When World War II ended, Germany was due a reckoning. As a nation, they had to come to terms not only with the atrocities of the Holocaust and Nazism but also rebuilding a country wrecked from war. They had to reconstruct the country’s infrastructure and economy but its own soul. This new Germany had to decide who it was and what it would become.
Of course, they were not alone in asking this question as immediately following their surrender, Germany was split into four districts each ruled by a separate country (Russia, the United States, England, and France). Within a few years, the latter three districts came together forming West Germany leaving communist Russia to create East Germany.
In the early days, Germany was under strict guidelines from the Allied forces determining what path they could take and dictating how much aid they could receive, all the way down to what foods could be given to each family. But as the threat of Communism grew, these restrictions were lessened and West Germany was allowed to grow, leading to an almost miraculous economic recovery.
For years, artists were fascinated by this period and many works were created pondering German’s transformation. Prolific Germany director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made three films in what is now called the BRD Trilogy (BRD standing for Bundesrepublik Deutschland which was the official name of West Germany). These three films, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) Veronika Voss (1982) and Lola (1981), center on three women trying to make lives for themselves during this period. They are not connected in any narrative way, but rather a thematic one.
The Criterion Collection recently released a beautiful collection of the trilogy with a new 4K digital restoration, uncompressed monaural soundtracks, and a plethora of previously released extras.
The women of these three films are all strong but vulnerable, conniving enough to navigate through the treacherous landscape set out before them, yet darkly effected by it just the same. Much like Germany, these women must come to terms with their past in order to find success in their futures. In interviews, Fassbinder expressed anger over the ways in which West Germany had recovered so quickly after the war. He felt they had forgotten their own past which could lead to a repeat of the horrors.
Not originally conceived as a trilogy, Fassbinder had the idea of making a series of films that dealt with various women navigating through this tumultuous period in Germany history. It was only when the director died in 1982 that the films were considered a trilogy. Additionally, they were shot and released out of order with Lola being released one year before Veronika Voss. It was the director who indicated that Veronika Voss was the second film in the series while labeling Lola the third and Marie Braun as the first. This numbering system puts the films in roughly chronological order according to their plots.
Fassbinder was an incredibly prolific director having made some 40 films and dozens of plays in a life that ended at age 37, during which he was only active for approximately 13 years. Clearly, not every film he produced was a masterpiece but anyone watching the films in the BRD Trilogy can tell you he was certainly a master of his craft. In the early 1970s, Fassbinder discovered the melodramas of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) and began exclusively making stylistically similar films.
All three films in this trilogy follow the same melodramatic pattern using high drama, albeit with a satirical edge, to tell their stories, yet each film is also stylistically different. The Marriage of Maria Braun has much of its color drained and is more epic in scope, covering the years just before the war ended and going well into the so-called “Economic Miracle” period. Veronika Voss is filmed in stark black and white much like the German Expressionist films of the 1920s and uses numerous flashbacks to the war-time era in which the main character was more successful. Lola is bold with its use of color, looking more like the Technicolor films of an earlier time and is only set during the latter days of the more prosperous 1950s.
With The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder tells the story of a woman who must take a job as a prostitute at a local bar. Believing her husband to have died in the war, she takes up with an American soldier who provides her and her family with some stability. But she is always honest with him, declining proposals of marriage and indicating that while she is fond of the solider, their relationship is transactional. When the husband returns home, very much alive, she hits the American on the head with a bottle, accidentally killing him. Taking the blame, the husband is sent to prison. Once again, Maria uses her wits to charm a German industrialist for a job.
Pouring herself into the work, she nevertheless proposes they have sex in such a matter of fact way in order to gain the upper hand in the relationship. She becomes indispensable both to the company and to the man. All the while, she remains completely honest, telling the industrialist she’ll never love him while simultaneously working the company in her favor. She does all of this to secure a place for her husband when he gets out of prison, yet in doing so she loses her own humanity.
In Veronika Voss, a journalist crosses paths with an aging film star who found great success during the war era but has now been ostracized due to her association with Nazis. The two begin a love affair, making this something like Sunset Boulevard if it were set in post-war Germany. Eventually, he learns that she is being given copious amounts of morphine by an unscrupulous doctor who is slowly bleeding her of all her money.
Fassbinder shoots it like an old Hollywood film with stark black and white photography on sets that sometimes resemble old Fred Astaire movies, During flashbacks to Voss’s glory days, the lights shimmer in bright stars. She is a character who often reflects on those brighter years; it keeps her from seeing the rot that has set into her present.
Lola is the only film of the three in which the titular female character takes a backseat to the men in her life. Set during those “miracle” years of prosperity, the film focuses on two men – a moral, rule-following bureaucrat in charge of the building commission and a wealthy businessman who hopes get even richer with a planned high rise. Lola works as a singer and prostitute at the city brothel that is owned by the businessman and frequented by the city’s elite. Like all the other women in these films, she has learned how to navigate through an ever-changing world ruled by men’s desires. Like Maria Braun, she does so matter of factly. When she learns that the new building commissioner is a moral man who sticks to the rules, she places a bet that she can seduce him, not realizing she’ll fall for him in the process.
There is so much more to say about these films, but I’m running out of words. I am quite sure I missed any number of deeper meanings and allusions to German history, for I am not well versed in these things. But even at a viewing where I just scratch the surface, I found all three films interesting, moving, and well worth the watching.
The Criterion Collection has done its usual magnificent job of packaging these films with a beautiful transfer and lots of extras. I cannot recommend it enough.