Fassbinder’s Women. Films reviewed: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, Drama, Germany, Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 18, 2016

explore_152id_002_originalHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The postwar renaissance of Germany’s once great cinema almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t until the 1970s that German movies came into their own. And Rainer Werner Fassbinder — along with Herzog, Wenders, Schlöndorf and von Trotta — was key to this Neue Kino. Born near Munich at the end of WWII, Fassbinder lived his entire life in Bavaria. Between 1966 and 1982, he created a phenomenal 42 feature films, along with countless stage plays and the epic TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. Between these projects he led a wild personal life filled with sex, drugs and political controversy. Married twice, he also had at least two long-term male lovers, while consuming huge quantities of cocaine.

Throughout, he attempted to document Germany’s fass_24colcultural history, as the country arose from devastating defeat to become the economic juggernaut it is today. And in many of these films Germany is a woman. His female character try to survive economically, even though outsiders — men – control all the power and money. These women must weave their way through the psychologically damaging malaise underlying Germany’s economic boom. Fassbinder filters these portrayals through his view of Hollywood, especially the so-called women’s pictures of the 1940s and 50s. He idolizes directors like Douglas Sirk and Joseph L Mankiewicz and wants to be their modern, German equivalent, giving his films melodramatic titles like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and [The Longing of] Veronika Voss.

A retrospective of his work, Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, presented by the Goethe Institute and TIFF Cinematheque, is on now through the end of the year. I’m looking at three of his “women’s pictures”, great movies from the end of his career, known as his BRD (Bundesrepublik) Trilogy. Though made in the late 1970s – early 80s, they all take place in the 1940s-50s.

There’s a woman married to money, another to the silver screen, and a third to a man she never sees.

204_image-1The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) (Die Ehe der Maria Braun)

It’s Germany just after WWII. Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla) is in a fix. She was married beneath a portrait of Adolph Hitler, as American bombs fell all around her. Three weeks of love, and one night of marital bliss… then husband Hermann was sent back to the Russian front. Now with her husband presumed dead she has to feed herself. But she refuses to call herself a widow. She parades the streets each day with a cardboard sign asking “Where is my husband Hermann Braun?”

Her city is a mess of rubble, rubbish and holes in walls. Well-fed GIs are the only ones with money, while locals subsist on turnips and porridge. Maria is forced to take a job at the Moonlight Bar, a beer hall for US soldiers.

There she meets an African-American GI and falls in love. Their relationship progresses from dancing, to picnics, to English lessons, to sex. But they are interrupted in flagrante delecto by Hermann, back from the war. He beats her up and she, in turn, slams a glass bottle… not at her husband’s head, but at her lover’s, killing him instantly. Hermann takes the fall and goes to jail, while Maria vows to achieve financial success for both of them. The film chronicles her quick rise to power at a French nylon stocking conglomerate. She sleeps with the CEO — just like with the GI — but her heart remains true to her husband. But can he be trusted?

This is a great, though cynical, look at postwar Germany, as seen by the ambitious, but manipulated, Maria Braun. (Not a spoiler, but it does have an explosive ending!) This fantastic and surprising film was Fassbinders first international hit — it played in NY City for over a year.

206_image-1Lola (1981) 

It’s 1957. The leading citizens of small-town Bavaria are planning a new development: Lindenhof. It will make them all filthy rich. Protesters picket daily on the street and their plans are clearly fraudulent, but, with the government, business and police all on the take, nothing can go wrong.

In walks the new building inspector, Mr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He says he wants to usher in a new city in tune with the German Economic Miracle. He’s both modern and old-fashioned – modern at work, old fashioned at home. He owns a Ming vase and loves children, East Prussians and Frisian tea. And he is a stickler who carefully reads every blueprint, invoice and form. He is “incorruptible”.

When he falls under the influence of a leftist poseur, he vows to confront the “birds of prey” behind this venture. Head vulture? The nouveau riche developer Schukert (Mario Adorf). He’s the local Donald Trump. He’s married to an older woman, but spends most of his time with his mistress Lola (Barbara Sukowa). Lola is a fiery film_203w_brd_originalcabaret performer and sex worker at the town brothel. She decides to seduce von Bohm in order to guarantee economic success for herself and her daughter. But who will triumph – the hero von Bohm, or all of the corrupt conspirators?

Lola is a deeply cynical film… but with an oddly happy ending. It decries the corruption, on both the left and the right, and the ordinary people crushed by the wheels of progress. But then the film shrugs its shoulders at the unavoidable results of modernity.

Lola is another great film, a dark satire, lit with phenomenally intense day-glo colours whose pink, aqua and acid green will sear your eyeballs.

veronikavossVeronica Voss (1981) (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss)

It’s the 1950s in Munich. Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a faded movie actress who once starred in films at UFA, the mammoth German movie studio. She still sits in theatres, staring at herself on the screen. One rainy evening, she runs into a man named Robert Krohl (Hilmar Thate). He gallantly offers her his umbrella, and walks her to the streetcar. Robert is a sports writer, gruff and burly, who knows nothing about movie stars. He happily lives with his lover, Henriette, and secretly writes poetry in his spare time.

But when she asks him for a drink, he is captivated by her larger-than-life personality. She poses and preens, acts impulsively, switching in seconds from elation, depression to agony. Movies, she says, are all about shadow and light, and she demands the waiter adjust the light to make her look better. Robert is smitten. He traces her steps to a neurological clinic, a spotless white office run by a Frau Doktor Katz (Annemarie Düringer). She’s a pretty but severe doctor who offers Veronika friendship (and morphine!) in exchange for complete domination of her life. Can Robert rescue Veronika from the lesbian doctor’s clutches before she is forever lost? Or is she already lost to drugs, and just a flickering image of the star she once was?

Veronika Voss is fantastic melodrama in the style of 30s films and 40s noir with an incredibly shiny, shadowy, black-and-white look.

Fassbinder died of a drug overdose at age 36, not long after this film’s release.

Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is playing at TIFF until late December. Go to tiff.net for details. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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