The Marriage Of Maria Braun


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

The Marriage Of Maria Braun
"The film is an intelligent, technically proficient and complex critique of this period, weaving metaphors for the German body politic and psyche of the time."

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1978 landmark of German cinema opens in an absurdist tone. Maria (A sexy, sultry Hanna Schygulla) and her husband Herrman (Klaus Löwitsch), are tying - or rather trying to tie - the knot while shells fall around them.

Eventually they are forced out of the rapidly disintegrating building and have to sign the certificate, cowering on the floor as debris and shrapnel rain down. The surrealist introduction, though, is all too similar to the realities of post-war society in Germany the director goes onto depict. It's a damning indictment of the German post-war society and economy.

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The film is an intelligent, technically proficient and complex critique of this period, weaving metaphors for the German body politic and psyche of the time. Initially, Maria is just like all the other widows waiting hopefully at the train station, which appears to be the only building of any sort in the city that hasn't been flattened during the war. Working as a mistress in an illegal bar for allied occupying forces, she is at first no different from her mother, who seizes the rare packs of cigarettes that come her way, trading them for her most precious jewellery.

But soon the gap between Maria and her relatives becomes vast. After an abortive attempt at escape through an affair with a black US army sergeant, she uses her feminine wiles to work her way to the top of a lucrative textiles company. She eventually purchases her own detached house in the country, while her sister and mother are left to tread between beams of roofless houses to get to their rooms. It is allegory for the get-rich-quick atmosphere of the time - for the select few, and by any means - as is her relationship with her actual husband, jailed soon after his return. Her affairs are for both herself and him, she insists, so that they might be better off upon his release.

Contradictions such as this are apparent throughout the film, and serve to emphasise Fassbinder's scathing view of the false hopes and promises on which post-war German recovery was built. The West German chancellor, Adenauer, is twice heard on a radio in the background, at first declaring that Germany shall never re-arm, then later insisting that it is the unequivocal German right to do so.

Likewise, Braun's commitment to her marriage is in reality out of her love for the idea of such a spiritual bond, and Fassbinder shows with bitterness the futility of this, as their union and consummation is continually delayed, first by the war, then by Hermann's incarceration, then as he is paid to stay away by Maria's lover, the owner of the company she has risen to the top of.

Made during the period of detente during the Cold War, it at once expresses the German desire for unification as well as the impossibility of this, as the communist East behind the Iron Curtain becomes radically different from anything in Maria's world. It's summed up concisely in the final, climactic scene.

The performances match the complex symbolic nature of the script and Fassbinder's confident direction. Schygulla is mesmerising as Maria - as utterly believable as she is impenetrable. An opening scene in which she literally plasters on make up before entertaining the American GIs, casually noting that it makes her look like a doll, is itself a statement of Maria's unreadable nature. One minute she casually states she wants to sleep with her boss, Dr Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), mid-conversation, so unexpectedly that for a moment I wondered if it was phrase lost in translation in the subtitling process. Then the next day Oswald is perplexed by her rebuttal of his advances, yet we can still completely understand why he cannot let go of her. It is not only her show though, for she is backed up by a strong supporting cast, particularly her sister (Elisabeth Trissenaar) and mother (Gisela Uhlen).

You can't help but feel, though, that it's all a little too densely layered, that without some prior knowledge of European/German history of the period, it really would be quite difficult to see through the dialogue. Certainly without any background reading this could easily come across as just another rise and fall melodrama (Indeed, Fassbinder venerated such Hollywood directors in the 1950s as Douglas Sirk), and a rather pretentious one at that. But take time to reflect. The Marriage of Maria Braun is a lot more subtle and intelligent than the genre that the recent Far From Heaven paid homage to. Far more, even.

Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2006
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A heart-breaking study of life for one woman in post-war West Germany. Out to own now on the RW Fassbinder Commemorative Collection: Vol 2.
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Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Lowitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, George Byrd, Claus Holm, Gunter Lamprecht

Year: 1978

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: West Germany


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