Fassbinder had long dreamed of a “German Hollywood film.” He sought not only success with the audience, but also professionalism. The auteur film in its purest form is an attempt to abolish the division of labor: the filmmaker represents in his own person the director, the scriptwriter, and the producer. Yet no one can be perfect in all areas, as Fassbinder well understood, and the films of Douglas Sirk made him conscious of the fact that a director can retain his own personal signature even in a regulated studio system. He was looking for a writer who could turn his material into a perfect screenplay and nevertheless deliver the basis for a Fassbinder film.
The dream bubble of working in a collective, the utopia of the antiteater factory, had long since burst. He still had the “family” around him: people who had been working with him for years. They knew what he wanted, and he knew how to make best use of them. But there were limitations to his ability to realize his plans with his clique alone. He tried to find professional workers who had not yet fallen into a routine and who craved to press forward into new territory—people whom he could entrust with tasks that were challenging to them.
“In 1978 Fassbinder was lucky enough to find a pair of screenwriters, Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich,” wrote Richard Corliss in Time magazine. “The result of this collaboration was a trilogy—Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss—that blended movie melodramas with acerbic sociology and revealed the curse behind the country’s ‘economic miracle.’” In the press booklet for The Marriage of Maria Braun, Märthesheimer supplies us with information about how he came to his new role as screenwriter: “It all began when Fassbinder told me the plot of this story and wanted to know whether I thought it was exciting. Then he gave me a gushing, voluminous, schmaltzy manuscript to read that somebody in Hamburg had apparently written down.” [Editor’s note: In 2001, a twelve-page treatment, handwritten by Fassbinder, entitled “The Men of Maria Braun,” was found. This document was originally given to Romy Schneider and was the basis for the screenplay.]
Klaus-Dieter Lang was the man’s name, and he was not the only one to have tried his hand at the story on Fassbinder’s behalf: Kurt Raab, Fassbinder’s longtime collaborator, now cast out, was the author of a first draft of the script. Both Lang and Raab had received payment for their drafts from the producer, but had not delivered anything he could use. Fassbinder himself didn’t have the time—he never had any time, and at the moment, he was occupied with the screenplay for Berlin Alexanderplatz—and there was no one in the Fassbinder “family” he thought capable of doing the project. On the other hand, with his last film, Despair, he had worked with a writer outside of his group for the first time, Tom Stoppard, and he was by no means entirely satisfied with the experiment. He had known Märthesheimer for a few years, trusted him, and respected him. He possessed just the right balance between familiarity and distance, professionalism (the script adviser knew how a film had to be told) and unspent freshness (Märthesheimer had never written a screenplay by himself). He was pleased to take on the task, but he wasn’t naive. He was conscious of the role he was to play, as he wrote in the press booklet: “Rainer is surrounded by people who are dependent on him and who have a completely uncritical attitude toward him. And when any new person comes to him, he makes sure that they lose their ability to be critical; otherwise they would be crushed, punished. He does that with me, too, but I am still independent.”
Märthesheimer held a diploma in sociology. He had studied with Adorno in Frankfurt, been active in the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), and for a time had been editor-in-chief of the journal Neue Kritik. Before he began working in the television department of the West German broadcaster WDR, he had worked for the board of the metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. As television producer and script adviser, he had been responsible in the seventies for such social-critical films as Why Is Mrs. B. Happy? (Warum ist Frau B. Glücklich?, 1968) by Erika Runge, Smog (1973) by Wolfgang Petersen, and Lina Braake (1974) by Bernhard Sinkel, as well as television productions that moved the nation such as The Million Game (Das Millionenspiel) or the Ekel Alfred series, written by Wolfgang Menge. And he handled almost all of the Fassbinder films. He had developed the mini-series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, and the concept was based on his idea. A popular genre, the family series, was used here to bring the reality of the working world to the TV screen. The approach was related to the narrative strategy of The Marriage of Maria Braun: contemporary history, packaged as melodrama. Fassbinder, whose work comprised both stylized art worlds and exhibitionistic confessions, achieved his greatest successes with fairy tales from the realm of social reality. (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf, 1974] is an early example of this kind of film; The Marriage of Maria Braun a late one, though incomparably more subtly written and directed.)
Märthesheimer had been a script doctor and producer for too long to have any illusions about his role as a writer. He knew that a film was generally identified with its director. “The film is his film. The screenplay is not a film, but a screenplay for a film.” Märthesheimer took this subject matter and, in constant discussion with Fröhlich, turned it into a film narrative, gave it a dramatic structure, developed the characters, and furnished them with significant details. A film writer, contrary to general opinion, is not just a craftsman. The brilliantly designed narrative flow that pervades the story of Maria Braun from beginning to end is not the result of mere construction, but required literary creativity. Nevertheless, the screenplay has no life of its own: it is—according to a definition of Pasolini’s—a “structure that wants to be another one”: even as it is being set down in literary form, the ideal screenplay aspires to cinematographic realization. As a writer, Märthesheimer was familiar with the Fassbinder structure: “You write the dialogue fully conscious of the speech melody that you have in your ear from his other films; you move the scenes to the kind of point that ends with a silent, commentating closeup, like he likes to use.” Fassbinder himself could not have written a better Fassbinder screenplay than Peter Märthesheimer.
The final question to the writer in the press booklet was, “How was your collaboration with Fassbinder?” Märthesheimer replied, “There was none at all. Rather, he read the scenario and said, ‘It’s wonderful as it is.’” Fassbinder also took the liberty to change the script while he was shooting, without consulting the screenwriter. The alterations were marginal, however, contrary to what one would assume from the shared credits. Here a scene was shortened or moved to another location, there dialogue was shifted around or a sentence added. The scenic structure of the screenplay remained untouched—except for the ending. In the film, the house is blown up at the end (similar to the way in which everything is blown to bits in the beginning). Maria turns up the gas on the stove, lights a cigarette, and causes the explosion. Accident or act of despair? In the screenplay, it is clear that the catastrophe has been brought on deliberately: after the opening of the will, Maria and Hermann are in the car. She is driving and races with her husband to their deaths. Maria never counted on miracles, and she believed that she could determine her own life. Now she is confronted with the reality of their love. For years before this, her marriage to Hermann had been a beautiful utopia, but now, in the course of a few moments, it is smashed to pieces on the bedrock of shabby relationships.
The shooting of The Marriage of Maria Braun began in January 1978 in Coburg and was completed in Berlin in March. Two months later Fassbinder was to learn that with his previous film, Despair, he had placed his money on the wrong horse. The adaptation of the Nabokov novel, filmed in English with an international cast, was supposed to be his breakthrough. But the response to the artificial movie at the Cannes festival in May 1978 was rather disappointing. Fassbinder reacted immediately. He had an answer print of The Marriage of Maria Braun flown in to Cannes and organized an unofficial late-night screening in a small theater.
The whole caboodle of eminence grises, studio heads, and distributors from the German movie industry showed up for the screening. A witness reported: “The lights went down and the story of Maria Braun flickered across the screen. The air in the packed auditorium was charged with tension. Star critics, TV bosses, and movie moguls perched in their tuxedos and dinner jackets on the stairs for lack of space, and when everything had ended with a bang, a thunderous applause rose up, with shouts and cries of ‘Bravo’––a standing ovation!” Peter Berling also witnessed how the evening continued after the memorable premiere in Cannes: “The entire crowd marched together to the Carlton, built up a fortress of chairs around the celebrated Rainer, put on a show of ‘cordially’ slapping each other on the back—‘Germany is finally back on track in the movie business!’—and whetted their knives clandestinely behind their leather armchairs in order to thrust them into the backs of their rivals.” The haggling for the rights to the film had begun.
Fassbinder wanted to give the distribution rights for The Marriage of Maria Braun, as with all of his films, to Filmverlag der Autoren. At the time, Filmverlag, which had been founded by filmmakers and had been organized as a cooperative, had not yet been ruined by poor management, but there was no doubt that more dynamic distribution companies were available. And so the German distribution rights went to a major company, United Artists. Filmverlag had to be content with the world sales. The American system of test screenings in big industrial cities and in the provinces was used to gather scientifically exact data. The various interwoven narrative strands proved to be extremely effective and led to a richly emotional film experience; only the soundtrack was found to be annoying and to engender defensive reactions from the audience. The study encouraged the distributor to give the film a wide release. The premiere was originally planned for the festival in Taormina, but the producer decided to wait until the Berlin International Film Festival opened in late February 1979. His instincts proved correct. “Seldom has a film festival been opened so magnificently as the twenty-ninth Berlinale,” began the report in the Frankfurter Rundschau. Rave reviews and two Silver Bears, for Hanna Schygulla as best actress and for the team, were the result. A month later the film was released in Germany. A twenty-week run was not unusual, and by October more than four hundred thousand spectators had seen the film. When the Federal Film Prizes were presented, four gold cups and one silver went to the film. (In 1989, Fassbinder was given his last film award posthumously: on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany, the minister of the interior awarded a further film ribbon in gold to The Marriage of Maria Braun.) In 1979 the world sales agency was able to announce that twenty-five contracts had been negotiated. The list of sales abroad covered countries from Algeria to Uruguay, from Canada to Japan. In August 1981 The Marriage of Maria Braun was released in East Germany, the only Fassbinder film to be distributed in that country.
“With The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder has broken out of the ivory tower of the cinephiles,” extolled François Truffaut in Cahiers du cinéma. “Maria Braun Symbolise l’Allemagne,” announced Le Monde. Box-office success in England as well: The Marriage of Maria Braun was the top-running non-English-language film in Great Britain in the 1980 season. In the United States the film opened at the New York Film Festival. “Fassbinder No. 1 Want-to-See,” registered Variety. The critics could hardly contain themselves: “A masterpiece,” raved Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice; “An epic comedy and a romantic ballad,” enthused Vincent Canby in the New York Times. “Hanna Schygulla is an improbable cross between Dietrich and Harlow,” stated David Denby in New York magazine. “She raised screen acting to a new level of sexual knowingness.” Long lines formed at the movie theaters, filling the coffers—after just six weeks the film had brought in $1.3 million. There was an explanation for the exceptional success of a German film in the States, and Anna E. Kuhn expressed it tellingly: “It was indeed a German Hollywood film.”
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958): Ernst Graeber and Elisabeth Kruse have three weeks left in Douglas Sirk’s film, three weeks to live and to love. The soldier on leave from the front, played by John Gavin, will die at the end: “That is clear from the beginning,” commented Fassbinder. “War as a condition and breeding ground for an emotion”—at a different time, under normal circumstances, this would not have been a love at all. Fassbinder: “But I don’t want to have to imagine what would happen to the two of them if John had survived the war.”
The marriage of Maria Braun lasts “half a day and a whole night.” Yet the forced separation only increases the longing. “And a great love is a great feeling, and a great truth,” Maria has no doubt about that. A different truth, which is just as constitutive to the story, is expressed by the bookkeeper, Senkenberg: “Don’t forget: it’s always about money.” Do I give you my life or only my checkbook—that is what the lovers fight about in prison. The marriage––it weaves through the film like a red thread––is a contract.
Goods for goods, that is the simple rule of barter, and these people are thrown back on this primitive stage of economic exchange at zero hour. Whoever has anything barters it—in the family, with the neighbor, on the black market. Cigarettes for a brooch, underpants for kindling wood. The brooch travels on: the dealer at the black market gives Maria a bottle of schnapps and an evening dress for it. Fassbinder took on the role himself, and in the scene pays a minor tribute to himself: the dealer has a valuable edition of Kleist to offer. (Fassbinder admired Kleist “because he succeeded in finding someone who was willing to die with him.”) But on the black market, literature has no value as a bartering object—Maria turns it down: “Books burn too easily, and they don’t keep you warm.”
The dress is an investment: Maria needs it “for business.” It raises her value, because she is selling illusions at an off-limits bar. Feelings are also sold here, and there is a market for love as well, with fine gradations and a clear currency. Maria dolls herself up for the Americans with the support of Betti and her mother, yet it is important to her that she is not working in a brothel. It can be found in the screenplay, but got sacrificed in the film due to length, that Maria takes chocolate and coffee from her black G.I., but not nylon stockings––Bill is her friend, not her lover. There is another dress that can’t be bartered on the black market: “Nobody wants wedding dresses now. Too many brides, too few men.” Maria Braun understands market economy better than the entrepreneur. She understands more about life than the union man. She defines her role rather than has it forced on her. She tries to keep her different identities (as lover, as employee) strictly separate so as not to mix up her dependencies emotionally. Most American film researchers file The Marriage of Maria Braun under the label “sexual politics.” It is a model exercise in how the power structures of the sexes adapt to economic circumstances. The film spans the time from when women cleared away the rubble of the war to the German economic miracle. Maria is a self-confident, emancipated woman who seizes her opportunities in the postwar years and period of reconstruction. Too many brides–– that was a result of the war. For every 100 men there are 160 women, as can be heard in a radio address by Konrad Adenauer cited in the film. Maria Braun takes on a role that would be assigned to a man in different times and circumstances: she builds a house. At the end it is blown up. Conditions have become normal again. In the postwar period Maria played a surrogate role that has become obsolete in the restored society. In reality, Maria, a woman who believes that she is in charge of her own life, has long since become––it is revealed in the contract Oswald makes with Hermann––an object of barter for men.
“It’s not a good time for feelings,” recognizes Maria. Fassbinder plays virtuously on the clavichord of melodrama: “Thus knocks fate at the gate.” The black-market dealer whistles the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, recognized by everybody at the time as the signature tune of the BBC’s German service. The world of cinema and the pop song, of false emotions and kitsch, is ever present. The soundtrack contains the signature of the times: it begins with “La Paloma,” and Grandpa Berger still hums the “Horst-Wessel-Lied,” a Nazi favorite. Betti imitates Zarah Leander with “Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen.” In the American bar Glenn Miller can be heard: “Moonlight Serenade” and a few measures of “In the Mood.” Later the songs of the fifties sound from the radio-phonograph: Rudi Schuricke sings his “The Fishermen of Capri.” The musical dramaturgy goes beyond the scope of naturalism, however: it is a level of commentary in itself. While Vivaldi provides the musical background for the dinner in the elegant restaurant, Caterina Valente warbles “Ganz Paris träumt von der Liebe” (“Love Dreams in Paris”) as Willi talks about his longings during the walk through the bombed-out house. Peer Raben, Fassbinder’s regular composer, has said that the director had a number of unusual suggestions: “Oh, du schöner Westerwald” played on the xylophone was his idea.
The music is only an indication. The melodrama that has been established with all the tricks in the book is then immediately destroyed again by Fassbinder. Irritating camera movements that allow expectations to build but then disappoint them, and above all the obtrusive “background noise” that asserts itself in the foreground, prevent any form of blissful identification with the heroine from occurring. The dialogue is overlaid with political speeches from the radio or the battering of a pneumatic hammer that heralds reconstruction and prosperity. The multilayered sound collage is artfully tied in with the plot, especially in the final sequence. While the testament is being read, Herbert Zimmermann’s commentary on the final game of the 1954 world soccer championship can be heard on the radio. The victory at Wankdorf Stadium in Berne was a national event, the true hour of birth of the Bonn Republic, five years after the official founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. “The shadows of the postwar era,” reads a contemporary press commentary, had now been “overcome.” The radio commentary of the game begins: “. . . shoots, but the terrific kick with his right foot ricochets off one of the defenders.” The dramatic soccer match blends into the endgame in the living room.
At the beginning of the film, we can see a picture of Hitler as it used to hang in all German government offices; in the shower of bombs it bursts into a thousand pieces. In the end there is also an explosion: again a house lies in ruins, and the pictures of the federal chancellors from Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt—the picture of Willy Brandt, whose period in office Fassbinder saw as an interruption in the fatal continuity, is missing—are shown in negative. The voice of the soccer reporter screams out: “It’s all over! It’s all over! Germany is world champion!”