Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder                     Writers: Pea Fröhlich & Peter Märthesheimer
Music: Peer Raben                                            Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Densy and Gisela Uhlen

Though this is the first film I’ve ever seen by Ranier Fassbinder, for some reason I read a biography of him while an undergraduate that came out shortly after his death of a drug overdose in 1982. To this day I can’t remember why I read the book, but I do remember the story of his life being fascinating. The Marriage of Maria Braun, at least for me, is less so. Made toward the end of his career, the film was unarguably his most commercially successful in terms of audience and critical acceptance. The film is certainly well constructed, consisting of three marriages, really, and the circular nature of the plot is quite admirable and one of the most enjoyable things for me in the film. Unlike many critics at the time, the ending makes perfect sense to me. Hanna Schygulla does a great job as Maria, a woman who attempts to hold on to her love for her husband but at the price of losing her own soul. Some have seen an allegory for post-war Germany in her character, and Fassbinder himself ends the film with the portraits of all the West German Chancellors up to that time in negative images.

The title of the film is actually where the story begins, the credits superimposed over buildings being bombed with Schygulla and Klaus Löwitsch being married as they lie on the ground amid the shelling. The film proper begins after he has disappeared at the end of World War II, and with no more German military infrastructure she has no way to know if he’s dead or alive. Meanwhile, allied soldiers are everywhere and she keeps going to the train station to see if he comes back and scrounging food for her and her mother. When she finally learns of his death she makes the decision to become a prostitute, but not the pejorative streetwalker that word brings to mind. She gets a job in a dance hall for lonely G.I.s and first begins a romance with George Eagles, a black American who wants to marry her. She says no and claims to still be married to her husband, but there’s a sense that this is an easy way out of a long-term entanglement with him. He buys her gifts and food and visits her at her mother’s house, and she survives. But then her husband returns.

At this point the film takes a turn for the noir, sort of. In his A List essay on the film, Kevin Thomas likens Hanna Schygulla’s Maria with a Joan Crawford heroine clawing her way to the top, and while the comparison brings up images of Mildred Pierce, the overt sexual nature of the film begs comparison with the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet more than the film noir that earned Crawford her Oscar. And speaking of Winslet, unlike the overt criticism of Nazi Germany made in a film like The Reader, the criticism is much more oblique here. The title, for one thing, bringing to mind Eva Braun, Hitler’s wife, and making the subtle point that Germans all married Hitler to some degree and that he was responsible for the destruction of their country during the war and their abject poverty in its aftermath. The one other reference is when Ivan Densy, not talking directly about Germany, says he lives in a country called Insanity.

In another disappointing A List essay, Kevin Thomas’s comments came primarily from a review written at the time of the film’s release in the United States and so it has no real context in which to place the film. As such, I decided to take a look at Roger Ebert’s much more thoughtful response in his list of The Great Movies. For Ebert, the film takes a definite post-war stance, that the German people were so broken by the war, the sacrifice they made so great, and the cause for which they suppressed their individual desires so infamous that their reaction was to demand everything from everyone, even at the ultimate cost of themselves. In this way the film also reflects its maker, as Fassbinder was known to be as cruel and heartless with those who loved him as his title character. The Marriage of Maria Braun is definitely a good film. Whether it is essential, however, is not something I’m really convinced of yet.

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