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.

      Even before her marriage, however, the middle-aged virgin, Martha, is represented as a kind masochist, easily accepting the verbal abuses of her father (Adrian Hoven) and, we soon after discover, the tyrannical insanity of her mother, obviously induced by years of abuse and neglect she herself as suffered. Indeed, men in Fassbinder’s world are represented as brutal patriarchs: even before she reaches the lobby of her hotel to meet with her father for a tour of Rome, Martha is met with a “Libyan” intruder (Fassbinder’s lover El Hedi ben Salem), ready to rape her, the desk clerk having sent him up because he has thought he has observed Martha previously “wink at him.” 
       Her most unloving father dislikes her even touching him, and quickly has a heart attack and dies on the Spanish Steps, after which the gigolo “Libyan,” having followed Martha and her father, steals her purse, with all her travel money. Martha is so psychologically unhinged by the event—both terrified and, quite understandably, relieved—that she leaves her father’s body on the steps as she runs off the German Embassy for help.

      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.

      What quickly becomes clear is that Fassbinder, although very much embracing the marriage melodrama of Hollywood cinema, is also deconstructing it similarly to what he did to gangster movies in Love Is Colder than Death and the Western in Whity. And much like those films, Fassbinder creates a fine balance between satire and sympathy, a high theatricality and realism that might surely confuse those who like their movies to more easily define themselves. In Martha one is never sure, given the heroine’s absurd situations, to laugh or cry.

       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.

       Returning home, she discovers that, instead of her intention to live in her family home, her husband has rented a mansion where there has formerly been a murder. Having now become a regular smoker, she is requested by her new husband to smoke only on the veranda. He has given notice, without her knowledge, that she wishes to give up her librarian position. And soon after, as she attempts to cook what he has claimed to be his favorite dish, pig’s kidneys, he declares that he is allergic to all offal. Soon after he is insisting that she listen only to the sacred the Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso, declaring her favorite, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as “slime” (a joke, clearly, on the actor, Böhm himself, whose father the famed German conductor, Karl Böhm, often performed Donizetti). It is only a matter of time before he insists that, during his business absences, she not leave the house. He demands also that she read an absolutely boring treatise on engineering so that she might better understand his job. 
       But the worst events of their marriage are his savage sexual assaults, where he clearly bites and pummels her. He is, as Martha’s new librarian friend, Mr. Kaiser (Peter Chatel, with another name that hints he may not be the hero we imagine him to be) suggests, is a true sadist. Yet Martha cannot bring herself to condemn her husband or, more importantly, to leave him, attempting more than ever to submit to his demands.
       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

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