The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

This is the one, right? This is the movie that put Fassbinder squarely in the pantheon of great directors (as opposed to that much smaller clubhouse for New German Cinema directors), the first of his movies to achieve international renown upon release. What’s more, unlike even the most celebrated of his earlier films, which had only been available to arthouse audiences outside Germany (if at all), The Marriage of Maria Braun received the kind of distribution RWF had hitherto only dreamed of—the kind you get with, say, a Hollywood melodrama. It’s the one title even people who don’t know Fassbinder are likely to recognize. It’s the movie that made Hanna Schygulla a star.

If Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the favorite of academics (and it is: I swear I have seen it in no fewer than four different film classes), American critics loved Maria Braun. David Denby, Roger Ebert and, most famously, Vincent Canby of the New York Times, all wrote glowing reviews at one time or other. This makes a certain sense. The Marriage of Maria Braun looks and feels more like a “real movie” than anything RWF had made to date. The performances, the script—a rags-to-riches story of one woman’s rise from the rubble of the allied bombings to the crest of the German Economic Miracle—the production values, the incredible sophistication of the lighting and cinematography, the beautifully restrained mastery of Ballhaus’ camera work (his last movie with RWF, alas), even Peer Raben’s score, all demonstrate that, by 1978, RWF had fully mastered his craft, not to mention his art, and finally realized his ambition of making his own “Hollywood” films.

Except, of course, that Maria Braun is nothing of the kind. It’s a German film about a specific period in German history told from a German perspective—an unlikely candidate in nearly every way for this level of mainstream international adulation. (According to Juliane Lorenz, even RWF was surprised by its success; Despair was supposed to be his big breakout vehicle. He wasn’t even able to secure distribution for Maria Braun until 1979, although the film had been completed a year earlier, before In a Year with Thirteen Moons was even begun.) Why did it speak to American audiences so?

It’s not as though RWF or United Artists made it easy. Many of the cultural and historical references of Maria Braun would have been lost—literally foreign—to American viewers. What’s more, the subtitles in the original American theatrical version didn’t include the historic radio broadcasts woven into the densely layered soundtrack, which means that non-German-speaking viewers and critics simply didn’t have access to key historical allusions and context. And how many American viewers could identify the image of any German chancellor who held office from 1945 to 1978?  That sequence, which follows the film’s closing credits, would have been simply confounding. (Still is, I imagine.) And yet the critics, and audiences, loved it. Maybe when the actors are this good and the movie is this well crafted it doesn’t matter whether anyone actually understands it?

Married in a civil service during an aerial bombardment in the last days of the war—the marriage license signed on the ground, the terrified justice of the peace forcibly held down by the groom to keep him from taking flight as everyone ducks and covers under debris from falling bombs—Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) are separated after “half a day and one whole night” when Hermann is sent off to the Russian front. When the war is over, Maria and her best friend, Betti (Elisabeth Trissenaar), dutifully wait at the train station each day amidst the devastation and the desperate chaos wearing handmade sandwich-board signs with their husbands’ names and photos on them, hoping for information as to the fate of their men. Betti’s husband, Willi (Gottfried John) eventually returns. He breaks the news to Maria: Hermann will not be returning. Hermann is dead.

Maria quickly learns to navigate the black market network in which postwar German society eked out a subsistence, earning cigarettes from American GIs through sheer bravado, which she could trade with her mother for jewelry, which she could in turn trade for the black cocktail dress that would get her a job in a GI dance hall—where she could be paid in currency or goods—which earns her the attention of one African American GI in particular, the kind and gentle Bill (George Byrd), who showers her with gifts and affection.

Maria is soon pregnant with Bill’s baby, about which she seems not the least bit troubled, although she makes it clear to Bill that she will never marry him. (How could she? She is already married.) But that’s okay. She’s fond of Bill, and the two seem perfectly happy—as does the rest of Maria’s family, all of whom benefit from the American’s largesse. Things are definitely looking up.

But then guess who turns up, quiet as a mouse, during a particularly tender moment with Bill, but a spectral Hermann—dead, it turns out, only metaphorically. When the naked Bill and the sunken Hermann begin to scuffle, Maria does what any loving wife would do: she brains Bill with a heavy object, killing him on the spot.

Maria is tried in a US military tribunal. At the last moment, Hermann steps up and claims responsibility for the killing. He is sentenced to several years in prison, which he dutifully serves. Maria visits him regularly and swears undying loyalty, if not, strictly speaking, fidelity. Both are strangely sanguine about Hermann’s incarceration, not to mention Maria’s pregnancy by another man (a black man, no less). Maria has bottomless faith in her own abilities to get what she wants (she “specializes in the future” she will later remark). She willed Hermann to come back, didn’t she?

Maria remains sanguine when she miscarries the baby, too. On her way home from wherever she had gone to deliver it she talks her way into a first class railway carriage, where she immediately and deliberately attracts the attention of a wealthy industrialist, Herr Oswald of Oswald Textiles (Ivan Desny) who, half-French, was able to comfortably sit out the war, presumably in Switzerland. His admiration for Maria is assured when Maria boldly dresses down a drunken and frisky American GI (played by Gunther Kaufmann himself, doing a truly awful American accent) who enters the otherwise empty fist-class carriage, in colorful English. By the end of the journey Maria has a job working for Oswald.

Maria, with her sharp intelligence, her disregard for convention, her command of English, soon rises to a position of prominence in both Oswald’s company and his bedroom, much to the chagrin of his upstanding right-hand man and loyal accountant, Senkenberg (Hark Bohm), and his upright secretary, Frau Ehmke (Lilo Pempeit). Always a step ahead, Maria dictates the terms of this affair, just as she had dictated the terms of her employment. A shrewd and canny negotiator, she seems unstoppable. Betti astutely remarks that looking at Maria, “nobody would ever know what you’ve been through.”

Maria doesn’t know everything, however. She doesn’t know, for example, that the lovesick Oswald is terminally ill and has only a short time to live. She doesn’t know that Oswald has already learned of the existence of Hermann Braun and struck up a relationship with him. Maria carries on, making money hand over fist, toying with Oswald, humiliating Frau Ehmke and mocking Senkenberg, convinced she is firmly in the driver’s seat, master of her own destiny.

Maria builds a mansion which she and Hermann will one day call home. And, indeed, one day Hermann is released from prison. He does not join Maria, however, intending, he writes, to return to her as an equal rather than a dependent. So off he goes to make his own fortune, in Australia or Canada or whatever remote entrepeneurial former English colony will have him. As per the laws of melodrama, a single red rose, delivered once a month until he returns, will remind Maria of her devoted husband.

Spoiler Alert
Oswald eventually, predictably, dies. Maria sinks into an alcoholic depression, from which she is roused by . . . Hermann! At last! The moment Maria has structured her entire adult life around, seduced men and institutions and moved mountains for, has finally come! Things start off a bit prickly for the Brauns—understandably—and matters are complicated when Senkenberg and a notary from Lyon appear for a scheduled reading of Oswald’s will.

What happens next has confounded audiences and critics alike for 35 years. Oswald, it turns out, has left a good part of his business assets and personal wealth to Maria, and the remainder of his fortune to . . . Hermann Braun! Maria, who uncharacteristically complains of a headache, goes to light a cigarette from the gas stove in the kitchen offscreen, which she had portentously neglected to turn off the last time she lit one. Hermann watches, then yells NO! as . . . kaboom!

A Critique of Capitalism
It goes without saying that The Marriage of Maria Braun is a political film packaged as melodrama (I was going to say “disguised as melodrama,” but I don’t think RWF was actually trying to disguise anything at all). This is nothing new: all of RWF’s melodramas have a core political message, after all. But it’s different in this case. Here, the German economy is as important an element as the characters of Maria or Senkenberg or Willi or Hans (Maria’s mother’s affable working-class boyfriend, played by the marvelous Günter Lamprecht, the ultimate Franz Biberkopf in RWF’s Berlin Alexanderplatz)—each of whom, I should mention, embodies a different position and perspective with respect to that economy. In doing so it implicitly offers a critique of market capitalism—the heart and soul, as we all know, not just of the wirdschaftswunder, but of the American ethos. As such, I think it’s safe to say that The Marriage of Maria Braun is an anti-American film. (This is why I find the American critical response to it so bewildering. Nobody seems to have noticed.)

The movie opens on a society in shambles. The Fascist economy has been obliterated under the allied bombardment. The only economy still functioning is the black market, which is to say, a barter economy. Capital has been reduced to its most primitive essentials: wood that can be burned for heat, bricks that can be sorted and used to rebuild shelter, food that can be consumed for survival, cigarettes that quiet the mind and keep hunger at bay, cocktail dresses that connect you with the people who control all these things . . . and sex, which can be exchanged for goods and services like any other commodity. Maria recognizes this and capitalizes on it immediately.

Everything has its exchange value. (Books, by the way, don’t have much of one: they burn too fast, says Maria.) The perfect object of value in this scenario is the cigarette, which RWF uses very precisely as a symbolic thread woven throughout the film. A discarded cigarette butt causes a pile-up of Germans in the train station canteen as they fight each other for the scrap. An American GI pays for his lewd comment to Maria with cigarettes, thereby launching her ascent up the economic ladder. When Hermann returns from the Russian POW camp the first thing he hungrily pounces on is not his wife but her cigarettes. On the train, when Oswald offers Maria a cigarette she declines, saying she doesn’t smoke (she knows this gesture of self control will gain her Oswald’s respect). A cigarette lit from a gas stove will, of course, be Maria and Hermanns’ undoing.

Mata Hari or Just an American?
Maria firmly believes she is master of her own destiny. In perhaps the most frequently quoted line of the movie, she mischievously tells a scandalized Senkenberg, who has just learned that Maria is friends with Willi (who represents Labor in discussions with Oswald Textiles), “I’m a master of disguises: a tool of capitalism by day, an agent of the working classes by night. The Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle.” It’s a great line, and I think Maria really believes it, too. She genuinely believes she is somehow beyond ideology—scornful of Senkenberg’s solemn reverence for economics, too savvy for Willi’s naïve Marxism. Which is, of course, a very American attitude. (How many Americans admit to subscribing to an ideology of any kind? For us, communism is an ideology, while capitalism is just a natural law, part of the natural order of things . . .)

Maria Braun is smart. Maria Braun is resourceful. Maria Braun is beautiful, modern, pragmatic, sharp. Maria Braun lives by her wits, but she knows how to use her body to get what she needs. She knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, how to seize the moment or the day and turn it to her own advantage. Maria Braun looks to the future and never, ever looks back. But through it all she is loyal to her man, come hell or high water, and she always, always stays true to her ideals.

Maria Braun, in other words, is American. (Compare her to “fat little Betti”: simple, provincial, old-fashioned—Betti is quintessentially German.) Which is, of course, another aspect of the film I imagine would have been lost on American audiences. Maria embodies qualities that are so much a part of the American ideal, so deeply engrained in our own self-image, we’re not even aware of them as such. Schygulla’s Maria is an amalgam of quintessential 1940’s Hollywood actresses’ personae, their schtick: Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis (and let’s not forget Germany’s favorite export/expat, Marlene Dietrich). Wise-cracking, fast-talking, cool as a cucumber, she’s like a cross between a Howard Hawks heroine and a dame in a Raymond Chandler novel. Just listen to the way she says, “Listen, Mister.” Just look at the way she lights a cigarette.

(The Criterion Collection DVD of Maria Braun includes a very good video essay featuring Eric Rentschler, Film Professor at Harvard, who makes the point that Maria Braun is directly linked to Mildred Pierce, which I think is incontrovertible, but ultimately not all that helpful—except perhaps to remind us that RWF was influenced by a variety of Hollywood directors, not just Sirk, and show how cleverly RWF was able to use Hollywood’s own types to send radically different messages. Mildred and Maria may end up with their illusions of self-realization and self-sufficiency shattered, co-opted by men, but that’s as far, I think, as the comparison goes. Mildred and Maria are ultimately punished for very different sins and in very different courts of opinion, according to entirely different standards. But that’s another whole essay unto itself.)

Maria and the BRD
As a thousand reviewers have undoubtedly already observed, Maria’s trajectory mirrors West Germany’s after the war. Quick to forget, eager to embrace a turbocharged, capital-infused, American-dominated future, Germany missed or ignored the opportunity to soberly reflect on its past and come to terms with its enthusiastic embrace of Fascism and learn from those mistakes. Instead, economic development became an end in itself; the political past of Germany’s leaders (which is to say, their ideology) was deemed irrelevant. And so, for example, you had former members of the SS, people like Hans Schleyer, running some of Germany’s biggest corporations. This, of course, is what the RAF and the rest of the radical left in Germany in the 1970s were reacting against: not just Germany’s refusal to come to terms with its own criminal past, but the willingness of a society to compromise anything and everything for the sake of economic development, happy to sell its soul for a buck.

This is what makes Maria’s life so hollow. Bill, Oswald, her career, everything had been a means to an end: to make as much money as possible for her life with Hermann. But Hermann doesn’t want her money, he wants his own money, and Hermann, anyway, turns out to be a stranger. Maria has led a joyless existence only to see the only thing she had, her symbolic power, stripped from her in a transaction between men. She thought she was her own free agent when really all she had ever been was the object of someone else’s Great Love—whether Hermann’s or Oswald’s. (Mata Hari, history tells us, was only ever a pawn of the governments she risked her life for, too.)

Is this what the BRD was? A pawn in somebody else’s game?  There’s an interesting moment at the beginning of the movie when a craven German stealing fence boards for firewood is scared off by some boys with firecrackers; on the soundtrack a radio announcer, American, describes how US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthal had earlier proposed that Germany be turned into farmland after the war (“in other words, broken up,”) in contrast to the current strategy . . . but the explosion of the firecrackers and the boys’ laughter drowns out the radio voice, so we never hear what that current stratey is. But we get the idea: Germany’s direction, this passage tells us, is the result of a change in strategy.

Which brings us back to that ending. It’s ambiguous, certainly, and frustrating for sure, but it doesn’t come from out of nowhere and it does make sense if you think about it. But you have to look at it free of those ideological assumptions we say we aren’t subject to. Otherwise Maria, with her can-do attitude and her work ethic, her quick wit, her good looks, and her devout loyalty, really is just a German Mildred Pierce (which is to say, a mostly sympathetic, if cold and calculating and ultimately over-reaching, heroine), while Hermann’s self sacrifice and Oswald’s magnanimity are just plain noble. If you read this story without historical or ideological context. Maria’s suicide, if that’s what it is, is either illogical—since she has finally gotten everything she ever wanted in life (her husband, unfettered at last, and Oswald’s fortune, unencumbered)—or a hysterical reaction.

And if it’s not suicide? Well, then her death is just a random accident, senseless and arbitrary. Unless you keep the historic parallels in mind and remember that Germany’s great sin after the war was to forget its own sins, none of this makes any sense. This is Eric Rentschler’s thesis: Maria forgets that she forgot to turn off the gas. Or, to put it another, less allegorical and more literal way: Maria has been so single-minded in her pursuit of wealth that the realization that her success has been utterly hollow and meaningless simply undoes her. She doesn’t know what she is doing anymore and she just doesn’t care.

But speaking of willful forgetting: Adam Hochschild, reviewing Ian Buruma’s  Year Zero: A History of 1945 in last Sunday’s New York Times reminds us (as if we had ever heard of it in the first place) of the widespread rape, unreported, that was perpetrated by American GIs after the war in Germany and France, where women outnumbered men, 8 to 5. A reminder, perhaps, of who was really in control all along.

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