BRD Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss
BRD-Trilogie: Die Ehe der Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss
1978–1982 — Production information given below for each film in this trilogy
Fassbinder’s 34th , 39th, and 40th features, one of Fassbinder’s crowning achievements, the BRD Trilogy is an exploration of the complexities and contradictions of postwar Germany as embodied in a trio of unforgettable women.
- The Marriage of Maria Braun
- Veronika Voss
- BRD Trilogy Considered As A Whole
- Crew & Cast
- Fassbinder Homepage / LGBTQ+ Cinema
FILMS: Shorts “Little Chaos” and “City Tramp” | 1. Love is Colder Than Death | 2. Katzelmacher | 3. Gods of the Plague | 4. Coffeehouse | 5. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? | 6. American Soldier | 7. Niklashausen Journey | 8. Rio das Mortes | 9. Pioneers in Ingolstadt | 10. Whity | 11. Beware of a Holy Whore | 12. Merchant of Four Seasons | 13. Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | 14. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day | 15. Bremen Freedom | 16. Jail Bait | 17. World on a Wire | 18. Nora Helmer | 19. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul | 20. Martha | 21. Effi Briest | 22. Like a Bird on a Wire | 23. Fox and His Friends | 24. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven | 25. Fear of Fear | 26. I Only Want You to Love Me | 27. Satan’s Brew | 28. Chinese Roulette | 29. Women in New York | 30. Stationmaster’s Wife | 31. Germany in Autumn | 32. Despair | 33. In a Year With 13 Moons | 34. Marriage of Maria Braun | 35. Third Generation | 36. Berlin Alexanderplatz | 37. Lili Marleen | 38. Theater in Trance | 39. Lola | 40. Veronika Voss | 41. Querelle.
Disclosure: I have written the liner notes for U.K.-based Arrow Film’s Region 2 DVD release of The Marriage of Maria Braun. That essay draws on my review presented here.
One of Fassbinder’s crowning achievements is the BRD trilogy, which explores the complexities and contradictions of postwar Germany through the lives of three unforgettable women. (BRD stands for the Bundesrepublik Deutschland – the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany.) Each film is stylistically unique and stands on its own; yet as a whole they offer an exceptionally probing look at the tangled connections between the individual and society. They also showcase three breathtaking performances, and reveal some tantalizing pieces of Fassbinder’s own life. Each viewer will have their own preference for which film is the best (I’ve read persuasive advocates for each; my nod goes to Veronika Voss), but the richness, power, and mystery of this trio of films can hardly be overstated. The pristine DVD transfers come from the Criterion Collection in a four-disc set, which includes a wealth of supplemental features: commentaries on each film, documentaries, exclusive video interviews, and more.
Regarding ‘plot spoilers:’ Although I do not reveal the endings to any of these films in the introductions and plot summaries directly below, in my review of the BRD trilogy as a whole – which follows the introductions, I do discuss major plot elements, including the final scenes.
Introductions and Summaries
- The Marriage of Maria Braun – introduction and plot summary
- Lola – introduction and plot summary
- Veronika Voss – introduction and plot summary
- Review of the BRD Trilogy – considered as a whole
Production Credits & DVD Details
- The Marriage of Maria Braun – Crew/Cast & DVD
- Lola – Crew/Cast & DVD
- Veronika Voss – Crew/Cast & DVD
- DVD Supplements (on Disc 4) for the BRD Trilogy
The Marriage of Maria Braun
Die Ehe der Maria Braun
1978 — 120 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) was Fassbinder’s greatest international box-office success, and the first film in his series about postwar Germany. This story of a woman picking herself up from the ruins of her own life, and her country’s, is simultaneously a work of heartbreaking pathos and mordant black comedy. Fassbinder creates one of his most indelible characters in Maria Braun, brought fully to life by the great Hanna Schygulla (who appeared in half of his films, including Katzelmacher, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest). He also uses her ‘rags to riches’ story as a satirical mirror of the “Economic Miracle” of the ’50s. It was a time when both Maria and Germany desperately wanted to forget their past, whatever the price.
Summary: Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) in the catastrophic final days of World War II. After a one-night honeymoon, he returns to combat on the Russian front, where he’s listed as killed in action. Devastated but ambitious, Maria uses her shrewd intelligence and sexual allure to prosper amid the ruins of postwar Germany. Working in a dance hall she becomes the girlfriend of an African-American GI named Bill (Greg Eagles, credited as George Byrd); then through a chance meeting with factory owner Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), she rapidly ascends from secretary to his mistress to phenomenally successful businesswoman.
1981 — 113 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
Shot in eye-popping childlike colors, and featuring once of Fassbinder’s most ingenious soundtracks, Lola (1981) is a stylistic tour de force as well an homage to Josef von Sternberg’s classic, The Blue Angel – and a diabolically clever satire of capitalism run amok. Epitomizing Germany’s “Economic Miracle,” Lola is a scheming but totally ingratiating survivor who has learned how to elevate herself in a world where everything, and everybody, is for sale. Although the film’s credits list this as “BRD 3,” it was actually shot second in the series, two years after The Marriage of Maria Braun and right before Veronika Voss.
Summary: In the fall of 1957, the beguiling small-town singer/prostitute Lola (Barbara Sukowa) relishes her power over men. But she wants more from life, namely money, property, and true love. While involved with a poetically-inclined anarchist, Esslin (Matthias Fuchs), Lola hatches an outrageous plan to pit a corrupt building contractor, Schukert (Mario Adorf), against the new upright, and uptight, building commissioner, von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Lola, in her most chaste guise, ensnares von Bohm, who falls head over heels. (He also does not realize that his housekeeper (Karin Baal) is actually Lola’s mother, and the little girl, Marie, is also Lola’s.) But our (anti)heroine’s plan hits a major snag when Schukert brings von Bohm to her cabaret/bordello, and her secret comes out during a mind-blowing production number.
1982 — 104 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Drama
Suggested by the true story of one of Fassbinder’s favorite actresses, German film star Sybille Schmitz (Dreyer’s Vampyr), Veronika Voss is a probing look at the darkest recesses of Germany’s postwar prosperity. It is at once a strangely poignant love story, a needle-sharp satire in the trappings of a classic melodrama, and one of the most breathtakingly stylish black and white films in modern cinema. Although its credits list this as “BRD 2,” and indicate that it is set in 1955, it was actually shot last in the series, right before Fassbinder made his final picture, Querelle.
Summary: A decade after the war, a faded Nazi starlet named Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) lives in obscurity in Munich, the virtual prisoner of her neurologist, Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who supplies her with the drugs she craves so long as she can pay the exorbitant fee. Struggling to survive, but still beautiful, the forgotten actress has a chance meeting with sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate). Despite his loyal girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), Krohn becomes obsessed with Veronika’s sexual allure and mysterious past, which includes her enigmatic husband, Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl). As the unlikely relationship of Veronika and Krohn develops, he begins to uncover the dark secrets behind her fall.
BRD Trilogy Considered As A Whole
First things first: the three BRD films are not, strictly speaking, a trilogy. They are the first three parts of what Fassbinder intended to be a vast, multi-film history of modern Germany. The project was cut short by his tragic death at age 36. The international acclaim and success of The Marriage of Maria Braun, which were very important to Fassbinder, convinced him that he should continue looking systematically at the postwar German society in which he grew up. Three years after the first film in the cycle, which covered the end of World War II through 1954 (we know the year because of the World Cup soccer match playing on the radio in the final scene), Fassbinder turned his attention to 1957-58 with Lola. Shot second, it was the first film in the “trilogy” to receive a number; paradoxically it was “BRD 3.” A year later came “BRD 2” (set in 1955), Veronika Voss, his next-to-last film. Had he lived longer, Fassbinder intended to continue the series with several more films, each one exploring a specific brief period of modern Germany and likely focusing on an extraordinary woman, extending up to the then-present of the 1980s and perhaps even beyond.
Although Fassbinder’s admirers will always be speculating about what such an expansive work might have been like (especially knowing what Fassbinder could do with an epic structure, as in the 16-hour masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz), we are indeed fortunate to have three films as extraordinarily rich, both individually and even more so when viewed together, as the BRD trio. With their memorable anti-heroines, they work brilliantly on many interconnected levels – as incredibly juicy starring roles, as revisionist melodramas, as historical and political metaphors. They are films of tremendous power and artistry, which successfully combine Hollywood-style glamour with trenchant social criticism. They also suggest some fascinating things about Fassbinder himself.
Watching the films now on DVD, several years after seeing them in theatres, I realize that part of what makes them so unforgettable are the nagging questions they implicitly ask:
Why does Maria Braun obsess for years over her husband, Hermann, whom she barely knew and with whom she had only had a one-night honeymoon? Why does the “straight arrow” von Bohm obsess over Lola, to the point that that he risks everything for her? Why does Robert Krohn obsess over Veronika Voss, a faded Nazi starlet who has nothing in common with him (or his devoted girlfriend)?
As I will discuss throughout this review, beyond the obvious common thread of romantic obsession, I think these questions also relate to many deeper issues which tie together not only these three films but Fassbinder’s larger body of work. I also believe that they point to the genuine mysteries of character and history, as opposed to vague screenwriting, which makes these pictures so rich.
These works are at the heart of Fassbinder’s filmography, although they were written under atypical circumstances. While Fassbinder wrote virtually all of his own screenplays, and most were original, here he only crafted the original screen stories and ending scenes. Because of severe time constraints, he hired two friends to do the actual scripts: Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich, neither of whom had written a film before. Märtesheimer, in the interview included on the DVD, has a wonderful comment on Fassbinder, saying, “he lived, loved, bled and died with his characters;” and that he always felt the filmmaker’s “presence” while writing the screenplays with his girlfriend-then-wife, Pea Fröhlich, who acted primarily as a story editor. Fassbinder had enjoyed working with Märtesheimer when he produced his 1972 TV mini-series Eight Hours are Not a Day (most Germans knew Fassbinder during his lifetime through that hit TV show rather his films), the telefilms Martha and Fear of Fear, the 1978 theatrical release Despair, and a few other projects. For this trio of socially-analytical films he also must have appreciated Märtesheimer’s strong background in sociology. The only time Fassbinder demanded a major rewrite was on Lola, although he completely changed the endings for all three pictures himself. He made only minor revisions during production, and by all accounts – including his own – he was very happy with these screenplays.
Personally, I think The Marriage of Maria Braun takes a bit too long to reach the central relationship of Maria and Oswald, and that makes it feel structurally lopsided. Also there are one or two too many coincidences, even for a film which works (self-)consciously as a revisionist, and often ironic, melodrama (as I’ll discuss below). Lola maintains a sure sense of momentum, both in characters and ideas, yet its narrative structure could be a little tighter. Veronika Voss works brilliantly on every level, from drama to psychological and historical insight to style, and I believe it is one of Fassbinder’s most inspired and completely successful creations. But while the films are of course grounded by their screenplays, they work on many additional levels and in many complementary, and sometimes purposefully contradictory, ways, as we will now see.
Even with this collaborative writing, Fassbinder was able to create three of his most personal, even autobiographical, films (he once said The Marriage of Maria Braun reflected “my mother’s story”). He came into the world not long after the Nazis (officially) left it. He was born near Munich on May 31st, but sources still differ as to the year, whether it was 1945 (Internet Movie Database and others) or 1946 (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004 edition and still others). He grew up during the administration of Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of postwar Germany (1949–1963), who oversaw the BRD’s ascent from a decimated foe to an economically viable member of the European community. This turnaround is often referred to as Germany’s Economic Miracle, or “Wirtschaftswunder.” Although a film review is not the best place for a mini-Economics lesson, I will point out that under this modified free-market economy, the means of production were left in private hands while market mechanisms set wage and price levels. Governmental measures were designed to foster an equitable distribution of the wealth generated by the pursuit of profit. So successful were these policies that not only could rationing soon end, but industrial output quickly recovered and living standards rebounded dramatically.
Of course, Fassbinder paints a rather less rosy picture of the era. There’s a telling, although possibly apocryphal, Fassbinder comment: “Scratch the surface of the BRD and you might find a Swastika underneath.” Less contentiously, Fassbinder once remarked that the ’50s “represents humanity at its most vulnerable…. People did not live during those times…. They did not experience them psychically.”
He would have seen how hard the transition from their Nazi past was in his own splintered home: after his physician father left when he was six, he was raised by his mother (who often went by her stage name of Lilo Pempeit), who among other things was the first German translator of Truman Capote, and would later act in many of her son’s films (including The Marriage of Maria Braun as Maria’s nervous secretary and in Veronika Voss as the owner of the jewelry store where Veronika buys a brooch with Krohn’s money, then returns it for cash after he leaves). As she admitted, like most of her peers she had been an ardent young supporter of Hitler, even joining a Hitlerian girls organization. But during the 1950s, Germans experienced a far-reaching collective amnesia. They were desperately blinding themselves to their own recent past, not to mention any analysis of what originally allowed the Nazis to come to power; that was made easier by the rampant, new-found prosperity. But as Fassbinder grew up, he increasingly wanted to understand the past of his nation, which on other levels made him feel like an outsider, as an artist, a leftist, and a gay man.
Fassbinder set the BRD films during this decade of economic and political upheaval. But although the films deal explicitly with the development of postwar Germany, Fassbinder is not interested in historical exposition. All of these films work very well on their own, without any historical background: Fassbinder is, of course, a master storyteller. But even if you don’t know history, Fassbinder allows you to intuit it; you could plot Germany’s economic recovery just by looking at the changes in Maria’s clothing, literally from rags to haute couture. Fassbinder also gives us snippets of data in the form of radio broadcasts (shades of novelist John dos Passos), which punctuate all three films. These authentic historical “texts” give us a context for what is happening, from Adenauer’s government to soccer championships. Fassbinder was a huge soccer fan, but he was also aware of the connection between sporting competitiveness and an obsession with winning politically and financially.
To take one more example, a major issue of the era was rearmament, as we can hear from a series of radio broadcasts which pop up throughout The Marriage of Maria Braun. The expansion of Communism, as well as the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and a constant horror of nuclear warfare, convinced many in the US and Europe that it was in “freedom’s” best interest for West Germany to again establish an army. But so soon after the catastrophe of World War II, many Germans protested against rearmament (note that Fassbinder includes a couple of scenes of protests). But throughout the film, Fassbinder draws a sharp parallel between Germany’s gradual but inexorable adoption of a pro-armament stance and Maria’s increasing material success. This reaches a climax, on several levels, near the end of the film when Maria, leaving an elegant restaurant, hears on the radio that Germany will rearm. What Fassbinder does visually is incisive: he squeezes Maria (already bound by her fashionable but tightly-cut gray business suit) into the background of the frame (further constricting her by shooting through yet another frame in the French windows) while in the foreground he presents the unrealistic, but titillating, sight of a half-naked couple having sex (the fact that they are both fragmented and in shadows makes their pleasure rather less alluring). Fassbinder tells us, tongue in cheeck, that symbolically speaking Germany, like the woman, is getting (you know). Fassbinder is a master at joining sound and image – not to mention irony – to explore his themes.
What really interests Fassbinder is not just coming up with ingenious historical/artistic parallels; he wanted to dig beneath his country’s complacent surface, to explore in depth – psychologically, socially, and ethically – what drove it into a living hell. While no artists in Germany were then trying to understand it in an integrated way, others were. For that reason, it is understandable why Fassbinder named the great – and also openly gay – director Luchino Visconti’s The Damned as the best film he had ever seen. (I am a great admirer of Visconti, but I couldn’t imagine anyone naming that work his masterpiece – what about Ossessione? Rocco and His Brothers? The Leopard? – let alone the greatest in the history of cinema!) Fassbinder appreciated how Visconti explored, with great power and artistry, the profound problems in Germany’s collective psyche which allowed the Holocaust. In fact, Visconti’s controversial film premiered in 1969, just as Fassbinder was beginning to make his own pictures. You can feel Visconti’s presence in many of Fassbinder’s films, especially in the three discussed here. Both artists use striking visuals to embody, and comment on, the complex – and yes, “damned” – psychosexual nature of their major characters, who represent in microcosm the self-destructive tendencies in Germany, both decadently prewar (Visconti) and “conservatively” postwar (Fassbinder). Fassbinder’s dramatic and visual techniques are of course distinct from Visconti’s, but having just recently re-seen both The Damned and the BRD films, I was struck by the depth of their shared insights.
Unlike Visconti’s much broader canvas in The Damned, ranging from at least a half-dozen major characters to elaborate scenes of meticulous historical recreation (such as the “night of the long knives,” when Hitler had all of his leading gay SS officers massacred during an orgy), Fassbinder’s decision to focus each BRD film on one woman proves exceptionally successful, from the dramatically, thematically, and stylistically. Those three women allow him to embody and focus his insight that the poltical, and historical, are fundamentally – and always – personal. Few artists have delved so profoundly into the dark place where social and economic exploitation are made flesh in the lives of ordinary, or sometimes extraordinary, women and men; where the line between victims and victimizers grows increasingly blurred.
Maria, Lola, and even Veronika (for most of her film) are survivors, yet they pay more dearly for their survival than they realize. Although outwardly tough as nails, each of these three women has been devastated by the war – and each steadfastly refuses to examine who she really is. Maria loses her husband, but sublimates her pain through materialistic excess. Lola loses her self-respect, but creates a sexually carefree persona who helps her get the money and property she wants. Veronika loses her career and autonomy, but can never free herself from her (minor) past glories as a starlet. Significantly, Fassbinder gives each of these women a chance at love – Oswald, von Bohm, Krohn – which might be able to help them get over their years of pain (at least that is what the conventions of melodrama lead the audience to expect). Yet it comes as no surprise to viewers of Fassbinder’s films that none of these relationships works out.
Love is at once a key element in all of Fassbinder’s work, and a common source of his characters’ disintegration, from his aptly-entitled first film, Love is Colder Than Death, to his final picture, Querelle (in which Jeanne Moreau warbles a ditty using Oscar Wilde’s immortal lines, “Each man kills the thing he loves”). Below I will look at this central theme, which I believe it is the key element in the entire ‘trilogy,’ even more fundamental than his historical/political motifs. But since Fassbinder modifies, and complexifies, the theme in many ways through dramatic technique and visual style, which I have not yet discussed, I will keep my final thoughts on it for the concluding section. At this time, it’s worth noting that for Fassbinder not only can these women not be happy until they confront both their pasts and their true individual natures, neither can the Germany which they allegorically represents. There is a very steep price to be paid for amnesia, whether it’s personal or collective; and Fassbinder brilliantly draws the connections between the two. And he does so with as much sheerly entertaining showmanship – from star-making performances, which would have been the envy of even Sirk or Curtiz, to purposeful visual pyrotechnics – as probing analytical insight.
Fassbinder realizes, and continues to explore, his themes through a prodigious command of dramatic, and stylistic, techniques.
What many people first hear about in the BRD films is the acting. And no wonder! Hanna Schygulla’s Maria, Barbara Sukowa’s Lola and Rosel Zech’s Veronika are not only three of the greatest performances in all of Fassbinder’s films (which are justly famous for their acting), they are among the best I have ever seen. What’s even more striking is how differently each actress molds her character, especially how she expresses her sexuality: the smoldering power of Maria, the atomic blast which is Lola, and the inexorable implosion of Veronika. From the broadest gestures to subtlest expressions, these actresses and their director capture the dense fullness of these unforgettable women. (Later I’ll look at the significance of “playing roles” in these films.)
What many people hear next about these films is that they are melodramas. And they are; some of the greatest modern examples. But Fassbinder does not slavishly imitate the classical melodrama; rather he bends it, in brilliantly creative and innovative ways, to fit his needs, even as he pushes the genre to the breaking point. (Fassbinder had been rethinking and brilliantly reinventing genre films from the beginning of his career: film noir in the trilogy featuring his alter ego character of Franz Walsch: Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier; the Western in Whity; and even science fiction in the rarely-shown World on a Wire.)
Melodrama appealed to Fassbinder for several reasons, not least because it is a female-oriented genre, and he was always fascinated with women. He found them more flexible than men, who adhere rigidly to social rules. He argued that women made the “Economic Miracle” happen because postwar German men were “used up… cowards… led astray by our upbringing.” These three films in particular gave him a chance to explore the suppression of historical memory through the “woman’s genre” of melodrama, even as he looks at the complex role women played both in terms of their socially emerging sexuality and in what he saw as their dual roles as both “oppressors” and “oppressed:” Maria, Lola, and Veronika are as much antiheroines as heroines.
As we see in these three films, melodrama’s hallmark is exaggerated emotion, from heart-wrenching pathos to explosive displays. For Fassbinder, this is intrinsically entertaining and liberating, as well as rife with potential for examining psychological, and hence social, processes at the breaking point – when a persons’s deep nature is revealed most clearly. A perfect emblem for this uniquely Fassbinderian use of melodrama is Lola’s totally out-of-control song and dance when she spots von Bohm in the audience and realizes that her scheme has been exposed. At this moment of emotional and dramatic extremity, for everyone involved, Lola decides to throw any semblance of caution to the wind and let it all hang out: crooning, gyrating, whipping her hair around, carried on the shoulders of half the guys in the bordello. Total emotional collapse, as a wildly innovative big musical number (and all filmed in one take).
If that scene brings to mind the wild – and seemingly impossible – joining together of Marlene Dietrich’s most famous role and an MGM showstopper, it’s no accident. Below I’ll discuss this next point at length, but let me note here that in all of these films (and most of his others) Fassbinder counterpoints seemingly incongruous elements to create a texture which is rich, dense, and emotionally- and intellectually-involving. It’s also a reason why his best films look better every time we resee them: there’s often more there than meets the eye, or ear.
It will come as no surprise that Fassbinder was one of the most voracious and eclectic film fans of all time, having seen many thousands of pictures. So another part of the appeal of the BRD films – which would almost certainly have continued had he lived to make more films in the series – is the opportunity it gave Fassbinder to deal with major works by some of his favorite filmmakers.
The Marriage of Maria Braun was suggested by Michael Curtiz’s film noir Mildred Pierce (1945, based on a novel by James M. Cain, who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity), about businesswoman Joan Crawford’s rise from destitution to wealth – although she understands only too late the desperate nature of her relationship with her monstrous daughter, Vida. The similarities, and especially the differences, between the two films illustrate Fassbinder’s unique approach not only to rethinking the earlier classic, but to his goals in the BRD series. Both pictures are about women making their way from poverty to wealth and position; both Mildred and Maria each think they are creating their own destinies. In Curtiz’s romance/thriller, although the war is never mentioned, a downtrodden woman creates a financial empire, finds it taken away and, in the final scene, again becomes subordinate to a man. By contrast, Fassbinder’s film is all about transactions: Maria learns very quickly about her own personal “exchange value” when she trades sex for cigarettes. (Who can forget the grotesque extreme close-up of the pack of Camel cigarettes – a primary “currency” then – or how a dozen Germans literally dive to the floor to pick up a cigarette butt, all of which – visually – tells us volumes about social conditions rights after the war.) Then Maria exchanges cigarettes for a dress, then for alcohol, on and on, one increasingly ‘valuable’ item ‘exchanged’ after another, until she comes to embody the ‘anybody can make it rich’ credo of Adenauer era, literally the mistress of her own mini-mansion. From Fassbinder’s perspective, Mildred’s end is no less tragic, and pathetic, than Maria’s. Although Mildred at last is able to see through the (melodramatic) excesses of her daughter, at the end she instantly switches her core submissiveness from Vida to a man; while Maria, when she finds out the profound extent to which she – self-proclaimed “Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle” – has been not only outfoxed but regarded as nothing more than a sexual commodity duplicitously exchanged between Hermann and Oswald, takes revenge – or is it justice? – into her own hands. Maria’s explosive end, in Fassbinder’s universe, is no less ironic, and horrible, than Mildred’s.
On another level, we see how Fassbinder has revised not only the form of a classic melodrama – his film is notable on a narrative level for how its sometimes radical use of ellipsis, of cutting out many scenes which genre conventions promise us (such as Maria and Hermann’s relationship, details of Maria’s rise to wealth, etc.) and which we must then rapidly imagine for ourselves – but its underlying assumptions. Curtiz’s film, while stylistically gorgeous and dramatically rivetting, is – certainly from Fassbinder’s point of view – not only politically unthinking but profoundly immoral in its climactic valorizing of Mildred’s born-again submission to a man, let alone one who is her inferior in every way (intelligence, creativity, ambition). Whether or not Curtiz’s intentions were ultimately ironic, or not, is for each of us to decide; but the endings was certainly calculated to appeal to the increasingly conservative and sexist postwar audiences. By contrast, Fassbinder wants to give us a colossal jolt at the end of his film, one which will make us reconsider not only Maria’s character but the nature of the destructive underlying mindset which brought about her end. Both are great films with comparable stories, but formally and thematically they could hardly be more distinct.
Lola riffs on Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930); in that tale of a cabaret singer leading a sanctimonious teacher to his ruin, the Marlene Dietrich character’s name was Lola-Lola. Unlike the earlier film – which bears virtually no stylistic resemblance to Lola – Fassbinder shrewdly gives equal emphasis to both his female and male leads, which not only makes the characters more compelling but gives added resonance to his theme of how both are corrupted: von Bohm by his weak-willed submission to Lola, and Lola by her submission to the sham values of materialism. By the way, Fassbinder had a legal team assure him that he was not infringing on the copyright of Heinrich Mann’s (older brother of Thomas Mann) 1905 novel, Professor Unrat (which even von Sternberg had changed substantially). To be safe – perhaps after the legal rights nightmare with Martha – Fassbinder paid the author’s estate a fee anyway, possibly also in exchange for not having to mention the book in his film’s credits.
Veronika Voss was inspired as much by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950; the abbreviation “Blvd.” is part of the actual title), about the twisted relationship between a third-rate screenwriter and a forgotten, lovelorn and insane former silent screen star, as by the life of performer Sybille Schmitz. (Fassbinder put Schmitz on his list of the “10 greatest actresses” between Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh – Marilyn Monroe was number one – and he had even planned to cast Schmitz as Petra von Kant’s mother, before learning of her death). While the stories of the two films are distinct (even though the mysterious secondary male character in each is named ‘Max:’ von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) in Wilder and Rebheim (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in Fassbinder), I feel more of a connection between these two pictures than in the other two pairings. Partly it’s because of the similarities between the pathologically self-deluding characters of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Veronika Voss, but even more there is a rich commonality of emotional tone – despite the fact that Wilder’s poetically noirish but muted black and white cinematography is far removed from the harsh black and white of Fassbinder. Also, I think that Sunset Blvd. and Veronika Voss are among the greatest works by their respective directors (who are two of my favorite filmmakers): talk about an ultimate ‘double feature.’ On yet another level, Fassbinder borrows both dramatic and visual cues from popular ’50s thrillers, from the overall feel of noirish mystery to particular camera movements (discussed below). This provides both genuine suspense (although Fassbinder is more interested in the richer mysteries of character than, say, his drug-trafficking subplot) and a certain ironic distance. It’s also worth noting that Fassbinder’s first draft of the story for Veronika Voss was a loose variation on Citizen Kane, as the reporter tracks down clues about the secret life of the title character, who dies (like Charles Foster Kane) before he ever meets her.
Although Fassbinder was adamant about never doing a straight remake of any movie (at least some of the original directors would be shocked to see what had been done with their work), in the BRD trio he directly takes on three of his favorite pictures. (For the record, they are among my favorites too.) While all six, or seven, of these diverse films works brilliantly on its own, viewing them as pairs can be fascinating: Fassbinder is a genius at creating counterpoints between elements in his own films, and here he does it with earlier classics of cinema. The connections between his films and their predecessors allows him to create a rich multiple focus, adding his thoughts on film history to his critique of melodrama as a genre – all of which is in the service of his larger goal of dissecting German society.
Although Fassbinder is well known for revering the brilliant melodramas of Douglas Sirk (such as All That Heaven Allows, which Fassbinder refashioned as his great film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), it can also be argued that melodrama – as a form – can also be a link to his earlier artistic heroes, Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht (The Three Penny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children) and French New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot le Fou, Week End). What Fassbinder admired so much in Sirk and Curtiz can also be seen in Godard, namely, the use of dramatic form to bring out the hidden contradictions in people and society. Sirk and Curtiz do it through “soap operas” and Godard through radical, and visually beautiful, experimentation, but the net effect is similar – and similarly inspiring to Fassbinder. (After “converting” to the School of Sirk around 1971, Fassbinder came to look askance at his more abstract, Godard-influenced early films like the stunning Katzelmacher; but I think he undervalued some of his greatest works – which also contain the throbbing heart of melorama beneath their still, icy surfaces.)
Ambitiously, Fassbinder wanted to go beyond even the classic works which inspired his own films. He did that, with an exceptional degree of success, not only by creating new melodramas – reworking classic materials and forms with his own historical, political, and psychological insights – but by subverting the genre through narrative experimentation (especially clear in the elliptical narrative of The Marriage of Maria Braun) and increasingly explosive stylization (Veronika Voss is at least as stylistically radical as Lola, although it’s less obvious since he eschews the in-your-face color fantasias of the earlier film for some of the most expressive and opulent black and white filmmaking since monochrome went out of style).
Perhaps more immediately apparent to audiences are the less formal, and more overtly emotional, ways in which Fassbinder remakes melodrama. Most powerfully, he removes the moral underpinnings from his stories. As we’ve seen, these women are at least as much antiheroines as traditional heroines. We root for them to succeed, but always with a shudder. These films, unlike their predecessors, are devoid of sentimentality. Yet even as they focus relentlessly (although at times wittily and ironically) on these multi-dimensioned women, Fassbinder shows enormous empathy for all of them, even the most obviously benighted, Veronika. Even more unique is that Fassbinder never shows any of them, or any of his other characters, as “transcendent.” What we see is what we get as human beings: relationships in all of their messy, sometimes violent and sometimes noble, variety.
That contradictory split leads us to another major layer of Fassbinder’s technique: irony. Here, as in virtually all of his films, irony is central and essential, although it is sometimes subtle. It’s a major key to these films as well as, possibly, to Fassbinder’s attitudes towards the years of his childhood. In The Marriage of Maria Braun the irony is historical/political: the dance hall, where all kinds of exchanges (from cigarettes to sex) are made, used to be the high school gym; the military courtroom used to be a barn. In Lola everything is ironic and witty, with the same in-your-face glitz at the bordello showing up even at the ‘straight and narrow’ new building commissioner’s house (is it any wonder that he falls under Lola’s spell?). By contrast, in Veronika Voss everything is ironic and tragic, but with a literally and symbolically dark feel.
Although these three films are resolutely focused on women, Fassbinder uses a man as the sole unifying figure of the trio. He is an African-American GI played by one of the great loves of Fassbinder’s life, Günther Kaufmann. (Notoriously, Fassbinder slept with him the night he wed Ingrid Caven, although the bisexual Kaufmann was himself married with children; Fassbinder’s relationship with Kaufmann was also the basis for The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, albeit with genders switched.) Kaufmann starred in the title role of the surreally revisionist Western, Whity, one of the most bizarre films ever made, and 13 other films for Fassbinder. In The Third Generation Fassbinder even gave him his own often-used pseudonym of Franz Walsch. Kaufmann’s life also reflects the theme of social dislocation in the BRD films, since he was the son of a German woman and a black American GI whom he never knew. In the BRD films in his role as an unnamed GI, Kaufmann gives a mysterious unity to the trilogy. The evolution of his character – only hinted at – offers a parallel to Fassbinder’s view of Germany’s degradation as well as its energy. Kaufmann moves from the jaunty, horny GI in the train in The Marriage of Maria Braun trying to pick up Maria (by fending him off adroitly she makes herself even more alluring to Oswald), to the quiet, always-smiling boarder in Lola to the ominous silent role of the drug trafficker in Veronika Voss (this was a major addition to the screenplay made by Fassbinder, presumably so that he could use Kaufmann as a unifying figure throughout what he by then conceived as the BRD series). Looking back on the GI from the vantage point of the third film, we may be more suspicious about what it is he’s carrying around in Lola. (Today, Kaufmann is serving a 15-year prison sentence for killing his financial advisor in 2002.)
Speaking of men in these films, let’s take a look at Lola’s Schukert, arguably the most memorable male in any of these three films, and one of the most fascinating characters in any of Fassbinder’s pictures. He’s also like a contemporary incarnation of Shakespeare’s Falstaff (played by Welles in one of his masterpieces, Chimes at Midnight (1966), which brilliantly brings together the Falstaff sections of Henry IV, Parts I & II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Like Falstaff, Schukert is more colorful and ingratiating rogue than villain – although he certainly embodies many aspects of both materialism and maleness which Fassbinder finds gross.
Schukert embodies a full range of contradictions, but here’s his saving grace: he revels in them. He is cynical, impudent and childish – he sees through everything and knows how to exploit it – yet he’s basically good-hearted. Not only is he an ideal structural counterpart to both Lola (antihero meet antiheroine) and von Bohm (stick in the mud meet amorality), he might also be seen as Fassbinder’s alter ego. Fassbinder poured his own playfulness, cynicism and determination into this double-edged character, who is both boor and (sadly, unlike Fassbinder) triumphant survivor. Mario Adorf gives an over-the-top yet precisely controlled performance. (Before a scheduling snafu, he had been cast as Fassbinder’s autobiographically-inspired director Jeff in Beware of a Holy Whore – although it’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the Nordic good looks Lou Castel, his replacement). Part of Schukert’s appeal, and certainly the reason for his success – compared to Lola and the other title characters in the BRD films – is that he only has dreams which he can realize. Drinking is major motif in Fassbider’s films (who can forget the end of The Merchant of Four Seasons?), and his life, so it’s worth noting that Schukert is that extremely rare character who drinks because things are going well; by contrast, in Veronika Voss Max Rehbein remarks insightfully that he drinks “to switch off” but “you [Veronika] drink to build yourself up.” We all know what happens to her.
Fassbinder is certainly not advocating that like Schukert we all go out and lie, cheat, steal, dally with prostitutes and booze it up. Like Maria, Veronika, and Lola, Schukert is also a complexly negative “anti-role model” which we must come to terms with before understanding Lola, or the other films, let alone society. Fassbinder refuses to create “virtuous role models” because he felt that such stereotypes were always reactionary, that they take power away from us as feeling and thinking individuals because they force on us a ready-made package of ideas, values and actions. I will discuss this fundamental theme in the concluding section, after looking at the stylistic elements which Fassbinder uses to modify it. Fassbinder embodies his themes in compelling dramas, based on a personal revision of the genre of the melodrama and brought to life by superb performances. But all of that is made enormously more complex and involving on every level – emotional, thematic, artistic – by his virtuosic command of visual and aural style. I don’t mean to sound frivolous, but the BRD films are (also) a lot of fun, and much of their pleasure comes from how Fassbinder uses style not to sugar coat the ‘bitter pill’ of his trenchant insights, but to take them in ever more dynamic directions.
All of Fassbinder’s films are geared towards waking us up, involving us not only in his films – his characters, stories and ideas – but in our own lives, allowing us to think, feel, and understand in new, more nuanced ways. Much of their success comes not only from how Fassbinder commands visual and aural style, but how he plays all of those elements off against each other.
If you were to look at shots from throughout The Marriage of Maria Braun, you would immediately notice that both Maria’s rise and the material success of the “Economic Miracle” are charted by what she wears. Fassbinder and costume designer Barbara Baum use wardrobe even more than the sets and decor as satirical and increasingly fashionable guideposts. There was also an economic reason for the focus on costumes instead of sets. Since no one could have guessed that this film was going to become an enormous international success, and one of the highest-grossing films in German history, the budget – as for most of Fassbinder’s films – was very tight. Editor Juliane Lorenz estimates that The Marriage of Maria Braun was shot for the equivalent of $600,000 in 2004 US dollars, at a time when today’s standardl Hollywood picture is budgeted at $30 million.
Fittingly, as the picture progresses, and Maria moves from literal rags to riches, her costumes become both more stylish and – as befits the growing conservatism of its era’s ever-narrower gender roles (women kept the country running when their men were at war, but now it’s time to rein them in again) – literally more constricting, through fashions which both reveal her shapely body even as they harness it. This same use of costumes is also true of Lola and Veronika Voss, but it is less overt. The effect is witty, aesthetic, sexy, political, and closely-observed: pure Fassbinder.
More subtly than through costumes and sets, the films derive much of their visual power through lighting and composition. Stylistically, the films could hardly look more different – on the surface. The Marriage of Maria Braun was shot by Michael Ballhaus, who did 16 of Fassbinder’s films and for the past 20 years has shot all of Scorsese’s films. Ballhaus and Fassbinder give the film a soft look, with a palette of muted tones: greens, blacks, grays, and brown (which is both a pun on the title character’s name, since “Braun” means ‘brown,’ and a wry allusion to another opportunistic woman named Braun: Hitler’s mistress, Eva). Ironically, throughout its course the film literally becomes brighter as Maria and Germany achieve ever greater material success, in contrast to what Fassbinder sees as increasing emotional and moral darkness. The color scheme moves from bilious green to beige and earth tones, with some flaming red at the end.
Compositionally, the frames often show characters as fragmented, in an almost cubist manner (which is especially apt considering the torn-apart world of postwar Germany in which it is set), and many shots make evocative use of depth of field, with the action in the foreground contrasting ironically with the background. Recall the shot we looked at above in which rearmament was announced and we saw Maria squeezed into the background while in the foreground a half-naked couple was making out: Fassbinder wittily made his feelings known through sound and image, specifically deep-focus cinematography.
In a trio of films about love, it’s interesting to look at how Fassbinder shoots sex. He usually goes in for close details, suggestive sensuality over explicitness. A perfect example of this is the scene in The Marriage of Maria Braun between Maria and Bill the GI. Yet that approach can also be seen not so much as objectifying his subjects (whose bodies are just as often non-sculpted as model-perfect ones – with the curvaceous exceptions of his heroines) as fragmenting them. Again, the double, or even multiple, vision of a theme in Fassbinder, as eroticism and distance – and a demand for us to fill in the details ourselves – are yoked together.
With Fassbinder, even single images can be enormously suggestive and moving. To take just one example of hundreds, in The Marriage of Maria Braun look at the shot following the moment when Willi tells Maria that Hermann is dead (only later do we learn that he is wrong). Fassbinder holds on a fragmented shot, a close-up of Maria holding her motionless hand under running water in the stained sink. This simple image of immense grief is so much more effective than the histrionics of crying, which we would expect in a conventional melodrama (again, Fassbinder is redefining the genre, albeit in a small way). We also see how this image gives an overall unity to the film. Near the end of the final sequence – after Maria learns about the secret, and to her utterly humiliating, deal struck between Hermann and Oswald behind her back, when – in an extreme close-up, even tighter than the earlier image, she is reduced to a mass of shapeless hair as she holds her arm under the bathroom faucet for a long, long time. The comparable earlier image registered the inexpressible depth of her pain; but after the film’s literally explosive climax, a couple of minutes later, we look back on the second instance of the image and realize the profundity of Maria’s humiliation, pain, and catastrophic rage. Style simply, brilliantly intensifies emotion and theme.
Following his long and brilliant collaboration with Ballhaus, who now had his eyes set on Hollywood, Fassbinder turned to Xaver Schwarzenberger for his other two BRD films, as well as Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lili Marleen, and Querelle. (Schwarzenberger has since become a director himself.)
Lola has an eye-popping look which is equal parts child’s picture book, MGM musical, and brothel – full of deeply-saturated primary colors, especially blue and red. Wittily Fassbinder uses a tiny blue light to make Mueller-Stahl’s irises look impossibly blue (what was Hitler’s favorite eye color?), until the end, when after he has completely submitted to Lola we no longer see a blue highlight on his eyes, rather his face is bathed in garish red light, Lola’s color. Compositionally, the blocky, easy-to-read frames (playfully) fit into the overall “childish” visual scheme of oversaturated colors and building-block design. But ultimately, the relentlessly outrageous lighting makes the film’s world look less like a kid’s playroom and more like a whorehouse, including even the home of those, like von Bohm, who self-deludingly think they are incorruptible: if only he had noticed the radioactive chartreuse and fuchsia, who knows what insights he could have gained [wink].
Veronika Voss is shot in high-contrast black and white (with some of the harshest yet most effective lighting I’ve seen, taking many of its visual cues from German Expressionism, film noir, and perhaps in the scenes in Dr. Katz’s office the sterile white interiors of the space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each of Veronika Voss’s 15 or so fades to a new scene is done with a different style of wipe (found by editor Juliane Lorenz – who cut virtually all of Fassbinder’s films from 1977 on – in the library of the old film studio where she was cutting the film: Fassbinder, typical of his flexibility, had not planned the effect prior to filming, but once he saw it’s possibilities – aesthetic and ironic – he became gung-ho). Not only do those fades give a witty lift to the narrative flow (you can’t help but wonder, what will the next one look like? starburst? kaleidoscope?), they also remind us of the era when those effects were popular – although no more than one or two different types would ever have been employed in a single film – when Veronika was in the limelight, and the Nazis were in power. Veronika Voss also boasts some of Fassbinder’s most accomplished and profound compositions, as they mirror (sometimes punningly) Veronika’s descent from tightly-balanced order (the flashbacks to her glory days with the Nazis), to the creeping chaos of her (or rather, Rehbein’s) closed-up house, to the shocking duality of the final cross-cutting sequence: the shadowy excesses of the ornate hall in which she gives her “farewell performance” played against the claustrophic, barren, stark white room where she dies alone. Also effective is the use of camera movement, as seen in the often-used motif of tracking into a closer shot of a character during a moment of emotional crisis. This works both dramatically and, with its reminder that the technique was a cliche of ’50s thrillers, ironically. Virtually every shot in Veronika Voss can be scrutinized for its visual beauty, psychological tension, and pathos.
Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger first got to know each other by comparing their favorite filmmakers and cinematographers. For Lola, Fassbinder had Schwarzenberger watch three films, all from the mid-1950s, before beginning work: Sirk’s Written on the Wind, Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, and the most visually outrageous of the three, Ray’s Johnny Guitar. For the look of Veronika Voss, they eventually settled on works shot by the great cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo (Antonioni’s La Notte, Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, Fellini’s 8-1/2), since they both revered his stark, high-contrast look. Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger rapturously referred to “the brutality of the light” in the few films which Di Venanzo lived to shoot, even as they agreed to eschew any trace of a “painterly” style with its wide range of gray midtones, as seen in, say, Henri Alekan’s work on Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). The two Fassbinder/Schwarzenberger films in the trio, although superficially different (Technicolor on acid versus the starkest white and black), actually share a common goal. Not only do they each work sublimely to turn Fassbinder’s themes into visions of light, and shadow, they also push the conventions of classical color and black and white cinematography to delightfully radical extremes. If there is a poetry of visual excess, then these two films are prime examples.
Lighting and composition, of course, mold – and help define – the characters and their world, but so do sound and editing. It’s worth noting that these films are also melodramas in the literal sense: the term melodrama is derived from the words for ‘music’ (Greek melos) and ‘drama’. As you would expect, Fassbinder also makes creative use of music, and other forms of sound. In the section above on history, I noted how he employs a series of radio broadcasts both to provide some key historical information (Germany’s rearmament, joining NATO, etc.) and, playfully, draw connections between the competitiveness of two seemingly different pursuits: soccer and the all-engulfing capitalism of the “Economic Miracle” (Fassbinder has a rather more favorable opinion of the former game over the latter). In addition to these, and many other, creative uses of sound, the BRD films are also notable for their highly evocative use of silence, especially during some key emotional moments.
Fassbinder also employs music, both popular songs and original score by his lifelong collaborator, Peer Raben (who note only wrote the music for virtually all of his films, he also worked at times as producer, production manager, actor, and more). Veronika Voss uses source music, usually from radios, often belonging to the sinister GI, inevitably tuned to Armed Forces Radio (a reminder of who won the war) to contrast ironically, and powerfully, with Veronika’s descent. Instead of conventional “insanity” music, Fassbinder uses the annoyingly boisterous, not to mention dislocated, twang of country-and-western to underscore Veronika’s ebbing sanity. For the original scoring, Fassbinder uses two of Raben’s contrasting, synthesizer-based cues. One is a a tinkling ‘romance’ theme, which sounds like a demented music box, even as its ‘zithery’ timbre reminds us of the score to another dark vision of postwar Europe, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949); the other is a martial ‘doom’ theme, heavy on the drums. He uses these motifs over and over, until what was at first atmospheric becomes alienating, and hence expressive of Veronika’s inner state. In what may be a bizarre coincidence, another Raben cue – heard at the beginning of the stairwell ‘drunk scene’ when Krohn and Henriette run into Veronika – looks ahead to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s instrumental opening to the title song in his uninvolving stage musical of Sunset Blvd. (1993).
For me, the most fascinating use of music in these three films comes in Lola. The almost non-stop perkiness of its musical underscoring works feverishly, and outrageously, both with the candy-colored world we see and against the darker psychological and social themes which Fassbinder is exposing. It gives a schizophrenic feeling to the film; and of course that split can be seen as a comment on the Germany of its time. The use of music here is at least as radical, albeit in its own way delightful way, as the visual style.
Story, structure, performance, image, sound – all work brilliantly together even as they play off each other, leading us to Fassbinder’s deepest insights.
Lets turn back to (short forms of) the three nagging/haunting questions about the BRD films which I raised above: Why does Maria Braun obsess for years over Hermann, whom she barely knew? Why does the “straight arrow” von Bohm obsess over Lola? Why does Robert Krohn obsess over Veronika Voss?
On the simplest level, the “answers” can be found in the conventions of melodrama, in a word, Love (capital “L”). Such obsessive – people with their rose-colored glasses on will call it “romantic” – attachments are the staple of the genre. But Fassbinder would never be satisifed with such a lazy explanation; and he doesn’t want us to be either.
Looking at these characters, and films, in a broader historical context (as we know, the three BRD films dovetail to cover the decade and a half from the end of World War II to 1958), we can understand all too well why someone would need not just love but love at its most extreme to survive first the chaos and horror of a world literally exploding (in the opening moments of The Marriage of Maria Braun we see the couple getting married through a blasted-out hole in a brick wall, a moment later the building is bombed into oblivion), and then the crushing materialistic dullness of the “Economic Miracle” (garishly-bright colors in Lola giving way to drug-induced stupors in Veronika Voss – another reason for considering the films in the order they were made and not with Fassbinder’s BRD numberings).
But does the understandable need for connection, at virtually any price, excuse as well as explain the motivations of these people? Fassbinder says no, as he reminds us that the answer to the mysteries of character, both personal and national, are not to be found in the stars, whether astrological or as cinematic avatars with names like Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa or Rosel Zech.
Above we looked at the superbly-nuanced performances of Fassbinder’s lead actresses, but what about the roles which the characters themselves adopt, in their searches for love and security? Maria and especially Veronika play the roles which society has given them (Maria as the “Successful Businesswoman” and Veronika as “The Star” – but in both instances their doom is caused by the inauthenticity of the “role” they have chosen, how it does not really fit their temperament. With Veronika, the desperation to play a role – any role – is catastrophic. He also implies that the Nazis, who define self-destructive inauthenticity, encouraged Veronika the starlet’s role playing. So desperate is Veronika for a role, that she even accepts the only part offered her, that of “tragic heroine” in the “movie” of her own life. Whether or not this is just a rationalization for her drug addiction, the end result is the same: she “acts” herself to death. And not all the shimmering gowns and (shadowy) farewell galas, no matter how evocatively she croons Dean Martin’s tune “Memories are Made of This,” she still winds up alone, dirty and on the floor in a cell-like room, in what was once her own mansion, dead. Neither Maria nor Veronika realize the extent to which they are playing roles which they are not right for; the harder they try, the more brittle and frayed they become (glamorous business suits or evening gowns notwithstanding).
By contrast, Lola understands the ‘secret’ rules behind the rules of the game (she has the “cheat sheet”), and so she knows that the role of “virgin” which she plays for von Bohm is no more a part of her authentic self than the role of “whore” which she plays for Schukert. Key here is that Lola knows what she’s doing. But although Fassbinder gives Lola a “happy ending,” its most immediate irony is reserved for the cuckolded von Bohm (since Lola gets it on with Schukert before showing up for her honeymoon with von Bohm, whom she just married). But there’s plenty more irony to go around, and Fassbinder reserves a lioness’ share for Lola herself. In his worldview that’s not because of Lola’s sexual practices but rather – and for Fassbinder this is much worse – because although she is a consummate sexual actress, and she winds up with what she thinks she wants – money and property and, if not exactly “true love” at least the adoration of several men – she never understands who she is. She ends up richer, but no more aware of herself, and her true emotional needs, than when she began. We see the melodramatic ends of both Maria and Veronika onscreen; but Lola’s we have to imagine a few years into her future, when her allure is lost and the full weight of her emptiness becomes unbearable.
In Fassbinder, when someone falls in love they revert to an immature state: Maria enwrapped in adolescent romantic fantasy; Lola living in a word which is literally designed like a kiddie-store cum bordello (and notice how she surrounds herself with dolls – a danger sign in Fassbinder’s world, as we learned in Chinese Roulette); Veronika’s utter dependence on her diabolical ‘mother,’ Dr. Katz. Paradoxically, the false nature of self-deluding love, the kind which Fassbinder sees as endemic to Western culture (just listen to the starry-eyed pop tunes which punctuate these films), prevents people from achieving a deep and mature love to an equal partner, even as it pulls them further away from who they genuinely are. Lola provides a telling, and multi-dimensioned, example of this phenomenon. (Some people have also noted a parallel between the culturally-unequal relationship of the professional von Bohm and the uneducated, but street smart, Lola in connection with Fassbinder’s own passionate relationships with El Hedi ben Salem, Armin Meier, and Günther Kaufmann). On the one hand, as Lola comically tries to bridge the aesthetic gap between herself and von Bohm, by cramming weighty tomes on Asian art, Fassbinder implies that she is moving further away from her authentic, natural self in order to be closer to von Bohm. But this also suggests that Lola may have even more personal resources and possibilities than she suspected.
Going further, Fassbinder once summed up his body of work by saying that all of his films and plays were “critiques of mutual dependence,” which he called a form of “emotional vampirism.” Although such global pronouncements should always be taken with a grain of salt (or saltpeter), I think Fassbinder has indeed hit on yet another level of his analysis of what makes people, and by extension Germany, and by further extension society, tick – even if he usually presents his observations in the darkest light. These three films, and indeed most of his pictures, are about the vicious circles of exploitation and victimization which arise in modern society. One of Fassbinder’s greatest strengths is that, from the beginning of his career to the end, he shows us how the roles of victims and victimizers become increasingly blurred. Are the women, and men, of the BRD films the “victims” of their obsessions? Yes; but they also bring them on, and perpetuate them.
A small but resonant, and comic, example of how Fassbinder enbodies his theme of mutual dependence is Lola’s ‘old-maid’ secretary Miss Hettich (Helga Feddersen). On the one hand, her crush on von Bohm is funny and even empathetically portrayed; but on the other hand it is grotesque, and Fassbinder increasingly shows us the pathetic lengths she goes to (from big floral bouqets to groveling) to get the attention of the unattainable von Bohm. Her desire to be subjugated by this “master” is not only desperate but, when measured against the history of Germany, deeply troubling.
Fassbinder believed that all people are fundamentally sado-masochistic, caused by childhood rearing which makes them excessively dependent. He saw this desperate need for a “leader” continue throughout entire life, even as he observed people’s simultaneous frustration and desire to destroy the “superior” whom they had raised up. Consequently, he saw fascism as a latent condition of middle-class life, not only in the period leading up to the Nazis, but long before, and not just in Germany. (Fassbinder said that this was why he repeatedly broke with people who had become too dependent on him, or he on them: take that explanation as you will.) But he was not a confirmed pessimist, believing that “mutual dependence,” and the resulting fascism, could be overcome.
Fascism, he believed, can only be stopped when it is understood through self-awareness, which begins with the individual – who has moved beyond mutual dependence and other forms of socially-induced blindness to an authentic state. Of course, none of the characters in the BRD films achieves that ideal of self-awareness; and that is exactly Fassbinder’s point. As he once remarked, social “revolution should take place not on the screen but in real life.”
Let’s look at what happens to Maria, Lola, and Veronika, now that we have looked at the connections between their romantic fantasies and the destructive traps of “mutual dependence.” (If you want some musical accompaniment, instead of, say, Veronika’s swan song, “Memories are Made of This,” try Brecht and Weill’s aptly-named “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” from The Three Penny Opera, which Fassbinder once staged.)
To recap: Maria is dead, having found out that she was not in charge of her “successful” destiny after all, that it was secretly handed to her because of a handshake deal in which Hermann “gave” her to the dying Oswald. In the original ending her suicide is crystal clear: she runs the car with herself and Hermann in it over a cliff; here there is a whisper of ambiguity.
Lola is also dead, although it’s a symbolic death of the last shreds of her innocence. She has now achieved the money and property which she – like Maria – craved, but it doesn’t take much to imagine what her life will be like when her looks fade, especially if the money runs out.
Veronika is dead, the victim of her own narcissistic self-delusion; we realize, looking at the full original German title – which translates as “The Yearning [Die Sehnsucht] of Veronika Voss” – that what she longed for was herself, her authentic self – but never found it. Her drug addiction is also a sinister metaphor for dependence, and it provides a stark emblem for this central strand of the BRD films.
Not only these women come to sad ends, so do von Bohm – slipping too easily into the role of cuckold – and Krohn, who in the final moments drives off in the fog to cover a soccer match. Despite their socially “superior” gender, they are every bit as much the unselfaware slaves to emotional dependence as the women.
“Sad” endings, yet I find all of these films, and Fassbinder’s entire body of work, to be deeply affirmative.
Fassbinder uses all of his great intelligence, creativity, and compassion to make psychological and social conditions transparent and comprehensible. Then it’s up to each of us to understand and heal ourselves, and make the world better. Fassbinder is an artist because of his creative mastery not only of all the individual elements of film – drama, performance, image, sound and social insight – but in how he plays all the elements off each other to achieve a whole which is more complex, powerful, beautiful and honest that its parts; he is a great artist because his films are designed to demand our active participation – emotionally, critically, and creatively.
The questions I raised at the beginning of this review have been answered. The films have yielded not absolute answers, but rather suggestions for the contours of possible answers: and that is precisely the point. And those ‘answers’ have in turn raised a new set of questions, this time directed straight at us.
Fassbinder has shown, time and again, that we have to focus on the personal if there is to be any hope of understanding, and improving, the economic, the historical, the political. Some viewers, aware of Fassbinder’s possibly suicidal death, may accuse him of duplicity, saying that we should do as he says – about self-understanding, freedom, and “utopian” relationships – and not as he does. Fassbinder would likely have been the first get a good laugh out of such a criticism – not only because he was painfully aware of his own personal problems, but because his point is that we must each think for ourselves, not worship some filmmaker as a Great Truth Giver. Instead of pronouncements, he carefully – and with as much aesthetic beauty as emotional honesty – lays out ethical situations for us, and then does what narcotizing entertainment never does: asks each of us questions. What do we feel about these stories – and their morals? What do we think? The next question may be the toughest and most important of all:
Crew, Cast & DVD
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
The Criterion Collection, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created outstanding transfers of all three films, with additional resources detailed after each title’s production credits. Subsequently, the Criterion Collection also released a Blu-ray version of the BRD Trilogy.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
- Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Written by Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich, Peter Märthesheimer & Kurt Raab (uncredited)
- Produced by Michael Fengler
- Original Music by Peer Raben
- Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
- Edited by Fassbinder (as Franz Walsch) & Juliane Lorenz
- Production Design by Helga Ballhaus & Norbert Scherer
- Set Decoration by Arno Mathes, Hans-Peter Sandmeier & Andreas Willim
- Costume Design by Barbara Baum, Georg Kuhn, Ingeborg Proeller & Susi Reichel
- Makeup by Anni Nöbauer
- Production Managers: Harry Baer (as Harry Zöttl) & Martin Häussler
- Assistant Director: Rolf Bührmann
- Sound by Milan Bor and Jan Willi
- Dedicated to Peter Zadek
- Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun
- Klaus Löwitsch as Hermann Braun
- Ivan Desny as Karl Oswald
- Gisela Uhlen as Mother
- Elisabeth Trissenaar as Betti Klenze
- Gottfried John as Willi Klenze
- Hark Bohm as Senkenberg
- Greg Eagles as Bill (as George Byrd)
- Claus Holm as the Doctor
- Günter Lamprecht as Hans Wetzel
- Anton Schiersner as Grandpa Berger
- Sonja Neudorfer as Red Cross nurse
- Volker Spengler as the Train Conductor
- Isolde Barth as Vevi
- Bruce Low as American at the Conference
- Günther Kaufmann as American GI on Train
- Karl-Heinz von Hassel as Prosecuting Counsel
- Kristine De Loup as theNotary
- Hannes Kaetner as Justice of the Peace
- Michael Ballhaus as Counsel
- Peter Berling as Bronski
- Rolf Bührmann as Warden
- Arthur Glogau as Warden
- Martin Häussler as Reporter
- Horst-Dieter Klock as Gentleman with the Car
- Lilo Pempeit as Frau Ehmke
- Norbert Scherer as the Warden
- Fassbinder as a Peddler (uncredited)
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and filmmaker Wim Wenders
- Exclusive video interview with regular Fassbinder collaborator, Hanna Schygulla
- Video interview with Fassbinder scholar Eric Rentschler
- Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Written by Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich & Peter Märthesheimer
- Executive Producer: Fassbinder
- Produced by Horst Wendlandt
- Line Producer: Thomas Schühly
- Original Music by Peer Raben & Freddy Quinn
- Cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger
- Edited by Fassbinder (as Franz Walsch) & Juliane Lorenz
- Production Design by Rolf Zehetbauer
- Art Direction by Helmut Gassner
- Costume Design by Barbara Baum & Egon Strasser
- Makeup by Anni Nöbauer & Eddi Erfmann
- Production Managers: Michael Bohnstengel, Michael McLernon, Stephan Pfleger & Thomas Schühly
- Assistant Director Karin Viesel
- Sound by Vladimir Vizner
- Dedicated to Alexander Kluge
- Barbara Sukowa as Lola
- Armin Mueller-Stahl as von Bohm
- Mario Adorf as Schukert
- Matthias Fuchs as Esslin
- Helga Feddersen as Frau Hettich
- Karin Baal as Lola’s Mother
- Ivan Desny as Wittich
- Elisabeth Volkmann as Gigi
- Hark Bohm as Volker
- Karl-Heinz von Hassel as Timmerding
- Rosel Zech as Frau Schuckert
- Sonja Neudorfer as Frau Fink
- Christine Kaufmann as Susi
- Y Sa Lo as Rosa
- Günther Kaufmann as the GI
- Isolde Barth as Frau Volker
- Karsten Peters as Editor
- Harry Baer as 1st Demonstrator
- Rainer Will as 2nd Demonstrator
- Herbert Steinmetz as Concierge
- Nino Korda as TV Delivery Man
- Raúl Gimenez as 1st Waiter (uncredited)
- Andrea Heuer as the Librarian (uncredited)
- Udo Kier as 2nd Waiter (uncredited)
- Juliane Lorenz as Saleswoman (uncredited)
- Maxim Oswald as Grandfather Berger (uncredited)
- Helmut Petigk as the Bouncer (uncredited)
- Marita Pleyer as Rahel (uncredited)
- Ulrike Vigo as Little Marie (uncredited)
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Fassbinder documentarian, biographer, and friend Christian Braad Thomsen
- New video interview with Lola star Barbara Sukowa
- New video interview with Fassbinder co-screenwriter Peter Marthesheimer
- Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Written by Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich & Peter Märthesheimer
- Produced by Thomas Schühly
- Original Music by Peer Raben
- Cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger
- Edited by Juliane Lorenz
- Production Design by Rolf Zehetbauer
- Costume Design by Barbara Baum
- Makeup by Anni Nöbauer
- Production Managers: Michael Bohnstengel, Wulf Gasthaus & Michael McLernon
- Assistant Directors: Harry Baer, Tamara Kafka & Karin Viesel
- Sound by Vladimir Vizner
- Dedicated to Gerhard Zwerenz
- Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss
- Hilmar Thate as Robert Krohn
- Cornelia Froboess as Henriette
- Annemarie Düringer as Dr. Marianne Katz
- Doris Schade as Josefa
- Armin Mueller-Stahl as Max Rehbein
- Erik Schumann as Dr. Edel
- Peter Berling as Film Producer / Fat Man
- Günther Kaufmann as GI Drug Dealer
- Sonja Neudorfer as Sales Woman
- Lilo Pempeit as Chehm
- Volker Spengler as First Assistant Director
- Herbert Steinmetz as Gardener
- Elisabeth Volkmann as Grete
- Hans Wyprächtiger as Chief Newspaper Editor
- Peter Zadek as Second Assistant Director
- Johanna Hofer as Elderly Married Woman
- Rudolf Platte as Elderly Married Man
- Harry Baer as Head waiter (uncredited)
- Tamara Kafka as Physician (uncredited)
- Georg Lehn as Gardener (uncredited)
- Juliane Lorenz as Secretary (uncredited)
- Peter Lühr as Mr. Treibel (uncredited)
- Dieter Schidor as Civil Servant (uncredited)
- Thomas Schühly as Propaganda Minister (uncredited)
- Karl-Heinz von Hassel as Asylum Doctor (uncredited)
- Fassbinder as Man in Cinema Audience (uncredited)
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.78:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Fassbinder scholar Tony Rayns
- New video conversation with star Rosel Zech and editor Juliane Lorenz
- Dance with Death, a one-hour portrait of UFA Studios star, Sybille Schmitz, Fassbinder’s inspiration for Veronika Voss
Reviewed December 29, 2007 / Revised October 12, 2020