Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

(Markus Wessendorf, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2012)

Fassbinder was one of the central figures of the so-called New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film), which was a response of young filmmakers in the 1960s against what they perceived as the moral hypocrisy, political cowardice and artistic stagnation of postwar German film. Other members of this movement included Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Fassbinder’s artistic career started around 1967, when he joined the aesthetically and politically radical theatre group Aktionstheater – “theatre of action(s)”’ – in Munich. Already two years later he wrote and directed his first feature-length film, Love Is Colder Than Death. In a nutshell, Fassbinder’s films combine the Hollywood melodrama of filmmaker Douglas Sirk (originally Detlev Sirk) with the Marxist aesthetics of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Most of Fassbinder’s films attack German postwar complacency, the daily fascism of the petit bourgeoisie, and the hypocritical liberalism of the middle and upper classes. Many of his protagonists are social outsiders: disenfranchised youth, male hookers, transsexuals, even a cleaning woman in her 50s falling in love with a North African guest worker. Also, there are no happy endings in Fassbinder’s world. When Fassbinder died in 1982, at the age of 37, from a lethal mixture of cocaine and sleeping pills, he had completed 40 feature-length films and two television series, in addition to 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays. With Fassbinder’s death, German cinema slipped back into stagnation and hasn’t recovered from it since (despite the occasional exception that proves this rule). 

The Marriage of Maria Braun was Fassbinder’s greatest critical and commercial success and finally established him as a director of national and international renown. It also made the lead actress, Hanna Schygulla, who had already appeared in twelve of Fassbinder’s earlier films, an international star. The success must have taken Fassbinder by surprise: during the filming of The Marriage of Maria Braun from January to March of 1978 he was already preoccupied with the preparations for the television series Berlin Alexanderplatz, the most monumental project of his career. The filming conditions were also inauspicious for other reasons: Fassbinder was on a self-destructive bent and wasted a lot of his production budget on cocaine that this producer had to procure for him (only two months after filming had wrapped up, Fassbinder’s lover Armin Meier committed suicide in Fassbinder’s apartment); Fassbinder had originally asked Romy Schneider to play Maria Braun, but negotiations with Schneider turned out to be too difficult (also because of her alcohol problems). 

It might also be important to put The Marriage of Maria Braun into a historical perspective: production on the film started only a few months after one of the most fraught periods in the history of West Germany. In 1977 the German terrorist group Red Army Faction (or RAF) assassinated three leading establishment figures: the Attorney General of Germany, the president of the Federation of German Industries, and the head of Dresdner Bank; in September of that year, the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by Palestinian terrorists in support of the RAF was ended in Mogadishu/Somalia by a special German task force (GSG 9); afterwards, the RAF leaders Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe committed suicide in the high-security prison Stuttgart-Stammheim. State surveillance, draconic anti-terrorist measures and near civil-war conditions characterized the political atmosphere of West Germany in the fall of 1977. Just two months before starting production of The Marriage of Maria Braun Fassbinder had filmed his own highly personal contribution to the omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), which begins with the wake of the assassinated industrialist, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, and ends with the funeral of the dead terrorists at Stammheim prison.

Given this immediate historical background, and given Fassbinder’s tendency towards radical (over-) statement and avant-garde aesthetics, The Marriage of Maria Braun comes across as surprisingly contained and “mainstream.” Indeed, critics praised the film for its linear plot development and accessible narrative and emphasized the contrast to Fassbinder’s earlier work. The Marriage of Maria Braun was the first installment of what Fassbinder later called the BRD Trilogy (BRD being the acronym for Bundesrepublik Deutschland: the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany). The trilogy provides a critical portrait of the early years of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland through the lens of three female protagonists – the titles of the later installments in this trilogy are Veronika Voss and Lola. 

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of The Marriage of Maria Braun since you will see the film in only a few minutes, but I would like to provide a few pointers on how to approach this movie. One of the Brechtian leitmotivs in Fassbinder’s work is the notion of the homophonic German phrase “wa(h)re Liebe” – in its contradictory double sense of “love for sale” and “true love.” Maria Braun is truly in love with her husband Hermann, but this love can only be sustained by not being consummated. They have only been married for “half a day and one full night” when Hermann has to return to the Eastern Front, and for the rest of their lives (and this film), the spouses will mostly be separated. During the extensive periods of separation from her husband, Maria has no qualms to take lovers if they can help her survive in the immediate postwar economy or further her career: she first has an affair with an African-American soldier, and later she becomes the mistress of an industrialist. Please note, while watching the film, how carefully Fassbinder portrays a sequence of transactions that is linear and circular at the same time: how two packs of cigarettes that Maria gets from an American soldier – as a token of his apology for an indecent remark – are gradually traded in for a black evening dress that allows her to audition for a job at a night club, which again is only open to American servicemen. 

Many critics have emphasized the allegorical character of Fassbinder’s film. They interpret Maria Braun’s pragmatic behavior, her attitude of always looking forward and never back, as a general commentary on West Germany in the early postwar years. A few elements of the film support this interpretation. At one point Maria describes herself as “the Mata Hari of the economic miracle.” The portrait of Hitler that opens the film (and immediately crashes to the ground) as well as the negatives of German chancellors from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt that follow the credit sequence at the end suggest a similar reading. (Helmut Schmidt was the chancellor responsible for the German anti-terrorism laws in 1977. Fassbinder’s film ends with Schmidt’s photo changing from a negative to a positive.) 

One of the most original aspects of The Marriage of Maria Braun is Fassbinder’s use of sound. A number of sequences feature up to four layers of sound: the dialog of the characters; radio announcements and speeches that can be heard in the background; songs and tunes from the 1940s and 50s that the characters in the film are listening or dancing to; and composer Peer Raben’s soundtrack adding an additional layer of musical commentary. The radio broadcasts are of particular relevance for the understanding of the film, but I am not sure if they are translated in the subtitles of the version that we are going to see. Early in the film, while Maria goes to the train station to see if Hermann has returned from the war, we hear a monotonous voice reading missing person notices; during a family celebration right after Maria has started her new job as “personal advisor” to a French factory owner we hear a radio broadcast about the opposition of Germany’s first postwar Chancellor Konrad Adenauer towards German rearmament; during a later scene, set in a luxurious restaurant, we hear a speech by Adenauer, now strongly arguing in favor of German rearmament; during the last minutes of the film we hear Herbert Zimmermann’s famous broadcast of the final game of the Soccer World Cup on July 4, 1954, when the West German players surprisingly beat the Hungarian team, evoking, for the first time since the end of WWII, a sense of (nationalist) euphoria throughout Germany, a sense of “Wir sind wieder wer!” (“We’re to be reckoned with again”). You may also notice the quite obtrusive sound of a sledgehammer in a number of scenes – the soundtrack of a defeated nation rising from the rubble towards prosperity, phoenix-like but oblivious of its past. Another sound that has often been commented upon occurs right at the beginning of the film, suggesting an autobiographic inscription by the filmmaker himself. Maria and Hermann get married during a bombing raid, and despite the fact that we don’t see any children in the frame, we can clearly hear the sound of a crying baby. Who was born right at the end of WWII? Fassbinder. (Admittedly, the bombing raid in the film is supposed to happen in 1943 – but nevertheless…)

A few final notes before we start with the film. Maria Braun’s seemingly untroubled, pragmatic and unsentimental attitude towards her love affairs has occasionally been interpreted as an indication of the character’s strength, independence and agency, as an almost proto-feminist stance. For a German film from the 1970s and, particularly, a film set in the 1940s and 50s, Maria Braun may indeed seem like an unusually liberated woman (and this is certainly one of the reasons why this film made Schygulla a star). However, her emancipation in Fassbinder’s film is intricately linked to the irresolvable split between sexually unfulfilled love and a merely pragmatic, businesslike attitude towards sex. Also, the end of the film reveals that Maria has been far less in control of her relationships than she assumed all along.

Something else that should be pointed out is the superior quality of the dialog in The Marriage of Maria Braun (a quality that may have gotten lost in translation). Many of Maria’s lines are witty and barbed and evoke screwball comedies from the 1930s. Even though the dialog unquestionably sounds like Fassbinder at his best, he did not write the screenplay himself, surprisingly, as he had done for most of his earlier films. The screenplay for The Marriage of Maria Braun was written by the film editor and television producer Peter Märthesheimer (who had produced some of Fassbinder’s earlier works for television) and the psychologist Pea Fröhlich. Both would continue to write the screenplays for the remaining two films of the BRD trilogy Veronika Voss and Lola. 

The Marriage of Maria Braun was the 16th and last film that Fassbinder and director of photography Michael worked on together. In 1982, the year of Fassbinder’s death, Ballhaus moved to Hollywood, where he later worked on such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Martin Scorsese’s Good Fellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed.