Jan 29, 2013


Out of all of German New Cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s female Superstars, slender Nordic beauty Margit Carstensen (Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven, Berlin Alexanderplatz) was undoubtedly the best at portraying nauseatingly neurotic, schizophrenic, pathetic, hysterical, and otherwise deranged women. As a calculating and cold aristocratic lesbian who learns that love is colder than death in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), a bourgeois babe who cannot tell the difference between real sex and imagined sex in Fear of Fear (1975), and a neurotic fan-girl with no sense of self-worth who unwaveringly devotes her sad soul to her favorite writer in Satan’s Brew (1976), Carstensen is one of few actresses who, despite being blatantly bewitching, was able to make herself seem totally ugly and radically repellant due to her horrifically hypnotic hysterical screen performances, but none of these film roles compare to her majestically masochistic character in Fassbinder’s underrated and under-seen TV-movie Martha (1974); a sharp-as-a-stake-in-the-heart Sirkian melodrama about a relationship between a metaphysical master and self-sacrificing slave. Loosely based on themes from the short story For the Rest of Her Life by Cornell Woolrich, Martha was in limbo due to legal reasons revolving around the Woolrich estate and was not screened for some 20 years after its initial completion, thus making it rather ripe for a cult following among Fassbinder fans and more high-class horror fans alike. Of course, Martha – a film centering around a seemingly sterile bourgeoisie married couple – is not your typical late night horror show, but a malicious melodrama with curious comedic undertones that forces the viewer to sympathize with either a meek masochist who is afraid of her own shadow or a strikingly suave sadist who gets the job done, but nothing in between. Assembled right before Fassbinder’s early masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Martha was naturally soon forgotten, but after over four decades, it is about time that viewers catch up with the ‘minor masterpieces’ of a prolific filmmaker who made films faster than most people could watch them. With Martha, persecution mania has never been so cinematically marvelous, thus lucidly illustrating as to why German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was able to beat Hollywood at their own game and did it quite gingerly by utilizing the seemingly meager medium of kraut television to do so. 

 Seeming like a dramatized depiction of one of the more 'conventional' case studies from Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Martha was a more personal work for director Rainer Werner Fassbinder than one would assume upon a superficial glance of the film. As Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm (Sissi, Peeping Tom) stated in an interview for the book Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1997), “Rainer had a very fractured relationship with his father; in Martha I practically depicted his father, and, because of that film, Rainer and I talked a great deal about the man – as a psychoanalyst, then, I would understand his homosexual excesses.” Indeed, Böhm may play an arrogant sadistic scoundrel of the delightfully dapper sort named Helmut Salomon in Martha, but a clear-cut ‘black-and-white’ depiction of human evil is nowhere to be seen in the film because in the world of reckless matrimonial relationships, it always takes two to tango. It is oftentimes said that opposites attract and that is surely the case with Martha; a frenzied filmic fairy tale of sorts about one sad virginal spinster’s subconscious conquest to be eternally enslaved or at least perish pathetically trying. Martha Heyer (Margit Carstensen) is a hysterical woman and her daily doses of Valium do little to calm her all-consuming anxiety and almost surreal social ineptitude. Needless to say, when her father (Adrian Hoven) – a man she has a rather dubious relationship with – drops dead unexpectedly in her arms and states, “Let go of me” as his final words to his daughter while meeting together on a vacation in Spain, manic-depressive Martha is all shaken up, even more so than usual, and things only get worse when she discovers that her purse is stolen by a nefarious Arab-Negro (Fassbinder boy toy El Hedi ben Salem) in the process. One soon learns that Martha’s hyper-hysterical mother (Gisela Fackeldey) – a wretched woman who spares no chance to denigrate and humiliate her daughter in between popping pills and guzzling liquor – is a large source of the 31-year-old virginal librarian’s penetrating problems. An innate introvert who sought refuge in the fantasy world of book and fictional characters at a young age, Martha essentially has the emotional and sexual maturity of a mentally perturbed preteen, thereupon making her the perfect sheep for the slaughter for a predatory psychopath with patently perverse and pernicious intentions. Although initially meeting him by happenstance during her tragic trip to Spain, masochist Martha will not talk to her sadistic future husband Helmut Salomon – a man with a malicious and malevolent master plan to enslave the weak woman of his dreams and make her his absolute odious and obsequious devil’s plaything – at a bourgeois buffet with friends and family members. Naturally, hellish Helmut makes a fool of miserable Martha in front of the dinner guests, but it is his private remark, “I don’t think you’re very beautiful…and certainly not attractive and charming. You’re too thin, almost skinny. When one looks at you, one can almost feel your bones. And I have the impression your body smells,” that really turns on the under-sexed spinster, thus resulting in the first (forced) kiss between the two loony lovers and absolute disgust from the old maid’s monopolizing mother, who faints after voyeuristically spying on the demented duo as the whole fateful event takes place. With Martha no longer the slave of her malignant mommy, Helmut now reigns supreme sadist over the forlorn fecund-free female after stoically taking her shaking hand in marriage. 

 Featuring some of the blackest hallucinatory humor to ever grace the silverscreen, Martha is indubitably a mischievous movie by an auteur with an unflattering and uncompromising understanding of human nature. In the end, anti-heroine Martha is a paraplegic – the inevitable result of her own devastatingly delusional mind – resigned to a wheelchair for the rest of her life as the indisputable perennial slave of suave fiend Helmet. Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder even regarded the conclusion of Martha as a ‘happy ending,’ stating, “When Martha can no longer take care of herself, she has finally gotten what she wanted all along.” Unsurprisingly, star Margit Carstensen had a different opinion and responded to Fassbinder’s statement with the remark, “I wouldn’t go that far. I really think that this is a resignation on her part.” Whatever one’s opinion of the two unconventionally complimentary companions in Martha, it would be hard to argue that – for better and certainly for worse – Martha the masochist and Helmut the sadist are an immaculate match of mental derangement that were unequivocally meant to be. The same can also be said of Fassbinder and Carstensen, whose creative relationship was not much different in spirit from the monstrous married couple featured in Martha, so much so that the clearly agitated actress described the director as, “a wretched person” during the making of the film, thus underlying how the German New Cinema auteur filmmaker’s oeuvre was a true expression of ‘life reflecting art’ and vice versa. Featuring some of the most ruthlessly lecherous ‘love’ scenes ever captured in cinema history, including sexual arousal via severe sunburn and orgasmic ecstasy via kitten-killing, Martha is nothing short of a minor masterpiece of the melodramatically macabre and horrendously humorous, as a film that accepts the absurdity of human nature for what it is; nothing more and nothing less. The next time I hear about a woman who is finally murdered by her abusive husband after going back to him time and time again after decades of abhorrent abuse, I will always remember Martha; a brutal yet beauteous antidote to feminist folly about the need for imaginary gender equality. 

-Ty E

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