classic film

Five-star cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘The Marriage of Maria Braun’

This unsparing post-mortem of the German economic miracle of the 1950s has a stunning central performance by Hanna Schygulla.

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.

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‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.’

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.

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The trailer of ‘The Marriage of Maria Braun’.

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.

Maria and her first lover, Bill.
Maria and her first lover, Bill.

“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.

Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch).
Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch).

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.


Maria with her friend Betti (Elisabeth Trisenaar).
Maria with her friend Betti (Elisabeth Trisenaar).

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.

Maria in her new home.
Maria in her new home.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.