Part Of The Picture: Committed to Commitment

Posted on June 11, 2010



JUN 12, 2010 – IT IS ENTIRELY FITTING THAT A MARRIAGE that ends with a bang should begin in the midst of wartime explosions. The film opens over an image of Adolf Hitler, underscored simultaneously by the high-pitched whistle of a descending bomb and a registrar’s intonation. “Do you, Hermann Braun, take this woman to be your wife?” The bomb finds its target – the civil registry, where the marriage is taking place – and through the newly dilapidated wall, we catch our first glimpse of the soon-to-be newlyweds, framed by shards of brick. This image underlines, for us, that the specter of war will forever loom over their marriage. A window bursts into splinters. Maria (Hanna Schygulla) winces at the mayhem outside, while Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch) stoically looks back and answers the registrar’s question. “I do.” Something as trivial as Allied bombing isn’t going to stand in the way of his getting married.

But the others in the collapsing building, the witnesses perhaps, aren’t quite as committed. They begin to disperse in droves, heedless of cries to stay and not run away. The registrar leaps out of a window and flails about comically as Hermann attempts to restrain him. Indeed, the entire episode carries a whiff of the comic, except that the wailing of an unseen child offers a sober counterpoint. Maria dashes down the steps and falls, clutching at her marriage certificate, as yet unsigned. She picks herself up and races towards her husband, calling out his name. She lies beside Hermann, extending the certificate to the registrar, who signs and flees. This is not a union that begins with sprinkles of confetti but with showers of certificates. There’s paper everywhere – even the credits appear over a freeze-frame of a document in mid-air.

The following scenes reveal that Maria is equally committed to this marriage. Hermann has gone off to fight and Maria has moved in with her mother, who, this day, anticipates her daughter’s arrival any minute. “Is that you, Maria?” she asks, hearing the door open and close as she wets bread with water in an attempt to make it go down easier. “I was worried to death. I thought something had happened to you.” Maria replies, “Nobody wants wedding dresses now. Too many girls, not enough men.” She has bartered her bridal gown for small potatoes – literally, small potatoes, along with firewood and a shaving brush. “That’s all I got for it,” she says. “There’s so much shaving gear on the market.” Her lips begin to quiver at the implication that many men, like her man, have departed with no word of return, and as if on cue, the radio bursts forth with an announcement. “We interrupt this performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for this SOS broadcast for missing persons.”

Maria turns up the volume. The announcement continues, and Maria is found at the railway station, a board on her back bearing details of her husband. She walks through crowds milling about men in uniform, each one hoping to catch sight of a familiar face. A Red Cross nurse hands Maria a cup of tea and confesses, “I still feel sick at the sight of some of them. The medical orderlies say crosswise is not the worst. If you get hit all on one side, you can’t even hold a crutch. I’ve seen it going on for six years, and I’ve been a widow for five. I’d have been satisfied with mine, if he had only come back. How long were you married?” Maria says, “I still am married.” The nurse persists, “I just meant you didn’t have much from your marriage.” But Maria begs to differ. In a manner befitting the man who braved bombs in order to marry her, she replies, “Yes, I did. Half a day and a whole night.”

Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979, German, English; aka The Marriage of Maria Braun). Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign