German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was amazingly prolific – over 40 features and shorts in just 13 years. Between 1979 and 1982 he wrote and directed three films which are probably his masterpieces. Collectively, they are known as the BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss. At the same time he also produced a gigantic 14-part television series based on the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as two other features. As I said, amazingly prolific.
The films differ greatly in style, but they have much in common. They are all set in 1950s Germany during the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (the economic miracle), which saw Germany change from a defeated, humiliated country into a financial and political powerhouse. They all center on three extraordinary female characters who are interesting in themselves, but also are fascinating in how they become symbols of what Germany was going through. They all also demonstrate a profound love of Hollywood films of the 1950s, especially the works of Douglas Sirk.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
Arguably the most celebrated of the three films, this was the film that turn Fassbinder from an interesting, quirky local German filmmaker into an internationally acclaimed artist. The story begins toward the end of WWII. Maria Braun’s husband Hermann has gone off to war and is presumed killed. As the war ends, Maria’s keen sense of self-preservation leads her into a relationship with an industrialist that teaches her to become a powerful businesswoman. The problem is that Maria is losing her soul in the process. Much like Germany of the time. What motivates Maria and keeps her moving forward is the hope that Hermann will return. He represents all that was kind and human and loving from before, and which Maria has suppressed in her ascent. Much like Germany of the time. The result of her reunion with the idealized husband shows Fassbinder’s most devastating critique of what Germany had become. Romantic from the past, bloodless and mercenary in the present.
In the title role, Hanna Schygulla gives an iconic, endlessly interesting performance. She was part of Fassbinder’s troupe and he casts her here to supreme effect.
Undeniably evoking the title character of The Blue Angel, Lola also tells the story of seductive, dangerous woman. However, unlike the character played by Marlene Dietrich, this Lola is clearly depicted as not being motivate by sexual thrall over men, but by a clear-eyed need to be financially independent. Much like Germany of the time. Played by Barbara Sukowa, Fassbinder’s star of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, this Lola, a high-class prostitute and sometime (awful) singer in a local bordello-cum-nightclub, seems to be on a moral collision course when a new government building inspector arrives in town, determined to clean up the corruption that has led to its economic boom. This kind and gentle, Ming dynasty loving man, played heartbreakingly by Armin Mueller-Stahl, seems to evoke the character played by Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel. But what Fassbinder has in store for both of them is quite different and quite consonant with his socialist critique of postwar Germany and the effect that rampant capitalism has on it.The echoes of Sirk, especially in the lighting and in the subversive undermining of all that the 50s held dear are yet another level of pleasure to be derived from this rich film.
Taking his cue from the noirish atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss tells the story of how a faded film star of the Nazi era who tumbles into the life of a simple sportswriter, and how both there fates are altered not, alas, for the good. The inspiration comes from the legend of UFA star Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide in 1955 under very mysterious circumstances. She may or may not have been Goebbel’s lover. Fassbinder fleshes out this story using it to continue his exploration of the moral cost of postwar Germany’s denial of and romance for the past. As played by Rosel Zech, Veronika Voss is evocative of the vampiric Norma Desmond with the sportswriter standing in as a poor man’s version of the William Holden gigolo from the same film. But she is much more than that. As the plot unravels, we come to understand that Veronika Voss’s situation might very well be a result of not looking squarely at what happened during the war and, even worse, making it the stuff of a private fairy tale. Rosel Zech is tremendous.
Apparently Fassbinder was at work writing a fourth film in this series, when he died at the age of 37. It was to be a film on the life of Rosa Luxemburg and it was to have starred Jane Fonda. Imagine!
In any event, we do have these three remarkable films which act as supreme history lessons and lessons in supreme filmmaking.
Please try them and let me know what you think!