Tom Noonan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

[Only] someone like Fassbinder, a man who solemnly proclaimed a film with an all-woman cast "strictly autobiographical" could make The Marriage of Maria Braun.

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Maria builds her life around her love for Hermann, in spite of their separation. Regardless of whether or not her love is "real," it is the passion that sustains her. It is also the carrot that Fassbinder dangles before Maria as he enmeshes her in a web of complications. As the reality of a reunion with her husband is repeatedly denied, Maria's love becomes an abstraction that retreats further and further into fantasy. (pp. 40-1)

Control is the key to Maria. She is always completely in command. But she can't have the one thing she wants more than anything else—her man…. [We feel a heart-rending sympathy for Maria]; she too has an ideal love that eludes her, always lying just out of reach, waiting to be realized. She is only believing in, and following, the rituals of her culture. And in the surrounding confusion, she clings even tighter. (p. 41)

Maria Braun is another one of Fassbinder's unrelenting schematics. There is still another protagonist burdened with, and bewildered by, a life whose day-to-day routines demand submission but make little sense. Fassbinder portrays victims. His characters may be vivacious in the beginning, but at the film's end they are enervated, passive, often dead. (p. 42)

Much of Maria Braun is familiar melodrama: there is the theme of unrequited love, the woman who gives her all for love; the slow ebbing away of her self that results; the baby, prophetically stillborn; the schemers and heart-breaking complications; and the final, tragic nobility of the heroine's emotions. But in Maria Braun, the sex roles and accompanying expectations are chaotic; sometimes they confirm our anticipations, other times deny them….

This intricate blend of characters and their emotions creates, like most melodrama, a self-contained mini-world, complete with a moral viewpoint that we are urged to accept as basically correct. But for Fassbinder, this process has an added dimension—a conflict with other beliefs and preconceptions, about what is "male" and "female," and their relative merits. The tragedy he presents is Maria's loss of "femaleness"—sympathy, intuition, empathy, nurturant qualities—and its replacement by "maleness"—a tough, cynical competitiveness that leads to self-destruction. (p. 43)

Ethics, not esthetics, is Fassbinder's goal in grabbing our emotions while they're off-guard. The intensity he creates is thought-provoking, not sentimental. The world outside the frame of the film is what interests Fassbinder; metaphorically, Maria Braun tells the story of postwar Germany: success at a price—a loss of emotions, a coldness now considered to be characteristic of Germans. The theme is familiar. Fassbinder is intensely dissatisfied with the "miracles" of modern capitalism. His characters are casualties of the economic rationalism that pervades our thinking; Fassbinder sees it as a rigged game that degrades people and drives them apart. But even if it were fair, it would not be worth playing, he says, for we spiritually prostitute ourselves in the pursuit of a private materialism….

Art, when it is good, is a process of personal transformation; the artist puts down more than he or she consciously, or rationally, knows. And this is the power of Fassbinder's films; they speak to the subconscious. The disturbing criticism present in Maria Braun has an effect on us because it is implanted at a deep level. By playing with genre preconceptions, Fassbinder establishes a broadly based connection with the audience. We don't really need to know where his material came from or what he is alluding to for his conversation to work, either; the morals of the old melodramas are reflected in our culture. Much of the beauty of Maria Braun is Fassbinder's ability to use past film conventions without becoming bound or limited by them; he can still articulate personal concerns. (p. 44)

Artists like Fassbinder continually challenge the way we look at things. He takes powerful and encompassing chunks of everyday life and carries on a dialogue that slowly grows, then dawns on you with a gasp, a quick catch of the breath. That Fassbinder works his art with "popular" forms can only be a further attestation to his acute perceptiveness and sensitivity. (p. 45)

Tom Noonan, "'The Marrioge of Maria Braun'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1980 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 40-5.

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