The Marriage of Maria Braun ★★★★★

I confess it difficult for me to scrape my feelings and thoughts about The Marriage of Maria Braun into an articulate audit, much less one worthy of its due. My first encounter with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I’m ashamed to admit, far exceeded my tepid expectations—this film transfixed me, ransacking my subconscious while I was under its spell, and I stirred from its sorcery desolate, heartbroken and grieving.

Maria is a woman after my own heart, possessed by Hanna Schygulla in a commanding performance; a newlywed bride left alone to navigate the confusion of post-war Germany when her soldier husband, Hermann doesn’t return from his final mission. She haunts the dusty train station and rubble-filled streets waiting for her husband to return to her, aimless and numb. It isn’t until a cursory interaction with an American GI that she realizes the value of her wit, her industriousness, and her sexual allure, and begins building an individual empire using her myriad attributes as currency.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is an honest, refreshing depiction of sex work as many people experience it—as both a means to an end and a way to express sexuality and desire. Sex work is often negatively characterized as unfortunate women and trafficked girls working in dire conditions, and while that is undeniably a horrifying part of the industry, it can manifest in many ways—as in Maria’s case, as a professional launching pad and a conduit to financial independence. 

Maria intuits how to most advantageously use her sexuality to her benefit while simultaneously indulging in it. She is a powerful representation of agency and empowering feminism; she follows the path she believes is most beneficial for her while still respecting and defending her friend’s more traditional mindset and her mother’s love life in widowhood. Maria makes seemingly uncouth decisions that are by no means frivolous, she is making the most out of her circumstances, fueled by an unabating love for her husband with whom she’s determined to be reunited. She takes up the mantle of being the breadwinner, of preparing a home, of playing alpha to requite for Hermann’s sacrifice (who has traded his life first for country and then for Maria’s freedom), in the anticipation of giving him the reception she believes he deserves. Every action is both a testament of devotion to Hermann and a radical act of self-love.

The tragic realization that Maria’s advancements are all still capped by the ceiling of the patriarchy, and therefore only exist within and because of that world, is a realistic yet crushing reminder of who ultimately holds the power—and how laser-focused ambitions of the future can blind us to our surroundings and the larger oppressive forces at work in the past and the present. That potential catastrophe manifests in the final moments of the film with bleak ambiguity, the weight of Maria’s epic ascendence and loss effectively reducing me to one of many pitiful debris piles decorating West Germany after the war.

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