Hanna Schygulla in Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979)


(director/writer/editor: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; screenwriter: Pea Fröhlich/uncredited Peter Märthesheimer and Kurt Raab; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Juliane Lorenz; music: Peer Raben; cast: Hanna Schygulla (Maria Braun), Klaus Löwitsch (Hermann Braun), Ivan Desny (Karl Oswald), Gottfried John (Willi Klenze), Gisela Uhlen (Mother), Hark Bohm (Senkenberg), Elisabeth Trissenaar (Betti Klenze), Günter Lamprecht (Hans Wetzel), Claus Holm (Doctor), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (black marketeer), George Byrd (Bill), Anton Schiersner (Grandpa Berger), Isolde Barth (Vevi), Lilo Pempeit (Frau Ehmke); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Michael Fengler; New Yorker Films; 1979-West Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“No matter how Maria Braun is interpreted, Fassbinder’s film is always poignant and striking and alarmingly frightening.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rainer Werner Fassbinder considered marriage as nothing more than an institutional trap. For him love’s only a feeling and not something that’s real. Knowing all this about the filmmaker’s attitude toward love, still might not prepare you for the film’s shocking and ambiguous ending. “Maria Braun” became Fassbinder’s most successful film, both critically and commercially. In Germany it took in four million Deutschmarks at the box office, while in America it took in a cool one million dollars. This is the film that made Fassbinder an international celebrity and it also became one of the pivotal films of the New German Cinema, those films concerned with cleaning up the dirty linen from the Nazi past. One leading German newspaper headlined “Maria Braun” as the film that ‘brought people back into the cinemas from watching television.’ It was also reported to be Fassbinder’s least happy experience in filmmaking, as he went over budget (one of the reasons was the director’s cocaine habit). Through his weary producer Michael Fengler, whom he kept referring to as a gangster, he was forced to raise additional money to finish the film, as he was preoccupied with the preparations for his epic TV production of Berlin Alexanderplatz to care about much else. Going over budget was a new experience for Fassbinder, as his other films were state-funded and the disciplined filmmaker had no problems with the low-budget allotted for his arty films to date.

Dutch film scholar Thomas Elsaesser has provided in his stimulating analytical study of Fassbinder’s work, in the book entitled “Fassbinder’s Germany,” a European context for Fassbinder’s own coming to terms with fascism. Fassbinder was very concerned about what memories the German people had about their recent dark past. “Maria Braun” is a film which functions as a trigger of memories–tales remembered from one’s parents and pictures seen in the family album, which became the clichés people remembered about that period. The book also considers how vital Hanna Schygulla, one of his favorite leading ladies, proved to be for the film’s success; yet, it is ironic that originally Romy Schneider was cast for the part. But she wasn’t up to the demands the filmmaker placed on her and had her own alcohol issues to deal with. So the director turned to Hanna, whom he had grown tired of and thought he could replace in his studio system. Now it’s inconceivable that any one else could have played that part. It should be noted that the film’s popularity did not altogether make up for the slight Fassbinder felt when the 1979 Berlin Festival Jury decided not to award him the Golden Bear for best director. Also painful was that Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” won the Oscar for best foreign film that year, an award Fassbinder expected. Three years later, in 1982, at the tender age of 37 and after making some 40 films in his mercurial career and landing on top, Fassbinder committed suicide.

The film opens when Maria (Schygulla) marries Hermann Braun (Löwitsch) in 1943 amid an allied bombing raid, during her soldier-husband’s 48 hour furlough before returning to the front. We later see Maria as she patrols in vain by the train station wearing a sign with a picture of her missing husband. This takes place at the end of the war, in 1945. When her husband’s friend Willi Klenze (John), who is married to her best friend and schoolmate Betti (Trissenaar), has been released from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp, he informs her that Hermann was killed. She then goes to a black marketeer and trades her mother’s favorite brooch for a nice dress and a bottle of bourbon, turning down the offer of a volume of Heinrich von Kleist’s works because books burn too fast and not as well as wood. Prepared to acclimate herself to the country’s conquerors to survive and determined to get ahead, she gets a bar hostess gig at an American soldiers only dance hall bar and meets a huge black American soldier, Bill (Byrd), whom she is fond of. She tells him she loves only her missing husband when he asks to marry her. He generously treats her to gifts such as nylons and provides her family with food and teaches her English while they are in bed together, and she becomes pregnant. The black baby, that she wants to have, later dies at birth. Surprisingly her husband returns and catches her in bed with the black man, and he breaks down unable to take any more pain. She shows him that she only loves him, as she reacts to his pain by killing the drunken Bill by conking him on the head with a bottle. At her trial by the American military, her husband says he killed Bill and is sentenced to a long prison term. Riding first-class on a train, something she’s unaccustomed to, she’s befriended by a kindly older French textile industrialist, Karl Oswald (Desny), who offers her a management position in his firm as a personal adviser– a rare management position for women in those days. She becomes his mistress while also maintaining a professional work arrangement with him. Through hard work her career ascends and she becomes wealthy, as her career parallels the rise of West Germany after the war from 1945 to 1954. Her business success leaves her as a cold and hardened woman. She’s depicted as a loyal wife pining for her husband and suffering from emotional privation. She’s also depicted as a gold-digger who adapts too easily to the new capitalism and hedonism afoot in modern Germany. Her economic activity could be viewed as a substitute for sexual gratification. She also has severe mood swings and suffers from depression and starts drinking too much. On her prison visits she tells her husband that she’s having an affair with Oswald but only loves him, which further reduces his value as a man.

Through Oswald’s connections, an early parole release is gotten. But Hermann’s seemingly too proud to take the money she offers him and flees to Canada, as he writes telling her that he’ll return when he becomes human again. Their marriage seems to grow only stronger by separation and by practically being unconsummated. Hermann returns just when Maria bought a big house to live alone in. She’s confused but is deliriously happy by his return, after being married to him for only half a day and one night and not being with him for over a decade. His arrival also happens to coincide with the time when Oswald died and when his business accountant Senkenberg (Bohm) and the firm’s secretary come by her house to read the will. It turns out that unknown to Maria her husband and Oswald had met in prison and made a secret pact, with Oswald allowed to freely love Maria until his impending death. He dies from a heart attack due to the liver condition he was long suffering from, but his housekeeper reports he died with a smile on his face. For his part of the bargain Hermann would stay away, and, as a reward, Hermann and Maria are promised to be his heirs.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

As what transpired sinks in that her husband and Oswald duped her, the shaken Maria retreats into the kitchen to light a cigarette; but, since she never previously shut off the gas stove, an accidental explosion occurs destroying the house along with both of them. Interestingly enough, their marriage is consummated forever by death. The only sounds heard after the explosion are of the radio announcer excitedly shouting, “Germany is master of the world.” West Germany beat Hungary and won the 1954 World Cup in soccer. It seems ironical that the film begins and ends with an explosion; and, by the time of the explosion and the house in shambles, Germany is shown to have regained her prestige in the world by winning the world soccer match. For Fassbinder, the image of her dead body in the explosion equates war with love. All through Maria’s melodramatic Sirklike story depicting the perversity of her love, it is shown that her love gives her strength as long as it remains unconsummated. When love and sex come together, as upon seeing her husband again as a free man in her house, her wires are crossed and she doesn’t really know how to act.

This is the big Hollywood-type of film Fassbinder always wanted to make. Fassbinder said that his films were historical only to the degree that he looked at the past from the vantage point of the present; in other words, how the 1950s look to the 1970s. “Maria Braun” is his most conventional and accessible film, yet it’s still very elusive. It presents all his known themes about misery and the pitfalls of love and is done in the deliberately formal Brechtlike theatrical style he is noted for, while his leftist political stand is hinted at by his comparison of the new leaders with Hitler. Chancellor Adenauer in a radio address to the nation states that Germany would never rearm again. Fassbinder refers to all the regime changes that call for new beginnings as just lies — from Chancellor -turned- dictator Hitler to Chancellor Adenauer to Chancellor Schmidt — that only lead to the same tired false promises. The only postwar chancellor not shown in the photo negatives that flash on the screen after Hitler, is the one Fassbinder agreed with — Willy Brandt. The radio is used as the familiar voice that reached the people during those days, and therefore its sound bites are used effectively to trace the history of the times by recharging the memory of those who were there.

For Fassbinder, the economic boon of Germany that parallels the strong and determined heroine, Maria, and her rise to riches, shows on one level her success is due to the fact that she exploits men the way men usually exploit women. She even calls herself to task for her skills as a double agent at one point by referring to herself as ‘The Mata-Hari of the economic miracle.’ One critic of Germany, Wilhelm Roth, stated that “the German bourgeois of 1930, 1955, or 1975 are identical. Germany is a country where nothing changes, that the opportunity of 1945 has been gambled away.” The film could certainly be viewed as an allegory of West Germany as it is by many critics from outside of Germany, as Maria Braun is depicted as standing for the pragmatic, post-Hitler Germany, as the vulnerable female who suffered for her country’s past errors and whose current outward success hides her deeper ills in which she has repressed her emotional needs inside and sacrificed spiritual values for wealth and status. She’s an icon for the independent woman who has become liberated both sexually and politically after the war, but is not all that’s she’s cracked up to be. The openly gay Fassbinder has created Maria as an example of the mystique of femininity and perhaps as someone to be viewed as a metaphor for her country’s success. She’s someone who picked herself up from the ashes of war and national disgrace and made the successful transition as a modern business woman possessed with a global outlook, something the modern times called for in its pragmatic outlook on life. I don’t think Fassbinder consciously tried to paint such a set historical picture as through an allegory, but nevertheless one can make a case for it. No matter how Maria Braun is interpreted, Fassbinder’s film is always poignant and striking and alarmingly frightening.


REVIEWED ON 11/24/2002 GRADE: A +