Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 32: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] The heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun does some terrible things, but because she knows some of the forces that shaped her, we understand them and can at least admire her resourcefulness.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “[Fassbinder] gave us what he saw as the rise and second fall of West Germany in the three postwar decades –considered in the context of the overwhelming American influence on his country. With the masterful epic The Marriage of Maria Braun, he made his clearest and most cynical statement of the theme, and at the same time gave us a movie dripping with period detail, with the costumes and decor he was famous for, with the elegant decadence his characters will sell their souls for in a late-1940s economy without chic retail goods.” -from his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Fassbinder’s world was one in which sex, ego and money drove his characters to cruelty, sadism and self-destruction. It is never difficult to discover what they want, or puzzling to see how they go about it. His occasional gentle characters, like the old woman in Ali — Fear Eats the Soul (1974), are eaten alive. The suggestion is that the war years and the postwar years wounded the German psyche so profoundly that the survivors wanted what they wanted, now, on their terms. Fassbinder himself was cruel and distant to those around him, particularly those who loved him, and in Maria Braun, he created an indelible monster who is perversely fascinating because she knows exactly what she is doing and explains it to her victims while it is being done.” -from his 2005 review for his Great Movies series

It’d be easy to be fooled by the opening of The Marriage of Maria Braun into thinking that you’re watching a standard war film. A black & white portrait of Adolf Hitler explodes along with the brick wall supporting it, followed by the rich colors of a darkly humorous physical comedy bit where a solider gets married in the midst of a city siege. The notary lies on their belly in the rubble, stamping the proper documents while bombs & bullets fly. Oddly, this is the last we see of the marriage or the explosions until the film’s final, puzzling minutes. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is obviously interested in the havoc wreaked by World War II, especially among the people left dazed & defeated in his home country in the years immediately following the war. However, the war itself and the marriage of the film’s title are conspicuously missing from long stretches of the story he tells in one of his most widely seen & widely acclaimed films. Instead, Fassbinder follows the emotional life of the soldier’s wife as the war immediately takes her husband away, leaving her lost & drifting through a country she no longer recognizes. The Marriage of Maria Braun is more of a character study than a war film, although both its physical & emotional settings are noticably devastated by the bombs dropped in the conflict.

The most astounding marvel of this Criterion-distributed work is actor Hanna Schygulla’s performance as the titular Maria Braun. Her marriage to a German soldier depicted with cold humor at the film’s opening lasts less than two days before his duty tears him away from her and he’s eventually reported to be dead. In her husband’s absence, Maria engages in two longterm romantic affairs, one with a black American solider & one with a wealthy white German businessman, both of whom wish to possess her. She enjoys their company, but maintains that her heart belongs to the near-stranger she married at the film’s start. As the husband’s absence transitions from missing soldier to imprisoned criminal, Maria remains entirely honest with him about her affairs, planning to earn a sizable living for them both in the mean time, a life that’s to start as soon as he’s released. That goal provides her post-war drift with a sense of purpose, but mostly she just handles her personal life with the emotional distance of a businesswoman making executive decisions, a demeanor many audiences interpret as deliberate cruelty. There’s something striking about Maria’s casual, matter-of-fact reactions to sexual affairs, murders, miscarriages, and changing clothes in the presence of men that makes the film & the performance feel remarkably modern. She answers a flirt’s question, “Should we have another drink?” with a flat “No, I want to sleep with you,” and makes blanket statements like, “It’s not a good time for feelings.” It isn’t until she’s briefly reinvigorated by her role as a wife in the film’s final minutes until you realize what the war & her husband’s absence have done to her, how much joy & brightness they’ve stolen from her youth.

Fassbinder plays Schygulla’s emotionless cynicism for both tragedy & humor. He sets the melodrama of her tragic status as a soldier’s wife torn between two men (twice!) against the rich color, saccharine orchestral score, and high fashion costume design of a Douglas Sirk film. The Marriage of Maria Braun is an outright gorgeous picture. The curls, furs, and jeweled broaches that adorn each of Maria’s looks feel like the ornaments of a retro magazine fashion spread. The intense blue lighting & glistening coats of excessive post-coitus sweat telegraph much of the aesthetic of Ken Russell’s smut-slathered masterpiece Crimes of Passion. The opening minutes (with their bombastic city siege & images of shellshocked soldiers fighting over smokable cigarette butts) may promise a war film, but what Fassbinder ultimately delivers is something much more aggressively feminine. In his time, Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were often critically dismissed as “women’s pictures.” It seems as if Fassbinder were attempting to resurrect their exact perspective, except with more blatant discussions of sex & desire. Both a tragic & a comedic character, Maria’s inner life commands audience attention & empathy as the distinct historical setting & Fassbinder’s intense visual eye only function to serve & highlight her chilly point of view. It’s just as glamorous & devastating as it is over the top & relatable, an impressively rewarding set of self-contradictions.

I’m not sure that The Marriage of Maria Braun’s ambiguous ending has anything of value to say about its titular protagonist. I’m also not sure if a change in temporal setting would entirety alter her inner life or if post-war Germany was essential to her story. What I can say for sure is that Schygulla’s performance as Maria is instantly recognizable as one of the all-time greats. That striking achievement alone is worth the effort the film asks from its audience in its setting & its ambiguity, especially considering that it’s couched within Fassbinder’s distinct visual eye.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

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