feature by Gregory Avery, 17 November 2000


"Rainer once advised me not to read too much abo Fassbinder wanted to premiere Querellead at his or her body of work...." - Juliane Lorenz

Nineteen eighty-two was something of a zenith year for his next film would premiere at the Venice festival, in October, and win the Leone d'Oro for best film. He would then go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and appear on the cover of Time magazine. With his wide-brimmed hat, dark glasses, and unkempt hair and beard, leather jacket, and a dumpling-like belly that usually rolled-over the waist of his trousers, Fassbinder wanted to look "ugly" on the cover of Time. It would be a victory on his own terms.

Fassbinder had a drive to work, and when asked, in 1971, by journalist Christian Braad Thomsen what he would do if he couldn't make films (and, at one point, he was almost unable to do so), Fassbinder promptly replied, "No idea." He added, "When I finished school, I thought about that, too, and I came to the conclusion that the way our society is structured, theatre and film allow for the greatest measure of personal freedom. That is why I chose them."

Which was why, by 1982, Fassbinder had attracted a large audience for his films. He could always be counted upon to come up with something interesting. After finishing Querelle, Fassbinder began work on a new picture, very low budget in comparison to his recent efforts and to be made very quickly, about three men who, having failed as private detectives, become a successful rock band. The picture's title was I Am the Happiness of This World.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born in Bad Wörishofen, southwest of Munich, on May 31, 1945 -- or, as author Robert Katz put it, "three weeks after the collapse of the Third Reich." Hellmuth and Liselotte Fassbinder named their only child after the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hellmuth cut out on the family when Rainer was only six years old. Mother and son then had to move to less expensive quarters in Munich, on Sendlingerstrasse, the street most frequented by the city's pimps and prostitutes. Rainer would later say that he was never intimidated about living in this area, and that it contributed greatly towards his feelings for people who worked and lived on the fringes of society and of respectability, feelings which would definitely manifest themselves in his later work.

In later interviews, Fassbinder also claimed that, at one point, his mother had a relationship with a young man who was barely out of his teens, and was not all that much older than Rainer was at the time. Also, that she confided to her son that she had a dream where she married Rainer, so that she would never be left alone. This certainly would have affected the boy's sensibilities towards himself and his place in the world, and he would provide for his mother in later years. Liselotte would remarry, in 1958, to Wolf Eder. Stepfather and stepson did not get along.

Rainer saw a lot of films when he was young, something his mother, prior to her remarriage, took advantage of to give the boy something to do while she was out of the apartment and worked as a translator. Depending on his mood swings, Rainer's teachers appraised him as being either a genius or an idiot. At age twenty-one, he applied to study at the D.F.F.B., the German Film and Television Academy, in Berlin. He was invited to sit for the entrance exams that year. 825 applicants requested submission forms, but only 245 were completed and returned. Seventy-four of those applicants made it to the entrance examinations, which consisted of a question-and-answer, the writing of a film treatment for a short story, the writing of an analysis of a film, and, for those who did not have prior media experience, a short exercise in operating an 8 mm. camera. Fassbinder completed the exams, along with a letter expressing his intent; he was turned down by the Academy. (His examination papers, though, still exist and were reprinted in a 1997 book on his work.)

With the help of Christoph Rosen, the young man who became his first companion, Fassbinder made three short films during 1966-67, two of which still exist. The City Tramp is about a vagrant who finds a revolver but can't get rid of it, and its story was inspired by Eric Rohmer's 1959 film, La Signe du Lion (The Sign of Leo). A Little Chaos concerns three friends, one of whom is played by Fassbinder, who sell door-to-door subscriptions as a way of gaining access to people's homes to burglarize them. It was made as a homage to Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa Vie (My Life to Live), which Fassbinder claimed to have seen twenty-one times. At the conclusion of A Little Chaos, the three main characters talk about what they're going to do with the money they now have, and Fassbinder's character exultantly says, "I'm going to the cinema!"

Fassbinder again applied to the D.F.F.B. in 1967, this time submitting City Tramp and Little Chaos with his application materials. This time, he was not even invited to sit for the entrance exams. So Fassbinder backed his way into filmmaking by way of Munich's avant-garde theatre scene in the late Sixties. He joined up with the ensemble Action Theatre, where he would meet many of the people with whom he would later work on a regular basis: actors Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, and Günther Kaufmann; actor and "artistic consultant" Harry Baer; and composer Peer Raben, who was co-directing for the stage at the time when he first met Fassbinder. Hanna Schygulla, whom Fassbinder ran into while making the trip back and forth to the D.F.F.B., also came along, as did Udo Kier, who was friends with Fassbinder and Christoph Rosen.

Fassbinder was soon directing Georg Büchner's Leonce and Lena, which incorporated recordings by the Beatles in its production, and, with Peer Raben, an adaptation of Marieluise Fleisser's Pioneers in Ingolstadt and Fassbinder's own play Katzelmacher (both of which would later be made into films). Things at the Action Theatre were cut short, though, when cast and crew arrived one day to find their sixty-seat performance space had been destroyed. Horst Söhnlein, husband of one of the group's actresses, had carried out the demolition with several others, including an audience regular at the Action Theatre's performances, Andreas Baader. Fassbinder went ahead and formed his own company, antitheatre (with a lower-case "a"), with many of the Action Theatre's personnel; Söhnlein and Baader, on the other hand, would form the Baader-Meinhof gang, which would become one of the most notorious terrorist groups in Europe after setting off two bombs, at midnight, in a Frankfurt department store -- the store was wrecked, but no one was hurt.

One of Fassbinder's early plays which was not staged was Drops of Water on Burning Rocks, which the French director François Ozon recently made into a film. In it, one of the characters, Franz, takes poison and then immediately places a telephone call to his mother: "Mummy! I've poisoned myself. No, Mummy, there's nothing anyone can do now. Ciao, Mummy, perhaps I'll go to Heaven because I'm so young. Yes. Thanks."

At the beginning of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) are seen running out of the door to the registrar's office onto a street where everything is gradually being blown to bits. Even after they've been knocked to the ground, Maria insists on the notarization of their marriage certificate, right there, on the spot, before everyone has scattered. It's done. Then, it's off to the war for Hermann. Maria will not see him again for several years, and when she does, he takes a murder rap and is packed off to prison. Maria justifies her actions thereafter by saying that she is doing everything for the sake of "mein Mann."

This was the sixteenth film that Hanna Schygulla had acted in for Fassbinder. She appeared in his very first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, in 1969. You can see her, looking very young and very stunning, in another Fassbinder film made that year, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, in which Kurt Raab played a character named Kurt Raab who is so humiliated by everyone around him that he ends up killing his wife and children and then taking his own life. If I recall correctly, Hanna is one of the only people in the film who does not have anything scathing to say about "Herr R.."

But sometimes an actor and a role come together and they click, and that's what happened with Maria Braun. Revisionists have attempted to put forward a fresh assessment of the film, saying, for one, that Schygulla was really not as talented an actress as everyone made her out to be at the time. And that she had no vast international success to equal that of Maria Braun afterwards only goes further towards proving the point. (In fact, Schygulla has worked steadily in European film over the last two decades. She gave a spectacular performance in Kenneth Branagh's 1992 film, Dead Again; and, this year, appeared in The Werckmeister Variations, the new film by celebrated Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Also, as George Clooney put it in a recent interview, sometimes it's a matter of whether or not an actor works for the sake of working, or works on films that are worth working on.)

Schygulla projects both a smoldering quality and a glamorous on-camera presence, but she also doesn't come across as phony, which is remarkable considering that she is playing a character who is continually adapting herself to the shifts and opportunities that arise, reinventing herself. Whether it is with an African-American G.I., Bill (George Byrd), whose courtliness reminds one character of the German film star Willi Fritsch, and who fortuitously gives Maria a chance to learn English; or with Oswald (Ivan Desny), the French-born textiles manufacturer with whom Maria gets a job after displaying her command of English under unusual circumstances. She begins working with Oswald at the same moment in time when Germany is going through a "currency reform" and Konrad Adenauer, who will lead Germany through the years of its "economic miracle" in the 1950s, has been elected to the Chancellorship.

When Betti (Elisabeth Trissenaar) tells Maria that love -- such as the love Maria feels for Hermann -- is nothing more than a feeling, Maria responds by saying that may be so, but it's "a great feeling, and a great love can be very real and very true." She works in various modes and guises, so that her relationship with Oswald never gets mixed up with her feelings for Hermann. Even when she loses a child she was going to have, Maria takes a pause and then quickly moves on to the next thing, starts making her next step in the world, goes to meet whatever opportunity ahead that she's supposed to seize. This is why her coy description of herself as "the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle" continues to amuse no matter how many times one has seen the film.

Life changes, but things between Maria and Hermann don't stay perfectly preserved, frozen until the moment where they were so that they can resume where they left off. Maria develops a particularly nasty snarl at the office, which she tries out on Frau Ehmke, the woman who becomes Maria's secretary after working for Oswald. And then there's when Hermann shows up for the first time at the house that Maria has bought for when she and Hermann are together again. Maria is all ready to start married life and finally be the dutiful wife for him, even if Hermann seems more interested in listening to the World Cup Soccer match on the radio. "Most happy people look indecent when you're unhappy," Maria tells Betti earlier, when the family has a party and Maria discovers that her widowed mother (Gisela Uhlen) has a boyfriend (Günther Lamprecht) who's about the same age as Maria. (Maria's mother also begins to look younger and younger, after this turn of events.) "Those who knew a great love can appreciate a great love in others," another character says.

Hanna Schygulla's beauty always seems to look just slightly out-of-focus, like Carole Lombard in Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, and it's the nebulous, not-entirely-defined quality that helps make her performance -- Schygulla's looks and mannerisms and Maria's actions and connivery go together perfectly. She looks dreamy, exudes presence, but does not seem to have fully materialized. We see her up-close during the early part of the film, but then she moves away, under the makeup and hair style that (Maria says) make her look like a "poodle" for the servicemen's club, then into numerous and more up-to-date outfits; an office desk that always seems to be on the other side of the divider from Frau Ehmke's workspace, or lit by a single lamp that casts her in shadow; then, finally, the wide hats with veils (provided by the ace costumer Barbara Baum), which she wears even while dining alone. When Hermann arrives home, he's wearing a hat, too (said to be a homage to Michel Piccoli's character in Godard's Contempt, who wore a dark fedora indoors), which partially hides his face. (Later, in Lili Marlene, one of the last shots of Hanna Schygulla shows her, in close up, motionless and with her head partially encased in a silver turban, like Greta Garbo in a photo portrait taken of her for the film Mata Hari. In Lili Marlene, the effect seems to expose Schygulla rather than lend her mystique.)

That Maria's mother takes up with another man who appears to be the same age as Maria must not have been any mistake on Fassbinder's part. Additionally, the role of Frau Ehmke, who must work under Maria, is played by Fassbinder's mother Liselotte, under the name Lilo Pempeit ("Pempeit" being her maiden name). Liselotte's first appearance in one of her son's films was in Gods of the Plague, in 1969: in it, she sat on a sofa in the apartment where she lived with her second husband (which he grudgingly lent to Fassbinder for the shoot), and asked her (off-camera) son if he needed money. Only later did she learn that the camera was operating while she was speaking. According to accounts, Fassbinder was sometimes not entirely respectful in his treatment of her on the set, but Liselotte would make appearances in twenty-six of Fassbinder's films, ranging from one scene bits, such as in Fox and His Friends, to substantial supporting roles in Maria Braun and Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Fassbinder himself turns up in a small but important part, as the black marketeer who sells Maria the dress she needs for her first day working at the servicemen's club. He also offers to sell her a copy of the collected works of Heinrich von Kleist; she declines -- books don't burn as long or as well as firewood -- and takes a bottle of liquor home for her mother, instead.

"A good director can sometimes contrive a happy ending that leaves you dissatisfied," Fassbinder said. "You know that something is wrong -- it just can't end that way." The Marriage of Maria Braun was to have ended in a way that was very, very similar to what happened to Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons at the end of the 1953 drama, Angel Face. Hanna Schygulla, however, intervened. "If she has gone so far and taken so many steps, she can take one more. She can just start from scratch," Schygulla argued. "That happens to everyone." Thus, the more ambiguous ending, in which Maria, subconsciously, sabotages everything she's worked for at a moment when she is about to relinquish the dedicated, free, but independent life that she had heretofore been living. A telltale clue as to how things turn out in the film as it presently stands is that the radio broadcast that Hermann had been listening to, announcing that Germany has won the decisive match in that year's World Cup Soccer Championship -- a first for Germany since the outcome of World War Two -- continues to be heard all the way through the climatic scenes.

From this sound motif comes the other, controversial aspect to the ending of Maria Braun. The first shot in the film is of a photo portrait of Adolf Hitler. The film's concluding shot is a dissolve between four portraits of the chancellors that governed West Germany through the postwar era. The first three, including Adenauer, are shown in negative; the last, Helmut Schmidt, is shown first in negative, then in positive print. Many people in the audience picked up the disturbing connotation of this: what did Fassbinder mean by putting Hitler in the first shot of the film and then putting Schmidt in the last? Was he hinting that there was some sort of similarity between the two men, or was Fassbinder, as he was sometimes wont to do, just being provocative?



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