The burden of survival weighs on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun. Just a day and a half after her wedding, the titular character’s husband returns to the front, only to be reported dead. How will Maria survive? Echoing the heroines of Hollywood’s famed women’s pictures, Maria uses her sex appeal to navigate a world that straddles the line between past and future. The shadows of Germany’s involvement in the war casting so much of her life in darkness, with the light of the future tainted with uncertainty.
The present acts as a void, a nothingness that Maria must overcome. Her life during the post-war period being a reflection of reality rather than something tangible, she takes up a performance in order to pass the time. Like an old Hollywood star, Maria becomes hyperreal — an idealized version of womanhood. Channeling Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford, she always knows just what to say, and her lingering gaze is so alluring that it could only be calculated. Maria, star of this film, becomes the star of her life as she fully embraces performance waiting for her life to reprise. But Fassbinder’s film does not have the same safety nets as Hollywood cinema. The real world rears its ugly head as people act irrationally, and moral goodness does not promise a happy ending; the rubble of war far starker and immediate than any of its heroism.
Feminine identity onscreen has always been fluid. Unlike men who tend to be admired for having fixed ideals, women are often in flux. Whether in full persona swap or in performance, compelling female characters are often emblematic of a mass rather than an individual. When Maria Braun echoes Joan Crawford or Louise Brooks, it transcends mimicry: Maria Braun literally becomes a part of the stars who inspired her. Paradoxically, the more fragmented Maria becomes, the more complete she is, as she finds strength and resolve in the borrowed experiences of other women.
Maria, like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, loses herself in anticipation. While her life brims with larger than life passions, she yearns for an impossible romance — and more dramatically than Scarlett — with a man she believes is long dead. As Fassbinder crafts one of the most compelling and sexy heroines to ever grace the screen, she feels unfulfilled, awash in the disappointment that her life did not go according to plan. As the film goes on, she becomes hardened, but rather than being tragic, we revel in her self-possession. Maria Braun metamorphosizes from a young woman trying to survive into a woman who controls her own destiny. And like Scarlett, once she comes to accept that her life might be more fantastic than she could have ever dreamed, life throws her a gift and her husband returns.
In the final sequence where man and wife are reunited, the camera wanders restlessly. In their first meeting, Maria Braun’s lipstick is smeared on her face as they both wear different cuts of the same grey flannel suit. The scene shifts, as he watches football as she dances around the house in her underwear, rushing to get ready. Absolutely indifferent, the man can’t seem to find enthusiasm for his beautiful wife. As excitement jumps from Maria’s fingertips, it starts to shift towards anxiety. Not only does her new life have little room for a husband, it has little room for a husband like him. She keeps changing outfits, trying on one identity after the other, hoping one fits. Maria wants nothing more than to fall back into her pre-war life, but presented with that opportunity, she sees that path leads towards death. Fassbinder’s radical love for self-destruction has likely never been more celebratory than here, as Maria’s lights her whole world on fire. This time, there are no survivors.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.