Martha (Rainer Werner Fassbinder / West Germany, 1974):

The "Douglas Sirk Street" bit is a svelte modernist gag -- a literal signpost -- and it positions the film as an acidic transmutation of Sirk's Interlude. The prematurely spinsterish protagonist (Margit Carstensen) is a tranquilizer-popping librarian out on a Roman holiday with her domineering father; dad keels over on the Spanish Steps, daughter enjoys her first cigarette minutes later, wondering how mom will take the news. She turns down a Libyan gigolo at her hotel room, then her boss' marriage proposal -- she is saving herself for the businessman (Karlheinz Böhm) she shared a couple of 360° pans with, who materializes in her family banquet's jungle of flowers and candelabra. Böhm cajoles Carstensen into riding the roller coaster by his side, then proposes as she pukes: She expresses desperate gratitude, he turns his back dourly, the camera cranes up from their frozen figures so that the ominously spinning carnival rides fill the screen. Rainer Werner Fassbinder has a devious idea -- the passing of oppression from father to husband, like the passing of decay from one institution to another at the end of The Exterminating Angel -- and expands it with an array of domestic terrors. Böhm is revealed as a sadist, prone to assaultive fucking, emotional cruelty, and it's-all-in-your-head-dear manipulation. The Heartbreak Kid's sunburned-honeymoon joke is recalled and ran to its limits as the heroine, red as a lobster, endures the man's groping: "I'm sorry I've hurt you. Try to understand it's because I love you so much," he assures her. Fassbinder structures the systematic shocks like so many marital jests, from the construction book Carstensen is expected to read (and enjoy!) to refused motherhood ("Do you want to give birth to a demented child?" Böhm asks, next to a mounted horned skull). Is the wheelchair-bound punchline the ultimate tragedy, or a bit of perversely masochistic bourgeois wish-fulfillment? A pinch of both, as always with Fassbinder. Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. With Barbara Valentin, Peter Chatel, and Gisela Fackeldey.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home