Movie Review – The Marriage of Maria Braun

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)
Written by Peter Märthesheimer, Pea Fröhlich, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder’s films often centered women in the protagonist roles and explored how they were trapped in damned if you do/damned if you don’t scenarios. The Marriage of Maria Braun was one of his largest productions with a budget of less than a million, but it certainly doesn’t show. This epic story goes from the middle of World War II into the 1950s. It also follows Fassbinder’s tendency to draw inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), telling stories of women with dignity who humble themselves to survive in a world designed for the pleasure of men. These women are complex, vulnerable, strong, determined, and broken. They are presented as human beings, something that wasn’t done often with women in much Western media of the recent past. 

Maria (Hanna Schygulla) is getting married to her love Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) during an Allied bombing in 1943. They are able to spend a half day and a night together before Hermann is sent off to the Eastern Front. The War ends, and Hermann doesn’t return, but Maria goes every morning when trains arrive from the east with a photo of her husband searching for him or someone who has seen him. Eventually, someone tells her they saw Hermann killed, so she finds a new path in life that must be made. Maria eventually gets employment as a sex worker at a bar frequented by American soldiers. A new relationship is found with Bill (George Byrd), a Black soldier who buys Maria gifts and begins financially supporting her. Eventually, she becomes pregnant by Bill. But Hermann didn’t die, and a confrontation occurs where Maria displays the depth of her love for her husband, no matter how toxic & destructive that might be. Unfortunately, it causes them to split again, and Maria has to leverage her sexuality to find any sort of security in the dangers of post-War Germany. 

This film centers around Maria’s discovery of what she is capable of. Before Hermann returns, she thinks she must grovel at the feet of men to find safety. Instead, she comes to understand what she is willing to do for her husband, whom, in reality, she barely knows, and that empowers her in a way that makes him no longer the dominant one in their relationship. She’s pretty similar to the female protagonists in Sirk’s pictures, with the added benefit of these films being released in a period and from a culture where the director didn’t have to speak in innuendo about the themes of sex. Fassbinder doesn’t judge Maria for using her body to sustain herself, and she no longer defines herself in terms of marriage.

Characters in the film make lots of interesting remarks about the nature of love and devotion. Maria’s parents want her to move on from this loss, noting the short amount of time she knew Hermann. As she dresses her elderly father one morning before heading off to the train station to wait for the news, Maria states: “The mistake people make is to love one person all their lives. If we don’t have potatoes, we eat turnips. If we have no turnips, we eat gruel. But in love, there’s only one man, and when he goes to War and is dead five months later, you have to mourn for the rest of your life.” In this way, Maria acknowledges their viewpoint but inserts a caveat that falling in and out of love is one thing, but losing someone you love in tragedy is a wound that never fully heals. Therefore, she must grieve for Hermann into old age in her mind. 

At the American G.I. bar Betti, one of Maria’s friends, is pushing her to start searching for a new husband, with the soldiers from the States being a prime choice. Maria notes that finding a new partner would help her make her way in life but doesn’t believe that undoes what she had with Hermann. “”Sure, love’s a feeling. And a great love is a great feeling and a great truth.” So she implies that what she feels for Hermann is less about the specific relationship and more about a vast intangible ideal. She wants to be someone with a great love who mourns for it, making her mythic.

Hermann’s return and its fallout mark a transformation in her character. In the second half of the picture, she finds herself on a train and converses with Karl Oswald, a wealthy German industrialist. They get accosted by an American soldier, drunkenly cavorting onboard, and we see a strength emerge from Maria that was hinted at but not realized until now. She spits back at the soldier in slightly broken English after he unleashes his own vulgarities: “To answer your question, I’m really the best you’d be fucked by, although I doubt you will ever get the chance when I’ve kicked you in your bloody old prick in your bloody balls which will drop off. And now, sir, you better fuck off immediately; otherwise, I’d be forced to call the military police to get you bloody old son of a bitch in jail!”

This emerging strength charms Oswald immediately and makes him the next stop in Maria’s tumultuous life. She becomes enmeshed in Oswald’s textile business, and he’s impressed with her as a romantic partner and someone who understands people. A deal with an American company is going badly, and Oswald wants Maria to help. She responds calmly, measuredly: “Give me half an hour alone here. I don’t know a thing about business. But I know what German women want, and I know about nylon and woven fabrics. And I know a lot about the future. I’m a specialist in that.” And she really does; Maria shows how women in challenging situations like hers often find ways to think beyond the limits of what is in front of them. They have to find ways to provide for themselves and those they care about without regard for society’s rules & guardrails. 

This transformation also does terrible things to Maria; she gets caught up in the capitalistic fervor that followed the War during the reconstruction of Germany. She gets her beautiful suburban house from a Douglas Sirk film, with parties and the latest fashions. Cruelty emerges as the result of being forced to live under the conditions of constant struggle & survival. Even when Maria has everything she could need, she becomes nastier. The devastating grand finale of the movie has Maria reminded of her place as a woman, everything she’s worked for so easily handed to another man simply because she isn’t one. By the film’s end, though, she has lost sight of what it means to love anyone. Men have revealed themselves as weak creatures, so easily manipulated and lacking all dignity that someone like her had to squash themselves down to keep swimming above the currents. 

This is the closest Fassbinder ever got to making a Sirk clone, and it is a masterpiece. The characterization in the writing is so nuanced and rich. It hurts that much more when you see how young Fassbinder was (37) when he died of an accidental drug overdose. His bold style and themes would ripple through cinema into our present. It’s evident that a director like Martin Scorsese was strongly influenced by Fassbinder’s work, focusing on desperate people making bad decisions and watching them process the fallout. While I now have three Fassbinder pictures under my belt, I’m looking forward to exploring more of his films. 

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