The Recovering Romantic: Fassbinder's THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN
This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Maria Braun will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Fassbinder films on Sunday, December 2, at 2 p.m. Free admission!
By Tim Brayton
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 31st feature in 10 years, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was also his biggest commercial success, both at home in West Germany and abroad. After years of being celebrated by the film cognoscenti of Europe and North America, this was to be his greatest attempt to court audiences, a note sounded repeatedly in early reviews: “the prolific and controversial German director is by now well-known to people knowledgeable about film, but Maria Braun may become his breakthrough film to mass audiences in the U.S.” according to Ruth McCormick in Cinéaste; “for him… an extremely naturalistic and accessible work,” in the terser words of the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr. Back in Germany, we find the same: “the most accessible (and thus most commercial) and mature work of the director” enthused Hans-Christoph Blumenberg in Die Zeit.
This early reception gave the film a reputation as the “easy” Fassbinder film, which it has never quite managed to shake. With the increasing availability of lesser-known Fassbinder films over the course of the 21st century, younger cinephiles have been able to re-enact the mildly patronizing tone of critics like Kehr or the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, citing Maria Braun as the “accessible” film for people who missed out on thornier works like Chinese Roulette (1976) or In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). But this writer would rather stick with Blumenberg: yes, Maria Braun may be unusually “accessible,” thanks to its conventional melodramatic plot and its obvious thematic symbolism. But so too does it represent an exceptional artistic maturity that ushered the 33-year-old director into the final phase of masterpieces, including the titanic 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Maria Braun’s quasi-sequels Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982).
It takes no more than the first shot of the film to realize that we’re in the presence of a filmmaker with an extraordinary level of control over his medium. The Marriage of Maria Braun opens with the muted sounds of a wedding ceremony barely audible under the screaming engines and thunderous explosions of an Allied bombing raid, as the camera regards an anonymous wall. An explosion rips a hole in the side of the building, giving us our first look at Maria (Hanna Schygulla) herself, on the day of her wedding to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch). The next few minutes present a cruelly hilarious travesty of the holy sacrament of marriage, with the newlyweds crouching on the ground in the rubble as they hastily sign the paperwork that will unite them for “one-half of a day and a whole night,” before Hermann ships off to war. As the soundtrack blares out with battle sounds and an unseen screaming baby, the screen fills with bright red title cards in an incongruously fancy typeface, creating an almost illegible wall of text that fills the frame. Visually and audibly, the film pitches us right into a hellish chaos where stable, normal things like weddings can only ever look like a sick joke.
It’s the perfect start to a movie that might not flaunt social propriety as openly as Fassbinder’s earlier, snottier masterpieces, but still insists on tweaking and challenging the viewer at every turn. As with so many of the director’s films, Maria Braun (written by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer) takes the form of a classic melodrama, the story of a woman presumably widowed by the slaughterhouse of World War II, forced to cope with life during the American occupation of Germany in the years immediately following the war. But the tone is anything but melodramatic. Adopting the flat tone and physical presence of late-‘40s neorealism, Maria Braun is above all a portrayal of the coldness that one must adopt in order to survive under the harshest circumstances. Schygulla, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator, excels in the role for which she won Best Actress at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival: she refuses to play Maria as a tragic soul and still less as an ice queen, but rather as a recovering romantic, obligated to make hard choices and deprived of the luxury of regretting them. Consider the scene where Maria brains an American ex-lover with a wine bottle; Schygulla’s body language and expression both speak to a quickness of action that’s more instinctive than calculating, more pragmatic than emotionally overwrought.
As a tribute to the survivalists who managed to create a new German society from the wreck of the war, Maria Braun adopts the austere lack of sentiment of its protagonist, curtly transforming all the messy stuff of melodrama into a series of obstacles to be overcome with an almost mathematic level of precision. Schygulla contributes a great deal to this, of course; a great deal of it is also thanks to that artistic maturity of Fassbinder and his collaborators, who create a tightly-controlled vision of a broken world. The great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, in one of his very last collaborations with the director, uses deep focus throughout to emphasize the large empty rooms and streets of the post-war city, while stripping the film bare of bright colors: it is not merely a drab film, but somehow aggressively drab, like all of life has been bleached. And after that extraordinary opening, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack will continue to be a major feature of the film’s style: throughout, we hear snatches of dialogue, machines, music, all of them divorced completely from the image, and frequently mixed as loud or louder than the words of onscreen characters. The soundtrack suggests a world of no walls or other boundaries, with everything bleeding into an omnipresent whirlwind of indistinct noise. This, perhaps more than anything, is what gives the film its extraordinary power as a portrait of a collapsed society struggling to rebuild itself from pure chaos. It’s a potent theme that Fassbinder would return to multiple times in the few years remaining to him, but Maria Braun is a compelling enough vision of post-war life to stand entirely on its own.