The personal is always related to the social in Fassbinder’s work. With THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, the personal and the social are also interlinked to the historical. The film has been read as an allegory for the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutchsland) during the period of the ‘Economic Miracle’ – Maria Braun with her fine clothes and furs but dead inside – and is considered to be the first of what’s been called the ‘BDR’ trilogy, alongside LOLA (1981) and VERONIKA VOSS (1982).
It’s true that the film begins with a picture of Hitler crashing down, ends on a scene of the BDR’s victory over Hungary in the 1954 FIFA World Championships, where we hear the Federal Republic of Germany declared ‘Champion of the world’ over the radio, and then the final images, negatives of all the BDR chancellors to the time the film was made with the exception of Willy Brandt, who had exiled himself from Germany during the Nazi regime, and shown as negatives except for the last one where we see the transformation of the negative into the positive, giving the impression of devils made flesh. There’s no question that the film is making a commentary on history and the nation.
Germany in Ruins
That said it’s important the film also be considered as about Maria Braun. It’s a woman’s film and a melodrama, not unlike MILDRED PIERCE in some ways. A woman with responsibilities, living through hard times that make for difficult moral and ethical decisions but who ends up a successful business-woman. As books like Marta Heller’s A WOMAN IN BERLIN and Miriam Gebhardt’s CRIMES UNSPOKEN: THE RAPE OF GERMAN WOMEN AT THE END OF SECOND WORLD WAR, the period between the end of the War in 1945 and the end of the occupation in 1955, resulted in an unprecedented period of sexual violence.
Maria’s material success
Maria has few choices, she dabbles in the black market, she becomes a ‘hostess’, she navigates the world sexually: lucid, clear-eyed, intelligent and unsentimental about what she’s got to do to keep what’s left of her house fed, clothed, warm. Her mother prays for her soul but end up sewing her the type of dress she needs for her new ‘business’. The way she jumps on a cigarette, a sweet of a sip of alcohol whenever Maria brings something home vividly expresses the basic privations of the period. Yet as Maria says, ‘My mother loves me, supports me and cries with me over my pain but she leaves all the thinking up to me, thus leaving me no time to dream’.
The Mata-Hari of the Economic Miracle
The film is a melodrama in that you do side with the powerless, it’s ‘excessive’ and it’s designed to make an audience cry. The most important thing in her life is her marriage. But she only gets to enjoy it for one afternoon and one night after which her husband is sent to the Eastern Front. We see her with his picture on her back going day after day to the rail station to see if anyone’s seen him. She’s later told he’s died but he hasn’t. He returns to find her in the middle of coitus with a black man she’s now pregnant with. In the ensuing fight between the men she kills the American GI, Bill, who she’d been fond of. At the military hearing, when her husband hears her say she was fond of Bill but loves her husband, he decides to take the rap for her. She loses her baby. When the husband’s jailed, she vows she’ll learn to work and make enough money to build the house he would have built for them. She seduces an industrialist who falls in love with her and does exactly as she promised. Only to find in the end that it was all for nought. Except for her husband and her family, she’s put aside all feelings, feelings don’t keep you warm or fed. But it all blows up in her face.
Defiance Amidst the Ruins
If the film is about Maria, it’s also about marriage: THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Maria fervently believes in it. There’s that wonderful screwball scene at the beginning when in the middle of a bombing they chase after the document and make sure it’s stamped. An institutional approval of their love. The certainty of her feelings for her husband, of her wish for a married life, is one of the films that make the film so romantic. Her husband feels the same way. Hearing of her love for him is what makes him take the rap for her. But this marriage, bounded between two explosions, what has it amounted to? One afternoon and one night of married life. After which, she’s cut of her feelings and sold her body. He’s suffered prison and ends up pimping her out. There illusions are romantic, the reality as with Fassbinder is something else again. It’s a film that begins with marriage but also with deadly explosions.
Marriage as Romantic Prison
A great film, I think, with a mysterious and charismatic performance by Hannah Schygulla. It’s the film that made her into an international star, and it was also West Germany’s biggest box office success internationally to that point.