Plaintive, tragic, and wise, The Marriage of Maria Braun is a titanic achievement in the extensive filmmography of provocative German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Setting a peculiar love story against the backdrop of World War II’s final years, the picture says profound things about the damnable cost of pride, the degradation of national identity during times of war, the interpersonal issues that arise whenever women become breadwinners in patriarchal societies, and the mysteries of the female soul. Yet for all the philosophical and sociopolitical weight of the subject matter, The Marriage of Maria Braun unfolds with something that could almost be described as lightness of touch. The leading character is so self-assured and the storytelling is so witty that hints of playful satire sparkle amid the drama.
Things get off to an amazing start with the frenetic opening scene—beautiful young Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries German soldier Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch) while the city around them is shelled with enemy bombs. Soon after this perfect metaphor, Hermann and Maria are separated for the duration of the war, forcing Maria to fend for herself without any sure knowledge of whether her husband will return home or even whether he’s alive. Resourceful, smart, and tough, Maria sees everyone else around her fighting for scraps, so she decides to try for something better. Maria takes a job as a dancehall girl. While working at the dancehall, Maria bewitches a stocky black GI named Bill (George Boyd), who supplies her with imported goods, impregnates her, and offers to marry her. Then, fate being what it is, Hermann returns from a long and soul-crushing incarceration in a Russian POW camp. Plot twist follows plot twist until the story expands to include Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), a wealthy industrialist who hires Maria as a secretary and later assumes an even more important role in her life. Giving away much more would diminish the experience of watching the picture, which is unmistakably arthouse fare but which also has enough pulpy content for a Harold Robbins novel.
While Fassbinder executes The Marriage of Maria Braun with his usual clinical style, guiding actors to underplay scenes, the movie has a more vivacious editing scheme than other Fassbinder ’70s efforts. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who later became Martin Scorsese’s go-to DP for a period of time, captures actions with inventive angles and nimble camera movements, allowing co-editors Fassbinder and Juliane Lorenz to create brisk pacing. The performances are generally strong, with some actors serving as puppets in Fassbinder’s scheme while others incarnate fully realized individuals. Naturally, Schygulla dominates. Enigmatic and luminous, she makes her character’s contradictions believable and fascinating. (As the heroine says to Karl at one point: “I am who I am. Last night I was Maria Braun who wanted to sleep with you. Today I’m Maria Braun who wants to work for you.”)
Screenwriters Pea Frölich and Peter Märthesheimer enrich The Marriage of Maria Braun by including dialogue that succinctly encapsulates themes, although it’s likely Fassbinder had an invisible hand in the writing. In one scene, the idealistic Maria says to a fellow dancehall girl, “A great love is a great truth.” The dancehall girl’s response: “The truth is what you have in your belly when you’re hungry.” In a different scene, Maria delivers one of the finest character-defining lines ever spoken: “It’s not a good time for feelings, but it suits me.” In addition to winning numerous international awards, such as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film, The Marriage of Maria Braun was the first movie in Fassbinder’s so-called “BRD Trilogy,” which continued with Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982).
The Marriage of Maria Braun: RIGHT ON