Female Power Struggles and Paranoia in Laura and The Marriage of Maria Braun

This was written for a class assignment, I’m decently proud of it, or I wouldn’t bother to post… so yea :/

Both Maria Braun and Laura in their respective films utilize their femininity as a means of exercising power. InLaura, the titular character’s rise to success happens before the film has begun, and the effects her social standing has on those around her inspire fear and violence. On the other hand, The Marriage of Maria Braun charts one woman’s rise to success, very much in the model of traditional melodramatic narrative models like Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (Jones). While the character’s use their beauty and female wiles to succeed, it also creates conflict, as their methods inspire vulnerability and attachment in the men they ensnare. This role reversal is not taken easily by the men involved, and inspires a strong sense of paranoia within individuals and society.

The flashback narrative of Otto Preminger’s Laura, complicates the spectator’s ability to perceive Laura accurately. Waldo Lydecker narrates these flashbacks, and he is an unreliable narrator. Waldo has a literary flair, and a dramatic edge that consistently overrules facts. When, for example, McPherson catches a factual mistake in his column; Waldo responds by saying that his version of events are far more interesting. Also taking into account the fact that Waldo believed he had murdered Laura, he has a great amount to conceal, and would probably de-emphasize his emotional dependency on her in order to protect himself.

There is also evidence that the Laura of the flashbacks is different from the Laura of reality. In the second half of the film, Laura’s her behaviour and mannerisms are different from those presented in the flashbacks. Though some of this can be explained by the tumultuous events that colour her return, if we are to compare the first flashback sequence where she confronts Waldo and later confrontations, her attitude and tone of voice is very different. Whereas in the first confrontation she is soft spoken and compassionate, in the latter half of the film, there is a roughness in her tone of speaking, as well as a sense of combativeness that contradicts Waldo’s interpretation of events.

This establishment of the ambiguity regarding Laura is important, as Waldo Lydecker takes responsibility for her success. However, both his dependency on her and the inaccuracy of his claims points to Laura orchestrating her own future. Two statements made by Laura in the latter half of the film, also reveal her ambition and independence. Within the same scene, while speaking with McPherson, she talks about her nature. First she makes a passing comment about knowing how to cook, but more specifically, she refers to her long standing desire for a career; “mother always listened to my dreams of a career, then taught me another recipe.” Later on, when McPherson asks why she lied to him, she answers, “you forced me to give you my word. I have never been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.”

The social context of Laura is not explored in great detail; the setting is established simply as being the summer of 1944 in New York City. World War II is nary mentioned, nor is any strong pop cultural allusions presented. However, one can ascertain facts from the context the characters find themselves in. Laura, for example, is the only woman employed in an important position at the advertising agency. Though Lydecker claims to have a big hand in making this possible, her own creativity and ambition is what really propels her to success.

Laura’s power is further emphasized visually, especially through her portrait, as it dominates nearly every scene. It takes precedence over the male characters, and even over the real Laura in some cases. Another example of Laura’s dominating image is during the party scene, where she first encounters Shelby. She is the only character draped in white, and the costuming clearly isolates her from the crowd. The costume is also worth noting, as it emphasizes her femininity, as it fits her body in a way that highlights her curves. This is important in context of the film, as Laura’s success is not tied to her usurpation of masculine qualities, but rather through the use of her femininity.

Though never stated explicitly, her femininity is at once alluring and disorienting to the men who surround her. McPherson may fall in love with Laura, but he is just as disturbed by her overwhelming power over him. In the first half of the film, while Laura is still thought to be dead, her strength is exhibited through the set design of her apartment. McPherson’s masculine persona is destabilized by this setting, especially as he finds himself looking through her drawers and even smelling her perfumes. Later in the film, when Laura has returned alive, he brings her to headquarters in order to interrogate her. When she asks why he needed to leave her home in order to conduct this interview, he answers “I was at a point where I needed official surroundings”. The “official surroundings” oppose Laura’s apartment completely in their sterility and bareness. For McPherson to be able to maintain a relationship with Laura, he has to re-establish his masculinity and alleviate his unease.

Lydecker’s conflict with Laura is in her ability to exist and thrive independently of his influence. If Laura puts McPherson’s masculinity into question, she no doubt puts into question Lydecker’s “prestige”. His inability to control and possess her is what leads him to his murder attempt. This psychopathic drive also puts into further question his earlier claims regarding his position in her life. Lydecker is never able to overcome these feelings, and makes a further attempt on Laura’s life. This however gives opportunity to McPherson to reassert himself. When McPherson shoots and kills Lydecker, he is placing himself in a position where he is able to protect Laura, as well as demonstrate his power over her. There is also something to be said for him destroying Lydecker, who is very sexually ambiguous, further establishing McPherson’s masculine dominance. This final act restores natural order, and alleviates any sense of paranoia and unease that plagued his character.

Unlike Laura, the focus in The Marriage of Maria Braun is in the titular character’s rise to success through her manipulation of her feminine talents, rather than exploring the destabilizing effect this success can have. Context is also far more pivotal in Fassbinder’s film, as through his female protagonist he is able to describe “the unconscious, collective enactment of an essentially negative action, namely the suppression of historical memory, through melodramatic heroines whose fates are intertwined with the imperatives of their awful historical moments” (Jones). Maria Braun represents both these fading illusions, but also a generation of women who took charge of roles that were once dominated by men, only to be faced with having to give it all up again in the end.

Maria Braun continually takes advantage and adapts to changing social norms as a means of maintaining power; it is her flexibility that allows her to flourish in a tumultuous era in German history. Excluding her husband, she first couples with a black American soldier. He represents change in Germany, as he is a vehicle that frees the country from fascism. Their relationship however is short, as Maria’s husband makes an unexpected return and the American soldier is murdered. Though it is Maria who kills the American soldier, Hermann, her husband, takes the blame. This demonstrates, in part, Fassbinder’s view of men as he believed they “behave the way society expects them to” (Jones). In this case, they represent an outmoded form of patriarchal sacrifice that holds onto the ideals of a past era. His sacrifice is self-destructive, especially in context of a post-war era. It also demonstrates reluctance to embrace change, as he makes a mockery of the American run court, which was serving as a transition between the old and new Germany. He will spend most of the remainder of the film behind bars, while Maria flourishes in the outside world; physically free but emotionally devoted to her husband.

Though Maria maintains continually throughout the film that she is loyal and in love with her husband, it is important to note that she never spends more than a few hours with him. The film begins with their marriage, amidst an air raid. They will spend less than a day and a night together, before Hermann is sent off to fight on the Eastern front. Maria is essentially free for the film’s running length, first with her husband at war and then in prison. It is this essential emancipation from married life that allows her to rise to success. Though her husband most obviously cannot advance in the immediate post-war period, many of the other men that Maria involves herself with are equally vulnerable or stagnant. On the other hand, she continually demonstrates her ability to adapt, while also proving to be an adept businesswoman and diplomat.

The male characters inability to grow during this era is in part due to their fear and paranoia relating to the changing world. There is an inability to cope with the world’s negative perception of Germany which leads to a national identity crisis. Though other countries were able to return to life after war, Germany had to re-evaluate its position within the world. This struggle proved especially difficult for patriarchal figures, due to their direct involvement in the war as soldiers, or as important figures within industry. During the war and in the period immediately following it, industry was now being controlled by outside forces (like the court being run by the American military) or women in new positions of power, like Maria.

Maria Braun’s position in society though, becomes less significant, as conditions return to normal. The circumstances that allowed her to rise to a position of power and success; even to build a home, eventually give way to a “normal” way of life and she is expected to return to the subservient role of a housewife (Toteberg). This is explored in the film’s final scene, which takes place nearly ten years after the beginning of the film.

The Marriage of Maria Braun’s final scene is marked by Hermann’s return from prison. While Maria caters to him, a football game is broadcast over the radio. The game in question is significant because it marks, in part, Germany’s “restored” sense of national pride. Ronald Hayman in his book on Fassbinder, explains why this game is significant within the narrative and for Fassbinder himself;

At the end of The Marriage of Maria Braun the point of featuring the football commentary is that Germany is winning the world championship for the first time since the war. It might seem as though this should have had nothing to do whether or not the Germans regard themselves as defeated people, but to Fassbinder, who since his boyhood cared passionately about football, the victory marked the end of an epoch, which was also an epoch of female domination (116).

Unlike Laura though, who eventually yields to male dominance in the film’s final act, Maria is unwilling to allow her husband to regain his masculinity. Though she speaks of giving everything over to him, her heart does not seem to be in it. It is also the only portion of the film that she does not appear to be full of life; she is indecisive and cold. Her behaviour of continually changing in and out of clothes demonstrates a sense of uncertainty she does not exhibit in any other part of the film.

Even so, Maria seems to be willing to give up her life and career for Hermann and at least to attempt to take on the role of a housewife. This is until the reading of Oswald’s will (Oswald was her boss and lover) that reveals a contract between Oswald and Hermann that essentially figured Maria as an object that could be passed from one to the other (Toteberg). This exposes to Maria that she has been living a lie, that despite her belief that she has been in control of her life, she has simply been an object used by men. Though the football game indicates Germany being restored as “world champion” at that very moment, this is several years in the making and Maria’s role within society has long been restored, unbeknownst to her (Toteberg).

It is in her reaction to this news though, that separates her from Laura. Instead of accepting her role as a subservient female, which would restore order and alleviate all fears and paranoia, Maria lights a match that destroys both her and her husband. This not only undermines his power and position, but that of the society at large. Germany’s restored dominance is tainted because of Maria’s action, which reflects Fassbinder’s view of a society that has repressed the horrors and anxieties of its past. Maria’s murder/suicide does not allow society to return as it was, which is both an act of defiance and a reflection of a social state of paranoia that continually pervades the German psyche.

Though Laura represents an independent woman who is able to build her own success, the limitations of the classic Hollywood model necessitate a return to normalcy; therefore she is relegated back to a position subservient to patriarchy. Fassbinder on the other hand, though inspired from traditional narrative structures, undermines these expectations by allowing his female protagonist to break free from social norms. The nature of Maria’s freedom subverts traditional order; normalcy is not restored, and what remains is an incredible sense of unease.

Works Cited

Hayman, Ronald. Fassbinder: Film Maker. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984.Print.

Jones, Kent. “Heartbreak House: Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy.The Criterion Collection. 29 Sept

2003. Web. 23 March 2010.

Toteberg, Micheael. “A Market for Emotions: The Marriage of Maria Braun Production

History.” The Criterion Collection. 23 Sept 2003. Web. 22 March 2010.

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