I’ve always assumed that Fear Eats the Soul marks the pinnacle of RWF’s obsession with Douglas Sirk. (I believe I said as much in my last post.) But that’s only because I hadn’t seen Martha. Now that I’ve seen Martha I know better. Fassbinder’s relationship to Sirk goes a lot deeper than I realized.
In Fear Eats the Soul, RWF paid tribute to Sirk by borrowing the basic premise and structure of one of Sirk’s most famous movies (All That Heaven Allows). The nod to Sirk was obvious, but still maybe a little bit superficial: Fear Eats the Soul still looks and feels like a film only Fassbinder could have made. With Martha, however, it’s much harder to discern where Fassbinder’s debt to Sirk begins and ends. In this movie RWF doesn’t so much nod to Sirk as raid his entire toolbox. The result is bizarre and unabashedly melodramatic and of course really, really dark. At the end of the day it’s still a film only RWF could have made, but I swear it looks and feels in places as much like Written on the Wind as it does The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
The film opens in a hotel room in Rome, where Martha Heyer (Margit Carstensen) and her father (Adrian Hoven) are traveling. In the opening scene, Martha finds a strange North African man (El Hedi ben Salem) in her room, uninvited. The man begins to undress. Martha, outraged, throws the man out and hurries down to her father in the lobby after downing a tranquilizer and changing (beautiful outfit, BTW). While visiting the Spanish Steps, however, Herr Heyer suddenly collapses of a heart attack and dies. In the chaos that ensues, Martha’s purse is stolen. Distraught, she finds a taxi to take her to the German embassy.
Martha’s roller coaster ride continues at the embassy. Her taxi arrives in the courtyard just as a tall handsome man (Karlheinz Böhm) is leaving the embassy. He stares at Martha from the entrance as she gets out of her taxi. What happens next is extraordinary—which is why I’m going to interrupt this succinct little précis to describe it. Martha approaches the handsome man. The handsome man approaches Martha. Each stares at the other. Time slows down, although the camera does not. Face to face, the camera swirls around them (360 degrees, of course). They turn away from one another as the camera continues its arc, each swimming in their own desire, and finally continue on, Martha to the embassy, the man to the waiting taxi. The shot is audacious, breathtaking, vertiginous, completely over the top. (I must have watched it ten times in a row just to figure out what Ballhaus and the actors were doing.)
At the embassy we learn that Martha Heyer is 31 years old, a librarian, unmarried, who lives with her parents in Konstanz in the German Alps on the lake of the same name. It seems pretty clear that the bottom has just dropped out for Martha, however; she has no idea which way is up. She asks the secretary (Kurt Raab) for a cigarette even though she doesn’t smoke. She hangs up on her mother over the phone—something we can tell she’s never done before. Lest there be any doubt as to the territory we’re in here, Martha spells it out when she tells the secretary her permanent address: 21 Douglas Sirk Strasse, Konstanz.
Back home in Konstanz (scenic, staid, bourgeois), it’s all talk of marriage all the time. Martha declines her boss at the library’s marriage proposal, so he asks her junior colleague instead. (The latter joyfully accepts: He is a good man with a big house. What more could a girl ask for?) Martha’s sister, Marianne (the voluptuous Barbara Valentin—is there any actress in the Fassbinder stable who looks less like she could possibly be related to the skeletal Margit Carstensen than Barbara Valentin?), is already married and tells Martha she is dumb to have turned him down: her boss is a good catch. Meanwhile their friend, Ilse (Ingrid Caven), has just gotten engaged to a Dr. Salomon. (Ilse knows a good catch when she sees one.) The alcoholic Frau Heyer expresses only contempt for her spinster daughter.
But . . . just when things are starting to look hopeless for poor loveless Martha, who does she meet again at Ilse’s wedding but the dashing man from the German embassy in Rome! Turns out he is the brother of the groom, Helmut Salomon! Sparks fly. Outside the wedding reception, Helmut kisses Martha with a passion verging on violence and we know her fate is sealed. Later, after forcing her to ride on a (literal) fairground roller coaster that makes her physically ill, Helmut tells Martha he wants to marry her. The next thing we know, the deed is done, despite the suicidal protests of the pills-and-booze-swilling Frau Heyer. (What does that woman want? She calls Martha a disgusting spinster when she’s single, but tries to overdose when Martha announces her engagement. One of these days I’m going to have to dedicate a post to the character of the Bad Mother in Fassbinder. But I digress.)
On the first morning of their honeymoon, Martha Heyer wakes up Martha Salomon and everything is different. Helmut, it seems, has strong opinions about pretty much everything and makes it clear that he expects Martha to defer to them. She is no longer permitted coffee for breakfast, only tea. She must tan. OK, she thinks, she can do this. She is married now. At the same time her new husband makes her uneasy. Perhaps Martha already suspects that Helmut is a little domineering, a little cruel? An early scene during the honeymoon involving a sunburn certainly seems to confirm this. (You must see this scene to believe it. Seriously. It will make your hair stand on end.)
Back home, Martha slowly realizes she is a prisoner in her marriage. Forced to leave her job—a wife who works but does not have to is unseemly—she has nothing to do all day. Helmut, a civil engineer who builds dams (what would Dr. Freud say about that?) is away during the week. Martha has nothing to do, and what she does do Helmut strictly proscribes. He forbids her listening to music he does not approve of and tells her what she must read. He hurts her when he makes love to her and does not permit her to refuse him, whatever the circumstances. He loves her so much, he explains, he cannot control himself.
Helmut is a mind fucker of the first order. He tells Martha things he later insists are not true; his wife obediently questions her own sanity rather than his. Like women trapped in abusive relationships everywhere, she does not have the vocabulary to explain what is going on—she tries to tell her sister but ends up retracting everything when the words don’t quite seem to match her experience, which she cannot make sense of. When Herr Kaiser (Peter Chatel), her replacement at the library, asks her why her husband sent her letter of resignation without her permission, she grows angry and defensive. Nobody understands. Martha herself doesn’t understand and grows more and more uncertain of herself and the reality around her—while at the same time more afraid of Helmut. When she finally reaches the end of her tether and fatefully acts, things go terribly, tragically wrong.
This is classic stuff. The story unfolds like a gothic romance, without irony or self-reflexiveness, and follows a trajectory whose relentless logic is built in to the story’s very premise, if that makes any sense. Martha’s journey is in many ways foretold in the very opening of the film when she rejects The Libyan (who it turns out was sent by the hotel concierge who thought that’s what Martha wanted), and instead joins her bourgeois father for a tourist’s sterile view of a vibrant ancient city. (Poor frigid Martha. If only she’d taken the Libyan up on his offer things might have turned out quite differently.)
Actually, RWF would probably say that Martha’s trajectory is dictated by her physical environment—the sterile bourgeois interiors, picture-postcard exteriors (of course Herr Heyer has a heart attack on the dirty, hippie-dominated Spanish Steps, the very antithesis of pristine Lake Konstanz!), her impeccable clothing and make-up—which is to say, by the mise-en-scène itself. The techniques RWF employs here are, of course, right out of Sirk’s playbook. The mannered compositions, the saturated color palette, the overstuffed hothouse environments (literally: Martha and Helmut’s mansion is dominated by an enormous sun room full of hothouse plants), the lugubrious haute bourgeois furnishings and carpets, the flower arrangements that dominate nearly every room, as well as the ubiquitousness of women and their emotions in the narrative and the near total absence of men from any active roles other than love interest or doctor (have you noticed, there’s always a doctor in these movies?) . . . all these things are straight out of Sirk.
For me all this this marks a departure—or is it just an evolution?—from the melodrama of even so recent a film as Fear Eats the Soul, which, after all, still kept one foot planted on firm Brechtian ground, presenting a melodramatic story through a more or less objective lens. (As I’ve already said, as a viewer you don’t identify with Ali and Emmi, you critically judge the society that punishes them.) Martha does not offer the same clear boundary for the viewer. You still don’t necessarily identify with Martha (although you can—I did!), but that ironic distance that is so much a part of the earlier movies just isn’t there in the same way. As a viewer, you are right in the thick of it: there is no safe place from which you can view the narrative that is outside the narrative, if that makes any sense, there are no winking cues from the director that say “you and me, we know better than these poor idiots . . .”. For a director, this can be tricky stuff (this kind of sincerity leaves you vulnerable). For a 1970’s German leftist with roots in the avant-garde it strikes me as downright heroic.
Of course it would be easy in 2012 to dismiss Martha as over the top, de trop, heavy-handed in its depiction of the perils of sexual repression on the one hand, and the institution of marriage, on the other. Helmut is clearly a psychopath, after all, so what does the movie teach us except to avoid psychopaths? But as I’ve said before, I think RWF’s genius was precisely to draw his portraits using such bold and exaggerated strokes. Because the fact is, even in 1974 married women were subservient to their husbands, legally as well as morally. What matters is not how common or uncommon a man like Helmut was, but that a man could, in 1974, get away with everything Helmut gets away with. Martha shows us, through exaggeration, the brutality and injustice both of the institution of marriage—in which one party can legally control the rights and behavior of the other—and a society that represses female sexuality and thereby consigns women to a romanticism that drives them willingly into relationships in which they are powerless.
This is not new territory for RWF, of course. The conversation Martha has with her sister, Marianne, for example, in which the latter explains the key to success in her own marriage—don’t argue with your husband when you disagree with him, you’ll need fewer tranquilizers and can anyway get your way on the big issues without him realizing it—is almost exactly the same conversation Petra von Kant had with Sidonie (Kristin Schaake) at the beginning of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. (In both cases, Margit Carstensen bristles at the advice, which she considers dishonest and cowardly, and in both cases she is punished utterly for her audacity, her hubris.) But Fassbinder covers that territory differently here, just as The Merchant of Four Seasons and Fear Eats the Soul covered already trodden ground with new insight, more confidence, and less irony than in the earlier work. Martha stands as yet another milestone in a too-short career studded with milestones. We’ll see if history bears me out on this in viewings/posts to come, but I’d venture to say that Martha just might be the film in which RWF discovered he could actually dispense with ironic distance altogether. But, like I said, we’ll have to see about that.