MARTHA: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament

Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?

The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable.

Vacationing in Rome, a virgin librarian in her early 30s (Carstensen) abruptly loses her domineering father, who collapses from heart failure on the Spanish Steps. Shortly afterwards —- and following the snatching of her purse by Fassbinder regular El Hedi Ben Salem, who has already entered her hotel room in the opening scene, as if to confirm her status as victim — she meets a macho and abusive bridge and dam builder (Peeping Tom‘s Karlheinz Böhm) whom she shows an immediate interest in, and winds up marrying him. It’s a match made in heaven between a masochist and a  sadist, with the husband’s contempt, cruelty, and absurdly escalating demands mainly received by this fragile heroine as her proper due and the prescribed duty of any good wife in any bourgeois marriage. It’s an excruciatingly open question whether she finally achieves absolute fulfillment, complete enslavement, or some grotesque combination of the two.

For Fassbinder in his dialogue with Cartensen, it’s a happy ending: “When Martha can no longer take care of herself, she has finally gotten what she wanted all along,” he maintains. Carstensen counters, “I wouldn’t go that far. I really think that this is a resignation on her part.” (2)

The radical cleavage between these positions produces the candy-colored, acid-coated valentine delivered by Martha to viewers, inflected by what may well be Carstensen’s greatest performance in a Fassbinder film. And if we choke on the bittersweet confection, it might be said that the film is functioning politically.

I hasten to add that this proposition is debatable. It was debated, at any rate, by Richard Roud and myself over three issues of Film Comment in the mid-70s (2) — with Roud maintaining that the film wasn’t “believable” without “some notion that Martha is sensually chained” to her husband, and the “super-cool” treatment of the characters making this impossible. For him, therefore, “Martha [has] neither the intensity nor the compassion of The Bitter Tea of Petra von Kant, Ali, or The Merchant of Four Seasons,” three earlier and better-known Fassbinder features. My own intemperate counter-thrust was to argue that the latter three films seemed “to operate as flattery machines…designed to make one conclude I’m compassionate/ironic, therefore I am, while Martha, which makes its social victim as hard to `understand’ as its oppressor, brings one back to the more radical theory of Descartes.” A less fancy version of this argument would be to say that Martha prompts more analysis than attitude, thereby making its difficulties purposeful and ultimately educational in a Brechtian manner, by testing the viewer’s implicit notions of what a bourgeois marriage should be.

But Martha had more practical difficulties to cope with at the time, at least in reaching an American audience. Unlike those three earlier Fassbinder films and many later ones, it failed to surface at the New York Film Festival (which Roud was the director of at the time) or land a stateside distributor, and subsequent legal problems with the Cornell Woolrich estate about its adaptation of a Woolrich story (3) kept it out of reach for a good many years afterwards. Consequently it never had a chance to be become canonized when Fassbinder was still in vogue in the states —- making its release on DVD its first real opportunity, apart from a few appearances at Fassbinder retrospectives, to reach an American public.


Part of my reluctance to join the Fassbinder bandwagon in the 70s was that I couldn’t accept without qualms the critical industry’s interpretation of his work as left-wing and subversive — an interpretation that was intricately bound up with the rediscovery of Douglas Sirk’s 50s Hollywood movies by Fassbinder and others. For academics who argued — and in many cases still argue — that Sirk soap operas like Imitation of Life were subversive critiques of American life rather than conformist endorsements, a certain historical sleight of hand was necessary, particularly when it came to dealing with the reception those movies were given back in the 50s. Sirk — a leftist stage director in pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany and something of a closet intellectual and campy commercial director in both Germany and the U.S. — made movies with conservative, defeatist, and conformist as well as skeptical and subversive elements. The conservative elements played most indelibly to his producers and his contemporary audiences; the skeptical and subversive ingredients were more often cynically and carefully buried, waiting to be discovered by future generations.

Reconciling Sirk’s or Fassbinder’s cynicism with a leftist political agenda has always struck me as somewhat problematic. Both directors tend to deal with characters incapable of understanding their own social victimization and, more often than not, incapable of change; regarding these doomed characters with ironic compassion, Sirk and Fassbinder are to my mind more defeatist than progressive because their sophistication often consists of recognizing corruption and stupidity, not of imagining situations where they might be overcome. The worlds both directors conjure up resemble more stylish versions of the repressed world found in W.C. Fields comedies — bounded on all sides by irritations and petty frustrations. (“There are no lighthearted moments in any Fassbinder film that I can recall,” Gary Indiana wrote in the February 1996 Artforum. “If a character’s happy, it’s because he hasn’t yet heard the bad news.”) Fassbinder differs most strikingly from Sirk in focusing much more often on working-class and petit bourgeois characters, at least through the mid-70s —- Martha is a notable exception — but the sense of entrapment is no less pronounced.

Sirk’s stylistic hallmarks include theatrical uses of lighting, color, and mirrors, and his thematic hallmarks include blindness; in the most general terms, one could say his movies are about ways of seeing and not seeing. Fassbinder’s self-conscious and relatively low-budget appropriation of these hallmarks make them at once more overt and more overtly campy, so that contemporary readings of Fassbinder films are fully in tune with these attitudes in a way that contemporary readings of Sirk films were not. (For the record, the heroine of Martha is named Martha Hyer — after an actress who played in one Sirk feature, the 1956 Battle Hymn, though Hyer’s association with a genteel and somewhat bookish upscale repression is probably tied more directly to her role in the 1959 Vincente Minnelli melodrama Some Came Running.)

Openly bisexual, tyrannical on his sets, and habitually dressed in a leather jacket, Fassbinder cut a starlike figure in the firmament of New German Cinema, though in this respect he was hardly alone. If the French New Wave of the 60s was mainly about films, the New German Cinema of the 70s was mainly about filmmakers, and each of its best-known directors had a claim to fame that was largely a matter of public image: eccentric exhibitionism crossed with German romanticism (Werner Herzog), existentialist hip crossed with black attire and rock ‘n’ roll (Wim Wenders), Wagnerian pronouncements (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), a dandy’s stupefied worship of shrines and divas (Werner Schroeter), and so on. When it came to Fassbinder, who improbably evoked both John Belushi and Andy Warhol, one was made to feel that the real drama in film after film wasn’t so much in the makeshift characters or the fruit-salad images but in the offscreen intrigues of a baby Caligula manipulating his players and technicians.

Although it was made for German TV, Martha benefited from having a bigger budget than was usual for Fassbinder at the time — which allowed for some Italian location shooting as well as a more baroque and elaborate camera style than one finds in most of his other features (such as a spectacular 720-degree tracking shot encircling Martha and her husband-to-be, Helmuth Salomon, when they first encounter one another in Rome, immediately after her father’s death). It’s tempting to ascribe this kind of high style — also apparent at the banquet back in Germany where Martha first gets introduced to Helmuth —- to personal factors. Fassbinder appears to have had a particular investment in this material that his collaborators have noted, including cinematographer Michael Balhaus and Karlheinz Böhm in Juliane Lorenz’s Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder (New York/London, Applause Books, 1997). The latter reports that Fassbinder consciously based the portrayal of Helmuth Salomon on his own father, and even dressed like his father in conservative neckties, shirts, and suits throughout the film’s production — an association that seems echoed by Helmuth surfacing magically as a kind of doppelganger-replacement for Martha’s own father immediately after his death.

Certainly the tension that we briefly observe at the outset between father and daughter paves the way for her equally conflicted determination much later in the story to accede hilarously to Helmuth’s desire for her to read a book on dam construction during his absence. (Typically, she initially rebels against this directive, then winds up memorizing entire passages that she can recite to him.) And even without reading the Woolrich story that inspired the plot, one can infer that the paranoia and masochism that underlie Woolrich’s special brand of suspense and horror are perfectly suited to Fassbinder’s ideological project. This obliges us to identify with Martha’s anguish even at those selected moments when we can’t be entirely sure how much her masochism is inflected by her paranoia, thereby obliging us to question how much her imprisonment is a function of her own will. Part of the luminosity and passion of Carstensen’s performance is to make us feel that ambiguity and ambivalence, all the way up to the impending sense of doom carried in the final shot.

1. “Rainer Werner Fassbinder Talking about Oppression with Margit Carstensen,” translated by Eric Rentschler, in Rentschler’s collection West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices (New York/London: Holmes & Meier, 1988), pp. 168-171.

2. “London Journal” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, January-February 1975, p. 83; “Rotterdam Journal” by Richard Roud, May-June 1975, pp. 2 & 62; “London Journal” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, January-February 1976, p. 4.

3. “For the Rest of Her Life,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1968. To the best of my knowledge, this has been reprinted only twice —- in Ellery Queen’s Murder Menu (1969), and, much later, in Tonight, Somewhere in New York:The Last Stories and an Unfinished Novel by Cornell Woolrich (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005), where the editor, Francis M. Nevins, erroneously claims that the story also appeared in his classic posthumous 1971 collection of Woolrich stories, Nightwebs (New York: Harper & Row).

One should add that although Woolrich’s story —- reportedly “the last of his stories that [he] lived to see published,” five years before Martha was made —- begins, like the story, with the couple meeting by chance on a street in Rome (although her father doesn’t figure in the plot) and ends quite similarly with the heroine in a wheelchair, most of the details in between are substantially different. (For one thing, the story is much more explicit about the husband’s sadism than it is about the wife’s masochism.)

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