Rainer Fassbinder’s film The Marriage of Maria Braun was first released in 1972. In the movie, Hanna Shygulla, who takes the role of Maria Braun, plays the central character. Through Maria Braun’s character and other women in this movie, the director easily exhibits how gender roles extensively changed during the post-reconstruction period in Germany. On all the big screen produced by Fassbinder, this cinema emerged the best since it showed the devastated state of post-war Germany without censoring any information from the viewers. His film features West Germany, representing the entire region and the problems it encountered during the post-reconstruction period as it worked to change the social-economic well-being of this great nation. To exhibit change, Fassbinder uses color changes in the entire film, where black and white images represent the Nazi regime, and the brown and gray pictures show a gradually growing Germany. Lastly, the fully bright and sharpened images depict Germany as a state that had already attained its economic miracle. In addition, this film is greatly politicized with significant figures like Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Schmitt, and Joseph Stalin, who are featuring in the movie in some instances. Therefore, the ensuing review aims at examining how Fassbinder exhibits the changing gender roles and his thought on Germany’s economic miracle through the lenses of the central character Maria Braun.
The Changing Gender Roles in Post-War Germany
World War II left most the men in Germany broken both physically and psychologically. Their greatest shame was that they had failed miserably in protecting their children, women, and the homeland. Therefore, after this war, they felt emasculated, fragile, and feeble, contrary to how the world viewed them in the past. Through the lenses of Maria Braun, Fassbinder’s film shows the frustrating scenario in West Germany that led to the reversal of roles between men and women. The first individual who shows inverted roles as a man is Maria’s husband, who is emasculated mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, professionally, personally, and politically. For that reason, instead of spending his life looking out for his wife Maria Braun he opts to disappear, spend most of his time in prison, and totally depend on his spouses’ fortunes and emotional support. On the other hand, Herman is used to showing the significant extent to which the war went into incapacitating Germans, as they are neither capable of taking up family responsibilities as they earlier did not defend Germany’s National Socialism.
As men continually exhibited great incapacitation, women fully took up the duties of the male counterparts. It is during this time that women became independent due to the absence of their men. From the start, the first voice that rolls out in the film is that of Adolf Hitler, then the voices of Maria and Herman exchanging their marital vows amidst war rubble. Further, the other romantic relationships exhibit the problems faced by West Germany long before the film develops. Thus, Maria commences the journey toward recovering Germany from being an active workforce alongside other women of rubble with a primary job of clearing the debris left on the streets of this region after the bombings. Notably, the work of these women represents not only West Germany’s physical devastation but also the changing roles of the female gender after the war, as more men became casualties.
With this tremendous loss, the only thing left for women to do was only to take up responsibility and start rebuilding their nation in the absence of their male counterparts considering that men were too feeble and disturbed to begin reconstructing Germany. Upon return from war, the broken German soldiers found their women had already climbed higher on the social ladder. From this instance, gender roles became officially reversed as men started depending on the women. As such, the female found new freedom and got expertise in various occupations. To demonstrate, Maria Braun is just an average woman but manages to get her independence by using her beauty and wits to become economically empowered. She further gains a masculinity personality when she takes up Herman’s role by providing him with resources while in prison, working, building a home, and visiting him frequently. As such, her husband’s absence nurtures a young, fearlessly outgoing, and capable woman who does whatever her mindsets to do.
Postwar Germany also saw women reverse their roles where they traded their dignity and morals of a straight woman as society expected to acquire the social and economic growth that this nation required in the post reconstruction era. First, Maria is seen holding a placard where she is eagerly waiting for her husband’s return alongside her friend Betti. However, from the news, both women learn of the supposed deaths of their spouses, and it is here that Maria gives up the hope of ever seeing Herman. What follows is an affair with Bill, an American soldier who ensures to provide her with food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolates, teaches her English, and brings her silk stockings. Despite the favors she gets from this relationship, Maria keeps off any emotional attachment with Bill as she goes to the extent of aborting his child due to the fear of racism and societal stereotyping her as a prostitute. Later, when Herman shows up, there is a confrontation, and Maria kills Bill. From there, her quest to have money lead her to Karl Oswald a businessman who is thrilled with her beauty and holds her hand as she climbs the social and economic ladder. Clearly, Maria’s romantic escapades significantly distort the morality and sexuality of a woman in the post-reconstruction era of the German state.
While women are seen as sexual objects in the post-reconstruction Germany, it is crucial to understand that they emerged stronger than their male counterparts. Notably, the female gender, through the character of Maria Braun, is seen to strive through thick and thin to keep their families going. Post reconstruction Germany also saw women reject their traditional roles as faithful spouses. Instead, they opted to join hands and together rebuild a destructed nation. Their brevity is also apparent as they endure the suffering of losing their men to war, choose to stop dwelling in the past, give their wounds time to heal, and bring Germany’s economic glory. Clearly, Fassbinder has managed to show that post-reconstruction era saw a significant change in gender roles change as women took the responsibilities of their male spouses while, in turn their men became fully dependent on them.
Fassbinder’s Thought on the Economic Miracle
The director of the movie The Marriage of Maria Braun uses his central character Maria Braun to sneer on the face of Germany’s perceived economic miracle instead of massaging its ego from the start. According to Fassbinder, Maria’s pursuit for economic empowerment coincides with the perceived economic miracle in Germany, an ideology that remained from 1933-1945. The link between the two is the emotional detachment that develops to realize economic empowerment becomes a reality. According to Germany’s history after the Second World War, the country did not have an opportunity to reconcile with the past horror that it faced in this battle. Indeed, the reason being the first reaction of every inhabitant was to participate actively in recovering and rebuilding the lost victory of Germany by using all the available resources and approaches.
Emotional detachment in both Germany and Maria’s marriage and the economic miracle are depicted severally. The inadequacy of emotions is exhibited clearly through a humble Maria as she walks through the rubble and later where she is represented as an evolved woman who is scolding her secretary unreasonably. In addition, at one point, Germany accepts the American aid as provided in the Marshall plan, an action that coincides with Maria’s support from Bill to cater for her family’s needs. Notably, both of the actions symbolically exhibit their emotional detachment considering that while she remains fond of Bill just like Germany’s affection to external support, there still exists an uncertain environment in both cases to embrace foreign interference willingly.
Fassbinder uses The Marriage of Maria Braun to exhibit the end of war in Germany, its hunger years, and post-reconstruction period. When Maria and Herman marry, they spend very little time together, where her husband goes back to the Frontline alongside her father and brother-in-law to fight for Germany. In this scenario, the problems in Germany are extremely hard such that Maria goes to the extent of selling her father’s souvenir and a wedding dress on the black market to acquire four potatoes, a piece of bacon, and fire lumber for her family’s survival. Moreover, Maria loses the faith of her husband’s return, an emotional hit that leads her into prostitution with the aim of feeding her family and at the advice of her friend, who indicated the concept of keeping her bed warm in the company of a man. Fortunately, Maria progresses on the social and economic ladder just like Germany as it realizes the economic miracle. However, in both instances, they lose their souls to become financially empowered. The first instance that Maria’s emotional detachment is seen is when she kills Bill due to her husband’s return with claims of loyalty to her almost nonexistent marriage without a care that Bill had greatly assisted her during Herman’s absentee years. As a result, Herman assumes the guilt of killing Bill and is sentenced for murder. To build a life with Herman, who is in prison, Maria again resorts to using her seductive femininity to lure Oswald, a wealthy industrialist, into empowering her economically.
Meeting Oswald becomes the turning point in her life as she rides the economic miracle on Oswald’s successful ship. While this expansion is supposed to show prosperity and achievement, this was not the case. Instead, the dream of reuniting with her husband becomes fatal as she learns that Herman betrayed her with Oswald to gain the other half of his wealth. Moreover, when Herman comes back, he ignores Maria’s emotions by playing the 1954 world cup, which saw the country emerge victorious, an approach used to rub the past atrocities in Germany and instead portray the country as an ever-winning nation. In this narrative, Maria’s loyalty to her husband coincides with Germany’s ideology of the economic miracle. Indeed, being separated for nine years does not stop Maria Braun’s from upholding her faithfulness to her marriage despite their union denoting immense infidelity, murders, imprisonment, deception, and secret agreements that are substantially associated with the death of their relationship. In fact, this is what Fassbinder intends to portray the economic miracle ideology, which he shows as one that has lost its value as it left Germany in the heartless, cost-free, and emotionless state as it strived to acquire wealth and prosperity.
The occupation years in Germany are also shown through the extreme reactions to hunger in the family of Maria Braun’s as they crave for cigarettes, soak bread in water, and exchange the family brooch to acquire a prostitute’s garb. During these years, Germans survived by acknowledging realism and living by its rules as people struggled to obtain whatever was needed for survival by any means, including indulgence in the black market practices. Moreover, being defeated refueled the spirit of winning in all Germans, including women. However, other ideologies were further distrusted, where only survival through realism was welcomed. In this era, people lived by facts, as seen in Maria’s actions, where she even requested a health certificate from her doctor to become a prostitute in an American brothel. As such, any economic empowerment was acceptable to the extent of disregarding emotions, while the burdens of thought were given zero tolerance. Besides, Maria is a central political theme throughout the movie, where she allegorically presents West Germany in its post reconstruction era. On a political note, this region was conquered, faced destruction, and was eventually reconstructed through a contentious process that made the country emotionally detached.
In essence, the movie review above shows that Fassbinder is a great producer who went past the expectations of the German film industry to address the problems facing the country during the post-reconstruction period. The author used Maria Braun to show that the gender roles were reversed to realize Germany’s social and economic advancement through any realistic approach. For instance, Maria Braun becomes a prostitute and a mistress for the purpose of building her life with Herman, who is among the female dependent German men. On the other hand, Fassbinder associates the German economic miracle with the marriage of Maria Braun. He allegorically compares the two ideologies, where he shows that the need for Germany to become a superpower killed its emotional self as it barely had time to reconcile the horrors of the past regime. However, the country eagerly accepted help but became reluctant to welcome any foreigners in their land, just like Maria Braun. Considerably, The Marriage of Maria Braun is a film that shows the psychosocial mood that encompassed Germany in the early occupation years and the psycho-economic dynamics that its inhabitants applied to aid the country from a previous collapse to becoming an economic giant.