Friday, October 7, 2016
Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Martha
the dutiful daughter, the suffering wife
by Douglas Messerli
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (screenplay, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Martha / 1974 (German TV), 1994 (USA)
Although loosely based on a story by noted noir author Cornell Woolrich, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV film Martha more fully mines the melodramas of marriage by Douglas Sirk—the major character of this film, Martha Hayer, named similarly to American actress Martha Hyer, even lives on Douglas Sirk Street in Constance, Germany—and the far earlier Patrick Hamilton play and 1944 film, Gaslight. Although there are no missing jewels involved in Fassbinder’s film, it certainly becomes clear that Martha (Margit Carstensen), like Gaslight’s Ingrid Bergman, has married a manipulative liar and sadist not unlike the character played by Charles Boyer.
It is outside the embassy where she briefly encounters her future husband, Helmut Salomon (the handsome Karlheinz Böhm who played beautiful young villains in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of 1960 and Fassbinder’s own Fox and His Friends of the next year), which the director theatrical represents with a series of camera spins around the couple. Inside the embassy she calls her mother to report her father’s death only to hang up on her when the mother Gisela Fackeldey) begins to cry. Almost as if to celebrate, she bums a cigarette from the Embassy secretary (Kurt Raab), which declares is her first time at smoking.
Back home at Constance, the head librarian, Herr Meister (Mr. Master in English) calls her into his office to demand that she marry him, who when Martha demurs immediately calls in his other assistant, Ilse (Ingrid Caven) and proposes—this time successfully—to her.
Neither does that heroine, herself, who reencountering the handsome Saloman and Ilse’s and Meister’s wedding party, accepts his proposal for marriage. Almost from the very beginning we perceive him as a kind of monster, declaring his love to her while simultaneously appears to be seething inside.
While on their honeymoon in Italy, he demands she get a deep tan which ends predictably in a terrible sunburn, which she suffers out on a bed while he insists upon a quite painful sexual intercourse.
It is, oddly enough, only when Salomon suggests that he has returned home early—to find Martha not in the house—and has brought her a present, that Martha finally breaks down psychologically, claiming that he is trying to kill her. We are never told or shown what that present might have been—Fassbinder leaves it our imagination or as evidence of Martha’s own psychosis—but we certainly might conjure up all sorts of possibilities. Clearly, Martha has reached her limit, returning immediately to Kaiser to demand that he take her away.
Kaiser, much like Bergman’s savior Joseph Cotton in Gaslight attempts to rush her out of danger’s way; but unlike the Cukor film, Fassbinder’s escape results not in salvation but in further imprisonment, as their car crashes, killing Kaiser and leaving Martha permanently crippled, who is returned, via wheelchair, by her Aryan captor to their home, while the doctors and others cluck contentedly that she will now be properly taken care of.
It is a painfully ironic and yet almost comical ending, wherein evil wins out easily, with the society’s blessing, by locking away another “hysterical” wife.
Fassbinder is never easy on any institutional situation, be it conventional or not (even the highly unconventional human inter-relationships of Fox and His Friends, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and In a Year with 13 Moons end badly). Martha is simply another example of where traditional societal views destroy human attempts of loving.
Los Angeles, October 7, 2016