First, a shameless plug. Question: What’s almost as addictive as chocolate? Answer: A really good TV series. All of you Simpsons fanatics out there know what I’m talking about. Of course, there are good chocolates and bad chocolates. The Simpsons represent the kind that your best friends give you for your birthday or at Christmas. Baywatch, on the other hand, is the 20-pounds-of-pure-sugar kind that people who feel-obliged-to-buy-something-but-don’t-really-care-what foist on you on similar occasions. Fortunately for those of us on the Eastshore, Darcy and Karen at Crawford Bay Video have bought one of the best boxes of video chocolates ever confected. I’d cue the music if I could, but this quote should do just as well: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You are moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into…the Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling, we of the Twilight Zone generation salute you. Thanks to you, we could grow up and still have our bedtime stories, even grimmer than Grimm’s. Has there ever been a more deliciously doom-laden voice? Rod Serling produced some 180 half-hour Twilight Zone episodes, and wrote the scripts for half of them. He became one of television’s most honored writers. In much the same way that the best episodes of Star Trek (in all its various incarnations) have done, The Twilight Zone managed to weave stories that both capture the imagination and stress our common humanity. However dark the tale, the ultimate message is that we have a greater heart than we know. The Grinches and unrepentant Scrooges will call this naive. So be it. In the vision of Star Trek’s writers, humans have conquered the demons of poverty, war, bigotry, & greed and sailed out into a larger, stranger universe. According to Rod Serling’s vision, the demons still need conquering, and the larger, stranger universe is right next door. In the Twilight Zone Santa Claus is real. And so are the Furies. Treat yourself. Treat your friends. Drop by Crawford Bay Video and pick up a box of Serlings.
For those of you with less optimistic visions of the natural order, I offer you a distaff Romeo and Juliet as this month’s video choice. Picture our romantic heroes twenty years older and trying to carry out their affair amid the ruins of post-World War II Berlin. Things don’t turn out any happier in the end, but the plot undergoes a few surprising twists. Our new Juliet is a woman named Maria Braun. Played by the brilliant German actress Hanna Schygulla, Maria’s story is told in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 film The Marriage of Maria Braun.
Shakespeare’s play centers around a long courtship, followed rather speedily by death. The Marriage of Maria Braun begins with a wedding and then chronicles a much longer and stranger courtship. Followed rather speedily by death. Romeo and Juliet are separated by the misfortunes of civil war, and their one night together is a triumph of love over circumstance; Maria and her husband Hermann (Klaus Löwitch) begin with day and a night of wedded bliss, and the rest of their story is the triumph of circumstance over love. Hermann and Maria’s nuptials take place as the Russian and American armies move into Berlin. Hermann has to physically pin down the official performing the ceremony, who’s somewhat squeamish about the machine gun and shellfire leveling the nearby buildings. After a single night together, Hermann is swallowed up in the chaos of occupied Berlin. Maria becomes one of the many women wandering the streets and train stations, carrying signs asking for information about their missing husbands. In the background, the radio reels off an endless litany of the names of the dead.
Being twenty years older than Juliet, and much more of a survivor than a victim, Maria doesn’t turn her thoughts to suicide when it seems apparent that Hermann may never return. Her passion is for life, not death. Maria knows exactly where she wants to go and how to get there. When a black marketeer offers her a sexy dress and a book of Heinrich Kleist’s poems, she takes the dress. Books burn too fast and they don’t give any heat. After using the dress to land a lucrative (and illegal) job in an American Army canteen/dancehall girl, Maria begins an affair with a black, middle-aged American soldier and starts providing for herself and her family. As her love for Hermann had been unreserved, so is her plunge into her new life. Her family—including a mother who’s also a survivor, a doddering but impish grandfather, and a confused older brother—accept her new lifestyle but cannot comprehend how she can live it without guilt or regret. Maria welcomes even the news that she is pregnant with an undiluted joy.
Naturally, Hermann comes home. At a very awkward moment, I might add. And so begins one of cinema’ strangest reverse courtships.
Hermann’s about as cheerful a lover as Hamlet was. Who can blame him? The war and other circumstance; have not been kind. His homecoming was definitely not kind. Maria, however, cannot understand this. Her love for him is unchanged. In her mind, her American soldier ceases to be a part of her life the instant she becomes aware her husband is alive. Hermann at first cannot understand; he sees only betrayal. Yet he soon realizes that betrayal without guilt is impossible. Against all odds, Maria’s love is as pure as on their wedding night.
Too bad, because as soon as he comes to that understanding he’s gone for another seven years or so. I’m not about to tell you why.
This time Maria knows where he is; she just can’t do much about it. Her survival instincts kick back in. If her husband can’t build a home for them, she’ll do it instead. As Maria says, “I prefer to make the miracle rather than wait for it.” Make it she does. She forces ai encounter with a modestly-wealthy German industrialist. Herr Oswald (Ivan Desny) is dazzled by her beauty, her intelligence, her ambition, her frankness. He ends up with a mistress and an astute business partner. Both are surprises. Both are Maria’s choices: “Yesterday I was Maria Braun who would like to sleep with you. Today I am Maria Braun who would like to work for you….I am having an affair with you and I must always know if I am dealing with you or with my employer. I decided to take the initiative—I had to have this one thing my way. This is not the time for real feelings.” It’s an extraordinary speech, and an impossible one. Real feelings come unbidden. Lives (and hearts) cannot be controlled as Maria wishes to control them. It is as if she’s juggling Juliet’s, Romeo’s and Mercutio’s roles simultaneously. No wonder she’s dazzling. No wonder she fails. How many roles can you play before one begins to diffuse into the others? When do you stop fooling other people and begin fooling yourself? Hermann becomes confused and embittered as Maria takes on his traditional identity of provider along with her chosen roles of mistress, devoted wife, and corporate shark. Instead of coming home after his seven years in the wilderness, Hermann chooses to go back into exile; he has to reinvent himself to recover the identity that Marfa has unwittingly stolen.
For Maria, this separation is the devastating. It comes at the very moment when she feels she has the greatest control. Doubting herself for the first time, her identities dissolve. “Maria Braun,” she says to herself, “you must watch out because you’re acting very strangely.” Too late. She has become a stranger in her own life. Caught in her own crossfire. Mercutio would have appreciated the irony.
Sidebar #60e: Looking Back & Second Thoughts
The price of survival. What a person will do to keep his or her dream alive. The cost to others, and the cost to oneself. All the damage done. Does Maria engineer her own fate, or does fate simply play a cruel trick
The Marriage of Maria Braun is one of the best films by one of the greatest directors of the German New Wave, starring one of Germany’s finest actresses. ‘Nuff said.
From Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius:
“For Fassbinder it’s usually a fundamental artistic principle to avoid giving the audience any opportunity of identifying with his principal characters. Identification would hinder a clear analytical view and consequently the necessary critical attitude. He only deviated from this principle in Eight Hours Are Not a Day, Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun. It’s easy to identify with Maria Braun: she embodies the dream of the great and only love, and is also an active, independent woman, who takes her life in her own hands….Fassbinder himself also identifies with Maria Braun. It is not hard to recognize him in her. She is as quick-witted as he was, she can set things in order in an instant with the right word at the right time, there’s no stopping her when she’s decided to do something, she’ll get rid of any obstacle. She is impudent, daring, determined. And above all, she’s a workaholic like Fassbinder.
In other films, when Fassbinder works against identification with the principal character, treating them as neurotic or perverted special cases, he risks having the general theme of the film rejected because it deals with an exception. And when in The Marriage of Maria Braun he works so unambiguously to achieve identification with the principal character, then the risk is that the audience will not understand how profoundly he wants to criticize their attitude. No matter how persistently Maria Braun rejects any kind of hypocrisy and pretence, her life is based on the illusion that life can be postponed, as it were, for a happy future, one that one can save up and prepare for, one that will be great and pure no matter what methods have been employed to realize it.”
“…Fassbinder’s films work completely differently from the Hollywood film, whose power depend [sic] principally on giving the public the possibility of identifying with the film characters, or dissolving in them, of drowning in them like Narcissus in his mirror-image. Fassbinder uses the screen as a distorting mirror, which throws us back into the cinema, less in love with ourselves, but perhaps with a little more knowledge about ourselves.”
Here’s a quotation from Fassbinder taken from the preface of Thomsen’s book:
“My films are often criticized for being pessimistic. In my opinion there are enough reasons to be pessimistic, but, in fact, I don’t see my films like that. They developed out of the position that the revolution should take place not on the screen, but in life itself, and when I show things going wrong, I do it to make people aware that this is what happens unless they change their lives. If, in a film that ends pessimistically, it’s possible to make clear to people why it happens like that, then the effect of the film is not finally pessimistic. I never try to reproduce reality, my aim is to make mechanisms transparent, to make it obvious to people that they must change their reality.”
The first chapter of Thomsen’s book, “The Double Man,” is an excellent 44-page overview of Fassbinder’s troubled life and challenging work. Highly recommended. When Fassbinder’s life was cut short at 37, he’d already left behind an entire lifetime’s worth of creations.
I’d also recommend checking out Roger Ebert’s two reviews of The Marriage of Maria Braun at the rogerebert.com website, which also includes his 1983 article “Daniel Schmid: The Fleeting Days and Eternal Nights of R.W. Fassbinder.”