The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Marriage Maria Braun

I went through a minor Fassbinder phase, brought on by watching Querelle back in college, merely for the Brad Davis factor. The whole thing struck me as lunatic, hot, dirty, crazy, radical, gorgeous, and camp. Who the hell was this director?? Of course once you start looking into the guy you wonder how on earth he did so much in such a short life-span. It’s like he knew he was gonna bite it early. It’s still a daunting body of work. He just got the Criterion treatment, and Then, of course, there is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a powerful film that I actually am not sure I ever want to see again, so primal a reaction does it bring. I certainly need to be careful about when I choose to watch it. The Marriage of Maria Braun was his biggest international hit, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (and lead actress Hanna Schygulla won Best Actress), was nominated for a Golden Globe and others. I saw it years ago and fell in love with the lead performance, which I found mysterious, sometimes scary, unpredictable, lovable, and strangely compelling. Schygulla is so fantastic it’s hard to believe it wasn’t written for her. (In other news, she is still out there, still doing cool projects, showing up in an unforgettable small scene in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies). The transformation she goes through here, as Maria Braun, is nothing short of incredible and brings to mind the great and in-depth “women’s pictures” of the Hollywood Studio Era, films like Mr. Skeffington or The Damned Don’t Cry or basically anything starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford: where female experience was given a privileged status in the storytelling apparatus of the day. Jezebel, The Letter, Sudden Fear, Daisy Kenyon, Mildred Pierce … Endless. The Marriage of Maria Braun is that kind of picture, in topic and sheer scope. The journey this woman goes on! Good lord! Yes, it is also a vicious satire about German re-growth after World War II, its economic rejuvenation, the miracle of West Germany, which Fassbinder examines with a deeply jaundiced eye. Some of the scenes border on camp (or, hell, ARE camp).

The final scene is a case in point. (SPOILERS.) Maria races around in the get-up she wears in the poster. Her husband eats pudding or apple sauce, standing around in his coat. The radio is on, and we hear an increasingly feverish announcer screaming about the World Cup, where Germany is competing and winning. Throughout the entire scene, with really important dialogue going on – like CRUCIAL dialogue – it’s all undercut by that screaming German announcer. No one turns the radio off. Then of course, just as things are about to right themselves – BOOM. Carnage. The announcer keeps screaming, “GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! GERMANY HAS WON!” You know, you don’t need a degree in post-modern lit-crit to get what is going on there. (END SPOILERS.)

Maria marries Hermann in the hilarious first scene, as buildings explode around them, and she, in her wedding dress, frantically hands the Stamp to the city clerk to make it official, all as bombs rain down on them from above. The marriage lasts only two days before Hermann is sent off to war. He does not return. He is on the missing persons list. Maria devotes her days to bargaining on the black market for essentials and walking around the destroyed city (mountains of rubble), wearing a sandwich board saying: “HAVE YOU SEEN HERMANN BRAUN?” People tell her she needs to move on. People use the past tense when discussing her husband/marriage, and she, with a big warm heartbroken smile, corrects them back to present tense. Maria lives with her mother (the phenomenal Gisela Uhlen), both of them widows, and both of them dealing with it in different ways. To describe the plot of the film is to find oneself bogged down in a “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” litany – when WHAT happens is not as important as HOW it happens. And without the performance at the heart of it, the sexy and complex performance of Hanna Schygulla, the entire film could have been seen as a mix of sex farce and satire. It has those elements, but beneath it is the heartbreak of the devastation brought about by war (even though the Germans brought that war upon themselves, it must be said). Throughout the film, in various scenes, the radio is on. The scenes go on, important dialogue, arguments, resolutions, emotional moments, all of that happening but underneath the damn radio announcer, droning on and on about Germany’s desire to re-arm itself, and the fearful reactions of the international community towards that impending situation. You are FORCED to stop listening to the characters’ dialogue and tune in to the radio. Fassbinder is telling you what is really important.

Maria will not give up on the idea that her husband is still out there, and so everything she does, from sleeping with American servicemen (one in particular) to becoming a career woman, and making a ton of money through somewhat nefarious and bullying ways, is all for him. Inside she still believes she is a loyal loving wife, even though she was only married for two days. But watch the transformation. In particular, watch the development of her hats. The woman is always wearing a hat, and they become more and more extravagant and extreme as the film goes on.

Apparently Marriage of Maria Braun was filmed quickly and chaotically, squeezed in between other projects. Hard to believe, but then much about Fassbinder is hard to believe. He is such a confident filmmaker, bold, brash, daring, but also grounded. The style doesn’t overwhelm the substance. Some see the portrayal of Maria Braun as misogynistic, the rapacious woman. I see it more as a critique of capitalism and what it does to women in its clutches. She sleeps with her boss and she makes the first move. Why? Because she needs his protection. And why does she make the first move? Because then she maintains the upper hand. Maria Braun is a capable intelligent woman. She ends up dominating the business she infiltrates through her sexual allure. She becomes a wealthy woman, benefiting from the resurgence of Germany, but the point is also made that her talent with black market dealings during WWII is not at all different from her talent for corporate negotiations. Black market illegal, business deals legal, but that’s a technicality. Maria Braun does what she needs to do to survive. And it is also clear that she gets off on it. This is no victim. She enjoys the sex she has, she enjoys the power she wields, and she enjoys the monetary rewards in hats and jewels and country houses. But, as her mother worries at one point, “What is going to happen to your soul, Maria?”

Such a compelling film. With one eye-catching shot after another. And such good performances, with the lead actress reminiscent of Bette Davis at her most human and most great.

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6 Responses to The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

  1. Jane says:

    Hi Sheila,
    So true: “Compelling” is the best word for it.
    I watched Maria Braun for the first time this year (thanks to Hulu’s Criterion collection) and I enjoyed it very much. I confess, I sat and blinked at the screen after that ending. I had to take a few days to absorb it. I just did not see that one coming.
    I will also admit, though, as much as I enjoyed Maria Braun, my favorite Fassbinder so far is Veronika Voss. That movie swept me off of my feet. Something about the cinematography and the sense of decaying old Hollywood/Germany. So over the top. Eery. But I just loved it.
    I have not yet seen Lola.

  2. sheila says:

    // I confess, I sat and blinked at the screen after that ending. I had to take a few days to absorb it. I just did not see that one coming. //

    I know, right? I felt the same way.

    There’s still so much of his I haven’t seen. I need to carve out the time to see Berlin Alexanderplatz – sounds right up my alley but it’s a commitment!

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I’ve been watching a great deal of Fassbinder in the last year. His first movie, “Love is Colder than Death,” also starring Shuygulla as well as himself, is amazing, with all its sly references to Melville and Goddard. His mid-’70s movie about a psychologically abused wife is absolutely incredible, you must watch that one. His late ’70s or early ’80s “Third Generation,” about more or less the Baader/Manhoff gang and again a reference to Goddard’s “La Chinoise”, but I’d say actually more insightful. “Lola” is wonderful as well. But I would also agree that Maria Braun is maybe his greatest achievement. And according to what I’ve read, Fassbinder probably did more or less write that role for Shuygulla. She had broken with him after being part of his “stable” over the issue of wages. After a number of years he called her up and told her he had the part that would change her life.

    • sheila says:

      Fiddlin’ Bill – Thanks for the correction, in re: Schygulla – I knew she had broken with him, and this role definitely seems so tailored to her it is impossible to imagine another actress playing it. I mean, the warmth of her face, right? She never plays her as cold – even though the character is manipulative, cunning, smart, etc. Even brutal in some respects. But she always plays her as hot – loving and hot (meaning her emotions are hot).

      There’s still so much of his I haven’t seen – he was so damn prolific – thank you so much for the other recommendations. I have some catching up to do!

  4. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Now and again TCM sneaks a Fassbinder into their schedule, often after midnight on Sunday/Monday. That’s where I saw Lola, which is really brilliant. I think the abused wife film is called Marta or Martha. It features subtle hat-tips to probably Sirk, or anyways directors from Hollywood in the ’50s. There’s an amazing 360 degree pirouette the two central characters make when they first meet, literally in passing, in Rome, just after her father has died of a heart attack on the Spanish Steps. When I watch Fassbinder I really think a lot about what film might be, and mostly isn’t. He confronts so many aspects of life directly–stuff people should think about but mostly don’t. So much film (and tv of course) is aimed at distraction. (“And furthermore…” *pulpit pounded for effect*).

    • sheila says:

      Well. That does it. I have to see Lola!!

      I’m with you: I am amazed at what he accomplished and also how he accomplished it. The sheer bravura of his approach, and yet how it’s all connected and grounded. It’s not flash for the sake of flash. Amazing filmmaker!

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