La Paura (Fear, 1954) is the final and arguably most underrated film collaboration between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Before their seven-year marriage from 1950-57, the couple made headlines after their extra-marital affair during the filming of Stromboli (1950) culminated in Bergman leaving her neurosurgeon husband Dr. Petter Lindström and twelve-year-old daughter Pia to have the child of the celebrated Italian director (1). Not only was the scandal denounced by Senator Edwin C. Johnson on the floor of the United States Senate (2), but also it initiated Bergman’s six-year exile from Hollywood filmmaking, an artistically daring yet non-commercial period where she worked exclusively with Rossellini on the films Europa ’51 (1952), the eponymously titled “Ingrid Bergman” segment of Siamo donne (1953), Viaggio in Italia (1954), Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (1954), and La Paura.
As with the other Bergman-Rossellini films, La Paura was lambasted upon release by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, who viewed their union as an impediment to both of their careers. Whereas Rossellini was seen as wasting Bergman’s talents by taking her away from her successful career in Hollywood, Bergman was seen as the impetus for Rossellini abandoning the aesthetic style and socio-political concerns of Neo-Realism that made Roma città aperta (1945) and Paisan (1946) essential films of this movement.
Much of the criticism leveled against the film has addressed the conventional nature of the film’s melodramatic narrative. The film is a post-World War II update of Austro-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig’s 1920 novella Angst about adultery and blackmail, which on the surface seems more ideally suited to a psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of reading the film as a conventional project from an artistic filmmaker selling out to commercial interests, La Paura should be viewed as an experimental companion piece to his socio-political masterpiece Germania anno zero (1948). The film ironically employs a melodramatic narrative (a genre associated with the bourgeoisie) to comment on the moral desolation of this class in postwar West Germany and – more provocatively in terms of Bergman – critique both her unraveling marriage with Rossellini and her prior career in 1940s Hollywood melodrama that the director disdained for its bourgeois artificiality.
La Paura’s ruminations on marriage and desolation in West Germany is suggested visually in the film’s opening shot of the Glockenspiel in the tower of the Neues Rathaus, a Neo-Gothic town hall located in Munich’s central square of Marienplatz. Shrouded in expressionist lighting by Carlo Carlini, the clockwork figures in the Glockenspiel reenact both the wedding of Wilhelm V and Renata of Lorraine, the Duke and Duchess of Bavaria, in 1586 (3), and the Coopers’ Dance that evolved from a desire to allay the societal fears of “desolation and despair” over the Black Death during the sixteenth century (4). These images are employed metaphorically to align the institution of marriage with the similarly diseased state of the postwar republic, which Rossellini suggested needed to be repaired both physically and morally in order to recover from its Nazi past (5).
A microcosm of this moral desolation can be seen in the story of Irene Wagner (Bergman), a wife distraught that her scientist husband, Albert (Mathias Wieman), will discover she has been having an affair since his imprisonment following the war. Irene’s feelings of guilt and fear escalate after her lover’s ex-girlfriend, Giovanna Schultze (Renate Mannhardt), blackmails her by threatening to inform Irene’s husband of the adultery. In a twist that recalls Bergman’s psychological melodrama Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), the blackmail plot is revealed to have been initiated by her husband, who like a mad scientist desires to discover how much emotional duress it will take for her to confess to her indiscretions.
The publicity surrounding Bergman and Rossellini’s affair and the subsequent contention in their marriage make it difficult not to read La Paura semi-autobiographically. These parallels were not entirely lost on Rossellini. “There was absolutely no autobiographical intention…[but La Paura] does reflect things a bit,” the director admitted (6). Bergman confessed that her emotional performance was tinged by her personal torment over her marriage to Rossellini, whose behavior so concerned her co-star Mathias Wieman that he urged her to leave him (7). Whether conscious or not on the part of Rossellini, additional autobiographical parallels can be seen in the alterations to Zweig’s novella, including the occupation of the cuckolded husband Albert from a lawyer to a man of science (invoking the memory of Bergman’s first husband) and removing the children from the Wagner household (recalling Bergman’s separation from her daughter) by placing them with caretakers at their weekend home in the countryside.
The blurring of biographical and fictional elements is further illustrated by the film’s casting. Bergman’s Irene recalls her Hollywood performances in Gaslight and Under Capricorn (Hitchcock, 1949), both featuring her as psychologically abused housewives tormented by members of their household due to dark familial secrets. Even more provocatory is the presence of Wieman, a German actor with a controversial Nazi past, best remembered for his role as the painter Vigo in Das blaue Licht (Leni Riefenstahl, 1932) (8). The casting of Wieman foregrounds the film’s implications that Albert’s former imprisonment and the unethical nature of his scientific methods hint at a dubious Nazi past.
Through this ironic casting, La Paura not only draws upon the personal biographies of its two lead performers, but also more importantly undercuts the melodramatic narrative by preventing the audience from completely investing in them as real characters. The characters instead serve as symbols of aspects of the bourgeoisie that the film suggests should be held in contempt: both the artificiality of melodrama with its swift resolutions to complex personal and social problems, and this social class’ inability, or unwillingness, to confront its past and move forward. These two ideas are intertwined in the eleventh-hour reconciliation between Irene and Albert, which feels unsatisfactory given the extent of the couple’s emotional damage (which nearly culminates in suicide). Irene and Albert may ask each other for forgiveness, but the idea that this will solve each other’s torment over their past indiscretions is undermined by the film’s opening voiceover narration by a still-haunted Irene from an undetermined point in the future. “Those events made me suffer, but I want to tell the truth, the whole truth,” she reflects. “It will be like a confession. Maybe this way I can free myself of the obsession that tortures me.” Given the film’s personal and social concerns, these words suggest that confession is only the first step – but not the last – in healing from all ills.
1. For an analysis of the scandal and its aftermath, see Stephen Gundle, “Saint Ingrid at the Stake: Stardom and Scandal in the Bergman-Rossellini Collaboration,” Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real, ed. David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: British Film Institute, 2000), pp. 64-79.
2. Gundle, p. 67; David Smit, Ingrid Bergman: The Life, Career, and Public Image (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012), pp. 3-4 and pp.88-93.
3. David Clay Large, Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games (Lanham: Rowan, 2012), p. 92.
4. William S. Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs: and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), p. 273.
5. In a television interview, Rossellini obliquely suggested the need for this dual moral and material reconstruction of postwar Germany in his comment that his changes to Zweig’s story focused on “the material reconstruction, but also the quest for a moral solution, of all the problems of those times; but it is also about the importance of confession, because it is in the ability to confess that one can achieve a certain humility, and, above all a great tolerance.” Reprinted in Roberto Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews, ed. Adriano Aprà, trans. Annapaola Cancogni (New York: Marsilio, 1992), pp. 120-121.
6. Pio Baldelli, Roberto Rossellini, Samonà e Savelli, Rome 1972, p. 135. Quoted in Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films (New York: Da Capo 1998), p. 434.
7. Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess, Ingrid Bergman: My Story (New York: Delacorte, 1980), p. 326.
8. Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 312.
La Paura (1954 West Germany/Italy 75 minutes)
Prod Co: Aniene Film/Ariston Film GmbH Prod: Herman Millakowsky Dir: Roberto Rossellini Scr: Sergio Amidei, Franz von Treuberg, based on the novella by Stefan Zweig Ed: Jolanda Benvenuti, Walter Boos Phot: Carlo Carlini Mus: Renzo Rossellini
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Mathias Wieman, Renate Mannhardt, Kurt Kreuger, Elise Aulinger, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Steffie Struck, Annelore Wied