Wednesday, 7 June 2017

1,001 Films: "The Marriage of Maria Braun/Die Ehe der Maria Braun" (1979)

Heck of an opening, for what proves a hell of a way to blow all our expectations of period drama sky high: a bombshell falling on a WW2 wedding party before the credits have even had chance to roll, sending the assembled guests scrambling for both the marriage certificate and the witness who might still be standing to sign it. There is a sense, after all the fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants provocations ground out earlier in the 1970s, that The Marriage of Maria Braun was what Fassbinder was building towards: an explosive confrontation with his country's past, taken up at greater length over the years that followed in the gruelling, knockdown-dragout slugfest that was this director's Berlin Alexanderplatz. (The director had never appeared more like a bullish pub drunk, sleeves rolled up, entirely unable to leave this conflict alone.)

Fassbinder frames this particular scuffle as a woman's picture: composed in widescreen, with United Artists money, and very much after the manner of the studio system in its increased scale and scope. After that opening bombshell, you can feel the drama opening up, location by location, around Hanna Schygulla's Maria, war widow-in-waiting, wedded for mere minutes before her man is shipped off to the front to count among the missing-presumed-dead. Forced to sell off her possessions to support herself in the meantime, she finds some kind of relief in becoming an unapologetic social climber, taking up first with an African-American GI (shades of Fear Eats the Soul here), then an industrialist, in effect trading her body for security while her relationship with her betrothed grows ever more complicated. 

What makes Fassbinder such an effective war poet is his near-total absence of sentimentality or illusion. Possibly as all this self-serving behaviour was in some way recognisable, he both spies and understands the cruelties, deprivations and consolations of this moment: the cadets diving on fag-ends tossed aside by their superiors, the husbands and wives seeking solace in taking up with others, and even sometimes the enemy. Again, the results risk being dismissed as dour or punishing - and I will maintain that Fassbinder's interiors are almost always theatrical where Godard's are cinematic, although the cramped, damp spaces these characters pass through are obviously intentionally circumscribed, some mildewy measure of the times. (And again, a taste of things to come on Alexanderplatz.)

For all that, this director is still eminently capable of focusing viewer sympathies. He drags complex, accomplished work out of Schygulla as an apparently sensible, no-nonsense embodiment of a very modern set of values: Maria's pragmatism is reduced, over the film, to that steely-toxic cynicism commonly associated with capitalism, and an idea of relationships as no more than de facto dealmaking. And her upward mobility allows Fassbinder to scrutinise the various strata of German society on either side of WW2: the film has the look of an epic undertaken by someone with purpose and a statement of grievance to make. It heads towards a furious debunking of the so-called Miracle of Bern as so much fairytale, removed from the desperate, sordid reality of most Germans; from now on, as Fassbinder has it, people would be regarded as expendable capital. It is, finally, the tearjerker that framing suggests, but - and this is not untypical of the perversity involved - hard as fucking nails with it.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow. 

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