Discuss the Relationship between sound and image in Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun
The collision of sound and image in Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun provides an on-screen representation of the relationship between public and private life in the film. The contrast created by this collision is a distancing technique which encourages the audience to consider the implications of ignoring the political (public) world at the time of the Wirtschaftswunder and in their own time. This essay aims to demonstrate the way in which Fassbinder achieves this through his manipulation of sound and image, specifically examining the open and closing credits, the radio broadcasts of Konrad Adenauer’s speeches, Oswald’s piano playing and the final radio broadcast concerning the 1954 World Cup.
The first on-screen image, during the opening credits, is a poster of Adolf Hitler which is subsequently blown up by the bombs heard throughout this scene. The last images are also those of German chancellors and an explosion ends the narrative, thus the film is framed visually. Sabine Pott (2002, 70) adds ‚Der Film wird von zwei Explosionen eingeschlossen.’ Consequently Maria Braun is also framed aurally by these two explosions. Further to this two-fold framing, Roger Hillman (1995, 188) suggests that ‘public then frames private’ and Stephen Brockmann (2000, 364) seems to agree that the ‘private story of Maria Braun ... is embedded from the very beginning in the larger story of postwar West Germany and its development.’ The first suggestions of a political critique are now apparent in the examination of the film technique.
Sound and image are for once somewhat harmonious here: the explosions end Hitler’s reign and a baby’s cry symbolises the birth of a new Germany, alongside the birth of a new chapter in Maria’s life. The sound of raucous gunfire persists as the couple struggle to sign the marriage certificate in a farcical critique of the stereotypical bourgeois wedding; this sound becomes a leitmotif, as shall be considered later. Maria’s disregard for the chaos surrounding them is the first instance of many in which sound and image are linked to the fact that characters are ignorant of political events.
Similarly, the closing portraits are a warning to the audience; an instruction to not act in the same way. Fassbinder ‘boldly establishes a chronological nexus between the time depicted in the film (from 1944 to 1954) and the time of production (early 1978).’ (Anton Kaes (1986, 278)). The images of German Chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger and the then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt appear in negative, all apart from the latter. Schmidt’s image fades from negative to photographic form, as if to suggest that we have arrived at the present and that the audience has come full circle. Contrary to other critics, Robert Reimer (1981, 141) dismisses the idea that Fassbinder is equating Schmidt with Hitler. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that Fassbinder is implying something of the sort; he continuously criticises society’s complacency and aimed to suggest that such a thing led to the rise of National Socialism in Germany and could once again lead to an authoritarian power taking control. Reimer (1981, 138) concedes that ‘...the concluding shot suggests that Germany present is not much different from Germany past.’ To what extent this is true, and in what ways, differs from critic to critic, depending on how extreme the point of view. Nevertheless, it is clear that Fassbinder was, through his use of sound, equating the public mindset of Germany in the late 70s with that of the late 40s and early 50s.
The scene which includes Konrad Adenauer’s speech concerning disarmament is comparably underlined by the soundtrack, though in contrast to the above scene, there is an obvious disharmony between sound and image. The radio is loud and dominates the soundtrack, though the characters’ dialogue regarding food is, out of necessity, audible; the audience can see that they pay the broadcast no attention because they are busy with the trivial aspects of their own private lives. Fassbinder chose an ordinary, working-class female protagonist because he ‘is interested in common people who do not participate in politics and are nevertheless at every moment dominated by it.’ (Kaes (1986, 281)). Maria Braun embodies this notion and in her character, and those close to her, Fassbinder provided someone to identify with but ultimately someone to criticise. Thanks to estrangement effect created by the soundtrack’s contrast with the visual element the audience is able to appreciate the nature of Maria’s ignorance of the ‘public sphere’: the political climate within post-war Germany. They are lead to criticise her obsession with the banal and wish for her to notice the broadcast. The radio seems to get louder, possibly out of desperation or frustration that no one is listening to what was a crucial moment in post-war history.