a contemporary reading of The Marriage of Maria Braun
The Marriage of Maria Braun ends with one of the most unforgettably jarring sequences in modern cinema. After attending a reading of the will for her deceased business partner (and one-time lover), the film’s titular character—a career-topping, bravura performance by Hanna Schygulla—steps into the kitchen, to light a cigarette from a stove-top burner. Not realizing she left the gas on the last time she had lit up, Mr. and Mrs. Braun both go up in flames, inside the house she slaved away the film’s entire duration to finance and furnish. With barely a second to register the shock of this sudden and fairly calamitous conclusion to the film’s engrossing narrative, Fassbinder boldly stamps the film’s end credits across the screen immediately after the explosion—with the film’s coda (the attorney and another beneficiary, having stepped out the front door just in time, quickly turn around and gasp in horror) playing out in the background.
Superficially, the finale constitutes a real shocker: one could argue it as a perverse variation on the deus ex machina, in which the protagonists are “saved” from the slow and silent death of their bourgeois existence (or one could engage in heated debate about whether or not the move was intentional on Maria’s part). On second viewing, however, it becomes apparent that not only does Fassbinder plant seeds of foreshadowing throughout (e.g. the multitude of scenes in which we see Maria lighting her cigarette on the stove; or the slightly paradoxical image of her pouring cold water over her wrist, in an apparent prelude to suicide, mere minutes before the final explosion), but that furthermore, the entire picture makes clearest sense when read as a comedy. A profoundly irreverent and socially subversive one, at that; but aren’t all great comedies? And is it not possible that Fassbinder took inspiration for this diabolical denouement (which was not present in Peter Märthesheimer original scenario) from the greatest—and darkest—dark comedy yet projected on the big screen, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?
Setting aside speculation, what has been made apparent to this viewer by the text of this truly remarkable film—which merits inclusion on any list of great films released in the 20th century, as well as topping the list of Fassbinder’s own greatest achievements (although there are many contenders to choose from)—is Fassbinder’s uncanny ability for manipulating dramatic forms and genres; conveying radical ideas within a widely accessible medium, and restoring purpose to dramatic forms that have been stripped of their social significance through decades of authorial misuse. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder places his usual emphasis on the absurdity of social conventions, in order to raise the viewer’s awareness of their own enslavement—all the while exaggerating the punchlines beyond the parameters of superficial amusement. It’s hard not to chuckle, for instance, at the sight of Fassbinder in a cameo role as a black marketeer; or to laugh knowingly at Schygulla’s response, when asked if she might be interested in a collection of (German philosopher/dramatist) Heinrich von Keist’s writings: “Books burn too fast, and they don’t warm you up.” And it’s harder yet to distance ourselves from the pragmatism that underlies the absurdity of his characters’ situation, seeing as how it is the same pragmatism that underlies the entirety of modern existence in the so-called “developed” world.
If Maria Braun represents an ideal comic representation of mid-twentieth century ennui, one can only scratch one’s head as to what the 21st century equivalent might be. In the medium of film, the genre appears to have been primarily co-opted by sketch comedians, and perpetrators of that most dreaded cinematic invention of all: the “high concept” movie. Certain contemporary filmmakers, including voices as eclectic as Mike White, Judd Apotow, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele, have tackled the genre from a slightly more idiosyncratic angle; but much of our mainstream comedy fare remains grounded in a soundbyte-oriented definition of comedy as a situational experience, as opposed to the broader definition of comedy as existential experience. White has proven an exception to this rule—with works such as the HBO series Enlightened and the Selma Hayek vehicle Beatriz at the Dinner pushing the laughs aside, in favor of bleak desperation and post-post-modern angst; and Peele has garnered significant accolades and audience super-fandom for his depiction of racial tensions in his Oscar-winning directorial debut (Get Out), though one could pose the argument that he settles too easily for ideological clichés and formulaic horror tropes—as opposed to pushing the more radical undercurrents of the film’s subject matter. In both instances, we find artists consigning themselves to an either/or dilemma between hope and despair; comedy and horror; provoking thought and proselytizing.
By comparison, Maria Braun remains—in all its cinematographic luster (courtesy of the late, great Michael Ballhaus) and historical incisiveness (courtesy of Fassbinder’s commitment to doing his homework, at all times)—a viable alternative to the polemical standards of comedic storytelling currently trending. Asked to choose between converting the viewer’s attitudes and provoking the viewer’s thought process, Fassbinder inspires independent thought as a vehicle for behavioral conversion; torn between comedy and horror, Fassbinder settles on melodrama as the ultimate popular genre—painting everything in bold colors and brushstrokes, then letting the audience decide whether to laugh or shriek. Finally, at the crossroads of hope and despair, Fassbinder chooses anarchy; carving out the shortest path between two points, and revealing the roundabout nature of mankind’s often senseless travails. Like the Marx Brothers before him (arguably his closest and least frequently acknowledged cinematic relatives), RWF betrays no agenda for social change in his film texts: instead of telling us what we need to change (or how), he accepts that the ultimate purpose of comedy is to reveal society as-is to be little more than one big farce. Unlike the Marx Brothers, who seemed content with savaging social conventions only to end up reinforcing them, Fassbinder was fed up and ready for a bigger change. And while his work has noticeably inspired contemporary queer filmmakers, from John Waters to Todd Haynes to Wong Kar-Wai, there’s an apparent scarcity of post-’70s film efforts dedicated to pushing radical liberal thought through popular genre forms (interestingly enough, the most successful efforts appear to have been in television: such as Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and All in the Family, or more recently, Roseanne).
Though he frequently exhibited a hot-tempered impatience in his personal life, RWF displays a practically infinite patience throughout his work: always willing to break down the mechanisms of social oppression into ever-smaller moving parts (for ease of comprehension), one is hard-pressed to find a filmmaker in the 20th century as dedicated to making the world a better place. (A reality that often gets lost in popular interpretations of his work; including the exhausting documentary, The Story of Film: An Oddyssey by Mark Cousins, in which the writers focus primarily on allegations of misogyny in the artist’s personal relationships—before transposing these allegations onto his work; highlighting only The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and ignoring the entirety of his remaining forty-odd films and television programmes). Realizing early on in his dramatic career that progressive cinema stood on the verge of atrophy via overly cerebral discourse (Godard and Pasolini) and increasingly esoteric forms (Antonioni and Resnais), Fassbinder took a prescient and decisive step back in the direction of a more universal film language. (Pasolini followed this move some years later, with his Trilogy of Life, only to feel betrayed by consumerist imitators and return to a more overtly radical cinema in his final epitaph). And as our present-day cinema persists in reinforcing the divide between art and commerce, it’s a move that merits study and, quite possibly, repetition.
In order for the reader to fully appreciate the brilliance of The Marriage of Maria Braun, a preliminary viewing of Fassbinder’s recently re-discovered TV mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, may first be in order. And considering how rarely this obscure work of Fassbinder’s had been screened outside of his homeland (up until this past year’s Arrow Home Video release), an international critical re-evaluation of Maria Braun—among other later works in the director’s filmography—could make for an interesting and illuminating dialogue. Frequently blacklisted by contemporary critics as a self-hating homosexual pessimist, Fassbinder is seen at his most bouyant, hopeful, and resilient in Eight Hours. Even after one takes into account his proposed follow-up episodes to the five installments he produced, in which things were slated to take a darker (dare I say, more Fassbinderian) turn, it’s difficult to dismiss the radiant joy of Luise Ulrich’s Oma, Werner Finck’s Gregor, or Schygulla’s Marion. More than any of his other works—televisual or otherwise—Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is the work of a filmmaker fully convinced by his characters’ ability to transcend the belittling dynamics of their circumstances.
In this context—and following a run of increasingly bleak portraits authored by the filmmaker mid-decade (Fox and His Friends; Fear of Fear; I Only Want You To Love Me; In a Year of 13 Moons)—The Marriage of Maria Braun presents one of the most resilient characters in the Fassbinder universe. Not unlike Erwin/Elvira before her (in 13 Moons), Maria Braun is a woman oppressed by generationally perpetuated societal constructs. But whereas the personal turmoil that lay beneath the surface of 13 Moons (whose premise was inspired by the suicide of Fassbinder’s lover, Armin Meier) contributed to an intensely impassioned work, in which the line separating individual villainy from broader mechanisms of oppression was often blurred beyond recognition, the formally mannered melodrama of Maria Braun allows for a more advanced level of intellectual and emotional clarity. Which isn’t to say that passion is withheld from Maria Braun; but instead of enmeshing his characters in the dark web of his own private passions and hang-ups, here he permits the protagonist to revel in passions of her own. In this and other regards, The Marriage of Maria Braun can be argued as the most explicitly feminist work he ever produced.
Maria Braun is as passionate a character as you’re likely to find in the films of Fassbinder. Married to a German solider (Hermann Braun, played by Klaus Löwitsch) for one day, after which he is sent off to fight in the trenches of WWII, Maria spends the first half of the movie standing on the platform to the nearest train station; a sandwich-board, bearing her husband’s name and photo, slung over her body—to solicit information from passersby who might have the details of his death or survival. When she finally decides to throw in the towel, discarding the sign on the railway tracks and heading to the American G.I. bar for some action, no viewer can reasonably bring themself to blame her for betraying her marital vows. (And a couple scenes later, Maria is informed by a friend’s husband—just returned home from the front—that her beloved Hermann has, in fact, died in battle). Confronted with the stark and powerful imagery of dilapidated streets and buildings—places where people once lived and raised families, turned to rubble by tanks and air raids—the viewer cannot help but recognize the tragicomic absurdity of Maria’s situation (let alone the absurdity of the institution of marriage, as perpetuated by the patriarchal lineage of Western lawmakers). This is the second major precipitating moment in the film’s comedic chain reaction—the first being its titular wedding.
Over the course of the picture’s two-hours-and-spare-change runtime—unfolding briskly and economically—Maria Braun finds herself (and her passions) repeatedly cornered by twists of fate that might never have occurred, if not for the man-made boundaries and expectations imposed upon her. First, she experiences forbidden love with a somewhat older, African-American G.I. (Bill, played gracefully by George Eagles), who teaches her English and loves her with an evident tenderness. Forsaken by the racist and ageist “civilization” by which she is surrounded, Maria is again befuddled when her thought-to-be-deceased husband returns home—alive and in one piece (apparently, her friend’s husband was privy to false information). True to comic form, his return coincides with a sequence of playful lovemaking between Maria and Bill. Pushing the absurdity of the scenario even further—until it reaches the fundamentally absurd parameters of credibility itself—Maria breaks a bottle over her lover’s head, knocking him dead to the bedroom floor. (Sped up and stripped of its synced sound and full frontal nudity, it might’ve made for a memorable bit in a silent Chaplin comedy).
Episodic dominoes continue to tumble, as Hermann chooses to take the blame for his wife’s crime, rather than endure an in-detail spoken testimony from Maria on the subject of her inter-racial affair. With Hermann sentenced to an indefinite amount of time in prison, Maria finds herself back at home (“without a man”), with a yearning desire to make it up to her husband; a desire that is shown, in the unfolding drama, to be part social imposition, and part genuine passion (ultimately, is there a difference?) Studied dialecticians both, Schygulla and Fassbinder appear in this film to be more psychically and theoretically attuned than in any of their other collaborations—some of which were amateurish (Rio Das Mortes, The Niklashausen Journey), most of which were good (Lili Marleen, Pioneers in Ingolstatsd), and a number of which were spectacular (The Third Generation, Effi Briest, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and Eight Hours, to name but a few). But only in Maria Braun and Eight Hours do we find Schygulla and Fassbinder bending overtly towards love. For in both works, the creators seem to be banking—albeit obliquely; tongue occasionally planted in cheek—on the possibility of transcending the oppressive bullshit of humanity.
We see it in the crucial penultimate scene, in which the will and testament of Schygulla’s deceased business partner (Karl Oswald, played by Ivan Desny) stipulates her as a shared beneficiary with her “wronged” husband. For while Oswald had only met Hermann once before (during a prison visit), he has projected his own unrequited love for Maria onto Hermann, subsequently choosing to subsidize Hermann’s existence upon his release. Recognizing in Maria’s husband a devotion that she, herself, reserves for Hermann in the final act (a devotion which will accompany her to the grave, unstated and unrewarded), Oswald appears driven by a combination of patriarchal impulses and personal pride to take Maria down a notch. And as they listen to his condemnation of Maria’s perceived coldness, the camera lingers on the couple’s faces (Maria’s in particular), revealing a shared response of sadness: sadness at the implication that one might have loved the other any more or less than they themselves were loved. (I feel compelled here to highlight the simple joy produced in this scene, as we are granted the frequently censored opportunity to watch a character think on-screen.) All told, Maria is shown to have been most persistently oppressed, by a multitude of social institutions (including the very manner in which her husband feels compelled to express his “love:” possessively and apologetically). In this moment of clarity, we—viewers and protagonist alike—experience a genuine breakthrough; and while Maria is ultimately driven to despair by her circumstances (and by the life choices they have inspired), her inertia makes room for the viewer’s own emancipation.
Taken at face value, the ending to Maria Braun’s saga may seem an unwarranted after-thought. But in the realm of the Sirkian melodrama, nothing can be taken at face value—least of all the ending: for the more incredulous and tacked-on the conclusion, the more urgent the viewer’s responsibility to read through the lines of its manufactured essence; to identify the reality beneath the facade—the truth that social convention will not allow to be spoken aloud in polite company (most commonly represented by the “happily ever after” motif, which masks the unlikeliness of utopia being achieved in real life). Under these conditions, the question then becomes: What truth is being withheld by the ending to Maria Braun? Multiple interpretations hold up to scrutiny; in this writer’s opinion, it is a somewhat shocking (considering the source) acceptance of the possibility that people might actually live happily ever after. At least, it’s as absurd—and therefore plausible—an outcome as the next.
A precursor to the “women’s lib” and “free love” movements, women like Maria Braun—who most certainly existed in the days of the Economic Miracle, by all historical (and hereditary) accounts—represent the more progressive side of re-education in the wake of WWII. This movement was prompted by a younger generation (the children of Maria Braun), compelled towards an understanding of the horror to which so many of their ancestors paid witness (and in which many were complicit), and by their longing for a world stripped of the factors that made the horrors of the holocaust possible in the first place (namely: the dual evils of mass industry and mass ideology). The finest and most influential voices of this generation would go on to shape utopian cultural movements for decades to come.
For many of this new generation, Germany had re-experienced Year Zero. Things had to change; or else, what good were any of them? Radical trends, both superficial and profound, ensued in all areas of the New German youth culture. From music (Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster) to film (Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff), from literature (Gunther Grass and the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement) to theater (Action-theater and Anti-theater; in both of which Fassbinder played a significant role), a sea change was palpably taking place. And as with most movements, politics would lag behind, eventually catching up out of necessity; for a government can only be as functional or as deplorable as the culture out of which it has formed. Indeed, there was plenty in the immediate post-war period that remained lamentable—both culturally and politically speaking. Inundated by so-called schlager-rock, dumb b-movies masquerading as high art, and former Nazis being (re-)elected into office, the kids of the German New Wave collectively realized that something had to give before they could evolve as (a) people.
This provocation for change would have its more violent exhibitions, such as in the notorious Baader Meinhof/RAF incident and the emergence of neo-nazi subcultures; but it would also yield such tender works of art as the film subject of this essay. A work that shares an equal love for mankind and womankind (and all in between), while simultaneously pointing to the oppressive mechanisms—instilled from one generation to the next; cycling through phases of industry, depression, and recovery—that render this utopian love such a challenging concept to maintain. After all, if it weren’t for war, Maria may never have thrown her husband’s picture onto the railroad tracks; or engaged in a romance with an American soldier; or adopted all the negative and aggressive (and predominantly male-generated) cultural traits of the corporate mentality. And if it weren’t for marriage, this whole soap opera wouldn’t even have existed.
While a casual survey might indicate a general distrust and disdain for the idea of anarchy, it is important for an interpreter of Fassbinder’s work to recognize that his is a romantic anarchy: meaning, an anarchy that accepts and embraces its own untenability, while refusing to hide or ignore the basic appeal of its tenets. His condemnation of social constructs stemmed from a genuine, dialectical longing to embrace the multitudinous forms of civilization; all the while dismantling the most rigid ideological molds, and making room for better (if not always entirely new) ideas to take center stage. For instance, this essay would argue the central idea in The Marriage of Maria Braun to be a belief in the unsung possibilities for people to love fully and unabashedly, free of obligation or socio-culturally imposed restraints. (Fassbinder would return to this thesis again in Lola and Querelle, before rejecting it one last time in his funereal-yet-magisterial opus Veronika Voss).
Hanna Schygulla plays Maria Braun as a somewhat reserved small-town girl, who turns from a state of repression to a wild bout of hedonism, eventually settling for the upper-middle class formula of the new German economy; a formula in which hedonism become a commodity, and relationships dissolve into missed connections. And while we all only have ourselves to blame for some things in life, Fassbinder (& Märthesheimer) and Schygulla proclaim here that sometimes, society needs to reorient itself in the mirror of its own history: to scrutinize the systems of its own disintegration, without pointing fingers or placing easy blame; and then, to actively decide upon the course of its own future. Instead of turning to despair, they employ the tools of film comedy (wit; mischief; crisis)—refined through the shiny machinery of Hollywood movie magic—to show that it’s all just a laugh, seen in the colorful stage-light of the American melodrama. And conversely, the laugh is on us, as storytellers, when we fail to account for this interpretation and start taking ourselves too seriously—or thinking too rigidly.
It would seem that now would be the ideal time for an existential comedy of this nature. Maybe this is why so many Americans gravitate towards the novelty act of “comedy news shows:” a longing to find the humor in their situation; to either lighten the load of current events, or de-mistify the real struggle(s) of social progress. And while some of these programs may be satisfactory from a purely anecdotal standpoint, they tend to lose their universality and impactfulness when they turn legitimate talking points into ideological wedges. Especially considering the unwanted (but entirely too real) threat of international cyberwarfare, we might well benefit from honing our models of universal communication and dialectical/critical thinking—rather than casting them aside in favor of jingoistic platitudes and passionate inaction. If for no other reason, because the humor that emerges from this climate of divisiveness is hardly ever humorous, nor does it serve the most noble purpose of comedy: that is, to bring people together in a shared understanding of their collective ridiculousness.
As far as this broader definition of existential comedy is concerned, this writer has been impressed by the cheeky work of writer/director Donald Glover in his original TV series, Atlanta (which manages, in its most brilliant and memorable episodes, to neatly extract the existential crisis at the core of its situational vignettes). The recently released Death of Stalin—an Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) theatrical film comedy about this very subject—alternates between moments of brilliant humor and morbid logic, though it occasionally seems overly aware of its own ominous timeliness. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird carries a distinct regional-and-therefore-universal flavor (as opposed to the more lamentable inverse), and Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows) seems to be following in the humanist footsteps of Christopher Guest. By and large, however, American comedy appears to be adrift in a sea of ideological word-traps; monitored by cultural watchdogs who alternately attempt to foster a better society, or seek to contain that which they do not fully comprehend (and in many cases, a bit of both). Perhaps it is the existence of these very constraints that outlines the freedoms we find so appealing in comedy. Nonetheless, these constrictions have a way of asserting themselves possessively and repressively; dragging us back to primitive misunderstandings and oversimplifications, and enslaving us to a false notion of freedom that—while worded as a superficially different dogma within different social circles—is fundamentally redundant and divisive, and only serves to wreak havoc on our efforts to understand and to evolve.
Taken as a whole, it’s sort of hilarious.
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In a particular memorable sequence, midway through The Marriage of Maria Braun, the protagonist finds herself one of only three passengers in the first class car of a train bound for Berlin. While trying to seduce the affections of a wealthy businessman (and in need of a source of income, with her husband recently imprisoned), Maria is approached by the third passenger—a rowdy and lewd G.I. under the influence (played by Fassbinder’s on-screen crush, Gunther Kaufmann), who appears convinced that Maria is a sex worker. The scene builds uncomfortably at first, as the dual themes of prostitution (selling one’s body to be part of a man’s business, vs. making one’s body a business) are brought into full relief, against our protagonist’s most noble intentions; but the tension breaks, as Schygulla pops off on the G.I. in filthy-but-grammatically coherent American slang—picked up from her previous affair with Bill. The viewer’s sympathies are then inspired to switch to the bright-eyed Kauffman, who looks somewhat intimidated and offended by Maria’s words—before confidently offering Frau Braun a military salute, addressing her as his superior.
The flip-flopping of power dynamics that permeates the middle section of Fassbinder’s masterpiece serves to define Maria’s trajectory in epic narrative terms. Only instead of it being a “great white man” at the center of a white man’s narrative, we find a woman in command of her own narrative; collaborating with a mix of creative individuals from different backgrounds and ideologies, and confident in her own POV—unafraid of getting lost in the shuffle. It’s the portrait of a woman inspired by the power of love, the quest for fulfillment, and the possibility of redemption in untold places. When one takes into account the remainder of the film’s character cast, one finds a range of different individuals, with different and entirely credible perspectives that conflict with or concede to one another (particularly endearing are Maria’s mother, played by Gisela Uhlen, and her girlfriend Betti, played by Elisabeth Trissenaar). They all demonstrate the capacity for a transcendent love, but only some manage to shatter the barriers of social oppression; and of those, only some manage to maintain their radical perspective (while others, like Maria, drift away on an ocean of creature comforts. Interpreted by certain critics upon its initial release, Maria was an allegory for post-Weimar Germany: “a character, that wears flashy and expensive clothes, but has lost her soul”).
Ultimately, Fassbinder and Schygulla seem to love all their characters in equal measure. They seem to be inviting us to love ourselves a little better: to demonstrate our self-love by actively confronting our surroundings, and dismantling the mechanisms of our own oppression (without substituting them for a different set of chains). They seem here to remind us that ideas are great, but ideologies are tiresome. That we can get more done by just spelling the problem out—ensuring we all share in a deeper understanding of the human condition—instead of operating from a private assumption of how things work and how we ought to fix them. They seem to be telling us that if we truly understand, we’ll be able to laugh about it; and if we can laugh about it, we might be able to really do something about it. Because when we’re allowed access to this universal laugh (a laughter that bravely confronts the darkness, rather than riding along with it), the darkness is no longer too frightening to bear. And once fear is removed from the equation, the soul can begin to breathe again.