Fassbinder used to intimidate me, or maybe confuse me — the idea of his oeuvre I have in my head is of a jumble of contradictory bits and pieces. It’s probably something to with his making 40 movies in fifteen years; that’s a body of work, one assumes on some instinctual level, that can’t possibly be coherent.
But my stars, look at this, an absolutely amazing film, fully-realized, resonant, challenging, timeless. He’d still have been thought a genius if he’d made only this one.
Maria Braun’s marriage is an unusual one. She marries Hermann Braun in 1943 when he’s home on leave for two days. He goes back to the front and at the end of the war is missing and presumed dead. Maria remains stubbornly faithful to him, always expecting his return. “Faithful” starts to become complicated when she’s driven by poverty to become a bar girl, and then even more complicated when she takes up with an American serviceman. So far the story could be a Hollywood melodrama; here’s where Fassbinder swerves. Maria’s relationship with Bill, the American soldier, follows neither of the two predictable formulae: She’s neither callously using him for nylons and chocolates nor falling madly in love with him. Instead, the both of them seem simply to enjoy each other, assuming nothing and expecting nothing. He’s middle-aged, a little overweight, and very sweet; she’s playful and frank; they eat and drink and sleep together and don’t make a big fuss about it. I’d like to say that what they have is an adult relationship. And it gets me thinking about how completely rare it is to see one of those represented on the screen. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul features a similar relationship. It might be my favorite thing about Fassbinder, this capacity, which shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, to show how human beings actually conduct themselves in real life. But at the same time the situation here is entirely unreal — this is postwar Germany and the world is completely upside-down for all these characters. The only thing that remains constant, the only compass point, is Maria’s commitment to Hermann, though that commitment does take increasingly strange forms as the story progresses.
I’m not going to say much more about the movements of the plot, which are both surprising and steeped in inevitability as in all the great tragedies. I think it’s just a miraculous movie, the way it does such good work probing the general terrified, voracious, survivalist atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder while also telling a very human stories of these characters. People will compare Maria Braun with Mother Courage (another strong woman who keeps her family’s integrity by inventing new definitions of integrity) and Fassbinder with Brecht. It’s true that Fassbinder uses some Brechtian techniques to alienate us from the emotional lives of the characters (famously, during emotionally volatile scenes in this movie (and in others of Fassbinder’s), the radio loudly and relentlessly broadcasts a football match in the sonic foreground of the scene), but Fassbinder’s characters do not seem like types to me. Maria, the men she loves, the men who love her, all seem whole and real, and the sociological commentary, though always incisive and fascinating, always seems secondary to me. I don’t think Fassbinder would have been pleased to hear that, but to me it’s a mark of his genius.
Next up: The second and third parts of what’s often called the BRD Trilogy. I think I’ll need to wait a few days before I watch Veronika Voss, though — I want to think about Maria a little longer.