The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder; 1979)
So, I finally made good on my intentions and got around to watching this and wow. This was just remarkable. There’s so much to talk about here I don’t even know where to begin?
I hope I’m not the only that finds it difficult NOT to read Maria Braun (and indeed, Maria Braun) as allegory. Her pursuit of financial success coincides with Germany’s “economic miracle”, and Fassbinder underlines an unavoidable link between the two plights thanks to the emotional detachment that serves as a result of both. There’s undoubtedly a critique of (West) Germany’s postwar direction – which I can’t profess to completely understand, seeing as I’m quite underversed in the history. Nevertheless, this criticism is hardly what one would describe as discreet (intricate though it may be) and I imagine that it’s lost on very few? Compare the Maria of the early scenes: aimlessly making her way through the wreckage as she attempts to track down her husband; to the Maria that viciously mocks and scolds her secretary for no apparent reason. Her resourcefulness in the first scenes and her ability to channel this attribute into single-minded economic progression parallels Germany’s situation at the time – a fact reaffirmed by the numerous radio broadcasts that serve as a backdrop to the film which reveal the changing tune of the government throughout the years.
Upon hindsight, it’s kinda astonishing just how distant Maria Braun felt to me as a viewer, despite my spending two (very) intimate hours with her. Fassbinder seems to consistently deny us the opportunity to witness her feelings – or at the least her vulnerabilities. Of course, there ARE those shots of her running cold water on her wrists (first when she’s misinformed of Hermann’s death, then later following Oswald’s will.) I’m not quite sure what to make of them (any thoughts = much appreciated), but if they’re merely symbolic of her tears then it’s probably enormously telling that in both instances there’s a causal relationship with death.
Maria is a character that I never truly understood or felt I knew, but that only adds to my fascination with her. On the one hand, she’s something of a feminist role model: a successful career woman whose brains have allowed her to manipulate the film’s patriarchs to the point where she seemingly holds them in her palms. Yet, on another level she’s merely a pawn in a man’s world, ultimately a commodity herself in the way that she forms part of the ‘contract’ between Hermann and Oswald. Moreover, her ability to climb the social hierarchy is a result of her decision to suppress feminine traits deemed unsuitable for the workplace (i.e. those that are maternal) and instead focus on those that are accepted by the patriarchy (sexual.) Maria may be shockingly straightforward about her feelings towards the male characters in the film, but in spite of this she can never truly be accepted on her own terms and this, combined with the decline in her relations with her family and her lovers, paints a very bleak portrait of social life in the immediate postwar period.
The film itself had me from that TERRIFIC opening shot. I mean, an exploding image of Hitler? That’s so shocking/daring it’s impossible not to admire it. And the final scene too, is breathtaking and I’m sure there’s a direct link between the opening and the ending. It’s notable how the first thing we see is an ex -plosion, and a new marriage coinciding with the grave cost of war – and yet the ending is almost a complete opposite to this? It’s something of an im -plosion, resulting in the end of a marriage that now coincides with a triumphant and resurgent Germany emerging victorious at the World Cup. Loss of human emotion in favour of blind national ‘success’? And then there’s the fact that our first image if one of Hitler, and our last = images of the post-war Chancellors in negative forms. What’s the link there? And does the fact that Helmut Schmidt’s photo changes from negative to positive mean that Maria Braun ends on a (quietly) optimistic note? Either way, I LOVE the issues that the ending raises.
Oh, and of course there’s Maria’s suicide ... or is it? And if it is, then why? If she ignores the gas wilfully, then could we link it to the postwar desire to wilfully forget the past whilst ruthlessly focusing on the future? Is the eventual explosion (but implosion of the house) a result of the fact that Maria has climbed to the very top of the social ladder having achieved everything that she ever set out for, and is thus left with no purpose but to self-destruct? And why take Hermann with her? Is it because she’s angered by his pact with Oswald? So MUCH to think about!
What I admire most about Maria Braun is Fassbinder’s attention to the minutest of details. Like the dependence on smoking and cigarettes throughout the film; or the absurdity of the confrontation between Bill and Hermann; or the moments where Maria returns to the physical remnants of her old school; or the unexpected humour when she first attempts to talk to Hermann in prison. Or how about the gradual infiltration of the American influence into German life through the flags that pop up in the bar and the courtroom, and the dealings with the American businessman? And then there’s the fact that Maria achieves upward social mobility by meeting Oswald on a train – something mobile in itself, but she does this by bursting into the first-class section?! What a masterful scene, so exemplary of Fassbinder’s dedication to his craft.
Anyway, I should really quit rambling about this? Someone else offer their thoughts please. As you can tell, I liked it a lot, but I must know what others think!