Even though Rainer Werner Fassbinder went on to make several more films and a television mini-series, this historical melodrama from 1979 feels like a foreshadowing of his death at the far-too-young age of 37.
Watching the rags-to-respectability story of its eponymous heroine, we find ourselves rooting for her one minute and against her the next.
Although The Marriage of Maria Braun makes its allegorical intentions clear from the outset, Maria, played by Fassbinder mainstay Hanna Schygulla, can never entirely be reduced to a stereotype.
Because The Marriage of Maria Braun was the director’s most commercially successful film, it has been somewhat marginalised in retrospectives of Fassbinder’s work.
Although diehard fans acknowledge its professionalism, they tend to regard the film as an outlier, out of sync with his typical approach to filmmaking, which prioritised speed over precision.
Make no mistake, though. Just because The Marriage of Maria Braun seems a bit slick on the surface, it is no sell-out.
On the contrary, the film convincingly demonstrates what made Fassbinder one of the greatest directors of the postwar era.
Most impressive is the balance it strikes between savagery and subtlety. If it plays by the rules of mainstream cinematic storytelling, it does so to lure audiences in.
Fassbinder’s early work makes use of a distance borrowed from the postwar avant-garde theatre as if we are witnessing a half-assed rehearsal for a film that will materialise later.
The Marriage of Maria Braun, by contrast, feels more like a finished product.
But the closer we look, the more apparent it becomes that the film is self-reflexive about quality.
Believing herself to be a widow, Maria takes up with Bill, a kindly African-American soldier. They have a nice rapport. She becomes pregnant by him. When her husband Hermann returns belatedly from the war, however, she does not hesitate to choose sides, striking Bill with a blow that kills him.
At the murder trial afterwards, conducted by the occupying American forces, the prosecution accuses Maria of taking advantage of Bill for “chocolate and silk stockings”.
She responds by making a distinction that only works in German.
“Ich habe ihn lieb gehabt,” Maria declares of Bill, indicating a degree of affection — a strong version of “I was very fond of him” — between simple friendship and the true love she only feels for her husband.
With bitter irony, the prosecution remarks that she “has a big heart.”
Even though Maria’s decision to strike Bill is shocking, however, we understand that her superficial heartlessness is the product of the struggle to survive amid the rubble of a nation temporarily reduced to a primitive status.
Like Mouther Courage and Scarlet O’Hara, Maria has learned to prioritise with the clear-headedness of someone who must conserve her limited emotional resources the same way she conserves her material ones.
After Hermann takes responsibility for the murder, making it a crime of passion, she visits him in prison, telling him she will wait for him and that the mixed-race child she expects will be theirs: “We’ll explain it all to him later.”
After presumably getting an abortion, we see Maria on a crowded second-class train car with other impoverished Germans like herself.
When she spies a sign for the first-class car, the proverbial light bulb goes off over her head.
Using a pretext, she makes her way to that almost empty car, gives the conductor enough money to satisfy him, and then sits herself down beside its sole passenger, the wealthy owner of a factory.
This sequence is a perfect example of how Fassbinder manages to comment on the film’s relationship to his oeuvre without resorting to the stylistic experimentation that typically signals self-reflexivity.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is exactly like Maria, coolly calculating a way to get ahead.
In Maria’s subsequent conversation with the factory owner, we perceive her ambivalence about doing what is required for this “promotion”, but also Fassbinder’s as well.
Before sitting down across from him, Maria changes into her best dress to look the part of someone worthy of being considered “first-class”. Clearly taken by her aura, the factory owner asks whether she likes to travel by train, noting that “it gives him time to think”. When we cut back to Maria’s exhausted face, her response clarifies that his perception comes from a place of privilege.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do the whole time,” she tells him, drawing a distinction between the luxury of having time to think in peace and the necessity of doing so anyway, when conditions make things more difficult.
Given the time and money to make a film the proper way, Fassbinder followed through. Yet he refused to make the mistake that so many promising directors do under such circumstances. He didn’t forget the struggle to achieve this luxury.
Instead of going soft, he went hard.
A drunken American soldier, also African-American, stumbles into the car and lewdly addresses Maria.
The factory owner, who doesn’t speak English, attempts to ward him off. But it’s Maria who gets control of the situation.
“To answer your question,” she tells him – smiling, with her head tilted sideways and her eyes closed — “I’m really the best you could ever be fucked by, although I doubt you will ever get the chance after I’ve kicked you in your bloody old prick, that your bloody old balls will just drop off.”
Then, standing up, Maria tells the soldier, “And now, sir, you’d better fuck off immediately. Otherwise, I’d be forced to get you, bloody old son of a bitch, in jail.” This leads him to salute her with an “Aye, aye, sir” before leaving the train car.
Maria sits back down on the opposite side of the car and once again closes her eyes, her head now tilted in the opposite direction. Bemused, the factory owner asks her what she said to get rid of the soldier.
“I said you were Karl Oswald, of textile fame, like to travel, and that you like to use the time to think.”
Whether the factory owner believes her or not, he is so impressed that he decides to hire Maria on the spot because he needs someone to deal with his American customers.
Although this lighthearted sequence starkly contrasts with the serious events that precede it, it also helps us to understand them better.
Even though Maria is always looking to improve her situation, she doesn’t lose the street smarts she developed when things were dire. And neither does Fassbinder.
They might dress up, but underneath their finery, they remain the same calculating brutes.
This is what makes The Marriage of Maria Braun such a compelling allegory for postwar Germany.
Although the Bundesrepublik’s Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s made Germans want to forget the deprivation of the immediate postwar years, that time of struggle left an indelible mark.
Fassbinder makes it easy to perceive the film as an allegory, culminating in the shocking ending when a radio broadcast of Germany’s shocking upset of Hungary in the World Cup serves as an ironic soundtrack.
This victory was interpreted as a fresh start for Germany. But the past was not so easily dispensed with.
Although this lesson pertains to the legacy of the Third Reich, it would be a mistake to collapse the distinction between that time and the immediate postwar era in which Maria’s story unfolds.
As someone born several weeks after the war’s conclusion, Fassbinder did not have direct experience of the Nazi era.
The historical burden borne by all Germans affected him, of course. But, the misfortunes he experienced directly, such as being separated from his parents as a baby, had a more significant impact on him.
Fassbinder’s story corresponds with the second half of Gone with the Wind, after the famous scene showing the burning of Atlanta.
If it makes sense for Maria, like Scarlet O’Hara, to be punished by the narrative for what happened before the war, the same cannot be said of Fassbinder.
Like other Germans of his generation – and like Scarlet’s daughter – he paid the price for someone else’s mistakes.
This explains the resentment discernible in so many of Fassbinder’s films, which fueled his productivity and self-destructive pursuits in equal measure.
Ultimately, though this quality makes his legacy more politically ambiguous, it also makes his work more pertinent to today’s Germany than the self-righteousness exhibited by other artists of his generation.
For Fassbinder, coming to terms with the past didn’t just mean coping with the legacy of the Third Reich, but also the ways in which trying to do so deformed those Germans who did not experience it directly.
Photograph courtesy of Craig Duffy. Published under a Creative Commons license.