Goethe's Faust has bequeathed to us, the generations that
have followed him, the tantalizing and romantic
notion that vital living is
constituted by continually deferred satisfaction, by a series of
animating and enabling desires that pursue one another without
contentment. At the moment he was content enough to linger with
his life, Faust was to have lost it. Indeed, in the romantic
century and a half since Goethe's day, the very words
''contentment'' and ``satisfaction'' have taken on connotations of
bourgeois smugness and materialism. Those who are easily contented are
the living dead, the ''bastards'' Sartre parodied so brilliantly in
Those who are readily satisfied are the middle-aged, middle class
uncommitted ones ambling in the limbo of T. S. Eliot's
It is easy to forget the interesting terms by which
Goethe forgave his Faust: salvation through a woman's love, or
das ewig Weibliche,
something eternally feminine, something completely ''other'' which
''pulls us on,'' standing in for our imperfectly scrupulous desire.
Taken together, these two motifs,
of modern man to satisfy the basic desires by which
he lives and the hope of salvation through an eternal other,
form a myth of modern man's
predicament, and it is into this myth that both
Fassbinder and Buñuel tap in their films,
The Marriage of Maria Braun
That Obscure Object of Desire.
Both films offer satirical portrayals of modern bourgeois life,
Fassbinder of life in Adenauer's Germany (the era of
and Buñuel of life in France and Spain in the 'seventies. The
protagonists of the films, however, are distinguished from their
milieux by the intensity of their obsessions. Maria Braun survives
the post war period by clinging to what is obviously a fictional
ideal of her husband. When the ''myth'' threatens to become merely
real, she destroys herself. Indeed, satisfaction of desire equals
destruction. Don Mateo pursues an ideal woman in ''Conchita,''
perfectly oblivious to her reality as a person. Buñuel suggests this
quite cleverly by having the part of Conchita played by two
different women, a difference we notice of course, but to which
Don Mateo pays no attention. Like Maria Braun and her husband,
Don Mateo and Conchita meet a fiery destruction at the moment
their mythical relationship begins to coalesce with reality.
Of course these modern Fausts pursue their obsessions against
the resolutely absurd background of their societies.
In Fassbinder's film, which takes place between 1945 and 1954, it
is the background of the
of Hitler's Germany and the subsequent
of the early Adenauer years.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
is framed with explosions. Its first image is a bomb exploding in
the German town where Maria and Hermann Braun are to be married. The
background sounds are an absurd mixture of the adagio from Beethoven's
Ninth Symphony and the sound of a baby crying, suggesting perhaps the
new Germany springing from the ruins of the old. The credits seem to
bleed onto the screen in a red gothic script of old, official documents.
As Maria's marriage document is being signed, another bomb explodes
and scatters the papers, sending her on a comic scramble to retrieve
it while Hermann holds down the frightened pastor.
She does clutch the paper, but in the mix-up (at least as
suggested by the film) Hermann disappears. This is important, because
as we will see it is the idea of marriage, represented by the paper,
which she cherishes rather than the physical presence of a husband.
Immediately after the credit scene, Maria is shown as one of
many women in the period of
who have lost their husbands. As she puts it to her mother, there are
''too many brides, too few men.'' Unlike the others, however, Maria
refuses to admit that her husband is dead; to a friend she denies
not being married. Her reason is simply that she wants it to be that
way. It is possible that Fassbinder intends to parody the German
predilection for idealist philosophies that scorn merely empirical
evidence. All around, however, there is evidence that the romantic
Germany of the past is dead. The background music fades into the sound
of an official voice on the radio droning out the names of the dead.
Maria and other women carry sandwich signs asking if anyone knows
of their husbands. Most people (though interestingly not Maria)
scramble after cigarettes and even cigarette butts as if they were
food. An old man, possibly senile, hums ''Das Vaterland,'' while well-fed
American soldiers make vulgar jokes at the expense of the women. One
of these soldiers insults Maria. When she challenges him, he apologizes
and politely offers her several packs of Camels. Maria, who is not
seen smoking until the end of the film, trades these cigarettes to her
mother for an expensive brooch she will use to begin her career
(before the post-war currency reform cigarettes were condidered
better than paper money in Germany). For
an idealist, she shows a remarkable business sense. Maria's practical
qualities, however, run in tandem with her devotion to the idea of
marriage. Hard-headedness enables her to survive on one level, but the
obsessive and restless ideal of her marriage is what really pulls her on.
Maria is comfortable with the ambiguity of this dualism. Her
marriage does not stop her from becoming a prostitute. She trades her
''new'' brooch for ``work clothes.'' As she goes on her job interview, we
hear the duet from
playing in the background, a suggestion of idealistic love superimposed
on a corrupt reality. Although she debates with a fellow prostitute
about the reality of Love as opposed to mere physical sensation, she
does not hesitate to become the mistress of a black American soldier.
Interestingly, her sister's husband Willi returns to take up his real
but ultimately barren marriage. When Willi assures her that Hermann is
in fact dead, Maria pursues her affair with the black soldier Bill in
earnest (she even becomes temporarily pregnant by him), but she continually
refuses his offers of marriage. ''I am married to my husband,'' she tells
him. While she is in bed with Bill, Hermann suddenly reappears. Seeing
Hermann, she immediately runs to him, but he throws her down and then
(oddly enough under the circumstances)
begins frantically puffing a cigarette.
Only when he has finished his cigarette does Hermann begin to fight with
Bill. Maria clubs Bill on the head, killing him. Questioned by an
American tribunal, she explains herself as follows: ''Ich hab' ihn [Bill]
liebgehabt, und ich liebe meinen Mann [i.e., her husband].''
This phrase is not really
translatable into English, and of course the American prosecutor does
not follow her.
The German distinction between
''liebhaben'' and ``lieben,'' which she invokes by way of explanation, sums
up nicely the dualism of Maria's nature. Liebhaben is the ordinary,
colloquial verb for love, suggesting the level of physical reality,
in John Donne's phrase, ''dull, sublunary lovers' love, whose soul is
sense,'' and which therefore cannot admit absence. On the other hand,
lieben can have higher, almost spiritual connotations. It suggests
the ''great love'' that transcends physical reality. This is the love
Maria claims to have for Hermann. It is a romantic ideal, and as such,
more readily thrives on the beloved's absence than his presence.
Tom Noonan is somewhat naive in claiming for Maria a rôle in
''familiar melodrama'' as ``the woman who gives her all for love''(43).
The soul of Maria's quite superlunary love is continuing and
unsatisfied desire. Indeed,
we cannot help wondering, once we have seen him, what Maria sees in the
stolid Hermann. The murder of Bill is paradoxically a welcome accident to
Maria, for it has the effect of removing the physical Hermann once
again: he takes the blame for the murder, and is sent to prison. Maria
is free to nourish her obsession with monthly visits, while pursuing
her ordinary life safely without his companionship. As she puts it,
''I have very much to do.''
One of the things she does do while her husband is in prison is
to begin a rather calculated affair with a wealthy German-French
businessman, Oswald. Maria contrives to meet him in the first class
compartment of a train (interestingly, the only other passenger who
can afford this compartment is a black American soldier whom she
rebuffs in her best, vulgar English). Oswald, impressed by her
self-possession, offers her a job with his firm, and soon promotes
her, both in his business and his private life. All this time, she
continues visiting Hermann in prison. When he accuses her of taking
on the role of a man (he refers to her as a
she answers that she is his wife, only brave and beautiful and clever.
''Her time,'' she tells him, ``is just beginning.''
She admits her affair with Oswald to Hermann, but later refuses
Oswald's proposal: she will be his mistress, but not his wife. Oswald,
who does not expect to live long and wants his last two or three years
to be happy, goes himself to visit Hermann, ''to meet the man Maria
loves.'' Indeed, though we do not learn it yet, they strike up a bargain
to share Maria.
Later, when it becomes
obvious that her work is bringing in a lot of money, Hermann and Maria
argue about whose money she is making. Maria claims it is Hermann's,
while he claims it is hers. Hermann is threatened by the rôle in
which Maria has cast him. Rather than act the part of ideal (and kept)
love object, he would play the more comfortable part of the husband
who sell his wife (as indeed he does, for half of Oswald's fortune).
Oswald, meanwhile, accepts the rôle she has allowed him. He
buys her chocolates, visits her family on holidays (like an obliging
bourgeois, he even takes snap shots of the family group), and in
general looks after her material needs.
One day Maria is surprised by a phone call to her office
informing her that Hermann is about to be released from prison. She
rushes there, but learns that he has already left without her and
gone to Australia or Canada. He will not return until he can pay
back the money she has spent on him. In the meantime, however, he
sends her a rose every month. She keeps all these in a vase, another
emblem of the fact that their love thrives only on the level of a
romantic ideal. Maria appears increasingly as a hardened
business woman. She humiliates her secretary and is sarcastic with
the workers who move her into her new house. When her mother, who
has a rather coarse boyfriend of her own, comments that no one in
family had ever had such a house, Maria informs her that she won't
be welcome there. She will live alone in the house awaiting Hermann.
Maria's house is yet another emblem of her ideal notion of marriage,
and it is to be free of the various entanglements of her material
life. In a sense, she has found the perfect balance for the duality
of her life. Hermann is safely away, yet remains a presence through
his gifts of the roses. Maria continues to see Oswald in restaurants
and at work. Interestingly, when she meets with Oswald, the music is
not romantic, but classical (Mozart) or baroque (chamber music in the
restaurant). Where real marriages, like that of her sister Betti and
Willi, break up, her own bifurcated love life continues.
And we see Maria smoking cigarettes for the first time. Willi, who
admires Maria as a ''modern'' woman, comments: ``Maria Braun, you're
beginning to get strange.'' Phoning Oswald, she says simply: ''I need
someone to sleep with.''
At this point, however, Maria's carefully wrought balance of
material and mental life comes apart. Instead of Oswald, his assistant
Senkenberg comes to inform her that Oswald has died in his sleep. The
background is a political speech by Adenauer. Her reaction is to get
drunk alone in her house. Hermann now reappears suddenly. She is ecstatic,
but he seems merely taciturn. While she waits on him, gives him presents,
and tries on different sets of black underwear, he drinks beer and
listens to the 1954 World Championship soccer match (interestingly,
Germany's first post-war victory). As they prepare to consummate their
''two day old marriage,'' they argue again over who will own their
property. Hermann tells her: ''I wanted to be somebody for you so you
could love me.'' She responds: ''We'll sign a contract so everything
can be yours.'' But he answers that he can only be her man if everything
will be hers. (By this time she has lit another cigarette, leaving the
gas at her stove on.) They are interrupted by a ringing of the doorbell.
Senkenberg and a lawyer have come to read Oswald's will. Maria greets
them in her black underwear, but puts on a white (virginal?) outfit
for the reading. As it turns out, Oswald left half his fortune to
Maria, and the other half to Hermann, with whom he made an agreement
in prison three years earlier, and who he characterizes as having
''sacrificed more than anyone can.'' Left alone again with her husband,
rather ominously runs water on her wrists (she looks at first as if
she were slitting them), asks Hermann for a match, touches the dead
roses in her vase, and then heads for the kitchen stove to light
another cigarette. Hermann continues to watch the game. We now hear
the announcer screaming : ''Tor [score], Tor, aus, aus, aus.'' Germany has
won the world championship. At the same moment, there is the sound of
two explosions, and the screen fades to negative images of Germany's
chancellors from Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt.
Life having become
merely real to her (this is suggested by her smoking finally like
everyone else), Maria dies a virtual suicide in her virginal white
dress in the house she has built as much as anything with her
imagination. The second explosion suggests that Hermann too may have
been a suicide, a victim of his rôle as the ideal object of an
obsession. By counterpointing this scene with the soccer championship
and the images of official Germany, Fassbinder underscores the fact that
the modern material world cannot tolerate for long the romantic
ideal of desire continually unsatisfied. Throughout the film,
Maria's pursuit and embodiment
of this ideal is parodied; indeed, modern life allows such notions
to reign only under the conditions of irony.
Buñuel too treats the Faust theme in terms of irony. His
romantic idealist, Mathieu Fabert (Don Mateo), plays out his fate
against a background of bourgeois smugness and terrorist irrationality.
That Obscure Object of Desire
opens with a shot of palm trees against the sky, a suggestion of
romantic aspiration which is quickly mitigated by the sounds of
modern traffic. Don Mateo is first seen getting out of one of the big
American cars Buñuel favors (the typical vehicle of diplomats or
drug dealers--the source of Don Mateo's money is never made clear),
and shortly afterward a similar car is shown being blown up by a
terrorist group. Like
The Marriage of Maria Braun, That Obscure Object of Desire
is framed by explosions. Actually, Buñuel has great satirical fun
with his terrorist group, ''The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus.''
Variously depicted as a group of sinister thugs and comically inept
students (the guitar-toting Morito, Don Mateo's ''young rival,'' is one
of their number), this unlikely relative of the Baader-Meinhof Group
and the Red Brigade is said eventually to be organizing and leading
all the major terrorist gangs of Europe. Don Mateo first meets
Concepcion (Conchita) while visiting his brother, a judge who is
trying a group of the terrorists.
Don Mateo tells his story through a series of flashbacks to a
group of people traveling with him on a train back to Paris. This
group--a woman and her young daughter, a judge who is a friend of
Don Mateo's brother, and a dwarf who is a professor of psychology at
the Sorbonne--represents a sampling of modern bourgeois society.
Before the train departs, they see
him throw a bucket of water on a young woman with a bandage walking
beside the train. Don Mateo comments: ''It was better to drench her
than to kill her,'' and then proceeds to tell his story by way of
explanation. His bourgeois ''judges'' eagerly accept his
version of events, as it is in their self-interest to do. David
Overbey has pointed out that while these people ''condemn Conchita's
emotional and sexual terrorism ... they ignore their own....Their
reaction to the acts of literal terrorism is a smug complacency
and deluded 'understanding'''(8). They are at once, however, a
background and a foil for the purity of Don Mateo's romantic passion.
As mentioned above, Don Mateo first meets Conchita while she is
working as a
a maid for his brother. Noticing her delicate hands at dinner, Don
Mateo decides to exercise his
droit de seigneur,
but discovers that the girl has left the next day. Actually, the
girl seems in a helpless enough position to titillate the desires of
the older ''man of the world.'' And she seems to us (rather like
Hermann Braun in this respect) ordinary enough. She lives with her
mother in a suburb of Paris, loves to dance, but cannot make a living
at it. (Later, in fact, she will discover a way to make a living dancing.)
It is perhaps her banality itself that makes her the perfect object
of Don Mateo's desire. He does not notice, for instance,
that Conchita is played by two actresses, an elegant French
woman and a rather more earthy Spanish woman. Buñuel's sleight
of hand here suggests something of central importance to the film:
Don Mateo's passion exists really for its own sake and not for the
possession of the other, much as he goes through the motions of
being frustrated by his lack of possession. His passion is inflamed
to a purity wrought by its inability to possess the other.
Indeed, Conchita is for him a symbol of the eternal
feminine, to whose actual existence he remains essentially indifferent.
Throughout the film, the flames of Don Mateo's passion are
presented in ironic counterpoint with the flames of political
terrorism. Conchita herself, on a level Don Mateo does not really care
to investigate, is rather ambiguously involved with several young men
from the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, in particular a
guitar player named Morito. When Don Mateo next sees her, it is in
Switzerland in the company of a group of men who have robbed him. She
claims they are her friends and offers to return his money, but he
refuses her offer, preferring to use the money as a bribe for her
affections. She will use the money to help her poor mother in Paris.
Don Mateo never questions her presence in Switzerland with the
terrorists, or the real nature of her relations with Morito. Indeed,
he prefers to think of Morito as a stock rival for his romantic love,
the ''younger man,'' the ideal object of ideal jealousy. Morito appears
a number of times in the film as an object in Don Mateo's way. He
plays his guitar at Conchita's mother's apartment while she dances.
When Don Mateo, having paid off Conchita's mother, expects her to
arrive at his house, Morito comes instead with a note telling him
that because he tried to buy her she will never see him again.
Later, he is discovered hiding from the police in Don Mateo's villa
under her protection. Still later, he plays the guitar while she
dances naked before a group of Japanese and American tourists in
Seville. And of course she uses him as a sexual partner in her final
taunting of Don Mateo. When she then claims that this was all an act and
that Morito is really a homosexual, Don Mateo will not believe her.
This scenario would contradict the ideal rôles he has imagined
Don Mateo's affair with Conchita is suggested in a series of
frustrating vignettes. At her mother's apartment she washes in front
of him in her underwear and sings for him flirtatiously. But as she
then remarks, ''the words [of the song] aren't mine.'' Her mother,
Encarnacion, whose name implies an easy commerce in the flesh, more
than once appears ready to sell her daughter's favors to Don Mateo,
but Conchita herself, whose name ironically suggests conception,
continually refuses the opportunity to conceive. She allows Don
Mateo to fondle her in bed, but protects her virginity with a pair
of tightly laced leather underpants (the scene in which Don Mateo
first discovers them is a masterpiece of comic frustration). When he
breaks down in tears, she tells him interestingly, ''You know, I
don't like what I'm doing either. You only want what I refuse
you...that's not all of me.'' The remark is significant because it
is the unattainable in her that pulls him on. Indeed, only when
Don Mateo realizes how unattainable she is does he confess to his
brother that he cannot do without her.
When he discovers that she has been harboring Morito in his
house, he throws her out in a jealous rage and even has his brother
arrange for her expulsion from France, but he proceeds to follow her
(the psychologist on the train suggests out of unconscious desire)
to Spain, where she has found work as a dancer in a nightclub.
Don Mateo discovers, however, that her real work is as a kind of
prostitute, and he throws another fit. She taunts him at first
(''You're not my father--or my lover!''), but then continues to tease
him on (''You think you've been chasing me--I'm the one who loves
you. I want happiness and you know how to give it to me.''). What
he gives her is a house of her own, and interestingly like Maria
Braun she declares that she will not let her mother live there.
In a number of these Spanish scenes, Buñuel suggests Conchita'a
unattainability by having Don Mateo watch her through Spanish
wrought-iron grates, as if separated by prison bars (we should
remember Maria and Hermann here). The climax of this imagery occurs
when Don Mateo attempts to visit her at night only to find the
wrought-iron gate of her house locked. From behind the bars she
taunts him, going to the point of calling Morito, undressing, and
seemingly engaging in sex in front of him. For Don Mateo, this
is the final humiliation. When she comes the next day to try to win
back his favor, he responds by beating her up and leaving for Paris.
This rounds off the tale he tells the passengers on the train.
Martin, Don Mateo's manservant, who is fond in his inexplicable
way of quoting German philosophy, says at one point that a friend of
his (he never offers his opinion directly) considers women ''sacks of
excrement.'' There are several scenes in the film of men (including
Don Mateo) carrying around sacks. In a mysterious way, these images
counterpoise the purity of Don Mateo's romantic obsession, thus
subjecting it to a certain irony. At the same time, it is typical that
the romantic idealist devalues the mere physical presence of the beloved.
In this Don Mateo is like Maria Braun. They are both locked in the
contradictions of their dualistic natures. We are not at all surprised,
therefore, that after Conchita throws her own bucket of water on Don
Mateo, they should be seen getting into a taxi together, apparently
reconciled. No longer privy to their conversation, we watch them enter
a shopping mall in Paris while a loudspeaker announces the most recent
campaign of the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (their current
is described as breathing normally thanks to modern science, ''although
his brain is totally dead...''). As in
The Marriage of Maria Braun,
the film offers a modern public sound as background. A girl in a shop
is seen picking up a sack with a torn and bloody nightgown in it. Don
Mateo and Conchita watch as she begins to repair it. The background
changes to music from Wagner's
as the two walk away, appear to begin a new quarrel, and are enveloped
suddenly in an explosion.
Buñuel's surrealistic counterpoint at the
end of the film makes perfect dramatic sense. Don Mateo's idealistic
passion, threatening to go on and on, can only be brought to such an
explosive conclusion in the modern world. Like Maria Braun's obsession,
the modern world has no use for it. The Faustian ideal may provide a
vital criticism of the modern bourgeois way of life, but its means of
giving life intensity is ultimately despised by complacent ''haves'' and
''have nots'' alike. All the world, it seems, does not love a lover, nor
tolerate his essentially a-political devotion. Our modern Fausts pursue
their eternal others under the threat of a human damnation Goethe
himself could not have foreseen.
Copyright © 1989 by Jeffery Triggs.