Set in a country which has seen its worst defeat following its unconditional surrender at the close of the Second World War, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is narrative of a young woman who tries to recover from war and who eventually becomes one of the apex predators in the business food chain before meeting her rather sad and sudden end death. The Marriage of Maria Braun is first in Rainier Werner Fazzbinder’s BRD Trilogy, together with Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982), which centers primarily on women living in the years following Germany’s defeat. The film was a commercial success in Germany. It was also received numerous awards and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. The film was considered one of Fazzbinder’s more successful works in his short but brilliant movie career.
The Marriage of Maria Braun was released only three years before Fassbinder’s death from complications arising from substance abuse.
An air raid demolishes what little is left in a German town as Maria and Hermann Braun exchange marriage vows. After a night together, Hermann is sent again to the front where he becomes a Russian prisoner of war. During his husband’s absence, Maria works as a hostess in a bar patronized by American soldiers. She then meets Bill, a Black American G.I. with whom she has an affair and a child after being told that her husband was killed in the war. Her husband then returns home and sees the two in an intimate moment. A scuffle ensues with Bill appearing to gain the upper hand before being killed by Maria. In the trial that followed, Hermann takes the blame for Bill’s death and is sentenced to prison. Maria then starts working for Oswald, a wealthy owner of a textile company whom she met on a train, as his personal assistant. She becomes very wealthy, allowing herself to buy her own house. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Maria, Oswald visits Hermann in prison and strikes a deal with him with Oswald leaving everything to the two Brauns following that Hermann moves to Canada after his release. Herman complies and lives in Canada after his release, sending a rose each month to Maria to remind her that he loves her still. Oswald eventually dies and Hermann returns home to Maria. Oswald’s will is executed and the details of the arrangement between the two men are made known to Maria. She subsequently lights a cigarette and dies.
The film is primarily seen as an allegory for Germany, the character of Maria is oftentimes likened to her country as it tried to rebuild following the destruction caused by the recently concluded war. Left with no other choice but to move forward, Maria did everything so as to provide for herself. Her setbacks did not at all hinder her from trying to achieve what she wanted for her and for her husband, whether it be a pair nylon stockings, heaps of money, or even a house. She efficiently used her “resources” to achieve her goals, even at the cost of her moral values. She found herself a provider following the supposed death of Hermann, and she landed herself a top position in Oswald’s company. In a way, the same can be said for Germany after the war as it had no time to reconcile with herself all the horrors that the war caused and instead used all her available resources to rebuild and recover. At one point even accepting American aid in the US Marshall Plan, like Maria allowing Bill to provide of her needs. It is however worthy to point out that although Maria was “fond” of Bill, she was adamant in her decision to marry her as she insists that she is already married. The same can also be observed when Oswald attempted to ask for her hand in marriage. This can be attributed to the fact that Germany accepted aid from the Allies did not necessarily mean that they embraced their brand willingly and would illustrate another example of their brand of pragmatism.
Marriage and love figure prominently in the film as one of the motivations of Maria that would justify her actions. By signing the contract in the middle of a bombing raid with her husband, Maria was deemed to commit herself and everything to Hermann, a man who was almost entirely absent in Maria’s life. Maria then lives her life all for this marriage. In the end however, it all goes haywire as Maria and Hermann were strangers again when they met again after Oswald’s death. Whether it was love or something else that made Maria so dedicated to Hermann is another story, but it cannot be denied that it was the one thing that made Oswald leave everything to Maria as was explicitly stated in his will. He also claims that a one’s great love recognizes another as Hermann agreed to their arrangement and left the country the moment he was released. Maria was also initially enchanted with love was seen in her dialogue with another hostess in a bar before he met Bill.
The movie’s use of sound was, in a way, irritating as one had to try and shut off, say, the radio so as to clearly understand the dialogue. This, however, show us how people reacted to news back then. Everyone was busy fixing their lives that they had no interest in listening to what’s going on outside their private lives. Even Adenauer’s speeches about Germany’s rearmament seemed to fall on deaf ears as Maria’s family was observably busy with other matters.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is an almost difficult film to take in all at once. It juxtaposes contrasting images, carries symbolism, employs twists, and ultimately leaves the audience hanging and wondering whether Maria intentionally left the gas knob open or not. Aside from primarily being a political allegory for Germany, The Marriage of Maria Braun ultimately tells the story of a young woman caught in the aftermath of the war who struggles for a chance at a better life.
- Lawrence Ivan Manalo