Cine-East Film Club Presents #68: 1979, The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

by George_East on February 23, 2016
Red Cross Nurse: How long were you married?

Maria Braun: I am still married

Red Cross Nurse: I mean, it didn’t last long did it?

Maria Braun: ‘Yes we did: half a day and a whole night’.


[Apologies for the trailer but only the Italian dubbed version appears to be available on Youtube]

The German New Wave, that extraordinary outpouring of creativity by filmmakers in the old West Germany from the late 1960s to the early 1980s has not featured so far in the films presented by the Cine-East Film Club. It is an omission long overdue for correction.

The directors who made the films of the German New Wave all grew up in the period immediately after the Second World War and were scarred by the support for the Nazis of their parents’ generation and the, as they saw it, failure of the post-war political class properly to address what had happened in that period and why (it is the same reaction that would result in some of their contemporaries forming the Red Army Faction).   As they saw it, the  smugness and complacency, which accompanied the post-War German economic miracle, disguised, or at least missed, underlying prejudices not wholly dissimilar to those that had brought Nazism about in the first place. There was also a cultural fascination with America in the period which was double edged, in its glamour and excitement but exclusion of the poor and the less successful.

In their different ways the leading lights of the German New Wave engaged and critiqued this culture. Of the three big names of the movement, Wim Wenders (who I think is the one whose German films, Wings of Desire aside, have maybe stood up least well) was the most obviously pro-American, making his name with a series of films in one of the most American of all genres, the road movie (with films like Alice In the Cities and Kings of the Road). These films showed the thrill and freedom of open spaces, but the sometime emptiness of lives lived within them.   Werner Herzog made his name making films about half-crazed monomaniacs (like Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo) and idiot savants (like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Woyzeck) – the metaphors of Germany’s past in his extraordinary films were not hard to read.

But of all the German New Wave directors, it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder who seemed most directly scathing of the culture in which he grew up and worked, and most ahead of his time in the issues he addressed: gender, race and sexuality featuring heavily. His extraordinary output – amounting to some 40 feature films and 6 major television series in a mere 14 years of activity before he died at the age of 37 in 1982 – is probably unparalleled (and this doesn’t count the stage plays and other artistic works with which he was involved). The fact that he was also able to produce, within that prolific body of work, several out and out masterpieces is the measure of his talent.

It is to one of those masterpieces that the Cine-East Film Club turns its attention this week: The Marriage of Maria Braun. It is a film that has more going on it, than most directors manage in their entire oeuvre.

The film is a story of the titular character, in the first decade after the Second World War. It is a film, which opens with one of the greatest wedding sequences in all cinema (to which I will return shortly) during the dying days of the War and ends nearly 10 years later as West Germany beat Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary in the World Cup of 1954 (the so called miracle of Bern).

The backstory to the film is Hermann’s disappearance at the end of the War, a missing man who hasn’t returned from the front but of whom there is no word about his death or otherwise. Maria remains loyal to his memory and to his reality, as she will throughout the film.

Maria’s story is one of survival and climbing through the ranks of German society using all means available to her. In a breathtaking performance by Fassbinder regular Hannah Schygulla, Maria Braun is an indomitable force of nature who despite the wreckage she causes to lives around her (including the death of two men who love her), the viewer cannot help but root for.   Her ruthlessness is shown early on when, in the poverty stricken immediate aftermath of the War, she trades two packets of cigarettes giving to her by an American soldier with her nicotine-starved mother, for her mother’s prized broach, simply in order to trade on to a black market dealer (wonderfully played by Fassbinder himself) for a slinky black dress in order to get a job as a hostess in a bar for American serviceman.

This will lead to her meeting a black soldier, Bill, who becomes her lover and teaches her English. Fassbinder subtly plays with issues of race,  as the clientele of the club in which Maria acts as a hostess is exclusively black. Yet even these soldiers are unfathomably wealthy as compared to the now destitute Germans (the fact that the film is set in Hitler’s city and historically the richest in Germany, Munich, adds to the sense of how far the Germans have fallen). However poor the social status of the still segregated American Army, black soldiers, for this short moment at least, rank above the Brown (Braun).

The death of Bill at the hands of Maria, when Hermann unexpectedly returns (like many soldiers taken prisoner of war on the Eastern Front, even if they survived the harshness of Russian prisoner of war camps, it was often years after the war before they were released), and Hermannn’s decision to take the blame, leads Maria on to an unrelenting determination to socially climb. Gate-crashing an otherwise empty first class carriage (compared to the over-crowded third class cars complete with chickens and livestock – what you reap is what you sow), she seduces a wealthy and kindly French businessman, Mr Oswald, who owns a factory in Germany and she is employed initially as his company’s interpreter from English to German.   Within a short time, Maria is all but running the company and Oswald is begging her to spend time with him: ‘I don’t want you to think you are having an affair with me, I am having an affair with you’, she declares at one point.

Maria is one of the great female characters in cinema. She is overtly sexual but she determines the terms on which she sexually interacts with men (a character type still barely seen in American cinema, sadly).   Oswald is completely enraptured by her and Maria exploits that for all it is worth. Although she remains, so she says, in love with Hermann throughout she has no compunction of telling her husband when she visits him in prison, about the fact that she is having sex with Oswald.

Her relationship with Hermann is fascinating, as they barely are seen together throughout the film. Even when Hermann is released from prison he considers the relationship far too uneven, given Maria’s success, for him, and goes to Canada in search of success, sending a single red rose as a reminder every month, which Maria adds to a vase (time passing being shown by the decaying remains of various roses in the vase).   We never see Maria intimate with Hermann, as we do with her American lover and Oswald.

All we get is the wedding scene at the beginning; Hermann humiliatingly interrupting Maria and the American lover about to have sex; a couple of short prison visits which are more torture than comfort to Hermann as Maria boasts of her success and conquests; and a final scene of reunion at the end which will end in mutual tragedy.   Does Maria really love Hermann, or is he simply an abstract motivation for her ruthless rise from impoverished bar hostess to company boss?

The film uses Maria as a metaphor for the German post-war economic miracle, the meteoric rise of a new elite being at the expense of the casual throwing under the bus of those less fortunate, or just those who show some empathy for their fellow human beings. On that interpretation Hermann represents Germany’s idea of itself rather than the truth.

Fassbinder also posits an alternative future, more driven by love and pleasure, than acquisitiveness and power. Maria’s mother is an alcoholic, nicotine addicted mess for most of the film. But she also finds genuine love and happiness. There is a great scene in which Maria returns to her mother’s house for her mother’s birthday to find her in bed with her lover, leading Maria to remark to her friend: ‘I had forgotten my mother is a woman’. In contrast Maria’s friend’s marriage is loveless and sexless: the so-called fascism of every day life, that was so often Fassbinder’s target.

The film is also remarkable for its style. The wedding scene, played under the opening credits, could be straight out of a Peckinpah western, as the registry office in which the wedding of Maria and Hermann is taking place is hit by allied bombs and the wedding party and official are blown on to the street outside. Maria, in the determined way which is her hallmark throughout the film, making sure that the marriage certificate is signed and therefore the marriage official, as rubble falls around them in slow motion.   This is to be contrasted with other parts of the film which go from film noir tropes (a very fatale femme and check out Hermann’s hat in the final scenes) through domestic Sirkian melodrama to unsettling Brechtian devices emphasising the artifice of the film (sudden discordant bursts of music, scenes with non-naturalistic acting, the contrived set up for the explosive ending).

It is not just that few films are made that are this ambitious in form and content now, which is so often the complaint of film lovers when comparing the state and ambition of contemporary cinema with those of the golden decades between the 1940s and 1970s, but that few films have ever been made that are this ambitious.

If you don’t know Fassbinder’s work, check it out (I still have only begun to dip my toe into the rich waters of his films, so far without disappointment) and if you want a starting point you cannot do better than The Marriage of Maria Braun.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ceri February 29, 2016 at 9:28 am

I agree, a wonderful, overlooked film.


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