The opening and closing images of The Marriage of Maria Braun are some of the most biting bookends in all of cinema. An image of Hitler, operating like a visual overture, opens the film, accompanied by auditory wedding vows; it provides something of an interpretive key for the film. The final images return to political leadership, this time a series of portraits of Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) chancellors. The great German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is both bold and clear in his analogy of continuity: not that much has changed.
One of the final collaborations in the artistically fruitful (though corrosive) partnership between Fassbinder and the ineffable Hanna Schygulla, The Marriage of Maria Braun isn’t about a marriage that was but one that wasn’t. In the waning days of the war, Maria (Schygulla) is married not even three days to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) before he is shipped back to the Eastern front. Hermann doesn’t return with the war’s end, and Maria refuses to believe he’s dead. Cynically embodying a capitalistic femme fatale, she uses her beauty and cunning to navigate the changing post-war economy. She sleeps with a few men along the way, none of whom are her husband who returns from a Russian POW camp to their home around the midway point in the film—just in time to watch Maria captivated in foreplay with a kind, Black American GI named Bill (George Byrd).
One recurring theme is transaction. With the bookmarked endings that generalize Maria as a stand-in for post-war West Germany, the transactions of Maria symbolize one mode of (female) operation in the new modernizing and booming economy. In one of the most well-blocked scenes I’ve ever seen, Maria works as a translator for a German businessman who speaks no English (Ivan Desny as Karl Oswald), his partner who speaks a little English, and an English-speaking businessman (who knows no German) that the Germans are working on a deal with. The two most linguistically limited men move the least controlled, pacing with a nervous aimlessness as they try to negotiate a fabric deal. The German who knows some English moves stays close to his German partner and never moves with confidence. Maria, who at least theoretically holds the power in the situation, moves freely between the English man and the Germans; she’s usually somewhere near the center of the frame. As she reinterprets the English to Oswald, she alters it in a way that, although dishonest, will ensure greater profit for both sides. When the other German mistranslates “tired” as the German word for “sleepy,” Maria corrects him and moves closer to both the camera and the Englishman, blocking out her German co-worker. The expert blocking of the four aesthetically reproduces this translational power. “Now you know what my work is worth to you,” Maria says later to her superior about the episode. “That’s how much I want, not a penny more.”
It’s not the only expertly blocked scene, either. In addition to his otherworldly compositional skills (a perfect artistic companion with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would go on to work with Martin Scorsese after Maria Braun), Fassbinder consistently showed detailed ambition and a dramatic obsession in his blocking. He dedicates the film to Peter Zadek, a famous German theatre director, and Fassbinder started his own directorial career in theatre too—where blocking requires clear and purposeful direction for maximum legibility (and interestingness). The scene where Hermann comes home and walks in on Maria and Bill is another scene characterized by what must be perfect blocking. Seeing the two intimate and scandalously flirtatious together, Hermann hits Maria. Bill, with care and attention, lowers to the floor and holds Maria as Hermann moves to the other side of the room. Negative space separates Bill and Maria from Hermann before the still naked Bill (not all that isolated from his duty as an American soldier) decides to act in defense of his German lover. He moves toward Hermann, now with both men facing each other as Maria watches from the ground on Bill’s rear side. The men’s stale “fight” slows and Maria stands up, grabs a wine bottle, and, without Bill ever seeing because his back is trustingly turned to her, she closes the negative distance and strikes him on the head. Bill falls and the married couple remain standing. Even describing it now, I’m struck with the genius of the scene.
Maria’s actions as a lover do not make sense unless read through the political glasses offered by the Hitler visual overture and the slow passage of time through the early post-war years: a personalization of national problems. As the great Criterion Collection commentary track with Ballhaus and Wim Wenders observes, radio-audio of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the evolution of his government’s stance of the rearmament of West Germany marks the passage of time in the film. Originally opposed to rearmament, in the film’s incorruptible final scene, composed of long takes in Maria’s home with Hermann, Adenauer changes his policy position just a few minutes before audio of the BRD’s 1954 World Cup victory over Hungary. The football victory plays simultaneously with the film’s tragic but telegraphed conclusion, the death of its protagonist in an ambiguous, possibly suicidal, act. (I’m not sure this can be called a spoiler, because any attentive viewer worth their salt could easily discern the only possible conclusion for The Marriage of Maria Braun within the first thirty minutes of its runtime.)
If the Hitler image is an overture, the images of the BRD chancellors through the present at the time of the film’s release are its coda. Only one chancellor is conspicuously absent: Willy Brandt (1969-1974). According to the Criterion commentary, Fassbinder thought he uniquely “encouraged [the] self questioning” of the Nazi past required for Germany democracy to move forward. The other chancellors—and German society more broadly—were more like Maria: so focused on the future that they never adequately reckoned with their shared national past, a task that’s likely impossible. How can one move forward without first looking back? How could the German people?
But sometimes that past lingers regardless, in ways that one can’t shake and kills dreams anyway.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screens on 35mm Thursday, 9/21, 7:00pm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: Big Screen Classics