I was introduced to New German Cinema 27 years ago in college, with a History of Film class screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fox and his Friends. Although I remember little about it now, I recall being so put off by its flat griminess that it's taken me over two decades to open myself up to exploring more from that influential movement. For PopGap, I've watched four Werner Herzog movies from that era over the last three years, plus one each from Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff, with mildly negative to happy results, and thought that, now, I might be ready to face Fassbinder once again. There was some progress: I didn't have an outright negative reaction to The Marriage of Maria Braun, but rather one of lukewarm disinterest — mitigated somewhat by some truly stunning visuals which captured star Hanna Schygulla in ways that transcend the film's muddled content and delivery.
In the shambles of post-World War II Germany, Maria Braun (Schygulla) clings to the hope that her husband (Klaus Löwitsch) — a missing soldier, presumed dead — will return to her. Although her romantic attachment to the past becomes complicated as present circumstances change, Maria compartmentalizes her desires from her immediate needs and embarks on plan of self-actualization that puts her humanity at risk. It's possible to read The Marriage of Maria Braun as a study of a country in the grip of a post-war identity crisis; or a feminist critique of the obstacles facing determined women even within a system that appears to have been destroyed; or, at times, as a satire of Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama in juxtaposition with the cruel realities of conflict. It's probably all of these things, but not committed to or successful enough at any one of them to fully resonate. Fassbinder's style seems mildly schizophrenic, primarily employing the flat lack of affectation of a kitchen sink drama, but without the insinuating grit of reality, and its flourishes of self-conscious melodrama come too sporadically to feel truly organic, working more as a concept than as a visceral experience.
Arguably, The Marriage of Maria Braun is too beautiful for its own good. With the great Michael Ballhaus (who passed away earlier this month) as cinematographer, the film works best as a gallery devoted to Schygulla's emotive face, framing it in various states of stunning resilience and gloom. Fassbinder's mise en scène is, sometimes, just as good, with many visually gripping frames — especially those that contrast Maria's careful appearance with a world in ruins. However, the skillful imagery adds one more ripple to an already unclear surface, by both undermining the predominantly plain tone with the suggestion of something more operatic lurking underneath, and by never releasing itself from Fassbinder's often drab and disinterested perspective. Maybe it's intentional that The Marriage of Maria Braun never feels fully realized, mirroring the frustration of its heroine, but it feels more like the work of a director with too many ideas and no coherent overall sense of purpose.
The Marriage of Maria Braun was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Grant Douglas Bromley, who can be found on Flickchart under the username grantvbromley. He ranks it on his chart at #35 / 1788 (98%), putting it at the top of his list of 26 New German Cinema entries. The Marriage of Maria Braun ranked on my Flickchart at #1726 (55%) making it my sixth favorite out of eight movies from the New German Cinema movement.