drugs which currently involves animal testing. She took over running the factory when he was a prisoner of war. The couple have two young children who live in the country with a governess and other servants in an idyllic setting. Their parents drive out to see them at weekends. From the beginning of the narrative Irene is unsettled and we see her briefly meeting a lover, Erich (Kurt Krauger), and then being accosted by a woman Johanna (Renate Mannhardt). Irene is being blackmailed. Johanna demands money or she will expose Irene’s affair – she seems to be an ex-girlfriend of Erich. For much of the narrative, Irene is forced to behave oddly, borrowing money to pay off Johanna and dealing with all the problems that keeping her adultery secret sets up. This is indeed a conventional narrative. When Irene and Albert meet their children, there is a somewhat heavy-handed scene in which their young daughter Freda appears to have stolen the present given to her brother. He got a (toy) rifle whereas she got a soft toy in the form of a rabbit. She wanted the gun. Her father gives her a lecture about telling lies and the parallel with Irene’s deceit is clear. There is also another level to this as Irene has witnessed an experiment in the lab in which Albert has given a poison to a rabbit and then injected it with an antidote, noting the poor animals changing heartbeat. On the return to München, Johanna re-appears and makes further demands. I won’t spoil the last section of the narrative except to point out that a crucial scene takes place in a cabaret bar with a young Klaus Kinski on stage. The bar is named as ‘The Little Fish’ which seems like another reference to living creatures and perhaps links to the fishing trip Albert and Irene make with their children. There is a resolution to the narrative (which is different in some versions of the film) but it it isn’t definitive and Rossellini leaves us to work out what happens next.
What kind of film is this? The visual style suggests a possible noir melodrama as we follow Irene through night-time streets in her Mercedes coupé. The score by Renzo Rossellini is both highly emotional and also marks crisis points with loud drumbeats. But then the appearances of Johanna tend to push the narrative more towards a Hitchcockian thriller. Ingrid Bergman did appear in three films for Hitchcock plus Gaslight (1944) for George Cukor. These memories of her Hollywood star performances perhaps focus our attention on her husband. Is she being ‘gaslighted’ by her husband? Or is she caught up in an intrigue like the one at the centre of Notorious (1946)? But she had also already played a character named ‘Irene’ in Rossellini’s earlier Europa ’51 (Italy 1952). In that film she is an upper-middle class woman who has neglected her child and after a tragedy she attempts to assuage her guilt by turning to charitable work. I’ve consulted two scholars who’ve written about the film, Peter Brunette (1987/1996) and José Luis Guarner (1970). Both make connections with Bergman’s other films made with Rossellini and I would agree that it is difficult to also not think about the how Bergman performs in the various roles alongside her increasingly difficult relationship with her husband and director. Guarner suggests that the links between Germany Year Zero, Viaggio in Italia and Fear are such that Fear might be retitled ‘Germany, Year Seven‘ or ‘Viaggio in Germania‘ or even ‘Europa ’54‘. Brunette also quotes a retrospective review by Jill Forbes in Monthly Film Bulletin of March 1981. Forbes reviews a 16mm print of a cut version of La Paura – the English full version had been reviewed and more or less dismissed in MFB January 1958.
Forbes foregrounds what now seems to me to be an important discourse in the film – the post-war role of women in Europe. She too refers back to the earlier films discussed above and concludes that Rossellini presents “the issues of domestic politics with a fundamentally liberal understanding of the female condition which makes it extraordinary in its time – and indeed in ours”. This review in the context of early 1980s feminist film studies was part of a general re-assessment of Rossellini’s work in Monthly Film Bulletin at the time, with several retrospective reviews and a two-part article by Don Ranvaud in the February and March issues of MFB. Brunette raises the question of Rossellini’s ‘misogyny’, suggesting that Rossellini shows how a woman is victimised, but seems to take pleasure in punishing his women. On the other hand, Brunette also recognises that while some/many critics think he portrays Bergman in roles which she struggles to present on screen, Rossellini does make Bergman into a person, a real woman, not a star. There does seem to be a belief that the reason Rossellini’s films with Bergman don’t ‘work’ with an audience is because she isn’t able to apply Hollywood-style acting. For me, Bergman is always beautiful and moving, whatever kinds of role she plays. I think in this film she has costumes that enhance her beauty, but also some which disguise it.
Rossellini’s co-scriptwriter for Fear, Sergio Amidei later said Fear was a “very bad film” and “one of those famous lost opportunities” (quoted by Brunette). Rossellini himself was so disillusioned that he didn’t make another film for three years, during which time the divorce came through. Amidei suggests that it was the problems between Rossellini and Bergman and especially those concerning the children involved, both their own as a couple and the ones from their previous marriages. Watching the film now, I found it very tense and indeed angst-ridden. The narrative doesn’t make perfect sense but I find the issueswhich are explored to be very interesting and the film looks and sounds stylish thanks to Renzo Rossellini and cinematographer Carlo Carlini, a young man who had previously worked on two films for Fellini. Also credited as cinematographer on IMDb is Heinz Schnackertz, who began his career in Nazi cinema in the late 1930s. I’m not sure who handled the different shoots.
I’m glad I managed to see this, the last film in the Rossellini-Bergman partnership. I realise I have a couple more in my library as well as others by Rossellini to explore.
Burnette, Peter (1996) Roberto Rossellini, Berkeley: University of California Press
Guarner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista
very interesting. One of those films apparently where context really helps.