Die Ehe der Maria Braun

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(The Marriage of Maria Braun)

West Germany, 1978

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Production: Albatros Film (M. Fengler), Trio Film, WDR, and Filmerlog Der Autoren (all of West Germany); Fujicolor, 35mm; running time: 120 minutes; length: 10,764 feet. Released 1978, Germany, and 28 February 1979, United States. Filmed in Germany.

Producer: Michael Fengler; screenplay: Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich; dialogue: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; from an idea by Fassbinder; photography: Michael Ballhaus; editors: Juliane Lorenz and Franz Walsch (Fassbinder); sound recordists: Jim Willis and Milan Bor; art directors: Norbert Scherer, Helga Ballhaus, Claus Kottmann, and Georg Borgel; music: Peer Raben; costume designers: Barbara Baum, Susi Reichel, George Kuhn, and Ingeborg Pröller.

Cast: Hanna Schygulla (Maria Braun); Klaus Löwitsch (Hermann Braun); Ivan Desny (Karl Oswald); Gottfried John (Willi Klenze); Gisela Uhlen (Mother); George Byrd (Bill); Elisabeth Trissenaar (Betty Klenze); Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Dealer); Isolde Barth (Vevi); Peter Berling (Bronski); Sonja Neudorfer (Red Cross Nurse); Lieselotte Eder (Frau Ehmke); Volker Spengler (Train Conductor); Michael Ballhaus (Counsel, Anwalf); Günther Kaufmann (American on train); Karl-Heinz von Hassel (Prosecuting counsel).

Awards: Berlin Film Festival, Best Actress (Schygulla) and Best Technical Team, 1979.



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* * *

The importance of The Marriage of Maria Braun, released in Germany in 1978, can be seen on a number of levels. It is the first of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's works to win him popularity not only in his own country but also abroad. Prior to this film, Fassbinder's foreign success was limited to art-house audiences. The Marriage of Maria Braun belongs to the trilogy of films in which Fassbinder examines post-World War II Germany. These films unfold through the stories of three women whose names provide the titles—The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola—and whose stories present a glimpse into the history of the Federal Republic.

Maria Braun also belongs to a special group of Fassbinder films which are indebted in structure to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Fassbinder gave the conventional melodrama, of which Sirk's films are a prime example, new life by infusing it with the social and political concerns of modern Germany. At the same time he foregrounded and laid bare the structures of film melodrama itself. The structure of Maria Braun is so deeply embedded in the content that a study of one inevitably illuminates the other. The fusing of these two elements may account for the popular and also critical success of the film; audiences could easily relate to the emotionally charged story of a woman struggling to survive, while simultaneously, through the same actress in the same film, understand the options faced by a Germany struggling to survive.

Born in 1945, Fassbinder grew up in a country rebuilding itself with American aid during the "economic miracle" of the 1950s. Germany was surfeited with American films during this period, including the melodramas of Sirk. Fassbinder, familiar with these, attempted to discover what made them so successful, and to duplicate that success with his own work.

The intensity of the emotional scenes in Maria's story (for example, her marriage, her search for her husband, her realization that he is dead) is emphasized by lighting, music, and expressive camera angles. All of these elements stretch the limits of the conventional style of film melodrama. Yet they are undercut by the deadpan acting of Hanna Schygulla in the title role, and by the sheer profusion of heartrending situations in which Maria finds herself. The audience is drawn into the emotionally charged moment, then distanced from it and forced to look elsewhere for content. It looks instead to the social and political background to Germany's economic miracle. That history and Maria's story are so closely intertwined that the viewer may hardly notice the shift in attention. The scene, for example, in which Maria announces to her American G.I. lover that her husband is dead, implying that she is now free to go with him, ought to be feverish with emotion, but it is completely cooled by Schygulla's unemotional delivery of the line "Mein Mann ist tot." The scene is heavy with the symbolism of a despondent Germany which, after the war, turned to America. Maria comes to her G.I. lover not out of love but out of need to be cared for and because he is there and willing to give. All the trappings of great emotion are present, but there is no emotion on her face or in her voice. Likewise, Germany follows America out of the same need down the capitalistic road but with no thought or emotion that would imply that it is a true alliance.

Schygulla, with a great deal of class, moves through scene after scene of a devastated Germany. Surrounded by bombed-out buildings and broken walls, she moves through the debris with courage and skill, but no integrity. The camera follows her in long sweeping movements which reflect the aplomb of her transactions; the same way, the rigid frequently off-centered cinematography reflects the starkness of the world around her. Vincent Canby sums up the essence of Schygulla's character when he refers to Maria as a Mother Courage type who wouldn't be caught dead pulling a cart.

The most important characteristic of The Marriage of Maria Braun is its ability to successfully blend the elements of classical melodrama with aspects of modernist theory and contemporary social-political themes. Fassbinder has not only prolonged the life of the melodramatic mode, but has also embedded the sometimes confusing characteristics of an alienating modernism into the romance of the melodrama.

—Gretchen Elsner-Sommer