1973 (TV) — 115 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Essential Fassbinder. One of Fassbinder's most stylistically and dramatically brilliant films, this is the story of a woman who escapes a domineering father only to find herself married to a sadistic husband.
Martha, long unavailable, proves to be one of Fassbinder's dramatic and visual triumphs. It features a brilliantly stylized performance from star Margit Carstensen and the virtuosic camerawork of Fassbinder's frequent collaborator, Michael Ballhaus. This riveting tale of a sado-masochistic marriage is astonishing in its balance of psychological horror and pitch-black comedy. The questions it asks about its deliriously complex characters prove as fascinating as the ones it ultimately compels us to ask about ourselves. Fantoma has created a DVD with optimal image and sound (Martha is the only television production on Fassbinder's list of "The Top 10 of My Own Films"); the disc also features a provocative new documentary on Fassbinder.
Regarding 'plot spoilers:' although I do not reveal the ending to this film in the summary directly below, in my review which follows I do discuss major plot elements, including the final scenes.
Moments after her domineering father dies of a heart attack during their vacation in Rome, virginal spinster Martha Heyer (Margit Carstensen, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) meets the man of her dreams, the cooly self-assured, blond-haired and blue-eyed engineer, Helmut Salomon (Karlheinz Böhm, Fox and His Friends). Their marriage quickly becomes a thing of terror for Martha when he reveals the extent of his sadism. Desperately, Martha searches for help from her sister Marianne (Barbara Valentin, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) and a handsome young librarian named Mr. Kaiser (Peter Chatel, Fox and His Friends), even as she increasingly bends to Helmut's dictates. Those range from bestial sex to memorizing a weighty treatise on dam construction (so that she can appreciate his profession). Martha's life becomes increasingly hysterical, in every sense, until the film's shocking climax.
Martha is a key film in Fassbinder's body of work, embodying many of his major themes the problems of identity, relationships, society and even German history but with a unique blend of humor and terror. Although it stands brilliantly on its own, Martha also connects with some of his best later films. Like Effi Briest, it explores a repressed woman's role in marriage and society, but does so with a manic fervor that looks ahead to his only out-and-out farce, Satan's Brew. That picture is also another of his razor-sharp looks at sado-masochism, along with this film and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Martha also helped pave the way for his experiments with melodrama in such celebrated later works as The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss.
Martha is one of the few pictures which Fassbinder, known for the quality and quantity of his original screenplays, adapted from a preexisting source. Although he only loosely used Cornell Woolrich's 1968 story, "For the Rest of Her Life" (published just before the author's death), copyright entanglements since resolved kept this film out of North American distribution for many years. The credits now read, "based on themes by Cornell Woolrich."
Although there are a couple of notable plot similarities between Woolrich and Fassbinder, their works are distinct and not just because one is set in central Massachusetts and the other in Germany. The Teutonicized names in Fassbinder are both different and, as I'll discuss below, wittily and symbolically charged. More importantly, his structure is much richer. In Woolrich we see very little of the sadistic husband Mark; Fassbinder's emphasis gives his film great dramatic power and psychological insight. In fact, most of Woolrich's story revolves around the budding romance cum rescue of the wife Linda by a young man named Garry (similar to Fassbinder's minor character of the librarian Mr. Kaiser), whom she happens to meet. Woolrich's writing is taut and suspenseful, but all of the resonant irony of Fassbinder is absent. On another level, Woolrich peppers his tale with references to Destiny. While he takes such metaphysical leanings straight, Fassbinder undercuts them with irony, even as his film makes it painfully, and ironically, clear the extent to which society's dictates sanction the sadomasochism of Martha and Helmut's marriage. "For the Rest of Her Life" is a good read, but Fassbinder's films is extraordinary on many levels, as we'll see. Still, I want to be clear how much I admire and enjoy Woolrich.
There are several intriguing connections between Woolrich (one of the most influential "unknown" American authors), Film Noir, and Fassbinder. Cornell Woolrich (19031968) is sometimes referred to as "the father of Noir" for such landmark suspense novels as Waltz Into Darkness (1947) and I Married a Dead Man (1948), which along with three dozen of his other works were adapted into (sometimes classic) Films Noir although often with title changes, and sometimes inspiring multiple remakes (as with these two books). His writing, at its finest, contains some of the most hauntingly tense yet lyrical prose of its time: take a look at the flawless opening pages of I Married a Dead Man. Using several different pseudonyms (including William Irish and George Hopley), he wrote the original works which inspired Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954; from the story, "It Had to Be Murder"), Truffaut's I Married a Dead Man (1967) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969; from Waltz Into Darkness), Jacques Tourneur & producer Val Lewton's The Leopard Man (1943; from The Black Alibi), Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944), and over forty other pictures. Like Fassbinder, Woolrich was gay; but unlike the filmmaker Woolrich kept himself closeted, resulting in an understandably anxious, even sinister, vision of life. For instance, in I Married a Dead Man (1940), as well as in "For the Rest of Her Life," love is at first held up as an ideal of happiness, but ironically it proves to be the catalyst for the darkest passions. In the 1947 story, "The Boy Cried Murder" (aka "Fire Escape"), which was memorably filmed in 1949 as The Window, and the novel I Married a Dead Man, the family is ultimately revealed not as a loving refuge but as a source of danger. Woolrich's best work shows him a master at depicting lives marked by doubt, fear, and alienation; and of course those qualities were to define the entire Noir genre, as well as much of Fassbinder's work. In fact, Fassbinder's earliest pictures were revisionist and sometimes homoerotic Films Noir: the title Love is Colder Than Death is also an ironic summing up of the tortured Mr. Woolrich's world view.
Martha is inspired by Woolrich's themes, but it is vintage Fassbinder in every way, from narrative and performance to its virtuosic command of style, which plays off the themes in revealing and sometimes startling ways.
Fassbinder here turned the inherent limitations of the television movie tight budget (although he was able to do some quick location shooting in Italy), focus on a few dynamic characters, and a clear storyline to powerful, and ironic, effect. Despite its seriously unsettling theme of sado-masochism in marriage, Fassbinder fashions one of his most relentlessly involving, and entertaining, works. Anchoring the film is the enormous depth of Margit Carstensen's performance in the title role, made even more remarkable by the fact that she is often alone onscreen, and so can convey her character only through gestures and facial expressions. (She appeared in 16 of Fassbinder's films, throughout his career, and gave other memorable lead performances in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Fear of Fear.) Carstensen creates a character completely in synch with Fassbinder's larger intentions for the film. Throughout, Martha is at once a figure of heartfelt pathos even as she is obviously an abstraction, played so far to the hilt that she distances us with her artifciality. Martha is like a puppet, but one made of real flesh and blood, whose fear and suffering we can feel even as we realize that her larger function is symbolic. It's an incredible balancing act, of life and art, that reveals the brilliance of both of Carstensen's performance and Fassbinder's writing and direction.
Karlheinz Böhm is also excellent, although the hissable nature of his sadistic character veers towards the thematic. His performance is every bit as purposefully stylized as his co-star's: he's so rigidly self-controlled that we sense the chaos churning just below his well-groomed surface. But Helmut embodies the Domineering Aryan Patriarch, the Fountainhead of Oppression and Despotism. You can imagine him fitting smoothly into the Nazi regime, with its 'ideals' of rigid gender roles and unquestioned male supremacy. Helmut may tell Martha repeatedly, just before he ravishes her, that "I love you boundlessly," but essentially he's a man who builds dams, whether of the large concrete and steel variety, or the emotional kind, which he creates through the systematic degradation and suppression of his wife. We learn nothing of the background which causes Helmut to be what he is, so we can never empathize with him as we do with Martha (we spend enough time with her domineering father and abusive mother to see the seeds of her masochism). Fassbinder is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of film (and other art forms), so it's not surprising that Helmut has a strong connection to Böhm's most famous character, the angel-faced serial killer in Michael Powell's stunning Peeping Tom (1960).
The supporting cast (drawn from Fassbinder's unofficial stock company) is, of course, uniformly excellent. In contrast to his two leads, Fassbinder has the rest of the actors perform in a more naturalistic style. However, the second male lead, the new assistant librarian, Mr. Kaiser (Peter Chatel, who would soon co-star with Fassbinder in Fox and His Friends), is a character who is (almost) too noble. Although the performance is restrained, Kaiser's classic good looks are used ironically, as the embodiment of a too-Romantic leading man. Most people in the audience are likely rooting for Martha to dump Helmut and ride off with Kaiser, which eventually she does with unexpected results. It's also worth noting that El Hedi ben Salem (one of the great loves of Fassbinder's life) has a bit part, in the opening sequence, as a gigolo cum thief, but in the filmmaker's next picture, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he plays not only the lead but inverts what some people might see as a racist stereotype (the dark-skinned hustler) here.
Fassbinder sets off his characters in what at first seems to be a straightforward, fast-paced melodrama. In fact, you could easily summarize the story of Martha to make it sound like a pretty conventional movie of the week: mousy middle-aged spinster marries Mr. Wrong and finds herself in matrimonial hell. But Fassbinder's use of melodrama is closer to that of, say, August Strindberg, who moved from Naturalism to Expressionism (Martha contains elements of the former in its dramatic content and the latter in its extreme visual style) in his exploration of the love-hate relationship between wives and husbands, in such works as his 1900 play, The Dance of Death. Even as he made Martha, Fassbinder was likely conceptualizing his imminent staging of Strindberg's 1889 tragedy, Miss Julie.
Invoking Strindberg also indicates another of Fassbinder's goals here, and throughout his body of work: exploring, and prodding, the boundary between high art and popular entertainment. That was also a fundamental aspect of the entire New German Cinema, which was initially created in rebellion against the uniform dullness of postwar German moviemaking. Martha takes not only one of Fassbinder's but one of the German audience's favorite genres, the melodrama, and blasts it to hell, even as he retains enough of the form to let audiences feel on familiar footing, for at least a little while.
Fassbinder's structure is clear and liner at least on the surface. He uses fades to black periodically, and not just to denote breaks for commercials. These fades clarify the structure, since they always occur after an emotional turning point. On a figurative level, you might say that the entire film is about fading to black, color and vitality being reduced to nothingness. (Of course, that reading may be a bit over the top: you'll find Martha can have that effect on you.)
As in many of his other films, Fassbinder effectively leaves out certain key scenes which we would expect to see, and which consequently we must imagine for ourselves on the fly. (This is also a good example of one of Fassbinder's techniques for simultaneously involving us directly in the film even as he distances us from conventional expectations.) For instance, we don't see Martha and Helmut's wedding, although earlier we were treated to a protracted, and emotionally painful, scene at the lavish, but grotesquely rigid, wedding banquet of Dr. Salomon (Helmut's brother) and Ilse (played by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven). By omitting Martha and Helmut's wedding, Fassbinder reinforces his focus is on their hideous private life. If this film sometimes makes you feel like you are peeping through a keyhole, that's exactly the effect Fassbinder wants: but of course he'd also grill you on why you felt the way you did. The offscreen wedding also provides Fassbinder a chance to show off his mastery at dialogue, not to mention acid wit, when Martha gushes to Helmut: "Such a lovely wedding.... One hardly noticed the medical attendants." They were there for Martha's alcoholic and abusive mother, who had again overdosed on tranquilizers and whose condition sadly and ironically foreshadows Martha's own.
Throughout, Martha contains some of Fassbinder's most pointed, revealing, and hilarious lines, often revolving around a character saying one thing while we know although they do not that they mean another. This can be as cutting as Martha's (unnamed) Mother calling her while looking at her too-red and too-moist lips "my little [whorish] madam" (perhaps she sees that her thirtyish virgin daughter has a fire in her loins to equal that of Carstensen's nymphomaniac Countess in The Niklashausen Journey), or as bizarre as Martha reciting, to please her man, long sections of a technical guide to dam construction.
The ultimate line in the picture which would undoubtedly get the biggest laugh in a theatre (this was always a TV movie with aspirations) comes near the end, when Martha finds Helmut come home earlier than expected (she's just been out, innocently, with Kaiser) and she screams in abject, paranoid terror that Helmut "just brought me a present. He's going to kill me! AGH!!!" She repeats this line several times, even after she runs through a field of placid cows to Kaiser. But as she grows increasingly and comically hysterical, he strictly enforces the library's 'silence' policy by slapping her. (This violent act might also get a tense laugh from the audience, since Martha's whining is extremely annoying; and despite its wrongness it makes Kaiser less idealized, more believable as a person.) The line is so funny because it presents a paradox getting a present does not lead to being murdered which also, in the twisted world of this film (Helmut had just murdered Martha's cat), just might be accurate. Television is primarily a dialogue-based medium (closer to radio than cinema), but with a wit as probing as Fassbinder's, spoken words can be used to devastating effect.
Even beyond the dialogue, humor in this film which takes many forms is hilarous and complex. Paradoxically, the laughs also make the film feel liberating, in part because we are (presumably) not involved in a similarly horrific relationship and hence can vicariously enjoy Martha's histrionically bad fortune (Fassbinder is not letting us off the hook that easily, as we'll see below). But Fassbinder's vision also allows a much broader perspective on these emotional dynamics and their implications. Let's look at some more ways in which Fassbinder uses yucks (even though this will, inevitably, suck some of the spontaneous fun out of the picture: ah, the price you pay).
What's in a name? In Martha, symbolically and playfully a lot; and not just because all of the names here were invented by Fassbinder (as opposed to taken from Woolrich's story). For the men, each one's name is more grandiose than the last. Fassbinder's dramatic idol Brecht would have been proud to whip up a simple but deliciously ironic name like "Herr Meister" (literally, 'Mr. Master') who heads not some multinational corporation but the local branch of the state library. Although his assistant is technically his subordinate, his name isn't: our romantic leading man, Mr. Kaiser, obviously recalls the title of kaiser (derived from 'Caesar') used by the historical rulers of the German empire. The most ironic name of all belongs Martha's husband and brother-in-law: for who can argue with 'the wisdom of Salomon' (Solomon)? There is perhaps a further irony in that this über-Aryan has a traditionally Jewish last name: would even his golden hair and icy-blue eyes have saved him just thirty years earlier?
Martha Heyer takes her name from a talented but relatively obscure even in 1973 Hollywood actress, Martha Hayer, best known for her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Some Came Running (the 1958 melodrama directed by one of Fassbinder's favorite, and gay, directors, Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis, Gigi), whose 1962 picture, Two Weeks in Another Town, was a major filmic influence on the otherwise autobiographical Beware of a Holy Whore). Perhaps even more important than the last name Fassbinder gave Martha is her address, which comes out after her father's death when she goes to the German Embassy in Rome and is grilled by an agent (Kurt Raab, who also designed this film and worked on most of Fassbinder's productions). Along with her age (31) and other vital statistics, we learn Martha's tongue-in-cheek address in her hometown of Constance, Germany: 21 Douglas Sirk Street. If there is a mantra in writing about Fassbinder it is that you must mention Douglas Sirk at least once in every article; then again, that's fitting. Sirk, in films like the great All That Heaven Allowed which Fassbinder brilliantly reimagined in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, inspired Fassbinder to create layers of thematic and political density which the critically-maligned genre of the melodrama probably never knew it had. But Fassbinder chafed at working within the confines of a genre (has anyone, even Godard, ever pulverized a genre more fully than Fassbinder did with the Western in Whity). And we can see his ripping at the seams of the melodrama here, even as we look ahead to his more subtle reforming of it in his BRD films. He pushes the genre far beyond the breaking point, and in doing so breathes a frantic but new life into it. He takes the understated, or even offscreen, moments of darkest intimacy and blows them up to exaggerated heights to shine a kleig light on the hideous emotional paradoxes: Martha, and persumably Helmut, wants love but instead settles for lacerating pain. Who but Fassbinder could have crafted such an incisive comedy about torture from the humble melodrama?
Getting back to the associations which cluster around Martha, also of note is her hometown of Constance (Konstanz), Germany, which is where she has always lived with her family, and for the past few years worked at the state library. The most obvious irony in using "Constance" is the steep price an abused wife like Martha pays for being 'constant' to her monstrous husband. But there is possibly also an historical shade of meaning. The town is infamous as the location of the early fifteenth century Council of Constance, at which Jan Hus, the religious reformer (aka "heretic" to the Catholic Church, then in the midst of its Western Schism which saw no fewer than three popes simultaneously battling for legitimacy as The One Pope), was promised he could defend his scriptural interpretations but instead found himself burned at the stake. Sadly, Martha could relate to deception, although spared that particular fate. This reference also highlights the other religious references in the film which might reflect the freethinking Fassbinder's ironic stance towards sacred institutions. In a couple of shots, in Helmut's mansion, we see close-ups of a medieval wood carving of a weeping Virgin Mary: the face, to modern audiences, looks cartoonish with its giant teardrops, and in conjunction with Martha's whiney state, might get an impious laugh.
Of course, the most overt biblical reference comes in Martha's own name. In the gospels of Luke and John, Martha Mary's sister is often seen scurrying about, trying to make Jesus comfortable. The parallels between the biblical and Fassbinderian Marthas seem more than coincidental, especially in light of Fassbinder's critical take on religion. Fassbinder also likely intended a chilling yet ironic meaning for Dr. Salomon's (sexist) pontification, in the final scene, set in the film's most oppressive and sterile locale. These are almost the last words we hear in the film: "When God makes a decision, man can't change it." So not only is Martha constrained by her family, society, her husband, and now a wheelchair for the rest of her life, but by the Deity as well.
Another instance of Fassbinder using religion for satirical effect, although obliquely, involves music. Helmut wants Martha only to listen a large-scale sacred choral work by Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (15321594). As a music lover, I regard the extraordinarily diverse and rich music of Lasso very highly (he was as prolific composing music as Fassbinder was making films); so if Fassbinder wanted an example of bloodless church music, he might have gone with, say, Palestrina, whose music was officially recognized by the Church for its "piety" (which would better fit with Fassbinder's theme). Strangely, during a late scene when Helmut deigns to accept Martha's groveling apology (he disappeared for a few days and she fell apart), he picks up an LP cover and nods happily, saying, "Lasso." But in fact the music we hear is Bruch's well-known first violin concerto, which functions as the principal source of music in this film without an original score. In any event, Fassbinder cunningly fragments this extremely (some would say schmaltzily) Romantic piece, so that although we hear it many times, under many scenes, but only in bits and pieces. That strangely 'off' repetition renders the music both haunting and grating; and it can be argued that he is here delineating Martha's fragmented perspective through sound, as well as image and drama.
Fassbinder makes another hilarious point about Helmut's taste or lack thereof in music, as he screams at Martha for listening to Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). "Slime!," he calls it. "SLIME!" What would the actor's father legendary conductor Karl Böhm (who decided that rather than flee Nazi Germany he would stay and make music for the Fatherland) have thought, after conducting it many times. It's also worth noting that opera is literally 'melodrama,' music and drama, a connection not lost on Fassbinder (among his myriad "10 Best Lists" he included one for opera and another for soccer players). Finally, the reference to Lucia di Lammermoor brings to mind the famous 'mad scene' perhaps the best known in all opera which foreshadows Martha's own, less musical but no less histrionic, breakdown (even as it recalls his use of the same opera in Beware of a Holy Whore). I've detailed this range of associations to Donizetti to give just one example of how densely-woven associations can be in Fassbinder's films. You certainly don't need to be thinking of any tissue of references while you're watching and enjoying the film, but if you're interested in how Fassbinder textures his films, you can find countless more examples throughout his body of work on your own.
That density of meaning also suggests why a joke in Fassbinder is rarely just a stand-alone gag. His use of humor is so resonant because it connects, on many levels, with the film's broader themes. Take psychology. Fassbinder not only read about Freud, he pored over the actual texts. And you can see how that reading paid off, through savagely revealing laughs, in this film. Look at the contradictions in Martha (which, we will see later, reflect the even deeper splits in her marriage, and in society). Although she's still a virgin in her thirties, obedient to her parents (the first thing she does in the film is answer her father's buzzer), she wears the reddest, wettest lipstick you've ever seen. When her drunken mother taunts her with being a "little madam," you can see what she means.
When Helmut courts her, after his brother's wedding banquet, he uses increasingly demeaning language ("you are so skinny," "your body smells"), but she just stands there, simultaneously and masochistically lapping up the attention, even as she keeps both hands firmly planted over her groin.
There is also a very creepy dynamic between Martha and her father. The man is lying on the Spanish Steps, dying, and all he can say to her is, "You always want to touch me.... Let go of me, Martha." This suggests volumes about the not-so-subtle incestuous undercurrents which ran through their twisted relationship. Electra Complex, anyone? Our uneasiness with this dynamic is compounded by Fassbinder's having cast actors as both of Martha's parents who seem to be about the same age as Ms. Carstensen: could Herr und Frau Heyer have conceived her when they were five years old? In the opening Rome sequence she seems to be more wife than daughter to her Father; and in her later scenes with her mother, the two women act as sisterly rivals not parent and child. Later, Helmut even torments Martha with insinuations about daughter/father love. Martha makes what Helmut told her on their honeymoon was his favorite dish pig's kidneys in Burgundy sauce [I'll pass] only to be criticized, "You know I'm allergic to offal. I can't eat that.... Did your father like pig's kidneys?" She admits he did.
With such a disturbing set of family values, it's no wonder that Martha is as riotously messed up as she is. We now move on to the central dynamic of this and almost all of Fassbinder's other films: the price of human relationships. From his earliest films, like the brilliant Katzelmacher, where men sometimes pay their girlfriends for sex, to the ever-shifting dynamic of love/business/prostitution in late films like The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, Fassbinder shows us love as a commodity regulated by the laws of supply and demand. But he never beats us over the head with a simple-mindedly dramatized tract. Look at how Fassbinder expresses this theme through dialogue which is purposefully, sometimes hilariously, overwrought, as when the just-married Martha says to Helmut in the first car scene, "My God, I've so much tenderness to give you!" After she goes on in that euphoric vein, Helmut punctures her romantic bubble by saying, "I don't need to convince myself." That line is both psychologically astute but, more significantly for defining his character, cruel and sadistic; he's a man who uses his 'superior intellect' not to connect with his wife but to degrade and hurt her. The visual provides a brilliant counterpart, as we see Martha and Helmut crunched up into a narrow band across the top of the frame, while below them three-quarters of the image consists of the ominous black mass of the rain-drenched car. The vehicle is supposed to be moving, but obviously it's being shot on a soundstage, hence providing yet a further degree of emotional distance, allowing us to consider the rich texture of ideas, images, and emotions.
Even for a rare scene set in the sun (almost all of Martha is shot indoors), the beauties of nature offer no real solace. Look at the honeymoon scene, at the Italian beach resort. Helmut wastes no time in continuing to break down his new bride, saying that a man should support his wife and that it's embarrassing for her to work. When Martha offhandedly defends women's independence (she likes her job at the library), Helmut punishes her by letting her fall asleep, unprotected, in the sun. In a film concerned so much with sex, significantly we see very little of it: what we don't see, or talk about, is always worse than what we examine. The only flesh we see in the entire film is Martha's; never Helmut's. Fassbinder shoots fragmented, even abstract, close-ups of her abdomen: earlier at the beach when she is pale, and a little later inthe hotel suite when she is beet-red with sunburn. Flesh is vulnerable: note how Helmut sadistically, and for them both erotically, rubs his rough hand over inflamed skin. Martha's moans of physical pain modulate into a sound much more unnerving, as he climbs on top of her. Again we are reminded that this is a world in which touch is not only proscribed (remember the words of dying Father) but dangerous; and without touch there can be no genuine connection.
Fassbinder now immediately underlines the disconnected nature of his world, even beyond this sad couple, with another inspired image. He slowly pans away from the S-M lovers, stopping at the window (in a composition which would have made even Edward Hopper proud). Outside we see a vista of the sparkling blue sea, but we are cut off from it, as it is fragmented, neatly divided into little units by the prison bar-like railing. The couple is offscreen, but Helmut's perspective still dominates.
Martha and Helmut together rivet our attention (in something like the way we can't peel our eyes away from an accident), but what makes Martha such an involving, even a heartbreaking, character is that we see her in many private moments. In other films such solitary moments provide opportunities when characters can, literally or metaphorically, let their hair down. But not for Martha. Many other pictures show a ruthless husband dominating his wife (Cukor's excellent 1944 thriller Gaslight comes immediately to mind), but none that I know offers such extremes of emotional complexity, in part because of the devilish sense of humor, which both makes the psychological terror more chilling and helps maintain our involvement in this punishing relationship.
It's tensely funny when Helmut storms off when she admits she hasn't listened to Lasso or read his dam book; but the guffaws die down as we understand the extent of his control. Although now alone, with only us gazing at her, she demurely puts on the Lasso LP, takes the massive engineering book, goes onto the verandah to smoke (as instructed), and reads about the "water and cement factor." Later, we see that she even covers her own mouth when she screams.
The deeply sinister aspect of this self-policing is not lost on Fassbinder. And I believe it's possible to see this film in a much larger social, and even historical, perspective as his interpretation of how 'prisoners' not only bond with their 'jailers', but become dependent on them. (This dynamic is familiar to readers of such studies as The Informed Heart (1960), Bruno Bettelheim's look at the interpersonal dynamics of Nazi concentration camp prisoners and guards.) In microcosm, Helmut's wearing his wife down into abject submission follows the same template that the Nazis refined, both on a mass social scale and, perhaps even more disturbingly, within the confines of their own 'happy families.'
Ironically, while human nature is straitened, vegetable nature is superabundant, with enormous leafy jungle plants filling the Heyers' and the Salomons' houses both of which are similarly stiflingly Victorian as well as almost every other interior. At Dr. Salomon's wedding banquet, the guests are completely engulfed by masses of foliage and hothouse flowers. But this is not overgrown plant world in the wild: each and every plant is confined to its own little pot.
As you can see in every shot, those plants are far from the only things tightly-bound in this world. I now want to look at Fassbinder's virtuosic use of visual style (the cinematographer was Michael Ballhaus, who did almost half of Fassbinder's pictures and who has shot all of Scorsese's films for the past twenty years). These images are not only striking in themselves but are used to brilliant effect as Fassbinder plays them off his themes. As we see from the very first shot, this is a film about boundaries. Fassbinder opens with one of only three or four panoramic shots in the entire film, yet the view of Rome is drab, lifeless (as far from, say, Wyler's sparkling Roman Holiday (1953) as you can get). A moment later the dutiful Martha appears, answering the annoying buzzer of her offscreen father, and walks through the open window into her colorless, confining apartment. As Fassbinder shows through his use of space, Martha's options are few and as we will see in the entire visual scheme far between.
The boundary extends to the way in which Fassbinder, throughout the film (as well as in many of his other works, notably this film's thematic twin, Effi Briest), emphasizes the closed nature of the frame. In the works of some filmmakers Jean Renoir and Robert Altman come instantly to mind an entire world is implied beyond the confines of the frame. But that is resolutely not the case here. Several times, Helmut proclaims to Martha, just before he leaps on her sexually, "I love you boundlessly." But of course he is a man who builds boundaries dams. And besides, the images tell a very different story.
Fassbinder keeps the pressure on his characters even in his compositions, with strong verticals, and sometimes horizontals too, wedging them in. We also have many shots of frames within frames (such as scenes staged in doorways). He often emphasizes deep space but then places his actors in only a narrow band of action, which emphasizes the setting's and their wasted potential: recall the car scenes with Martha and Helmut's heads wedged into a thin area at the frame's top.
Perhaps the most extraordinary visual motif comes mirrors, especially those in the Salomon's house which are made of slightly uneven tile-like squares and the multi-colored "Cubist" mirror in the tavern, late in the film, where Kaiser and Martha meet. The mirrors render characters as not only fragmented, but distorted and slightly grotesque. Of course, Fassbinder is well known for his frequent use of mirrors throughout his films (a technique he says he learned from Douglas Sirk), but here they are used to extraordinary effect. They strikingly reflect the narcissistic, closed, superficial and split nature of these people.
Fassbinder also uses movement to great effect. As Martha and the Romantically-handsome Mr. Kaiser walk in tandem around the edges of the library, the camera keeps its distance but tracking them all the way. That sometimes predatory aspect of the camera as if it were stalking its prey is seen to astonishing effect in the single most memorable shot in the film. Moments after Martha leaves her dead father on the Spanish Steps (he told her to go and she obeyed, although she also wants to find the thief ("the Libyan" played by El Hedi ben Salem) who stole her purse), she crosses paths with Helmut. The camera could hardly be more emphatic about their brief, wordless meeting, as it does a double 360 degree turn around them, even as they spin about each other in a direction opposite to the camera move: virtuosic dizziness, and one of the most fabulous moments in all of Fassbinder. Helmut and Martha may think that they are checking each other out, but that is nothing compared to the camera's and filmmaker's relentless gaze, as it ensnares them in ever-tightening circles. (Not surprisingly, Fassbinder had wanted to add a vertical dimension to this shot by doing it on the Spanish Steps, but that was technically impossible in the pre-Steadicam, pre-digital-effects era: still, you can imagine what it would have been like.)
Another way in which Fassbinder places boundaries within the film is with a seemingly endless series of doubled, tripled, or otherwise multiplied motifs. On one level, the entire picture can be seen as a huge mirror reflecting and distorting itself, through scenes, dialogue (recall how often both Helmut and Martha use the word "boundless), and especially images. But at the same time, all of the reduplication makes the film even more completely closed. Dramatically and thematically, it comes as no surprise when Helmut eventually asks Martha "not to go out of the house anymore."
That 'double 360' shot is recalled in two other pivotal moments. One is the gleefully nausea-inducing roller coaster sequence, during Helmut's courtship, shot from Martha's hysterical perspective. The other scene, which brings both the vertical and horizontal perspectives vertiginously into play, occurs near the end when Kaiser's car goes out of control (thanks to Martha's ham-fisted paranoia) and tumbles over and over, the POV camera (mounted on the inside dashboard) showing us every fateful moment.
Visually and dramatically extreme moments like that, in which boundaries are briefly shot to hell, suggest Fassbinder's deeper structural purpose. In this film, he has shown us not only the evolving, or devolving, nature of a sado-masochistic couple, he has actually created a structure dramatic and visual which mirrors that relationship, and then takes it and us to a new level.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this tragicomic film is its double perspective. It is told simultaneously from both Martha's and Helmut's points of view. Martha reflects the emotion and empathy we feel, even as the wickedly sardonic sense of humor which laces every scene is Helmut's (we'll get to the still larger framework in just a moment). This tonally bifurcated film, with its labyrinth of constrained yet fragmented images, also suggests that the extreme role playing of sado-masochism is yet another form of unwitting boundary imposition. Its twisted tender/corrosive nature is revealed within each shot: Martha screams in terror yet we laugh. Ambivalence as art.
What makes this film not only great but a quintessential Fassbinder work is that, at the end, he leaves us to sort out everything for ourselves, from disentangling the 'truth' of the narrative and the characters from the multi-layered images which we see (including some of the most ravishing in all of Fassbinder). This film transcends melodrama, or rather uses it to probe into some of the darkest, most frightening, recesses of human experience and then, ultimately, it asks questions. Lots of questions.
Why does Martha submit to Helmut, even when she is alone? Of course such a motivation could be explained by slapping on a psychological label: 'masochism.' But this is not the 'real world,' and to say that the film has a symbolic dimension is obvious. Why does Fassbinder leave her at the end now literally as well as figuratively paralyzed even more hideously dominated than before? I don't mean to be flippant, but it makes you think. And that's the point. Martha remains more trapped than ever, but Fassbinder through both his artistic strategies and his radical compassion has left us more free than we could ever be watching, say, a typical TV product, er, movie. Fassbinder has exposed not only some of the more reactionary assumptions of melodrama ('it's all about finding a Good Man and Settlng Down') but the self-destructive nature of some relationships, in fact, the kind which he implies led to the spread of fascism (and not just in Hitler's Germany).
Fassbinder has used his mastery of cinema character, drama, image, movement, sound not only to tell the tale, but to comment on it in ways which are both unsettling and riveting. He has drawn us into the hideously complex emotional trap of Martha and Helmut even as his multi-layered irony has given us the emotional and intellectual freedom necessary to understand that this damned couple, whose interlocked perspective informs every aspect of this film, is also a mirror in this film bursting with mirror imagery in which we may see ourselves. To what degree? What can we do about it? And why? Well, those are the really tough questions.
Fantoma, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has released a DVD with very good image and sound quality (especially considering that it was originally made for television), and an excellent special feature in the full-length documentary, "Fassbinder in Hollywood."
- New digital transfer anamorphic widescreen
- Presented in the original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- German with optional English subtitles
- Fassbinder in Hollywood – a provocative full-length documentary about Fassbinder's connections to Hollywood, including speculations about what he might have done if he had relocated there ("I'd rather be 'unfree' working in America than imagine I'm free working in Europe"). This 2002 film includes all-new interviews with many of Fassbinder's principal collaborators, including Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and director Wim Wenders. It also features clips from several of Fassbinder's major films, and serves as a good brief overview of his entire career.
- Text and Photo Galleries
- Liner Notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum, author of Midnight Movies and Placing Movies
Reviewed May 31, 2004 (the 58th or 59th anniversary of Fassbinder's birth)
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