THE FRENCH HAVE a word for people with an uncanny knack for getting along: they call them debrouillards. Maria Braun, played by Hanna Schygulla and heroine of Reiner Fassbinder's latest film, The Marriage of Maria Braun, is a debrouillarde.
Picture the rubble of post-war Germany, where gutted buildings abound, sad-eyed people claw for packs of cigarrettes, and gaunt Red Cross workers spoon out soup to the destitute. Germany survived the war, but can it now survive the peace?
Maria Braun, epitome of the country's post-war "economic miracle," proves that Germany cannot only survive, but flourish. "I prefer making miracles to waiting for them," she stoutly adjures. Married in 1944 for half a day and a whole night, her soldier-husband Herman Braun (Klaus Lowitsch) is sent off to the Russian front. Maria pledges unfailing devotion to Herman--a silent, morose type--yet her notion of love takes on strange forms.
In his absence Maria does not pine away. Rather, she pawns her mother's brooch, buys a slinky black dress, and begins work at a "night-club" for American G.I.s. There, she meets up with Bill (George Byrd), a chubby black soldier who becomes starstruck by her while slow-dancing to the tunes of Benny Goodman.
Clearly, in post-war Germany, survival emerges the prime consideration. Bill provides Maria an ample quantity of chocolate, silk stockings, and affection; he beseeches her to marry him. Maria playfully hedges; she is ever in control of the situation. "I am fond of you, Bill, but I love my husband," she declares solemnly, insisting upon the appellation of "Mrs. Braun."
Still, Herman has not come back from the Front; he is believed dead. Then one day, as Maria and Bill are about to dive into bed, Heman materializes in the bedroom doorway. Lowitsch, iron-jawed, taciturn, renders the strange tableau one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. He tussels with the black soldier, and Maria clobbers Bill--fatally--with a bottle.
IN THE ENSUING TRIAL, stolid Herman takes the rap and goes to prison in Maria's stead. For her part, she comes to visit him daily and swears loyalty to their new life once he is freed. Fassbinder deftly mingles pathos with farce in teary scenes as the couple communicates through bars during prison visiting hours.
Love not withstanding, one must eat. Of this reality Maria is all too aware, and in her broad construction of the word "love," much is permissible. On a train she encounters Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), aging French textile magnate and insinuates her way into an executive position in the company and a place in his bed.
With a sassy toss of her blonde bob, a slash of red lipstick, and a sultry snarl, the debrouillarde has done it again. she is the German Heartbreak Kid. Predictably, Oswald falls for her; and precitably, she makes no bones as to who is boss. "You're not having an affair with me," she intones smartly. "I'm having one with you." Touche.
Maria may be ruthless, she may be supremely manipulative, yet she seemingly emerges through all with a rippling laugh and a twinkling gaiety. This, in contrast to other weaker characters who have not her resilience. Her physician, forced by post-war stresses into drug addiction, is one example of a character who falls by the wayside. Anothers is Willi, her brother-in-law who dissipates into a broken alcoholic. Unlike them, Maria manages to keep going. In a crazy, loyal way, she keeps visiting Herman in mail, pressing upon him money, speaking fondly of the day when he will be freed.
THE END of the movie comes in rapid, staccato strokes. By now Maria is rich, established, with a house in the country. Oswald is dead, having bequeathed all to the Brauns. Herman has been home for a day and they are preparing to make love. "I gave you everything," Maria tells Herman. "My whole life. Got a match?" Mistakenly, she left the gas on. Boom. Both go up in flames, a tragi-comic resolution to the whole affair. After evincing such uncanny survival skills, Maria Braun is undone by a measly cigarette. In the background Fassbinder adds the last little fillip of irony: we hear over the radio that Germany has just won the World Soccer Championships.
Maria Braun, Effie Briest, and The Merchant of Four Seasons are Fassbinder's masterpieces; significantly, Hanna Schygulla starred in all three. She is to Fassbinder what Giancarlo Gianini is to Lena Wertmuller: a charismatic presence who carries the entire film. Despite arresting cinematographic touches--chilling musical inserts, the startling shot of an unidentified man pawing a women's breasts in the foreground--and solid performances by other actors, The Marriage of Maria Braun depends for its success upon the all-pervasive influence of Schygulla. The film has already garnered prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival to her for best actress, and to Fassbinder for best director. One waits to see how it will fare at Cannes. Clearly Schygulla makes the film. For smoking sexuality, humor, and Horatio-Algeresque pluck, this German actress has no parallel. Cybill Shepherd, take note.
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