Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Karlheinz Böhm, Barbara Valentin
Martha, an unmarried librarian, is vacationing in Rome with her controlling father when he suddenly dies of a heart attack. Back home in Germany, her mother begins to unravel – drinking and taking pills – and has several suicide attempts. Meanwhile, Martha’s new degree of freedom coincides with the marriages of some of her friends. Martha’s boss proposes to her, but she declines. He marries her coworker Ilse instead and at the wedding, Martha meets the groom’s brother, Helmut Salomon, a man she noticed in the street in Rome. Their passionate attraction to each other is marred by Helmut’s cruelty and possessiveness. He insults Martha and intentionally causes her pain, only to violently ravage her sexually after she starts to cry. The increasingly abused Martha begins to wonder if she should run away from Helmut, and becomes paranoid and convinced that he is going to kill her.
Influenced by Douglas Sirk’s melodramas and based on Cornell Woolrich’s story “For the Rest of Her Life,” Fassbinder’s made-for-TV film that imagines bourgeois marriage as a sadomasochistic act also seems to also have been inspired by George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944). In the latter, a man murders a wealthy woman and marries her orphaned niece years later. He manipulates and abuses her, slowly driving her insane. While the husband in Gaslight has a clear intent – to murder the only person who could possibly have witnessed his crime and then inherit all her riches – Fassbinder’s Helmut is a character of darker purpose, one driven by a deep psychological impulse that is at the very core of his identity.
It is possible to make a connection from Helmut, played by the ever wonderful Karlheinz Böhm, to his earlier starring role in Michael Powell’s solo masterwork, Peeping Tom (1960). There he plays Mark Lewis, a voyeuristic serial killer who finds women to model for his camera and then kills them. The same cold, reserved sensuality is at play with Helmut, as well as his fastidiousness and obsessive need for order, for rigid control. With his blond hair, blue eyes, and sneering handsomeness, it would be easy to see Böhm in Nazi uniform, savaging and humiliating the emaciated Martha in a concentration camp setting. Martha would certainly make an interesting double feature with The Night Porter, the renewed, sadomasochistic romance between a camp survivor and a Nazi officer, which was also released in 1974.
What places Martha closer to The Night Porter than to Gaslight is that Martha is complicit in Helmut’s torment and degradation of her. Like Gaslight, many of his acts subtly erode her self-esteem and sanity, and his dictatorial decision making often seems to be in her best interest. He forces her to go on a roller coaster – to confront her fears – and she vomits from the terror, but then he proposes marriage. When they find her mother in the midst of a suicide attempt, he hints that they should not call an ambulance, but then rebukes Martha’s secret desire to kill her mother. He criticizes her appearance, but laughs at a new hairstyle; he tells her his favorite meal, but later says he is allergic to the ingredients and that she must be confusing him with her father.
Though Martha rebels at first – she insists on smoking, listening to her own records, and not reading a boring book about engineering – he finds ways to break her will power. He requests/demands that she not leave the house anymore and has the telephone turned off. He kills her pet cat – her only companion – and denies her affection, but is quick to rape and ravage her at the first sign of tears. Like all of Fassbinder’s abused protagonists, Martha is far more than just a battered spouse. The marriage occurs immediately, after seemingly one meeting and a subsequent date, and it seems mere weeks before she is driven to insanity. Inspired by a lifelong relationship with her father – there were no romantic relationships before Helmut – she confused control for love and craves the former.
Fassbinder’s regular actress Margit Carstensen is perfect here. While she is sympathetic, she is also histrionic and grotesque. Her body is a site of horror and debasement: she is revoltingly thin and shows signs of anorexia. She wears heavy eye makeup, ridiculous hairstyles, and often child-like dresses, giving her appearance the alien look of a mannequin, of a teenager frozen on the brink of sexual maturity trapped in a woman’s body. As with Böhm’s work in Peeping Tom, it is also possible to follow the trajectory of Carstensen’s leading roles throughout Fassbinder’s films. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Nora Helmer, and Fear of Fear, she explores a variation on the same theme: a lost, lonely woman desperate for love who is complicit in her own victimization and always ready to relinquish her own agency.
This is a work of spectacular melodrama and it is clear that Helmut did not transform Martha into an abused creature of desperation and paranoia; he merely coaxed out and developed what already existed. Early examples of Martha’s penchant for hysteria can be seen in the Germany embassy in Rome, when she shrieks to her mother on the phone, alternating between laughter, an overly loud, though jovial conversational tone, and a few quiet sobs. There are religious undertones to her character – and to her suffering – and the film closes on the sense that Martha is martyring herself, or rather that Fassbinder is martyring her to the gods of emotional cruelty, sexual devastation, and supreme isolation.
Martha is one of Fassbinder’s most overtly confrontational works and is a combination of sadomasochism, black comedy, and the sense that Fassbinder is making fun of his own repeated attacks on bourgeois culture and marriage. This film bears a relationship with Nora Helmer and Effi Briest, his two other films about suffering wives from 1974. Helmut’s home, a hot house crowded with plants, ornate wooden furniture, and disturbing medieval artifacts, is a hostile domestic space, a masculine inversion of the homes in Effi Briest and Nora Helmer. Like Effi Briest, certain key scenes are not shown, such as Martha and Helmut’s wedding and wedding night, but in all other ways it is the inverse of the quiet, restrained Effi Briest. Martha is also the superior film of the three and comes highly recommended. Luckily, you can find it on region one DVD, after many years of not being available to English-speaking audiences.