Till death do them part
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Martha (1973), based loosely on Cornell Woolrich's short story "For the Rest of Her Life," is ostensibly a television movie, but the themes, visual look and complexity of this supposedly minor work (in a supposedly inferior medium) puts most major motion pictures to shame (fact is, I can't think of anything that came out of the multiplexes, this year or the past few years, that could even compare).
It's basically a tale of domination, of a man oppressing his wife. It's a melodrama, but in the hands of a master like Fassbinder (taking his cue of course from his earlier, endlessly acknowledged master, Douglas Sirk) melodrama is the glittering surgical tool that pries open life's hard shell, revealing the darker flesh within.
To play Martha, Fassbinder commissioned Margit Cartensen, who often essayed Fassbinder's more neurotic, more emotionally extreme women; for her husband Helmut Salomon, Fassbinder picked--an inspired choice--Karlheinz Bohm, who once played a tormented serial killer in Michael Powell's unforgettable Peeping Tom (1960).
Fasssbinder introduces us to Martha by way of her father; we meet them in Italy, where (startling in conventional dramas but no big deal in melodrama) the father promptly drops dead on Rome's Spanish Steps; we receive a hint of the kind of relationship Martha has with her father when he, dying, breathes to her: "You always want to touch me…let go of me, Martha." Martha in her brief, early scenes is a spoiled brat of a child-woman, virginal (she's never been to bed with a man) yet allowed to paint her face with the thickest makeup, the reddest lipsticks; when her father dies, she's devastated, wide-open and vulnerable to the notion of a new man in her life.
When that man steps in we're made to know the impact he has on her by the hilariously (yet appropriate, considering Fassbinder's tactics) literal expedient of Fassbinder, with the help of long-time cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, whirling the camera around Martha and Helmut as they circle past each other (think James Stewart and Kim Novak kissing in the Empire Hotel, in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), only turbocharged). Ballhaus has always considered that circling camera to be his signature shot (he's used it in everything from Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ 1988 to Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)), but never before Martha, and never to such spectacularly dramatic effect.
From the stylized visual pyrotechnics of the Rome scenes and their first meeting, bypassing the wedding (which is mentioned only in dialogue), plunging straight into the brooding claustrophobia of Helmut's house, we see the vivid contrast in Martha's life before and after marriage. She's not allowed to go outside; she's criticized on her taste, her appearance, her very smell; Helmut even comments on her taste in music. At one point, Martha's vulnerability is made strikingly apparent when Helmut allows her to sunburn; naked in bed, she trembles as Helmut's hands hover over her raw and tender flesh (yes, there's plenty of sadomasochism in this picture, all the more horrific for being implied rather than explicitly shown).
Martha herself is transformed, from self-centered brat to paranoid hysteric; given the chance to meet someone new, she hides her relationship as if hiding a full-blown love affair; when she learns that Helmut has come home early, she shrieks that he "has just bought me a present, he's going to kill me!" Martha suffers horrifying emotional stress under Helmut's 'care,' not all of it sexual, and very little of it satisfying, even from a masochist's point of view (endless facts and figures involving dam technology and concrete and steel stress factors are mind-numbingly read aloud). It's fascinating to observe, then, how deeply she's involved in her own captivity, from meekly submitting to Helmut's most outrageous demands to heedlessly (perhaps even willfully) enabling her own self-destruction (one wonders if Fassbinder sees such women as not just victims of society's patriarchal authority structures, but active collaborators). Which, if one were to think about it, is contemptible and pathetic both.
I'd seen the film after having been reminded of it by Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who had noted its similarities to a Filipino film he had just seen, Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981). De Leon and Fassbinder couldn't be more different stylistically of course: Fassbinder directs with heedless abandon, using baroque camera moves and striking compositions; De Leon directs with a chilly, understated realism. One might compare them thusly: Fassbinder's style is as if a brilliant, more rigorously ironic Martha were in charge of the camera; De Leon's is as if Helmut had picked up the equipment and started shooting.
Both, however, take melodramatic stories and use dark humor to spice up the material, enliven it, make it fresh and fascinating for its audiences. I remember the audience Rosenbaum and I were watching Kisapmata with (it was at the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival), and they were laughing nervously, as if they weren't sure this was supposed to be funny (it was; even the uncertainty is intentional). I remember watching Martha on DVD, and laughing my head off, as much out of recognition as out of surprise. The cruelty, the manipulativeness, the sense of guilt and resentment and paranoia and seething, suppressed sexual tension was so similar, yet so outwardly different. Fassbinder was parodying an old and corrupt culture, taking the lid off to allow us to sniff the stink of ancient decay; De Leon was giving us an intimate view into the workings of his own mind, at the same time revealing to us the kind of ingrown, introverted evil found in a more primitive society, where family dynamics haven't progressed far beyond Spanish colonial times, and even the father's massively brooding paranoia has the innocence of an unselfconscious brute, squatting in his cave. Fascinatingly differing cultures, arriving at fascinatingly similar conclusions, from fascinatingly different directions.
(First published in Businessworld, 7.5.08)
Martha is one of the films that will be shown during the Goethe-Institut’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival which kicks off on July 5 with a screening of a documentary on the director, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (3 p.m.), followed by a discussion on Fassbinder by Teddy Co at 5 p.m. and a screening of Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) at 6 p.m. The film festival, which will run until July 26, will be held at the Goethe-Institut Manila, 5F Adamson Center, 121 L.P. Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. The movies will be screened on Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 3 and 6 p.m. There is also an exhibit of posters of his films which will run during the duration of the festival. For more information, call 817-0978. The screening schedule is available at www.goethe.de/manila. Admission is free.