Fear and Desire by Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1953, 62 min.). During an unnamed war, four soldiers survive a plane crash and find themselves behind enemy lines. As they explore their surroundings they discover a small military base occupied by opponent troops. While hiding in the forest, they come across a girl who seems to belong to the enemy’s side. They quickly overpower her and bind her to a tree, hoping to learn some information that will help them to escape–but she does not speak their language. Their futile interactions with the girl foreshadow the pointless insanity of their predicament, as the four men devise a plan for escape that at best will delay their certain deaths and plunge them into a fresh hell within the same war.

Kubrick tended to criticize the amateur feel of his first feature film, which he produced on a low budget and based on a script written by a friend. However, watching Fear and Desire against the rest of Kubrick’s cinematographic oeuvre illustrates how the film sets the tone of his subsequent work. It is an antiwar film that is not meant to be located in a real environment nor connected to any historic event, but takes place entirely in the minds of the characters or the collective consciousness of the human race. Through the voiceover narration in the film’s introductory sequence, we learn that the war in question is to be understood as an allegory for an existential crisis of humanity:

The enemies who struggle here do not exist, until we call them into being … Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.

Within this theoretical environment, Fear and Desire illustrates two conflicting human urges. First there is the fear of making decisions, which results from the influence of military and government systems that discourage personal autonomy. In direct opposition to this fear is the natural desire for self-determination. Both of these emotional states are intrinsic to human existence and they are recurring themes in Kubrick’s work, especially his films about war. Once fear and desire get out of control, the stifling dichotomy of human existence becomes obvious. Kubrick realizes this claustrophobic state of mind through a visceral overexposure of the body: close-ups of sensory organs such as wide eyes, whispering mouths, nervous hands as well as through extreme camera angles and a harsh contrastive lightning that depict the human being as out of order, dysfunctional. The constant articulation of the characters’ fears and doubts as inner monologues make them seem almost like figures trapped in a theatre play, pacing the same small stage in a hypothetical forest from which they cannot escape.

Rebecca Raab
MFG Film Fund, Baden-Württemberg, Germany