Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s national epic tells the story of Germany’s ‘economic miracle’ recovery through the experiences of three strong women, each resilient in a different way. The Marriage of Maria Braun takes us from the bombings to a postwar struggle for survival. Veronika Voss hangs on to her illusions of a glorious stardom that died with the Reich; she’s now the victim of opportunists. And Lola isn’t the only person corrupting an idealist come to bring fairness to the rebuilding of Coburg: even without a conspiracy, the legitimate town leaders are up to their necks in double-dealing. These are the top titles of the prolific writer-director Fassbinder, beautifully restored.
The BRD Trilogy
The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, Lola
The Criterion Collection 203
1979-82 / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 9, 2019 / 79.95
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech, Barbara Sukowa.
Written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich, Peter Märthesheimer
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Catching up with The BRD Trilogy gives one a new appreciation for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the ultra-prolific German director whose seemingly non-stop career lasted barely over a decade. Tracking down everything Fassbinder directed isn’t easy, but it’s also rewarding to reevaluate these three near-masterpieces, which include his most popular release.
The “BRD” stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany. Fassbinder’s stories comprise a national epic of the recovery period after WW2, when tradition was swept away and values need to be established. Each chapter in the triptych portrays woman in the new society. Fassbinder was something different in the new wave of 1970s filmmaking — his films center on the lives of women even more strongly than do those of the director to whom he’s often compared, Douglas Sirk.
The films form a ‘different,’ unflattering history of Germany’s Economic Miracle. Fassbinder isn’t interested in scandalous revelations about Nazi influence, etc. It’s basically a story of bare survival, followed by the corrupting race for money and security.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
1979 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 120 min. / Die Ehe der Maria Braun
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny, Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Original Music: Peer Raben
Produced by Wolf-Dietrich Brücker, Volker Canaris
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born the year the war ended; we’re told that part of the New German film movement was a willingness to stir through old national ashes, the history that the culture had done its best to forget. Our movies of the 1950s had refurbished West Germany’s image; hunting down Nazi war criminals took a low priority for a decade or two. By contrast, some East German DEFA films characterized West Germany as run by Nazi gangsters in league with American oppressors.
The Marriage of Maria Braun begins before the war finishes. with the wedding ceremony of Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Herrmann (Klaus Löwitsch) taking place during an air raid. He’s sent to the Eastern Front almost immediately, and when the surrender comes, Maria is seen scraping for a means to survive, and dealing on the Black Market. She carries a cardboard sign with Hermann’s picture long after he is reported dead. By necessity, little in her life is legal or ‘honorable.’ She works at a shady club frequented by American GIs, and takes a black soldier as a lover, Bill (George Byrd). This relationship is interrupted by the unexpected return of Hermann from a Russian prison camp. A crime follows; Hermann takes the blame and the prison sentence that goes with it. Maria then runs her marriage at long distance, telling Hermann of her progress. Her future changes when she meets a French businessman named Oswald (Ivan Desny) on a train. She helps him in his deals, encourages him to take risks and brings the association great wealth — and also becomes Oswald’s mistress. Maria’s experience includes a killing, and an abortion. Her boss/lover makes a pact with her incarcerated husband without her knowledge… and the marriage persists just the same.
Instability leads to strange life decisions, that’s a fact, and The Marriage of Maria Braun suggests that chaotic postwar conditions forced West Germans to drop a lot of baggage in order to get along / survive. American swing tunes dominate the first part of the show, and then important scenes are backed by loud soccer coverage on the radio. Maria is a principled woman who nevertheless does what is necessary to keep body and soul together. Instability is such a normal part of life that we worry only when she finds financial security, buys a house, and waits to put her life with Herrmann back together again. Fassbinder ends his show the way it began, with explosions and fire.
Visually, Maria Braun begins in raggedy fashion, suggesting the chaos and tatters of life during wartime. Then Maria joins an army of strugglers trying to find lost relatives, and their next meal. Soon she’s able to doll herself up to work in the club, and by the time her husband returns she’s adopted the look of good-time girl. Yet Maria is the same person — smart, principled and goal-oriented. Hermann proves his devotion at a trial, and Maria remains forever faithful to him, even though her sex life is her own. She may end up demoralized, but never defeated.
The color cinematography stresses the make-do settings of shattered houses and a messy space turned into a nightclub. Maria’s own doctor dispenses good advice from his ruined office, but is himself a narcotics addict. We see snatches of streets and green areas, until Maria finally gains the holy grail — her own handsome little house. What was the struggle all for? Is she the exception or the rule in the New Germany?
Marriage was Fassbinder’s biggest commercial success; distributors competed for it. Here in the U.S. we were hardly aware of Fassbinder until this show set off a revival of his work — the scores of pictures he directed in just a few years.
1982 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen/ 104 min. / Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss
Starring: Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Annemarie Düringer, Cornelia Froboess, Erik Schumann, Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Cinematography: Xavier Schwarzenberger
Original Music: Peer Raben
Produced by Thomas Schühly
Veronika Voss was filmed and released third, but is here considered the second of the trilogy. It’s also in B&W instead of color. The tone leans toward Sunset Blvd., with a creepy side story of a survival-minded society that goes beyond opportunism to encompass dirty crimes committed behind closed doors. In 1955, ex- movie star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a drug-addicted mess, traumatized by her change of status. She’s convinced that everyone still recognizes her and that she can enrapture any man. A chance late-night meeting on the street brings Veronika in contact with Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) a sportswriter who finds her crazy-vain behavior fascinating, much to the distress of his lover Henriette (Cornelia Froboess). Veronika owns an expensive villa, but spends most of her time in the psychiatric clinic of Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer). Krohn begins to suspect that Katz and her associates are growing rich by turning patients into addicts, and seizing their properties. Henriette reluctantly agrees to help Robert save the self-destructive Veronika.
Fassbinder’s study of yet another maladjusted woman addresses the notion of a Norma Desmond- like diva who has outlived her fame. Like the real film star Sybille Schmitz, Veronika was a star of the wartime UFA, which links her with Josef Goebbels, who ran Nazi filmdom as a personal activity. Not everybody recognizes her, or even cares anymore, but Ms. Voss is consumed with her fame and keeping up appearances. While she waxes insane, talking about American movie companies that want to hire her, the sinister Dr. Katz frequently keeps her locked up, ‘medicated’ from stocks of morphine delivered by a U.S. soldier (Günter Kaufmann). Another elderly couple, holocaust victims, are in a similar bind with Dr. Katz — addicted and signing away rights to their house.
The writing makes Veronika’s world of self-delusion seem real; she lives in a fantasy. We meet her in a film theater watching her own pictures, and a couple of flashbacks to the past are stylized with bright lights glinting into the camera. Like Bette Davis in The Star, Veronika tries to make a filmic comeback in a tiny role, but can’t hack reading a simple line — the shakes come back. Dr. Katz uses the debacle to hasten the star’s decline, while Robert considers an undercover scheme to get proof of the conspiracy. As he neglects his job to dote on Veronika, Robert meets the movie star’s husband (Armin-Mueller Stahl), who once was her writer. His domestic flashback with Veronika in her villa is pictured as a white-telephone movie star fantasy.
Hilmar Thate is excellent as a man driven to help Veronika, who also falls partly under her spell. He seems very familiar but I don’t recognize any of his other film titles. The slightly high-contrast images leech detail from some scenes, and make Ms. Zech seem indeed like a star from an earlier era, a porcelain ghost. The movie finishes in a downbeat way reminiscent of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. It is said to take place in 1955, but the Johnny Horton song The Battle of New Orleans that figures strongly in Veronika’s mania, is from 1959.
1981 / Color 1:66 widescreen / 115 min. /
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Mario Adorf, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Matthias Fuchs, Helga Feddersen, Karin Baal, Ivan Desny, Rosel Zech, Christine Kaufmann, Günther Kaufman, Udo Kier.
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Original Music: Freddy Quinn, Peer Raben
Produced by Horst Wendlandt
Fassbinder initially wanted to remake the source story from which The Blue Angel was adapted, and with his screenwriters concocted a similar narrative with a broader social base. The corruption of a single schoolteacher means little, but compromising public officials changes the spirit of the whole community. Was Billy Wilder aware of this trend when he joked about the West German Economic Miracle in One, Two, Three?:
Horst Buchholz: “Is EVERYBODY corrupt?”
Leon Askin: “I don’t know everybody.”
In the town of Coburg, circa 1957, government-assisted reconstruction interests a cabal of city officials looking to get rich. Everybody from the mayor to the police chief is waiting anxiously to meet the new building commissioner, sent from outside. He’s Von Bohm (Armin-Mueller Stahl), an educated, ethical civil servant who stalls their lucrative construction plans. Von Bohm takes a room and soon meets Lola (Barbara Sukowa), and begins a chaste romance with her. Little does Von Bohm realize that Lola is actually the star performer and attraction at Coburg’s brothel, which is the town’s actual spiritual center. The real mover and shaker in Coburg is the coarse Schukert (Mario Adorf), a contractor who is also a pimp; Von Bohm’s demure new girlfriend is ‘owned’ by Schukert, and her child is Schukert’s as well.
Lola shows culture and breeding all but buried by common corruption; the survival instincts of the immediate postwar period have made greed and graft the norm, and honest folk like Lola’s mother (Karin Baal) stay quiet on the sidelines. The storyline treats the Coburg conspiracy as Business as Usual. Lola’s romance is actually sincere — Schukert doesn’t know that she is moonlighting from her late-night job. Von Bohm’s inevitable disillusion arrives almost by accident. Fassbinder and his writers also forego the usual explosion of scandal and retribution that stories of this kind usually employ to restore ‘normalcy.’ Von Bohm cleans up nothing.
The last few scenes show the establishment of a new status quo. Coburg might as well be a typical ‘Heimat’ community. Everything appears to be on the up-and-up, pretty and pure, but it’s all a facade. Von Bohm has successfully integrated himself into the new norm of quiet corruption.
Maria Braun maintained fairly realistic visuals, but in Lola Fassbinder goes for an interesting, eccentric color stylization. Von Bohm’s purity and idealism are expressed through odd colored lighting that literally thrown bright lights across his eyes; in some scenes, a glittery mobile over his desk becomes a visual distraction. Sitting in a car together, Von Bohm and Lola are bathed in different colored lights. More odd lights bathe Lola on stage at the club, especially when she realizes that Von Bohm is in the audience. Surprisingly, none of these eccentricities come off as affected, or distracting.
Günther Kaufmann again appears as a Yank GI, and Rosel Zech has a supporting part as Schukert’s icy wife. Ivan Desny is one of the civic leaders, and Christine Kaufmann (Town Without Pity) is one of the girls at the club. Un-billed but immediately getting our attention is Udo Kier, as one of the club’s waiters.
The vivid personalities are what give the BRD films lasting interest. Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech and Barbara Sukowa are as intense as classic Hollywood stars, and more daring than most. Fassbinder doesn’t go in for much casual nudity, as a rule — his women embody their sexuality openly but the appeal is not that of a sex show.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder practically had a corner on critical attention in the 1970s, when the sheer volume of his film work was difficult to believe. Various attempts to explain his prolific output still don’t fully add up. The IMDB enumerates 41 directed shows between 1969 and 1982, and several of those were mini-series for TV, like the highly-recommended World on a Wire. He lists five features in 1970 and four each for 1974 and 1975. Old-school Hollywood journeymen might chalk up six features a year, but that was when they might be handed a script on Friday and start Monday, with the studio departments providing everything but a man to yell, ‘Action.’
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The BRD Trilogy is a dazzling restoration of all three features. The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola have been given new 4K restoration jobs. My last memories of seeing these was on the “Z” Channel in the 1980s, in flat transfers with inadequate subtitles. The quality revealed by these encodings is dazzling.
Criterion has rounded up an equally endless list of extras, starting with a group of items that the label put together for their 2003 DVD sets (note the early spine numbers). Fassbinder collaborators appear with an impressive list of serious critics to analyze the pictures in print, in documentaries and in discussions.
For genre fans the most interesting extra may be Dance with Death, a 2000 docu about the Nazi-era actress Sybille Schmitz, who we know from her classic Dreyer chiller Vampyr. Already an erratic personality, Schmitz lived a crazy life that after the war crumbled into degradation. Schmitz appeared in several now-legendary German fantasy and Sci-fi pictures, not just Vampyr, but F.P. 1 Antwortet Nicht (1932), Der Herr der Welt (1934), Fährmann Maria (1936), and also Titanic (1943). The docu is generous with film clips.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The BRD Trilogy
Supplements (from Criterion): Audio commentaries from 2003 featuring filmmaker Wim Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (The Marriage of Maria Braun), film critic and author Tony Rayns (Veronika Voss), and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (Lola); Interviews from 2003 with actors Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech, and Barbara Sukowa; Interviews from 2003 with cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer, and film scholar Eric Rentschler; Life Stories: A Conversation with R. W. Fassbinder, an interview filmed for German television in 1978; I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me, a feature-length 1992 documentary on director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and career; Dance with Death, a program from 2000 about Ufa studios star Sybille Schmitz, Fassbinder’s inspiration for the character Veronika Voss; Conversation from 2003 between author and curator Laurence Kardish and film editor Juliane Lorenz; Trailers. Bookl with an essay by Kent Jones and production histories by author Michael Töteberg.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in card and plastic folders with booklet in heavy card box
Reviewed: July 11, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson