When a film festival includes previously released films on its schedule, especially older films, they are usually great achievements in cinematic history or straight-up crowd-pleasers. AFI did a gala presentation of “Mary Poppins” this year to coincide with its Opening Night Film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” the New York Film Festival debuted a restoration of “The Age of Innocence.” It was for this reason that I found Agnès Varda’s choice to present Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979) at AFI Fest somewhat baffling.
The mannered, self-aware film follows the life of Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla), a German woman married for one day before her husband, Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch), is killed in the final throes of the Second World War. The first third or so functions as a traditional period piece, with Maria trying to scrape by despite the great hardships felt throughout her country. This section does not feel very original, but then again, one must remind oneself that ’70s film culture was not yet inundated in World War II nostalgia, and so the film’s themes of recovery and revivification were not as stale as they seem today.
“The Marriage of Maria Braun” is at its most exciting when it sheds this wistful tone and embraces Maria’s drive for social and financial success. Fassbinder is a stylish filmmaker, and he has great fun placing his willful protagonist in a variety of settings, cinematographically exploiting his cleverly arranged mise-en-scène. Schygulla portrays Maria with a verve that breathes life into the stilted script, while maintaining a subtlety that keeps the melodramatic plot convolutions from becoming too outré.
My own enthusiasm for this middle section is rooted in its sincere exploration of feminist themes. Maria is more than willing to use her physical charms as well as her mental prowess to manipulate the lustful men around her. When observing a well-dressed businessman riding first-class on a train, Maria uses both her Little Black Dress and linguistic skill to secure a job as a translator and “personal advisor.” And instead of shaming her for a pregnancy out of wedlock or an affair with her employer, the film (at this point) applauds her wilily handling of these delicate situations.
The final section of the film, which begins soon after Maria is hired by Herr Oswald (Ivan Desny), falls away from these exciting arguments. The choices of her husband Hermann (who remains relevant despite his supposed demise) continue to rule her life, and one is left wondering whether she actually wants anything for herself, or whether her entire life has been lived for him (she herself suggests the latter). Even more difficult to stomach is Maria’s need to, as she says, “pay for her sins,” by living alone, snapping cruelly at everyone around her, and drinking herself into a stupor. Fassbinder throws in some talk about the emptiness of life at the top, but these conclusions are also rather pat.
There are times when revivals of little-known films can bring about a wider recognition of their strengths. This is not one of those times. I am sad to disagree with so magnificent an artist as Agnès Varda, but with the exception of some impressive directorial flourishes from Fassbinder and the formidable performance from Schygulla, I would have rather spent my Sunday afternoon quietly eating popcorn, without any “Braun” at all.