The Marriage of Maria Braun is perhaps Fassbinder's best-known film and the film that brought him international recognition and success. It marks the first of a trio of films referred to as the "BRD Trilogy" (BRD stands for the Bundesrepublik Deutschland – the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany) in which Fassbinder aimed to document post-war Germany through the eyes of three heroines/anti-heroines.
In this case, the heroine/anti-heroine is Maria Braun, a newly-wed woman who works herself up the economic ladder through manipulation and assertion of will. I say heroine AND anti-heroine because she is certainly a mixed character with varying levels of allowed sympathy. She begins the film as completely sympathetic: her husband is off to the frontlines the day after she is married, he is assumed dead, and all the while her conviction of his return and her love for him are unwavering. As the film progresses, however, the Maria's morality and the degree of her love for her husband start to become questionable as she discovers the value of her body and as she makes herself sexually available for things she wants. Eventually, it seems as if the desire for materialistic wealth displaces the genuine love shown in the beginning. However, it's not really that simple, as we are forced to ask: Who says she doesn't deserve what she can manage to get, especially in a war-torn country?
The film certainly plays with the idea of transition in several ways. The film begins in muted colors -- grays, browns, dull greens -- as it begins in a still-ravaged Germany directly after the war (the opening sequence, by the way, is one of the best I've ever seen: it is a mix of absurdity, violence, and comedy that caught me so off guard I found my mouth had somehow opened when it was over) and gradually gets brighter and more colorful. Maria herself goes through a physical change of sorts through her gain of material possessions and wealth, particularly in the way she dresses and carries herself. Both of these things mirror and match the economic boom happening throughout Germany in the world of the film, though I would suggest that they are done so ironically. It seems the brighter the film, Germany, and Maria's economic status get the darker and more morally ambiguous she becomes as a character. This culminates in the explosive ending which takes place in Maria's beautiful house in her finest gown on a sunny day.
The Marriage of Maria Braun marks a rather large departure from my previous two viewings -- Chinese Roulette and In a Year With 13 Moons -- in its production and tone. I suppose this film is characteristic of Fassbinder's last "phase," which is his Hollywood phase. The story is derived from Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, which I have not seen. The other two films in the BRD trilogy play on ideas seen in other films Fassbinder has a fondness for (Lola is Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel; Veronika Voss is Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.). The film still manages to have visual flair through interesting camera movements and art direction, but these things call less attention to themselves as they had in the previous films. It feels like Fassbinder is working more within the realm of realism, only with bits and pieces of Brechtian isolation and humor popping up every now and then when you least expect it. One extreme example is seen when Maria is leaving a restaurant towards the end of the film. She is suddenly pushed to the background in a constricted frame as she faints (or does something, I don't remember, or I wasn't watching) while int he foreground in a larger frame a waiter is groping the bare breasts of a woman. All the while a radio announces that Germany has decided to go through with rearmament on the audio track.
Other than little bits like that, however, Fassbinder's film feels more conventional, more Hollywood. I believe the film gets less conventional as it goes on (apart from that tragicomic opening), though I would have to watch it again to confirm it. I did notice that the editing was done in a rather fragmented way, making it difficult to keep up with the passage of time in a jumpily linear way. We also are not shown what one would think to be an essential scene: Maria and her husband romantically together. Her (apparent) undying love for her husband is Maria's motive for everything, but we hardly know her husband on screen and thus it seems Maria hardly does either. She even says they had only known each other a day and a half past the marriage -- a wedding night we are denied of. Thus, Maria's love seems incredible and perhaps Fassbinder is suggesting that that's not quite it entirely.
Maria Braun is played by Hanna Schygulla, who reminds me a bit of Naomi Watts and does a really fantastic job. She manages to have me both sympathize with and loath Maria, in love with her either way. There are other levels of meaning to Fassbinder's film -- such as the use of the name Braun (as in Eva Braun, Hitler's lover) or other aspects of Germany's history -- which are somewhat lost on me without research. In any case, The Marriage of Maria Braun was really excellent and I look forward to the next two parts of the BRD Trilogy.