“You’re always wanting to touch me!”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder had this to say about his use in so many of his films — from 1972’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant through 1982’s Veronika Voss — of a central female protagonist:
I find women more interesting. They don’t interest me just because they’re oppressed — it’s not that simple. The societal conflicts in women are more interesting because on the one hand women are oppressed, but in my opinion they also provoke this oppression as a result of their position in society, and in turn use it as a terror tactic.1
Fassbinder’s argument here that women make use of their own oppression as a terror tactic is, strictly speaking, not a concern of his 19742 TV film Martha — now released on DVD by Fantoma — but the film is quite explicit in its intention, as Fassbinder himself said, “to show a marriage as clearly as possible as a sadomasochistic relationship”.3 For all that, I think the dominant motif that strikes the viewer, thirty years on, is the unrelenting depiction of the methodical way a bourgeois male reduces his wife to a state of absolute subjection. Fassbinder’s take on this is to ask the additional question of to what degree the woman is complicit in the process of oppression; as he put it in his subtitle to Effi Briest (1972/74), which started shooting a year before Martha and was released just after the latter’s TV broadcast): “Many who have an inkling of their possibilities and needs and yet accept the ruling system in their head and, therefore, by their deeds strengthen and confirm it absolutely.”4
Fundamental to the success of the film are Martha‘s two lead actors. Firstly, in the role of the virginal, 31-year-old librarian Martha Heyer is Margit Carstensten. Of any of Fassbinder’s leading actresses, Carstensen is the one whose roles are most marked as psychologically problematic, running a full range of psychoses and neuroses, from the psychic collapse of the lead character at the end of Petra von Kant, through the mental breakdown of Margot in Fear of Fear (1975), to the extreme psychological dependency of Andrée in Satan’s Brew (1976). Correspondingly, her performance style is a lot sharper, more angular and hard-edged, her body prone to sudden twists and turns and her personality to sudden outbursts of extreme emotion.
Right from the start of the film, as she holidays in Rome with her father (her mother is left behind in her native Constance, in Switzerland), Fassbinder marks Martha as infantile and repressed. From the very few scenes that we see of Martha and her father, there’s clearly a history of obsessive neediness, rejection, and frustration — even as he lies dying from a heart attack on the Spanish Steps he complains “You’re always wanting to touch me!” Given the hints here of this emotional bond on her part, there’s something awry with her subsequent reaction to her father’s death when she phones her mother from the German embassy: she’s far more concerned with the theft of her bag, she veers wildly between outward calm and hysterical outbursts, and — most significantly perhaps — she cadges her first cigarette off an embassy official, that traditional cinematic image (think, as Fassbinder surely was doing, of all the male-female playing with cigarettes in old Hollywood films) of freedom and sexual promise.
She doesn’t know it but she has already met Helmut Salomon, her future husband and the man she would expect in a traditional sense to be the source of her individual and sexual fulfillment: her path crosses his outside the embassy and Fassbinder makes use of a marvelously intricate single camera movement to give expression to their mutual attraction — the camera makes a complete 360° turn around them as they themselves meet, turn to face one another and each do their own 360° turn and walk away. This dual movement creates a moment of heightened stasis, full of romantic and erotic promise; but at the same time — and this is Fassbinder’s brilliance — the aesthetic excess of the shot is simultaneously ironic, an intimation of the destruction this man is going to bring to Martha.
It’s worth stressing that the extreme formalism of this shot is very much characteristic of the film as a whole. It has been something of a critical commonplace to position The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) as the turning-point in Fassbinder’s work, where through the influence of Douglas Sirk (e.g., All That Heaven Allows or Imitation of Life) he discovers the virtues of using melodrama and a more “invisible” style to create critical studies of contemporary German life for a general audience; and where he abandons the self-conscious and assertive formalism of his early work: think of the structuring tracking shots in Katzelmacher (1969), the lateral tracks past characters positioned against blank walls at the beginning of Love Is Colder than Death (1969), or the almost endless slow-motion static shot at the end of The American Soldier (1970).
This critical idea was no doubt influenced by the fact that the Fassbinder films that internationally made the greatest critical/popular impact in the early to mid-seventies (Merchant of Four Seasons; Fear Eats the Soul; Fox and His Friends, 1974) were in a simpler, smoother, less ostentatious, less self-conscious style. It’s also true that Martha, made in the same period (and for television!) is anything but, even tending towards a baroque, excessive quality that looks forward to something like Chinese Roulette (1976). A good example of this is the wedding sequence, where, in the lateral track along the banquet table or in the individual shots, our view of the characters is constantly broken up or even obscured by objects in the foreground: lush flowers and foliage, the hanging glass pendants, lines of tall, thin candles.
The role of Helmut is played by Karlheinz Böhm (right), whose performance is equal to Carstensen’s in being integral to the success of the film. This was the first time Böhm had appeared in a Fassbinder film, and his appearance would surely have brought associations with his most famous role (credited as Carl Boehm) as Mark Lewis, the serial killer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). The figure of Mark in fact combines the features of both Martha and Helmut: like Martha, Mark is the victim of a controlling, dominant male (in his case, his father); but he simultaneously parallels Helmut in his control — in his case, literally to the death — of his female victims. The clearest intimation we have of the threat Helmut poses is in the disturbing fairground “courtship” sequence. Martha, sick with fear, is forced by Helmut to ride on the roller-coaster with him and we are given repeated shots of the two together, Martha with her pale, ashen face, and Helmut with a broad, manic, almost psychotic, gleeful smile on his face. Helmut’s sadism is never quite as apparent in the rest of the film.
The outcome of this roller-coaster ride is that Martha stumbles off and vomits; Helmut tells her she is to be his wife; Martha, her face streaked with tears and vomit, thanks him; and Helmut immediately turns coldly away. Helmut’s humiliation of Martha as a means to control her and Martha’s acceptance of that is a direct repeat of their first formal meeting at the wedding of Martha’s boss and her colleague: there, Helmut took her aside, insulted her by detailing her physical failings, and Martha meekly accepted these and responded by kissing him.
Helmut’s program of control proceeds from then on in incremental stages. A greater sadistic twist occurs on their honeymoon when (in addition to starting to control her diet) he refuses to allow her to apply suntan oil, deliberately ensues that she gets sunburned, and then throws himself on her painful, red body once they’re in their hotel room. Once they return to Constance and move into their home, the training is increasingly notched up: Martha’s smoking is controlled (a very seventies touch here, where insisting that someone smokes on the verandah is a sign of fascistic control!); Helmut arranges, without consulting her, for her to leave her job; he works at changing her musical tastes; he insists on her reading and memorizing an engineering text related to his work; he tries controlling her contact with the outside world; finally he has the telephone disconnected…
In actual fact, there’s an undercurrent of black humor in the portrayal of Helmut’s manipulations and Martha’s reactions. There’s an early, darkly comic scene where Martha’s mother, in a hysterical reaction to the news that Martha intends to marry, swallows an overdose of pills and collapses to the floor. Helmut stops Martha from phoning for a doctor, holds the situation for just long enough, makes the phone call himself, and loads the feelings of guilt onto Martha herself — which she, bowing her head, accepts. Or there’s the scene where Martha sits alone at home, listening to the music prescribed by Helmut, memorizing his engineering textbook, starts to light a cigarette and — suddenly realizing what she is doing — scurries off to the verandah. It’s comic, but simultaneously horrifying too.
There’s a strong sense in the film that Helmut’s actions are part of a general pattern of male behavior towards women. Martha seems interchangeable with any other woman: on her return from Rome, she turns down an offer of marriage from her boss at work, who immediately proposes to her colleague. And a conversation with her friend Marianne reveals that her husband is as equally controlling as Helmut, and Martha’s submission to Helmut is merely following a pattern already set by Marianne.
Not that Martha’s submission is complete. Accommodations to Helmut’s program (and his violent sexuality) alternate with hysterical acts of resistance, acts that by the end of the film have spilled over into paranoiac fantasy. There’s a question mark over how “real” the man who disconnects the phone may be, especially as, in retrospect, it would appear that his appearance in the park with Helmut, which we experience with — and through — Martha, does not in fact take place. Certainly it is clear that in the climactic car crash at the end of the film Martha is completely fantasizing that Helmut is in the pursuing car behind.
The real question of the film is how far we are to read Martha’s masochism, her own investment in and responsibility for her situation. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in the insert essay accompanying the DVD, indicates that Fassbinder believed that Martha willingly submitted to Helmut, right up to and including the finale with the permanently paralyzed Martha in a wheelchair, forever under Helmut’s physical control: “When Martha can no longer take care of herself, she has finally gotten what she wanted all along.” What is fascinating is that Margit Carstensen didn’t believe this herself: “I wouldn’t go that far. I really think that this is a resignation on her part.”5 So you could argue that the final effect of the film, fueled by the actress’ performance, is working against the intention of the director.
It’s wrong, I think, to draw a direct parallel with the ending of Buñuel’s Tristana (1970). There the amputation of Tristana’s leg does lead her paradoxically to a position of superiority and control over Don Lope, a reversal of their original roles. A far apter model for Fassbinder’s film would be Gaslight (I guess that Fassbinder would be familiar with the 1944 Hollywood version directed by George Cukor, rather than Thorold Dickinson’s original UK version from 1940) with its melodramatic plot of a husband’s evil machinations against his wife. Fassbinder modernizes this by providing a suitably modern downbeat ending. As in the original, he draws us into empathizing with the wife’s struggle, but at the same time (through performance, through the formal look of the film) he distances us, so that we can see how this plot acts as a social template, a reflection of the nature of the bourgeois marriage and of women’s ultimate acceptance of that nature. But the acceptance is not so complete nor without struggle that we cannot view the ending (just look at Martha’s face) as anything but a defeat and a loss.
This Fantoma release of Martha is a region-free NTSC DVD, with a fine digital transfer. It’s in the original ratio of 1.33:1. The one extra is an hour-long documentary, Fassbinder in Hollywood, directed by Robert Fischer, which has Fischer’s co-writer Ulli Lommel (a Fassbinder actor from 1969 to 1976) taking as much center stage as any insights into Fassbinder or his work. A bit of an ego-trip on his part, but there is a nice tribute by Wim Wenders to Fassbinder. Still, who would want to watch it a second time? The insert has a good if short essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 149. [↩]
- In fact filmed in 1973 immediately prior to the shooting of Fear Eats the Soul) but broadcast after the latter’s theatrical release. [↩]
- Fassbinder, 141. [↩]
- Which also emphasizes the centrality of Effi Briest to Fassbinder’s work — a point that, for example, Steve Gravestock, in his survey of Fassbinder on DVD (“I Fire in All Directions: Reassessing Fassbinder on DVD,” Cinema Scope 17, Winter 2003, 29-32), completely misunderstands. [↩]
- The source of Fassbinder and Carstensen’s exchange is: “Rainer Werner Fassbinder Talking About Oppression with Margit Carstensen,” in: Eric Rentschler (ed), West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices (New York/London: 1988), 168-71. [↩]