Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny
Maria and Hermann Braun are married as bombs are falling on Berlin. They have barely any time together before he must return to the front. Though she is devoted to Hermann, Maria is told he has been killed and merely tries to find a way to survive in postwar Germany. She works as a hostess in a club for American soldiers and begins an affair with one of them, while also learning English. Hermann comes home to find she and the soldier undressing and they get into a fight. Maria accidentally kills the man, trying to break it up, but Hermann takes responsibility and goes to prison. Meanwhile, still trying to survive, Maria begins working for a wealthy industrialist who soon falls in love with her.
One of Fassbinder’s most difficult and expensive productions beset by going over budget (allegedly due to the director’s costly cocaine habit that kept him working all hours of the day and night) and legal trouble with his long-time producer who oversold shares of the film, The Marriage of Maria was also his most popular film to date. It struck a balance between art house style, accessibility, and popular themes that led to international appeal and much sought acclaim from German audiences and critics. Thanks to its success, he went on to make three more triumphs: Berlin Alexanderplatz and the two other films of his BRD (Bundresrepublik Deutschland or the Federal Republic of Germany) trilogy, Lola and Veronika Voss.
In addition to the fact that they are all set in the immediate postwar period, this trilogy has a number of things in common. Each film follows the decay and destruction of a successful woman. Maria Braun and Lola, a version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel, are incredibly similar: they are both hardworking women building towards a better future and financial independence, and they are not ashamed to use their sexuality as a resource or a weapon. Both women essentially sell fantasies and illusions, in particular the illusion of love. Both flirt with prostitution. While Lola is a cabaret singer and dancer who occasionally entertains wealthy gentlemen, Maria trades sex for things of increasing value: cigarettes, stockings, a secretarial job, a respected position in the company, expensive clothing, and a large house.
Where Lola and Maria differ is that while Lola deludes others, Maria deludes only herself. The nature of romantic fantasy leads to tragedy as Maria persists in her self-delusion. She is obsessed with Hermann, despite barely knowing him, and holds him as an ideal for a true, pure love. On the other hand, she treats Oswald cruelly and makes it clear that she is using him for money, social advancement, sex, and even entertainment… but never love. Fassbinder frequently examined themes of emotional cruelty and what could be described as a sort of insidious, personal fascism at work in daily society. As she becomes more successful, Maria certainly exhibits this. She treats Oswald, the office secretaries, the accountant, and even some of their clients abysmally, like a stereotype of the professional “dragon lady,” a corporate femme fatale that will go to any ends to achieve financial and personal success. Because of this, she is something of an anti-heroine, a figure that is flawed, if not outright tragic, but also sympathetic.
SPOILER ALERT: Maria is unable to ultimately succeed not because she is doomed or evil, but because of the inherently corrupt nature of society. Hermann, the love of her life, accepted a deal from Oswald where he essentially sold Maria – he agreed that he would leave the country until Oswald’s death, at which point Hermann and Maria would become the sole heirs of Oswald’s considerable estate. When Maria discovers this news, she kills them both, blowing up her beautiful house by leaving the gas on and lighting a cigarette. Even before she learns this news, Hermann’s homecoming is awkward and anxiety inducing. He wants to kiss her – or consummate their marriage – but she insists that he eat or bathe, that she change her clothes first, seemingly desperate to avoid a moment of real intimacy. In the film, their deaths are ambiguous, but in the original script, she intentionally drove them both off of a cliff.
This original ending is taken almost directly from Otto Preminger’s film noir Angel Face (1953), though Fassbinder’s original inspiration was Mildred Pierce (1945), another film about a woman who learns to survive and becomes successful in the postwar years. She is also separated from her husband, but her betrayal comes from her money-hungry daughter. Mildred Pierce is obsessed with her daughter’s advancement and effectively turns the child into a spoiled femme fatale, a selfish being with no regard for consequences for human life. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a film that begins and ends with explosions, the axis rotates around Hermann and Maria’s obsession with him. This enigmatic figure symbolizes her hopes and dreams for a better, brighter future, but when he is shown to echo her greed and ambition, it destroys everything.
The Marriage of Maria Braun comes with a high recommendation and if you’ve never seen a Fassbinder film, this is a great place to start. Hanna Schygulla, one of his regular stars, gives the performance of her career, a nuanced portrayal of a complex woman trying to survive in a changing, postwar world, amidst the rubble of war. The only way to really see the film is in the Criterion box set of the BRD trilogy, which is a critical collection of three important films. Due to Fassbinder’s early death, he was never really able to fulfill his dream of a German Hollywood, but here he comes closest.