Die Ehe der Maria Braun / The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

30 04 2020

Roughly ten years ago I sat down to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun. It was my first experience with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I trust very little of myself from ten years ago, but I knew I appreciated the film on some level. If I had to guess, my 18-year-old cinephile self probably liked that Fassbinder used a Steadicam and I probably also thought that Hanna Schygulla was pretty. In a way, I wasn’t wrong, but I was hilariously underprepared to fully comprehend Fassbinder. As one of his biggest International hits, Maria Braun is a popular entry point but as such it often gets decontextualized from its own author. This was Fassbinder’s 19th film in ten years (one can juke these stats by including Fassbinder’s many television productions made during the timespan) and he had evolved substantial. While I resist the rigid way his “eras” are sometimes catalogued, there’s something to be said in the fact that this film managers to synthesize his admiration for his two heroes, Bertolt Brecht and Douglas Sirk.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Maria marries a soldier, Hermann Braun. Unfortunately, the war isn’t over, and the ceremony takes place amidst an allied bombing raid. Days later, Hermann is declared dead. With little to no economic prospects, Maria becomes a hostess at a bar popular with American soldiers. Hermann is actually alive, and he walks in on Maria entertaining one of her patrons, Bill. In the ensuing struggle, Bill is murdered by Maria but Hermann takes the blame with the expectation that Maria will wait for his release. She finds work as an assistant for the wealthy Karl Oswald, and then graduates to his mistress with the hope that she’ll be able to provide for both herself and Hermann upon his release.

In Fassbinder’s robust filmography, The Marriage of Maria Braun is second only to Ali: Fears Eat the Soul in terms of popularity. Personally, I have never fully clicked with Ali. It’s one of those films that I should like more than I actually do. I think it has something to do with the fact that it is by far Fassbinder’s most tender and gentle work. He is often described as cynical, if not mean-spirited, and that film feels like a conscious reaction towards such criticism. In a way, it’s just too precious. To me, Maria Braun strikes a better balance. Fassbinder’s humor is still intact, and the characters needn’t spiral down the rabbit hole of melodramatic misery. The most striking thing about Maria’s suffering is that it isn’t dramatically apparent. Her pain is much duller than the kind depicted in Ali. Punctuated by Schygulla’s charisma, it cuts deeper and burns slower.

The film’s opening immediately displays this sort of balance. One can find countless plot descriptions across the internet that say something along the lines of “Maria gets married amidst the war” but this is an extremely literal description. There’s a staccato brilliance to this opening, one that calls back to Fassbinder’s start as a filmmaker. The Berlin Film School deferred him in 1966, which forced him to reroute through Munich’s Action Theater. He became fascinated with Bertolt Brecht and incorporated his ideas into his stage plays. The earliest Fassbinder films reflect this fascination as well as the theatrical background. The compositions in his first feature film, Love is Colder than Death, are static long shots. We tend to see the entire bodies of his characters and they speak out of the rhythm. A dismissive audience would describe them “as not acting like real people.” For many, this is difficult, but to me it is an accessible source of humor. On the surface, Maria Braun is completely unlike this, “the characters act like real people.”

This is an incorrect assessment. In both instances, Fassbinder is challenging the conventional dramatic demand for empathy. In a way, his withholding of any “identification” is a tease. It retrains us. This works wonderfully for Maria because she never keeps up a moral standard. We don’t look up to her, or admire her, and we shouldn’t do those things in film. Sure, she preservers, but she also manipulates and is ill-tempered. She’s not “good” and she’s not “bad.” Fassbinder played with empathy throughout his career. It’s obvious in his earliest Brechtian features, but he’s also doing it in his melodramas, where both the performances and misfortunes are extended to absurdity. Again, the balance is perfected in Maria Braun, Brecht and Sirk are both present. As it is, the surface often resembles a handsome and accessible entry point into Fassbinder’s world. Revisiting Maria Braun after seeing his stranger and thornier efforts is nourishing because of its similarities to those films, not the differences.

Die Beischlafdiebin / The Sex Thief (1998)

27 04 2020

After the rare misfire in Cuba Libre, Petzold is back on track with his usual concerns in The Sex Thief. In all honesty, this feels like his own personal attempt at refining what he accomplished in his debut, Pilots. The story is remarkably similar: two women fighting back against an exploitative labor relationship, framed through the ever-watchful eye of state surveillance. In that earlier film, Petzold’s brevity made his story hit harder. Here, I guess his characters are fleshed out, but I’m not sure that’s exactly a good thing for a Petzold film. As it stands, I think he runs out of steam early. In a way, it makes sense that he had to make Cuba Libre and this after Pilots before he could achieve The State I Am In. Somewhere during this made for television period he found a way to let his camera linger in a way that artfully plays up the tensions in personal relationships without making them resolutely clear. As it is, he is still working through some aesthetic growing pains in this film.

The film opens with our protagonist, Petra, in the embrace of who we presume to be her lover. A bucket of water is quickly thrown on this fire when Petzold cuts directly to Petra robbing this man in his sleep. This, we soon learn, is her profession. Petra makes her money by seducing, drugging, and robbing men. To her, the cause is noble, as she is doing this to finance the education of her younger sister, Franziska. After a close call with a undercover cop, Petra gives herself a break and visits Franziska. She keeps her profession a secret from her sister, telling her that she’s a successful manager. The sisters are telling lies to each other, as Franziska is not furthering her education but working in retail. Upon this discovery, Petra makes it her mission to assist Franziska in finding a job that fits her credentials.

There’s a somewhat recent interview with Petzold in which he is asked about the “transient spaces” depicted throughout his work. He responds by relaying a description of an extended stay in London’s Heathrow Airport. To quote him, “this is a shit place in the world, but it’s filled with images of waterfalls and beautiful women and advertising for wellness. Yet nothing is happening—you’re dying there. Capitalism makes all of the world the same. It tells you that just around the corner there’s an adventure, but there’s nothing.” It’s a telling description because Petzold often perfects this “airport feeling.” In The Sex Thief, Petra spends all of her time in hotels, which she uses as her justification for visiting her sister’s loft. “I work for hotels, I live in hotels, I eat in hotels. I wanted to be somewhere far away from that.” What she seeks is a lifestyle rooted, a routine, and a foundation. She tries to accomplish this with her sister, helping her acquire stable employment, but she helps her by using what she knows, which yields little success.

Petra’s coaching of her sister is sensual and precise, and Petzold’s depiction of it is something that manages to channel both De Palma’s lasciviousness and the otherworldly detachment of late Bresson. I’ve never considered either of these filmmakers in analyzing Petzold but I find it informative, if one applies the comparison with some caution. Bresson is perhaps the urtext to a certain kind of Western European Minimalism of which Petzold, at least in his early days, is undoubtedly a disciple. Meanwhile his fondness for Hitchcock is well-documented, and he does participate in the sort of narrative slight-of-hand that informs all of De Palma’s work. This is the Petzold film that is most specifically about eros, yet it also feels the least sensual of all his work. Perhaps it is that incomparable tension that he slowly builds that can make a film like Gespenster feel uncomfortable and sexy at the same time. Here, romance is a labor-performance, stripped (pardon the pun) of its nervous (and exciting) energies. It’s a cynical view, but it isn’t unearned.

Unfortunately, the cynicism of The Sex Thief isn’t balanced by the humor like it is in Pilots. Fittingly, there’s a laborious sensation felt in watching a film that, despite its many insights offered by a brilliant filmmaker who is just beginning to come into his own, is something of a retread of an earlier film. It’s a form of homework I don’t mind completing mind you, and there are moments of unique brilliance. When Franziska goes in for a job interview, the back and forth between her and her potential employer is filmed. Her seduction doesn’t work, which makes Petra seek the interviewer out. She seduces him and takes him back to his apartment, where he is all too eager to show her footage of the day’s interviews. There, he pinpoints the errors in Franziska’s seduction. The sequence quickly synthesizes Petzold’s chief interests, which are made literal. It’s an austerely observed sequence of labor, sex, and surveillance all interacting at once. One can’t fault him for being too on the nose in this film, because it feels like a necessary exercise on the way to making The State I Am In, his masterpiece.

Cuba Libre (1996)

24 04 2020

Approximately two minutes into Petzold’s second full-length film, Tom, played by Richy Müller, gets smacked in the face with a purse. He falls to the ground, and the opening credits hit the audience. This is something we are going to get very familiar with in the next eighty-eight minutes. Müller’s Tom has to qualify as the most frequently attacked character in the history of cinema. He is constantly taking a punch, and he hardly ever is prepared to defend himself. Under Petzold’s watchful eye, Tom’s frequent abuse turns absurd, and borders on comic. Petzold’s preoccupations are present, of course, and we can track the stylistic evolution that would reach its peak a few years later in The State I Am In. The most unique thing that Cuba Libre has to offer is an unusually pathetic protagonist, and the humor derived from him. It is far from Petzold’s best, in fact it’s probably the weakest of the ones I’ve recently revisited, but I do have to admit that it is the slightest change of pace for the filmmaker.

Tom’s opening violence comes from the hands of an old flame, Lisa. He is nursed back to health by Jimmy, a man who asks for Tom’s friendship. Understandably skeptical but little economic mobility, Tom reluctantly accepts. He uses this to steal Jimmy’s money. He once again runs into Lisa, but this time she’s the one being harassed by a lecherous man. Tom saves her, which she thanks him for her, before kicking him in the gut. We learn more of Tom and Lisa’s shared past. They once lived together, albeit briefly, in Cuba. Tom dreams of going back, but Lisa resents both Tom and the idea of their time together. He hatches a new plan, to escape to Nice, but of course, things don’t go as planned.

Of all of Petzold’s early thrillers, Cuba Libre is easily the most densely plotted and difficult to comprehend. It never strikes the right balance between being opaque and being disorienting. Instead, it feels like too much is going on. This works to a degree, as the rapid dissemination of information falls onto the audience at the same rate in which Tom is physically assaulted. The way Richy Müller experiences pain in the film is ultimately its greatest gift. There’s a melancholy to be found in his bruises, but the fists fly so frequently that he becomes charmingly devoid of luck. Müller wears all of this very well and he drives the film in a way that male characters seldom do in Petzold’s work, but it isn’t quite enough to make up for the film’s narrative driven thrust.

I think it’s probably telling that this is the first time I’ve encountered a Petzold film that didn’t contain any sort of discourse of surveillance. That alone doesn’t make the film weaker. Far be it from me to downgrade a film just because it lacks the salience present in a relevant, but still buzzy buzzword. Perhaps it is important to note that Petzold’s other films aren’t simply great because they deal with Big Things but instead that he brilliantly taps into a sensation felt by living in an era where these forms of domination are become more and more popular. The equivalent in Cuba Libre is that, well, there’s a lot of cop cars on the highway. Petzold himself has said that his films narrate the “melancholy of the bourgeoise” yet weirdly in a film with his characters the least well off, that tension seems to fade away. Tom and Lisa seem simply unhappy.

The one thing that Tom and Lisa do have in common with the rest of Petzold’s subjects is that they see somewhere else as salvation. The film’s title, Cuba Libre, is amusing to me. There’s a certain political valence that comes from seeing the two words put together. It’s something of a red herring for Petzold. Instead, Cuba is the escape that Tom craves, and to which Lisa eventually agree. Again, they never get to where they want to go. As one of the characters succinctly states, “The poor always end up back where they were poorest.” Despite the constant movement of both Tom and Lisa, they never go anywhere. Literal mobility never equals economic mobility.

Pilotinnen (1995)

22 04 2020

In my review of The State I Am In, I described the film as a quasi-debut for Christian Petzold. It was his first film released in theaters, but Pilotinnen is his first full length film made for television. Unsurprisingly, this ends up playing like something of a warmup for The State I Am In. Once again, we have a set of characters on the run and in hiding with the cold gaze of surveillance lurking in the background. As a television film, one would be unfair to not forgive Petzold for certain concessions he’d make, but there’s surprisingly few anyway. It seems from the start he had a very clear vision for how his narratives would treat paranoia and tension. The dread of surveillance hits with a greater power when depicted with Petzold’s profound and concise reserve.

It’s the day of Frank Sinatra’s death, but it’s also just another day of work at the cosmetics firm for Karin. She breezes by a chatty and static public that listens to forced eulogies on the radio and television. If one can practice mourning passively, then the people she walks by seem to be experts. Her speed suggests a lack of enthusiasm for her work. It’s easy to see why, her exploitative boss has paired her with a younger woman, Sophie, who vocalizes her distrust for a tired and old employee like Karin. Karin has no interest in a friendship with Sophie and she fails to even perform superficial pleasantries despite the fact that the two log long hours driving together and eventually have to sleep in the same hotel bed.

Karin’s cold demeanor towards her work is justified by her lifestyle. Dreaming of moving to Paris, she treats everything about her life in Germany as temporary and motivates elements around her into motion. For example, she does not have an apartment. She either sleeps in her car or in hotel rooms. There is nothing rooted about her life, something that is mutually reinforced by her boss, a man who exploits his all-female staff financially and sexually. The one thing that finally brings Karin and Sophie together is their precariousness towards their labor. Dissatisfied is one thing, as many of us have all had jobs that we didn’t exactly care for, but their particular set up affords them no leisure. They can’t mourn the death of a celebrity they never knew in person like the people around them.

Petzold’s TV debut shows a filmmaker already fully confident in his powers. I would say the aesthetic experience accomplished is this film sets the standard for his work at least up until Gespenster. Again, since I’m revisiting all of his films, my opinion on the later stuff is of course subject to change. He manages to observe a quiet desperation in his performers, and it is particularly impressive that Karin and Sophie’s mutual distrust never subsides and makes way for some life-affirming friendship. Instead, they learn to tolerate one another because they have no other choice. Their bond is made not from individual appreciation but by being exploited by the same person.

Needless to say, there is some apathy between the two women. There are moments when this is interrupted, usually from violence. In one sequence, Sophie follows Karin to a dinner she has planned with an old flame. She mocks her, a confrontation follows, and Karin slaps Sophie in the bathroom. Petzold immediately cuts to Sophie nursing her inflamed cheek. Karin is besides her, but offers no apology, and there’s an acceptance of this silence from Sophie. They realize their frustrations come from other pressures that end up exploding on to one another. Of course, in Petzold’s hands this tension never feels as such.

The scenes of Karin and Sophie driving offer a temporary (and conditional) bit of freedom for them. Early on, Petzold establishes surveillance’s eye on their activities. The televisions that play back the surveillance footage remind us of the televisions that populate the myriad hotel rooms in which their itinerant lifestyle finds them. Shots of Karin looking out windows always show either a hauntingly empty suburban cityscape or some sort of police presence. State control is never necessarily “looming” in Petzold’s early films as much as it is integrated into the landscape. It’s there, but never calls attention to itself. The balance that is achieved is a more accurate reflection of how surveillance invades our daily space. In a short 65 minutes, Petzold establishes an understated misery, which would become the foundation for his subsequent films.

Dead Reckoning (1947)

21 04 2020

After the back-to-back rigor of Christian Petzold’s early anti-thriller classics, The State I Am In and Something to Remind Me, I was beginning to crave something a bit more simplistic. For one, I found myself veering in the direction of the irresponsible writer by making declarations about the dramatic moves his films resisted. I needed something to ground me. I needed a classic noir. The wit of Humphery Bogart notwithstanding (and I’m being intentional in attributing that to him and not the screenplay) Dead Reckoning is unfortunately even more simplistic than I had anticipated. There are pleasures to be found in this film, but they are peripheral elements, intriguing side effects of a production that may have invited too many hands onto the assembly line. Its warts, unfortunately, are the only things of worth.

Paratroopers Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) and Johnny Drake (William Prince) are flown into New York via a French hospital without explanation. Upon arrival, they board a train to Washington D.C., where they informed that they’re going to be awarded the Medal of Valor. Drake freezes up in the midst of the duo’s once playful ribbing. When Murdock gets off at the next stop for a quick photo opportunity, he instead finds that Drake has abandoned the Capital-bound train all together and hopped aboard one headed the other direction. The slightest bit of sleuthing from Murdock reveals that Johnny Drake is actually Johnny Preston, a Yale graduate from the fictional Gulf City.

Murdock follows Preston to Gulf City. The fictional city, which bears a slight resemblance to New Orleans, is one of the most interesting things about Dead Reckoning. There’s a limited amount of on-location photography in the film, but what little there is does flesh out the economy of a town that doesn’t exist. Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans is an hour and a half drive and it’s Biloxi that acts as Gulf City’s outskirts and suburbs here. Biloxi’s tourist economy revolves around its casinos and beaches, it’s the sort of minor city neon-sign trash that gets reflected in the fictional Gulf City, which is driven entirely by the nightlife industry. It’s in this industry that Murdock runs into Preston’s old flame, Dusty Chandler.

On the train from New York to D.C., Preston is visibly hung up on Chandler still. His romantic longing is the sort of buzzkill that Murdock has little time for, and he makes quick work of it, “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” Bogart’s handling of dialogue such as this is excellent, even as the words themselves are so generic and flat that the screenplay reads like a parody of film noir. There are five writers credited here, and a quick glimpse at IMDb shows that most of them are punching high above their weight here with such a star vehicle. Between the five of them, the next most impressive credit belongs to Oliver H.P. Garrett with John Ford’s The Hurricane. Even then, Garrett merely adapted the screenplay of the legendary Wapakonetan Dudley Nichols. Bogart’s cool is the stuff of legends, quite literally. The foundation of his persona lies in the pens of icons like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and William Faulkner. His flat, effortless delivery of their words made them shine, and vice versa. In Dead Reckoning, we have a group of writers composing dialogue that sounds like Bogie. In the moment, they pull off the ruse, but the film concludes feeling like an imitation.

As a film noir, Bogart’s Murdock is of course seduced. Here, it’s Dusty Chandler, played by Lizabeth Scott. She’s introduced with the aid of a would-be classic Bogart line, “Cinderella with a husky voice” and even gets her own Gilda-esque number. This, along with Preston’s visible longing on the train positions us to be in love with her. In Bogart’s best films, his love interests either match him in wits – Lauren Bacall in anything, Dorothy Malone’s short appearance in The Big Sleep – or they offer a compelling enough alternative to his cynicism for him to take a chance. Scott’s Chandler does neither, unfortunately. As compelling as she sometimes is, it seems like a dramatic convenience that Murdock would turn witless under her spell. It’s not that she isn’t beautiful enough or understocked with clever dialogue. Her character’s simply too flat, too by-the-numbers, and cries too many crocodile tears to justify her dramatic involvement. It’s a very surface level way to read a film, but Murdock’s behavior doesn’t fit. He is too willing to fall down the rabbit hole, without an undercurrent of the desperate resignation found in a film like In a Lonely Place. All the surface cool of film noir is accessible in Dead Reckoning but it offers nothing that made specific films in the genre so special. It’s a template film, a 100 minute distraction, but nothing more.