It’s hard to recommend a single film from a widely respected director’s filmography, especially when the director in question is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German multi-hyphenated talent died in 1982 of a heart attack at the age of 37 after stacking up a staggering body of work, including 40 movies, 24 plays, and two television film series. Fassbinder died from a possible drug overdose, but as one of his long-time collaborators says in the 2015 documentary Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands, the most likely culprit was overwork.
Fassbinder was regarded as a one-man German New Wave from 1969 onward, as he rolled out one project after another that tirelessly slammed received wisdom about marriage, family, sexuality, politics and the capitalist economy. The bisexual director’s credits include writing, directing, acting, producing, camerawork, and editing. His prolific oeuvre, performed by a recurring set of fabulous actors, is characterised by searing honesty, biting critique and cruel humour that still retain their ability to shock. Katzelmacher (1969) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) examine German xenophobia through the characters of a Greek and an Arab immigrant, respectively. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) and Martha (1974) coldly dissect the power relations between women and women and men and women. Margit Carstensen, a part of Fassbinder’s repertory, metes out as well as endures all manner of humiliation and dominance in these films. Chinese Roulette (1976) launches a blistering attack on the bourgeois family over the shoulders of a sadistic crippled young girl who forces her parents and their lovers to confess to their darkest secrets.
The scrappy and functional aesthetic of Fassbinder’s earlier films had been refined by the time he made the BRD trilogy, an illusion-free and complex appraisal of the post-WWII German economic miracle that is delivered through the stories of three practical and damaged women. Lola (1981) is a cynical and satirical update of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), while the glittering black-and-white Veronika Voss (1982) examines the sinking fortunes of a drug-addled former movie star.
The trilogy kicks off with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), starring the inimitable Hanna Schygulla. One of Fassbinder’s regular collaborators until she fell out with him over payment issues, Schygulla had previously lit up such films as Katzelmacher, in which she is one of a group of listless friends in Munich that is shaken by the appearance of a Greek immigrant (played by Fassbinder). Among Schygulla’s best-known films with Fassbinder is Effie Briest (1974), a period adaptation of Theodor Fontane’s novel of the same name. Schygulla’s ability to evoke enigma, intelligence and allure carries over to The Marriage of Maria Braun, a movie that is book-ended by explosions and is all about the carnage in between.
Maria Braun’s marriage is short-lived. The movie, written by Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich, opens in 1943. Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) is called away to the front a day and a half after his wedding and is later presumed dead. Maria, who lives with her widowed mother and grandfather, regularly haunts the railway station and peers at every passing uniform in the hope that it will belong to Hermann, but pragmatism soon takes over. “I prefer to make miracles rather than wait for them,” she says, and proceeds to take the first of several clear-eyed and hard-nosed decisions in order to survive in a new economy that rewards amoral ambition over scruples. It initially involves working in a bar and taking on Bill (George Byrd), a black American soldier, as her lover.
“This is no time for feelings,” Maria correctly notes as she moves on to her next catch, the businessman Oswald (Ivan Desny) who gives Maria the wealth, respectability and jump up the social ladder she craves. Hermann, who returns and is later jailed for a crime that Maria commits, remains her lodestar in times of doubt. Maria visits him in prison even as she comes to represent the German economic miracle as Fassbinder sees it. “I am a master of disguises; a tool of capitalism by day and an agent of the working class by the night,” she tells the union worker husband of her childhood friend. The movie is steered by Maria, but several other characters make their mark, including the stoic Hermann, Oswald, whose ardour for Hanna is rewarded with a Fassbinderian tough love, and Senkenberg (Hark Bohm), Oswald’s accountant, who comes to admire Maria’s steeliness.
Fassbinder’s emphasis on the price paid by individuals in the realisation of Germany’s remarkable reconstruction after the horrors of the second world war is a leitmotif in many of his works. In Maria Braun, the costs of the erasure of a Nazi-influenced past and the blinkered embrace of materialistic achievement are best relayed in the extended climax. The mystery of the movie’s ending has thrown up endless debates, but there is no doubt over Maria’s quest to control her destiny. Right from when she abandons the placards bearing her husband’s name and decides to pimp herself in an attempt to get ahead, Maria has made her choice. “I am the Mata Hari of the economic miracle,” she says, and Schygulla’s ultimately elusive portrayal of her character’s emotional arc is a career best for the actress.
Maria Braun is counted as one of Fassbinder’s most West-friendly movies. It was made during the years when the German enfant terrible had begun to command the attention and respect of American critics and audiences. Fassbinder’s credits at the time include the English language films Despair (1978), based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel, and Querelle (1982), a hothouse exploration of gay love based on a Jean Genet story. Maria Braun also marked Fassbinder’s penultimate collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who shot several Fassbinder films before migrating to Hollywood, where he embarked on a long and fruitful collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Ballhaus’s contributions to Fassbinder’s cinema include the memorable abstract framing of Chinese Roulette, the revolving camerawork of Martha, and the gorgeous close-ups and colours of Maria Braun.
Fassbinder left behind such a vast body of work that it is possible to enter his world at any point between 1969 and 1982. The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) is a spare and brittle film about a fruit seller’s slide into depression, while Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) is a savage autobiographical account of a previous filmmaking misadventure. For Fassbinder virgins, the BRD trilogy is a good place to begin. It represents the peak of his mastery and demonstrates his pet themes with elegance, empathy and an honesty that cuts to the bone.