MARTHA is Fassbinder in full Sirk mode, developing the 1940s ‘woman’s film’ film to the brutal ends inherent in the material but usually more tactfully conveyed. Martha (Margit Cartensen) is a chic librarian from a bourgeois background but a close-up at the beginning lets us know everything is not quite right: she’s on Valium. What’s making her anxious? Is it that she’s still a virgin at thirty? That her friends are all married? That she loves her father too much?
She has high ideals of marriage and social proprieties and is a bit sniffy about sex. Yet the men around her treat her as she’s constantly up for it, sending up unwanted gigolos to her room in Rome, sticking their tongues out at her suggestively in parks. Mostly she doesn’t notice and acts as she’s above it all when she does. Yet, when she turns down a marriage proposal from her boss, he immediately asks someone else to marry him. Is she just a body and a function, easily replaceable?
Everything changes when her father dies of a heart attack in the Roman Steps in Rome. Her purse gets stolen and when she goes to the German Embassy she meets a man and they both have a coup de foudre. The camera does a 360 degree shot, where each of the characters in the frame also turn around completely, but in different directions, thus practically condensing the film into one shot.
They meet again at a wedding where Fassbinder turns a typical meet cute into an ominously sharp series of insults. The man is Helmut Salomon (Karlheinz Böhm), a well-to-do businessman who tells her she’s too thin and is not as beautiful nor as charming as she thinks. She loves it. They continue to see each other and he finally proposes after she’s been sick in an aerial amusement park ride. Her gratitude for the proposal is excessive. On their honeymoon he chides her for wearing sun-tan lotion so she doesn’t use it, gets completely burned up as a result, and we’re shown his relish at her pain as he squeezes every burn.
She’s married a sadist, doesn’t yet know it, rationalises each of his actions through romantic ideas of love, and is overly grateful for every crumb of affection.
Soon, he resigns her from the job she loved and, in full GASLIGHT mode, he’s convincing her of things that aren’t; he cuts her from her house and furniture, her mother, her friends and he even cuts off the telephone so she can be thinking only of him, appreciating the music he buys, and reading the technical tomes related to his work that he’d like to discuss with her. She puts up with all of this rationalising that it’s all proof of how much he loves her….until he kills her cat.
When Martha can stand it no longer she calls a friend but she’s in such hysterics to get away she clutches the steering wheel and causes an accident that leaves her friend dead and herself paralysed, sentenced to a lifetime of control by her sadistic husband. The iron door of a lift closing on her in a wheelchair and her husband towering over her in control of the chair and her life is an extraordinary ending.
Another extraordinary film from Fassbinder which partly gets its power from the precision of the mise-en-scene — the use of décor and mirrors to signify, the way characters ominously appear at the end of sequences to signify another option – in combination with an in your face punk attitude about showing. Nothing is sugar-coated or watered down. Sirk and punk is a potent combination.
Michael Ballhaus was the dop and claims it’s his favourite of Fassbinder’s films.