Maria Braun and the Formulation of a Nation
Essay by Chili Shi '22 for German Cinema Course
“Love is a great feeling, and a feeling is a great truth,” says Maria Braun at the Allied Bar when a female coworker belittles her “mere feeling” towards her husband, Hermann Braun, whom they all believe to be dead. The war had called him away from Maria, who, despite signing their marriage contract under a flurry of crumbling buildings and smoke, patrolled the town’s incoming trains with her search board — “Do you know Hermann Braun?” — faithfully. It won’t be the only time Hermann leaves her, disappearing two more times within the length of the film (once to jail and once to Canada in search of his own “masculine personhood”) to leave Maria to navigate “the challenges and opportunities afforded by the new [post-war German] society” (207, Cooke) on her own, each time falling further into psychological duress and disillusionment. Maria eventually ditches the search board and scours for a job at the local gymnasium-turned-bar, which caters solely to Allied soldiers. She begins a string of affairs with foreigners, whether the jaunty American, Bill, or the rich German-speaking Frenchman, Dr. Oswald. Each affair helps her expand on her own heterosexual power and material wealth, though she murders Bill in the end and grows increasingly cold and cruel towards Oswald (who passes, suddenly, from “heart failure”). Though Maria frequently commits sexual infidelity in her marriage, she expresses a singular, focused devotion on building an “illusory utopian future” (207, Cooke) with Hermann, so much so that one may interpret the disappeared Hermann as a symbol of defeated Germany, and Maria’s persistent dedication to rebuilding their marriage as an allegory of reconstructing the fractured post-war German national identity. In fact, it is through the parallel defeat of Allied masculine characters (Bill and Dr. Karl Oswald) and the hopeful heterosexual coupling of Maria and Hermann that an allegorical German sense of national and patriarchal “unification” could be felt. However, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the most recognizable directors associated with New German Cinema, in crafting Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1978), denies the viewer the cinematic consummation of Maria and Hermann, choosing to further physically and psychologically isolate Maria in tightly-packed, materially lavish, petty bourgeois mise-en-scènes (which tragically erupts in a final explosion, mirroring the opening wedding explosion), communicating Fassbinder’s fundamental ambivalence towards a coherent post-war German national identity.
Maria’s affair with the American soldier, Bill, is less an inciting event within the film than an inevitable continuation of the heavily-felt American presence in post-war Germany. An American soldier leers at her in an early scene to which she surprises everyone by marching over and responding in English. He gifts her two very valuable packs of cigarettes. Later, while walking through rubble, a recurring radio is heard reporting an American politician’s idea to disband the German nation and reduce it to farmland for the Allied nations. Finally, when Maria’s friend does her hair in a teased coiffure and applies rouge to her face, Maria remarks at her reflection that she looks like a poodle. She adds, “Americans love poodles...” This not-so-subtle reference to post-World War II German-American relations equates the made up Maria to a breed of fluffy dogs that live as friendly servants. Germany has been reduced to the status of a dog, a piece of land, a territory of conquest for the Allied forces. Maria as an individual, however, shows great promise as a subversive force against American men and their attendant masculinities: she stands up to the soldier leering at her, unlike the German men who dove to the ground in a throng for a single cigarette butt, and she invites the quiet, intimidated Bill to dance at the Allied Bar. Her power is firmly rooted in her status as a sexual, feminine woman. She sleeps with Bill, using him to bring food to her impoverished family and, in a pedagogical scene, learns English from him. “I am black and you are white,” he says, which Maria repeats word for word. They share a laugh at the absurdity of what she — a blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked German woman — has just said. Like a babbling toddler, Maria represents a German national cinema and national psyche naively relearning its place in the global interrelations of nations. Yet Fassbinder’s use of this pedagogical scene strikes the viewer as deeply ironic, self-consciously aware of “the German love-hate relationship with Hollywood” (Hake, 163) and the omnipresence of America in the post-war German national imaginary. In a brief moment of clarity, Maria grasps the English language and corrects herself: “I am white and you are black.” Indeed, Bill’s black skin further serves as an Othered backdrop against which Hermann’s sense of emasculation and betrayal plays out — it is not merely another man he’s caught naked with his wife, but a Black man. Bill’s nude presence on screen incites racist ideologies in order to highlight the enormity of Maria’s betrayal, which the not-dead Hermann slaps her for. Bill then physically subdues Hermann, forcing his body into a theatrically submissive position: Hermann is twice defeated, the symbol of an emasculated post-war Germany whose wife sleeps with an American, the same American he himself is also physically inferior to. Nevertheless, in a final act of devotion to Hermann (and an imagined Germany), Maria breaks a bottle over Bill’s head and kills him instantly. The mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity baby Bill had impregnated her with, as well, miscarries, putting an end to Maria and Bill’s easy internationalist happiness. Fassbinder uses Maria and Bill to complicate the American-touted sense of post-war optimism and internationalism. He suggests that though Germany is in a subdued state of mourning, it is not blind to the greed of American imperialism.
Hermann, of course, takes responsibility for Bill’s murder and is sent to prison. Though Maria and Hermann are initially united in the act of their murder of the Other — killing as a stand-in to the consummation of their marriage — Hermann’s masculine notions of freedom and ability to provide are constricted in prison. Maria, meanwhile, grows sexually and financially stronger on her own: she meets the wealthy Dr. Karl Oswald in the first class cabin of a train and impresses him enough (by putting another American soldier in his place) to finesse a job. She also initiates their affair and warns him: “You are not having an affair with me. I am having an affair with you.” Nonetheless, Maria’s sudden ascension in material wealth creates a plethora of lavish mise-en-scènes that crowd her with the beautiful, stifling objects of petty bourgeois life. Sabine Hake writes that Fassbinder, while resisting “the general trend toward self-reflexive interiority [in the 1970s,]” (166, Hake) instead perfects his use of “theatrical conventions and melodramatic effects; and a deliberately anti-realist use of interiors, objects, and settings.” (166) Indeed, Fassbinder, critiquing the easy rehabilitation of the bourgeois class after the war, uses the lavish surroundings of the bourgeoisie against them: objects become larger-than-life, even “[parodically exuberant],” (209, Cooke) filling the physical environs of the protagonists with beautiful, empty things, suggesting an abundance of material stuff that blinds them to the immaterial essence of their lives — the so-called “truth” that Maria touted so confidently at the Allied Bar. Indeed, the calculative and cunning Maria is now a far throw from the earlier “earthy” Maria. She grows increasingly co-dependent on objects, her disintegrating psyche physically tied to the material world. In a scene of duress and loss of control, Maria is seen obsessively hammering the keys of a typewriter, muttering to herself. As her wealth and material gain and physical made-up-ness increase, her original essence and ability “to see” are lost. She gives herself over to the farcical, the imagined, announcing to Oswald: “You were raised well and I pretend to be.” Even though Maria is able to neutralize the French Oswald in the end, euphemistically causing his “heart failure” and inheriting his entire personal estate, Fassbinder’s commitment to “[painting] a tightly focused and claustrophobic image of German bourgeois. society at the time” (207, Cooke) demands: at what cost?
Maria and Hermann’s coupling must fail. Upon finishing his sentence in prison, Hermann, who feels threatened by Maria’s new-found bourgeois status, disappears “to Canada or Australia'' in order to “become a person again.” The marriage contract between Maria and Hermann, signed under the first bombings of the war, is left unfulfilled until the day Hermann returns upon reclaiming his “masculine power.” It is of note, as well, that Hermann’s post-war absence serves as an opportunity for the defeated, emasculated Germany to be nurtured back to wholeness by a feminine, maternal presence. Once Hermann’s masculinity is rendered complete again, through the symbolic consummation of sexual intercourse with Maria, Germany’s national masculinity would also, hypothetically, be replenished. Yet Maria, rather than evolving into a classically feminine, maternal character, instead begins to embody a powerful, sexual, and, consequently, emasculating force — she is the ice woman, cold and cruel, and, in her words, “possessed by the devil.” Thus, Maria causes a power imbalance in the sexual and visual relationship between her and Hermann. Having killed (whether murderously or inadvertently) Hermann’s opposing, foreign equivalents, the viewer expects Hermann’s masculine and rightful return from abroad to fare differently. Countering such expectations, Hermann and Maria, upon reuniting, embody an unstable and skewed looking relation, with Hermann keeping his back to Maria and viewing her either through reflective surfaces, or with his head tilted down at an angle. Maria, meanwhile, flits about in the bourgeois home, dressing and undressing herself in a frenzy. Maria and Hermann are never able to have sex, or kiss, before they are interrupted by the executer of Oswald’s will arriving from Lyon. Fassbinder frames their inability to communicate, or to see eye-to-eye, in this final scene: Hermann’s “masculinity” is not stable as he cannot face Maria, while Maria is lost in sartorial excess, unsure of what kind of farce is necessary for their reunion. Once portrayed as a devout, mother-and-father couple, Maria and Hermann’s relational essence has now been lost. What remains is fractured, fragile, unstable, culminating in the final scene of their explosive death over the radio commentary of West Germany’s 1954 World Cup victory that led tabloids to announce: “Wir sind wieder wer!” or “We are someone again!” As Paul Cooke writes, Fassbinder’s explosion “symbolically [points] to the emptiness at the heart of Germany’s rapid [...] and [...] hypocritical reinvention of itself as a Western European democratic society.” (208, Cooke)
A befuddling paradox exists in the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: though his FRG trilogy, in reimagining the post-war years through the genre of female melodrama, offers some of the most scathing cinematic critiques of Germany’s national reconstruction after World War II, Fassbinder himself is often construed as the authentic, authorial “chronicler of the nation, the Balzac of West Germany.” (207, Cooke) Some critics go as far as to measure all subsequent films representing “the German nation” against the criteria of Fassbinder’s work, viewing his oeuvre as the echelon of a German ethos expressed in film. Representing the art movement that was New German Cinema, Fassbinder’s films garnered international recognition and success as part of a new, national art cinema, “a form of product differentiation and an aspect of foreign policy that proved [...] successful [...] as part of the cultural mission of [German] federal agencies.” (164, Hake) The idea of the Autorenfilm, which mythologized male authenticity and authorship at its core, saw New German Cinema filmmakers as driving the vehicle of West Germany’s global rebrand as “a modern democracy, a social welfare state, and a liberal middle-class society” (165, Hake) both at home and abroad. It should come as no surprise that “the integrative myth of authorship” (165, Hake) that legitimized Fassbinder and his contemporaries as “great artists and public figures” (165) simultaneously served the mythic nature of building a new, unified sense of “nation.” Thus, Fassbinder’s desire to critique Germany’s “failure to deal substantially with the legacy of National Socialism” (205, Cooke), in legitimating a national art cinema, ironically helped West Germany put forth the appearance of having overcome that legacy. This largely contradicted the formal and thematic interests of Fassbinder’s cinema, as his FRG trilogy especially communicates a fundamental ambivalence about “German-ness” and the ability to ever form a complete post-war German national identity.
The larger elephant in the room is the absence of the Holocaust in a “German national cinema” in the post-war years. Thomas Elsaesser, however, challenges reading this absence as “repression and amnesia” (409, Elsaesser) or “denial and disavowal.” (409) He recognizes that the representation of any Jewish character on screen following the Holocaust would carry a “monstrous” (409, Elsaesser) burden of representation and serve as a fetishized object for Germany’s good conscience. Instead, he theorizes this absence as “parapraxis,” (410, Elsaesser) or “Fehlleistung,” (410) a continuous work of public mourning that performs and re-performs Germany’s failure to ever adequately come to terms with the legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust. And since this legacy of inadequacy is “the locus of several kinds of impossibility,” (410, Elsaesser) a national cinema can, at best, only reiterate this impossibility in ever more alienating and jarring visual forms. Elsaesser himself points to the moments of absurd reversal, such as Maria Braun placing a rose on the hat stand and a clutch in the flower vase, as moments of rupture that displace the accepted fabric of logical reality — he calls this “the right thing at the wrong place, the wrong thing at the right time.” (410, Elsaesser) Paul Cooke also remarks on the alienating quality of Fassbinder’s work, pointing out its frequent “[characterization] as walking a tightrope between Brechtian Verfremdung (‘defamiliarization’) and the [campy exuberance] of [...] Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas.” (209, Cooke) Indeed, not only does Maria’s deteriorating psychological state, coinciding with her ascension as a bourgeois woman, defamiliarize the viewer with accepted narratives of post-war German identity, the ambitious Nouvelle Vague-inspired filmic experimentation of New German Cinema, as well as its deceptively successful reception abroad, further displaces the construction of post-war Germany as a coherent nation. Hence, one could also re-imagine the political paradox that Fassbinder’s oeuvre has been forced into as a site of continuous parapractical “performed failure,” (411, Elsaesser) where the invisible is made visible in a practice of mourning work ad infinitum. Thus, the characterization of Fassbinder’s work as essential German national cinema (despite the ambivalence he expresses about Germany) is itself a form of mis-assigned and misconstrued “German-ness” that re-performs Germany’s failure to see, understand, and reconstruct itself through the public consumption and discourse of Fassbinder’s films. However, one could simultaneously argue that it is Fassbinder’s uncanny ability to put Elsaesser’s “Fehlleistung” into motion — giving the German viewing public a space for mourning work, where the unsaid, the unseen, and the “mis- or para-” (414, Elsaesser) takes up the psychological foreground — that Germany imagines itself in him.
Perhaps the story of Maria Braun serves as a warning to the German viewing public. Just as she loses touch with the essence of her devotion to Hermann (symbolized Germany) as well as her own mental stability, Fassbinder warns his audience of falling prey to the deceptively easy return to bourgeois existence. Yet this warning most likely went unheeded, as the death of Fassbinder in 1982 was seen as the death of radical, leftist cinema and art movements in post-war West Germany, with the 80s and 90s ushering in an era of political conservatism and un-self-conscious genre flicks. Further, Paul Cooke seeks to complicate the easy association of Fassbinder with West Germany, urging viewers to reassess his work through more than a national lens. Though New German Cinema sought to formulate the visual counter-language for a transcendental cinema, its core construction as authentic, myth-building, and male led to its easy co-option by a patriarchal state seeking to promote its national image abroad. Indeed, one may see parallels between the construction of auteurist modes of cinematic authorship and patriarchal modes of national myth. Ultimately, if one is to believe in a coherent “German” identity, what makes Fassbinder’s work truly “German” is his ambivalence towards and hyper-awareness of the downfalls of the collective desire for a united national aesthetic and body-politic.
Bergfelder, Tim, et al. The German Cinema Book. The British Film Institute, 2020.
Hake, Sabine. German National Cinema. Routledge, 2008.