Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) 
Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Written by: Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Starring: Hanna Schygulla (Maria Braun), Klaus Löwitsch (Hermann Braun), Ivan Desny (Karl Oswald), Gisela Uhlen (Mother), Elisabeth Trissenaar (Betti Klenze), Gottfried John (Willi Klenze), Hark Bohm (Senkenberg), George Eagles (Bill), Claus Holm (Doctor), Günter Lamprecht (Hans Wetzel), Anton Schiersner (Grandpa Berger), Lilo Pempeit (Frau Ehmke).
Maria Braun is one of the most fascinating characters in cinema history.  She is a German woman who married her husband, Hermann, during WWII, and only got to spend a day and night with him before he was shipped off to war. After we see their marriage, we flash to the end of the war – where Maria believes Hermann is dead, but goes looking for him anyway. But she still needs to survive – to support herself and her mother in the post war years. She goes to work in a bar in an old high school gym that services American G.I.s. She takes a lover there – a black American G.I. – but she remains loyal, if not faithful, to her husband. When her husband does re-enter the picture, she doesn’t hesitate to dispose of her lover – but in a way that will again take her husband away. She will spend the next decade continuing to find ways to survive – the climb the corporate ladder, to get rich. She will use people, be cruel to them, humiliate them – but she is never dishonest with them. She tells them what she’s going to do, and they let her do it anyway. She has been fundamentally broken by the war, and has no morals left.
Once the dance halls are over, Maria sets her sites higher. She meets Oswald (Ivan Desny) on the train, and seduces him. He is a wealthy industrialist, untouched by the war (for reasons unknown) who runs a company and Maria talks herself into a job, and into his bed. Oswald loves Maria, Maria knows it, and uses it against him. She rises in his company – not just because she is sleeping with the boss, but also because she’s very good at it. Being amoral never hurt anyone in business. Once she has her hooks into Oswald, she drags him around cruelly. The company accountant, who likes Oswald and hates Maria, doesn’t do anything about it – even he has to admit she is great at her job. Oswald wants to marry Maria – but she’s already married, even if her husband spends years in prison for a murder she committed, and then ran away when he got out. She just leads him on and on and on – right into an early grave.
So yes, Maria is a monster. She is cruel and views everything as a transaction. She is loyal to her husband, but cannot be said to love him. In the decade they are married, she barely spends a few days with him. But writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder sees her as a symptom of the society that produced her. This is the first part of a loosely connected trilogy about Germany after the war – which sees it as morally bankrupt. Yes, the economy bounced back surprisingly fast from the war – but this is how it did it. As played by Hanna Schygulla, in her best performance ever, Maria is cold and unfeeling – but hardly one note.
Fassbinder’s biggest influence was Douglas Sirk – the German director who fled the Nazis, came to America and is best known for his melodramas like Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows and others. You can see Fassbinder working in the same vein here – although this film is visually darker than Sirk’s Technicolor dramas were. It matches the environment – which remains full of bombed out buildings – husks of what was before – throughout the film. The war isn’t really glimpsed in this film – the Holocaust never mentioned – but it hangs over everything. If Germans could do that, what could they not do?
The film is meticulously shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus – his last film with the demanding Fassbinder, who by all accounts was a difficult genius. He would come to America after – and start working with Scorsese on films like After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and The Departed. To be one of the go to cinematographers of not one, but two masters is quite a legacy to leave behind. Here, he shots things from around corners, through doorways, etc. all with expert blocking. He makes Germany to be like Maria – a shell of its former self.
The ending of the movie seemingly comes out of nowhere. Sirk never would have done that – but then Sirk was operating in a different system, and found different ways to portray the moral emptiness he sees. But the ending also makes logical sense – where else was this ever going to lead to?

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