The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: March 23rd, 1979 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Actors: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Lowitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, George Byrd




t begins with a bang – with the literal shelling of a civil registry in Germany, 1943, where Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) is marrying Maria (Hanna Schygulla) during World War II. It’s a sharply contrasting introduction, instantly setting a time and a place with a cynical, satirical eye; the combination of war torn, disheveled buildings and a white wedding dress is a clearly witty juxtaposition. From here it becomes distinctly bleaker, with the newlywed trying to sell her gown and various possessions for meager foodstuff. After barely a day, her husband (who she knew a mere three weeks prior) returns to the front; she’s relegated to a soup kitchen, where she commiserates with a nurse who lost her own husband five years earlier.

Postwar, Maria’s situation hasn’t improved, nor has the reconstruction of her battered city. She still carries a cardboard sign around her back, asking if anyone knows of her missing Hermann. She obtains a skimpy black dress to acquire a job at the Moonlight Bar (itself the remains of a school) and must go to a drug-addled doctor for a health certificate. Although she claims she’s not a prostitute, she’s also not above sexually entertaining clients, including the black American soldier Mr. Bill (George Byrd), who she jokes is better than brown (or Braun). When her friend Betti’s (Elisabeth Trissenaar) husband, Willi Klenze (Gottfried John), miraculously returns, he informs Maria that Hermann was killed. She continues seeing Mr. Bill, and eventually becomes pregnant – just as she’s visited by Hermann, who is very much alive.

Bill is accidentally killed, Maria’s child is lost, and Hermann is jailed for the manslaughter. Taking the blame, he’s convinced she’ll survive on the outside more capably than he could. Once again, she must resort to her sexuality to survive, beguiling wealthy French businessman Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny) into becoming his “personal advisor.” At Oswald Textiles, she again wields her singular skills to unorthodoxly negotiate with an American company, as well as Oswald himself.

She becomes amused by her power, charged with the effect she has over malleable, subordinate associates – though she admits she’s regularly fond of her companions. Unwilling to mislead the men she sleeps with, insisting that they interpret relationships solely on a sexual basis, her manipulative nature governs that she always remain in control. Unrelentingly wanting the upper hand, she likens herself to a master of disguises or Mata Hari; staying emotionless and detached concerning her mistress duties, she’s partially deluded into believing her own games of domination. In a particularly significant scene, she surprises herself with genuine tears. But as her interactions escalate, she slowly loses jurisdiction over her various pawns, who prove to be equally proficient in conducting their own investigations into her motives. Her hold on Hermann similarly slips, as his lengthy imprisonment weighs heavily on his disposition; and her confiding to him of her carnal liaisons surely burdens his feelings.

Maria is surprised but not disappointed when she learns that her mother has her own persuasive methods of allurement, mirroring the realization that she’s not the only one suited for cajolery. Maria’s years of coldness have transformed her into a dispassionate woman, but the editing doesn’t let the audience gradually adapt to her change. Instead, during the final act, a single scene (the purchasing of a house) seems to denote her metamorphosis and her perceived inability to enjoy life, further portended inconspicuously by supporting characters. In the end, her perception of love is entirely corrupted, with the man she’s been waiting for practically a stranger, representing merely an ideal. But her realization is cut abruptly short.

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder uses spontaneously blaring music and swift camera pans to highlight key participants, to focus on the revealing of inner thoughts through facial expressions, and to foreshadow shifts in tone. It’s more blatant than effective, demonstrating an unsubtle filmmaking technique. But with a low budget and artistic visions, Fassbinder’s decidedly commercial entry into New German Cinema helped further his successes with foreign audiences. What “The Marriage of Maria Braun” more remarkably exhibits is an exceptional performance by Hanna Schygulla, who adeptly handles a challenging role. And it’s a unique part, showcasing a strong female lead with striking emotional complications, not entirely dissimilar from the uncompromising perseverance of Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie Zawistowski (from “Sophie’s Choice”) three years later.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10