Of the New German Cinema directors I’m familiar with, Rainer Werner Fassbinder has been the most difficult for me to outright assess. I loved Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, while both In a Year with 13 Moons and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? left me with reservations, though both films have retrospectively grown in stature as I think about them. But Fassbinder still doesn’t quite strike a chord with me in the same way that Wim Wenders did with Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire, nor has he really left me with a true sense of awe in the way that Werner Herzog has with Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Strozek.
The Marriage of Maria Braun may be that film that allows me to access Fassbinder’s remaining filmography with renewed vigor, though. Fassbinder, as he did with Fear Eats the Soul and In a Year with 13 Moons, embraces heightened melodrama to the point that it may almost reach farce. But with Maria Braun, that almost seems to be the point. The film certainly possesses a sense of humor, even if no one on-screen seems to be in on the joke. It’s particularly evident in the opening sequence – Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) are getting married during an air raid. The walls are coming down and witnesses flee. Eventually, the minister makes a break for it. Maria and Hermann won’t have that. They chase after him as more bombs fall. They tackle him down. The minister finishes the ceremony and Maria and Hermann are wed – Hermann’s to go to war tomorrow.
A lot could be read into the significance of their wedding – love’s a battlefield, marriage is a war, etc. Those readings are all rather trite, and well, I subscribe to the notion that the sequence serves as a hilarious (and brilliant) framework to illustrate Maria’s social status and the hurdles she endures for love. It also serves to illustrate the importance that certain traditions have within a society – Maria remains loyal to an individual of whom she has only been with for a day and night. The concept of marriage presents itself with such symbolic resonance that she essentially does anything to maintain its sanctity. It’s only until she receives news that Hermann is dead does she deviate from her vows – and it’s a less a breaking away into deviance, but the desire to once again to enter a marriage.
As the film progresses, you see a hardening in Maria – her resolve and commitment to her husband are tested in such a melodramatic fashion that it becomes perversely entertaining. Albeit, the whole film has this rather trashy vibe to it, but then again, that tends to be the case with a lot of Fassbinder’s films. His films (besides Fear Eats the Soul) aren’t really aesthetically appealing, but it only serves to underscore the rather grimy world that his characters inhabit. And well, when you’re dealing with a post-war Germany, I highly doubt anyone would expect him to dress up the reality of his character’s social context. That’s probably why his films tend to leave a lasting impression – there’s a truth to the melodrama.