The Marriage of Maria Braun
Published 27 Dec 2016
The essay about film The Marriage of Maria Braun deals with life in post-World War II Germany and especially the way in which women’s lives were changed by the social and political movements that came onto the scene. Throughout the film there are many elements present that help to show the historical representation of World War II and its effects on the people who had to rebuild Germany following the end of the war, two of the most important being the issues of memory and history and how they shape the film, which was indeed a product of the Frauenfilm movement of the 1970’s.
The West German film industry during this time saw many changes in the way that films were made and the techniques used to create the story on film. The Marriage of Maria Braun is a film that delves into the historical world of women’s lives following the end of World War II, and brings to light a magnificent portrait of this period of history in Germany.
Prior to the 1960’s, West German film virtually ignored the working class person and their existence within the context of history. From the 1960’s through to the 1970’s there was a movement towards a different type of film in West German cinema, where working class characters were portrayed, “their problems in the workplace and at home and their relation to German history and the new-found prosperity” (Elsaesser 171). Among these film movements that emerged was a new-found interest in female characters and their importance to German history, something that becomes apparent in films like The Marriage of Maria Braun.
This film follows the life of a young German woman who, at the beginning, is married to a missing Nazi soldier but is forced to exert her independence in order to survive in a culture that was poverty-stricken and devastated by the recent war, becoming a hostess at an American GI club, where she quickly begins a liaison with black soldier and becomes pregnant.
The film progresses with her husband returning from a POW camp and, to stop the dueling between her new lover and her husband, Maria kills the American and soon her husband is taking the blame and going to jail for her crime. The rest of the film follows Maria as she uses her intellect, charm, survival skills and sexuality to achieve success in the Economic Miracle that occurred in Germany during that time. She becomes a business woman, a lover to a very influential and rich businessman, all the while doing every for her husband. Through the use of history and memory the director is able to capture “the general feeling of Germany post-1945″ (Baca).
The storyline of this film is interesting in that it deals with many layers of issues that followed the end of World War II, including the clashing of the old culture and customs and the new ideals that emerged following the fall of the Nazi party in Germany. One such cultural aspect that is seen within the film is the idea of marriage and how it is understood by the characters. The opening scene of this film shows Maria, dressed in a white wedding dress, standing with her husband, Hermann Braun, in front of a judge who is marrying them. An explosion occurs that sends everyone running from the Civil Registry building, and as the buildings fall around them as they are lying on the ground Maria has the judge sign to affirm that they are married.
Throughout the film, Maria is dedicated to her husband emotionally, despite the fact that she freely uses her sexuality with other men to accomplish her goals of becoming a homeowner and successful businesswoman. Despite the fact that Hermann and Maria barely know each other they continue to hope for “the ideal rather than the reality of a middle-class marriage” (Moeller). Just like the Germany of post-World War II, the Braun’s are faced with two very different worlds pulling them in separate directions: the world of pre-World War II Germany and the new culture that emerged following its aftermath.
Memory ends up playing an extremely important part in the way that they each interact with each other because much of their interaction occurs within their memories of each other during the three short weeks that they knew each other before marrying. Memory is also important to the transition from young, innocent girl to charming, successful woman because it is the memory of the war torn days of hunger, poverty and cold that motivates her to seek a more economically stable life, whatever the cost.
In the film her mother freely expresses that she is not the Maria that she used to be, she is colder, a sentiment that Maria Braun knows and embraces because the alternative is to be submissive. In essence, “Maria Braun’s feelings and marriage perish in the German economic miracle” and “her experience becomes a parable of West Germany” (Moeller). Just as Maria Braun’s memory of darker days impel her towards a future shaped by economic growth, so does West Germany seek economic changes in order to shake off the past.
Women’s rights and the assertion of female power become implicit in this film, and Maria Braun becomes a strong, liberated female character in German cinema. Instead of waiting to be rescued by men, she takes things into her own hands and goes out to make a better life. While she tries to assert that this life is being created for her husband and her, not simply for herself, it becomes apparent throughout the film that Maria Braun is becoming an independent woman who values her own space. She makes decisions about her own body, including whom she will have sex with, and makes the decision to have an abortion when she becomes pregnant with the black GI’s baby near the beginning of the film. No longer submissive and inferior to men, Maria Braun pushes herself to the limits in order to make herself an equal with all of the men that she encounters, a concept which the movie portrays as being precisely what post-World War II German men desired.
In one scene, she is speaking with her friend’s husband, Willy, who has left her friend for another woman because she bores him. In this scene,Willy discloses to Maria why he likes his new lover, saying, “She is my equal in every way” (The Marriage of Maria Braun). This is a concept that was relevant to the Frauenfilm movement of the 1970’s, a time when “it was the struggle for women’s rights on specific issues, such as abortion, coming from the social base, which created part of the need and also the opportunity” for these types of films (Elsaessar 185). Coming from this socio-political context, this film is a perfect example of a movie that was made for female viewers who were trying to understand the issues of women’s lives in a historical context, specifically the Economic Miracle of post- World War II Germany.
This so-called Economic Miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was the period in history following World War II when there was a strong boost in the West German economy and it is this issue that is most carefully portrayed in The Marriage of Maria Braun. The character of Maria Braun becomes almost a metaphor for this strong upturn in economic fortune, her life mirroring the transition happening in the West German economy and the rise in capitalism that occurred there. The character of Maria Braun, a woman who is not trained in business at all, rises from the ashes of her post-World War II poverty and the imprisonment of her husband to become a talented and successful businesswoman. How she comes into this fortune, however, is through her use of her sexuality and her need for economic stability.
She is able to recognize the importance of capitalism and what its likely impact would be on her, and when she sneaks onto the first-class train car and is told by the conductor that the lone man sitting there is a successful textile businessman from France she becomes intrigued and uses all of her womanly wiles to intrigue him, but it is her fluency in English, which she freely admits she learned “in bed”, that persuades him to offer her a position as his assistant. She quickly rises through the ranks to become an executive, but still she uses her sexuality, becoming the mistress of her boss. The character of Maria Braun, in essence, suggests “that it is difficult to be good in the capitalist world” (Moeller). This becomes a statement about the decline of morals and the shift in cultural values following the Second World War.
The factor that shapes all aspect of this film is, most definitely, that of the World War II. This film’s representation of the Second World War goes far beyond that of the events of the war itself, they delve into the world of women during that period which, until the 1970’s, was virtually nonexistent in German cinema. The connection between the female characters in this film and the historical backdrop that helped to shape them is evident. The director of the film, Ranier Werner Fassbinder, relayed that he had a fascination with women’s roles in history because “it works better, when relating something about history, to use women.
Men have a prescribed role in the writing of history … this is why I don’t find men so interesting as figures; while women, taken singularly are often capable of doing things one would not have considered possible” (Moeller). The war itself is what shapes Maria Braun into the person that she becomes by the end of the film. In a country torn apart by the “consequences of war”, Maria Braun learns that in order to survive she must adopt American values or at least pretend to, a metaphor for Germany and how for its own economic stability the country had to turn to Americans (Baca). Not only does the history of her country shape her, but her own history, a concept that is elemental to the success of this film.
Memory also plays an elemental role in how the film progresses and how the characters are shaped. The memory of a war torn Germany, the memory of one’s lost love as in the case of both Maria and her mother, and the memory of better days seem to flow effortlessly through the film. In one particular scene Maria brings her friend, Betti, to their old school, the place where they met and enjoyed happier times together. Here, she and her friend reminisce about old times, the days before the war when they were carefree and young. They sit amongst the rubble of a building that has been destroyed by bombs and gunfire, a place that no longer resembles the school of their youth, and yet they smile, sing and laugh as they fondly remember it the way it was.
This representation of their memories becomes a catalyst for the viewer, because it is here that the viewer begins to understand the reality of the film’s themes: the war changed Germany’s landscape, economics, culture and values forever. Germany would never be the same following the Second World War, just as Maria Braun was never the same young girl that sat in that school with her friend (The Marriage of Maria Braun).
While The Marriage of Maria Braun is an example of a movie that was a result of the Frauenfilm movement, it is also the perfect example of how far the West German film industry had come since the end of World War II. Just like every other aspect of German society, the film industry was greatly affected by the war and, having once been “one of the most prosperous and technically advanced film industries”; it struggled to regain its success in the aftermath of an onslaught of Hollywood films that hit the market (Elsaesser 8).
The film industry of Germany was “progressively centralized and put under state control” in the 1930s and 1940s, practically ceasing all creative ventures in the market (Elsaesser 10). By 1978, when The Marriage of Maria Braun was released, the film industry had come a long way, gaining fame and respect, and creating films that were meaningful and gave insight to German history and memory, and finally financiers were willing to finance such films (Elsaesser 186).
The Marriage of Maria Braun is an example of how German cinema transformed in the 1970’s and how the memory of World War II was still ever-present in the minds of the German population. Film movements that sought to establish women as important cinematic characters, as in the Frauenfilm movement, and movements towards portraying the working-class population of Germany were evident in the creation of this film and the themes found there. The finale of the film surprises the audience, with Maria finding out that her lover, the businessman who she has worked under for years, has given half of her estate to her and half to her husband while he was in jail as payment, with the stipulation that her husband leave after his release until her lover dies.
The half of his estate is payment for his giving up his love so that the businessman can finish out his life continuing his relationship with Maria. After this revelation, the love and passion that they each had for each other seems to wane in the moments before the ending. The final scene insinuates that Maria and Hermann die in an explosion that was a result of an accident with their gas stove. Moments after they have been informed that they now have it all, the two die together, without having ever had a real marriage together. The statement being made here is subtle but interesting nonetheless, because just as Germany seemed to have it all in terms of the Economic Miracle following World War II, the cultural and social values and traditions of middle-class Germany was forever changed, dying in the explosions of the war just as Maria and Hermann died in the explosion in their house.
- Baca, Mariana. “Dressing for Disaster: Clothing in “the Marriage of Maria Braun”” Visual Histories: German Cinema Post 1945. 6 Oct. 2003. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 12 Feb. 2007
- Elsaesser, Thomas. “Film Industry-Film Subsidy.” New German Cinema: a History. British Films Institute, 1989. 8-35.
- Elsaesser, Thomas. “In Search of the Spectator 3: Minority Views.” New German Cinema: a History. British Film Institute, 1989. 171-206.
- The Marriage of Maria Braun. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Perf. Hanna Schygulla, Klaus LöWitsch, and Ivan Desny. DVD. The Criterion Collection, 1979.
- Moeller, H.b. “Fassbinder’s Use of Brechtian Aesthetics.” Jump Cut: a Review of Contemporary Media 35 (1990). 10 Feb. 2007