Warning: This write up gives away the plot of the film.
Now I was raised by Holocaust Survivors, and our generation was pretty much taught a simple equation: German Soldier = bad. So if any movie made me cry because of the fate of a young woman who loses her husband because he's fighting for Adolf:Hitler on the Eastern Front - the wife of a Nazi no less, you understand it has to be exceptionally good. I'm not inclined to emotional sympathy towards the wives of Nazis, however brutally widowed, you see.
Well, Rainer Werner Fassbinder did it. I was upset at myself for crying, (I was thinking, I hope my ancestors can't see this...) but, I did it. The Marriage of Maria Braun, one of Fassbinder's greatest films, broke me down.
The story is simple, as old as war. A young lady is married right before her husband is sent to the front. Believing he is dead, she falls in love with another. He is of course, not dead, and returns, and the two of them discover that nothing can ever be the same.
In this case, Maria Braun, the heroine of the film, is so desperate and lonely after her husband disappears that she wanders the streets of her bombed out city, wearing a placard: Have you seen Hermann Braun?. Finally, she gives in to reality, and becomes a companion girl at a bar catering to American G.I.'s. There, she falls in love with a gentle Southern black soldier, who treats her with kindness and tenderness. On the night a friend from her husband's unit tells her about her husband's death, she goes to her new lover and simply tells him, as a slow waltz begins to play in the dirty, makeshift bar, "My husband is dead". As the music plays, they dance. I believe that was the scene that elicited tears. Go ahead, you try to watch it and not cry
Of course, Braun's husband is alive, and returns when his wife is making love to the solider. Insane with grief, he begins ripping up the furniture. Maria Braun then casually kills him, smashing a bottle accross the back of is head.
In the ensuing trial, her husband takes the rap - a former Wehrmacht soldier convicted of killing a G.I. is a big deal, even if it is a crime of passion, and is sent away. His wife, deeply embittered, sets out to acquire riches, all in order to make a perfect, warm house for her husband on the day he is released.
Post war Germany is the right time and place for a woman like Braun - she is ruthless, determined, and willing to do anything to rise in society during the boom period. Throughout the film, there are brief political references that are very interesting to historians of post war germany, but as a political allegory the film is inaccesible to most non-German viewers. Rather, we watch Braun defeat unimaginably hostile circumstances, all for her husband who rots in jail, losing a bit of her soul every time she makes some new advancement.
Stories like this never end happily, and of course, when Braun's husband is finally released, there is no happy life for the couple.
Fassbinder became famous because of this film. It was read as a critique of post war Germany, the money society, capitalism, you name it. The directorial style is crisp - at times you almost get the feeling you are watching a stage play. There are very few bells and whistles. On the other hand, the characters, for all their toughness and brutality are also filled with love and passion. Braun, who is willing to brutally kill a man she loves in order to prevent the humiliation of a man she loves more, who sleeps her way into the corporate board-rooms of the Adenauer period, and yet remains, in her heart faithful to her husband, is drawn perfectly as a character. She is sexy, greedy and murderous. She is also one of the most sympathetic characters you will ever see on screen.
In the US, most people haven't seen a Fassbinder film, but they should. This is the perfect introduction to his work.