Martha – Fassbinder takes us to the darkest place. (Film Review)

The 720 degree shot shown above becomes a favorite of Fassinders after Martha, and he will go on to use it many times, particularly in Berlin Alexanderplatz. It left me breathless when I first saw it, right at the start of this long film. These are two people who do not know each other, but will become terrifyingly important in each others lives.  These are a modern-day Adam and Eve, destined to be fulfillment of each others undoing. Fassbinder said he wanted Martha to fully flesh out what he believed is the sadomasochistic nature of marriage  The film doesn’t try to hide this opinion  This is a film about male oppression over women.  Fassbinder did believe there was a certain amount of compliance on the part of the female in her own domination, but he said:

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. ( Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 149.)


In this film Fassbinder plays down the role a woman may play in provocation. Instead he balances the horrors of domestic abuse against black humor, which on its own is provocative. Margit Carstensen gives a brilliantly stylized performance, allowing her unique physical attributes to be used by Fassbinder, as he often does with her – I’m thinking here of the costuming in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Carstensen is so painfully thin, she looks like a doll that can be broken in two by her husband who takes so much pleasure in hurting her. Her large head and heavy makeup give her the look of a doll, as if she were just a play thing, and not a real human creature. Her affectations and acting style are over-the-top and a step away from a naturalistic look so that Carstensen’s Martha is almost like a doll or a puppet.  She embodies the mindlessness that women will adopt in order to survive a situation they feel they cannot escape. Being a television film, concentration is on only a few characters and this means Carstensen is often the only figure on the screen, using her exaggerated facial gestures and movements to convey the complexity of the story.


Karlheinz Böhm is also excellent, although the hissable nature of his sadistic character veers towards the thematic. His performance is every bit as purposefully stylized as his co-star’s: he’s so rigidly self-controlled that we sense the chaos churning just below his well-groomed surface. But Helmut embodies the Domineering Aryan Patriarch, the Fountainhead of Oppression and Despotism. You can imagine him fitting smoothly into the Nazi regime, with its ‘ideals’ of rigid gender roles and unquestioned male supremacy. Helmut may tell Martha repeatedly, just before he ravishes her, that “I love you boundlessly,” but essentially he’s a man who builds dams, whether of the large concrete and steel variety, or the emotional kind, which he creates through the systematic degradation and suppression of his wife. We learn nothing of the background which causes Helmut to be what he is, so we can never empathize with him as we do with Martha (we spend enough time with her domineering father and abusive mother to see the seeds of her masochism). Fassbinder is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of film (and other art forms), so it’s not surprising that Helmut has a strong connection to Böhm’s most famous character, the angel-faced serial killer in Michael Powell’s stunning Peeping Tom (1960). (This paragraph has been taken from Jim’s Reviews – an excellent source of information on Fassinders films)


What makes this film not only great but a quintessential Fassbinder work is that, at the end, he leaves us to sort out everything for ourselves, from disentangling the ‘truth’ of the narrative and the characters from the multi-layered images which we see (including some of the most ravishing in all of Fassbinder). This film transcends melodrama, or rather uses it to probe into some of the darkest, most frightening, recesses of human experience – and then, ultimately, it asks questions. Lots of questions.


The central question is the one around Martha and why she doesn’t defend herself against her husband.  Even when she gets herself a cat out of loneliness after her husband has locked her in their house with no telephone, she can’t defend the cat when Helmut kills it and then demands sex from Martha next to the corpse. This question can’t simply be done away through the issue of masochism. We know about Martha and her dominating pseudo-sexual father and her alcoholic mother, and we see that Martha has been prepared for this marriage long before she met Helmut. But the question goes even deeper than Fassbinders many Freudian inferences  Part of the answer surely lies in the very many mirror images used throughout the film. So often Martha and Helmut are staring at each other through the mirror, or the reflection of themselves is bounced back and forth between many mirrors pointed toward each other. They are more than part of each others illness, they are the very obliteration of boundaries between the two of them. There is no “two become one” here. This is marriage dance has truly made one person of these two.  It has involved the virtual obliteration of both individuals  but it is Martha who will pay the biggest price.

There is so much more I could say about this stunning film. The more Fassbinder I watch the more I love him. Make sure you grab a copy of Martha and enjoy.  Oh, and like many Fassbinder films, this one has a shocking end also.