Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of cinema’s great rebels and social critics. Alongside the other visionaries of the New German Cinema, he shaped a new vision of socially conscious, intellectual and artistic cinema. Visually excessive and yet minimalist, his films are filled with characters who seem emotionally distant but are in fact laid bare, isolated in a harsh world where beauty and cruelty abounds. While Berlin Alexanderplatz is perhaps the greatest achievement of his prolific career, Martha stands as perhaps his purest and most complete work. More so, it is the film that best illustrates the tender but hard-edged style that marks Fassbinder’s world view, one in which the individual is tormented by the falsities and the callousness of society and politics.
The film follows the eponymous herione, Martha, a single woman in her thirties. Her life changes when her father dies and she meets an enchanting man named Helmut. As their relationship builds, Helmut is revealed to be far from Martha’s dream man, but rather a controlling and manipulative sadist. The narrative of the film falls into the realm of melodrama, with its female focus and rich emotional drive. Fassbinder explicitly centres film around the body and face of Margit Carstensen’s Martha: he lingers on images of Martha’s pained smiles, shimmering tears running down her gaunt face, the horrific burns she endures from one of Helmut’s power games, and even Martha vomiting after riding on a roller coaster [Helmut proposes as Martha vomits] .
The film is an emotional tempest, but visually, Fassbinder expresses these emotions through a controlled symphony of camera movement and staging. Within Fassbinder’s films, the attitude and movement of the camera defines the emotional drive, establishing tone, mood and creating moments of spectacle that can be entrancing and disturbing. In Martha, the characters move through the world like dancers, in rhythm with the gliding camera. A ballet of realism and fantasy, social comment and melodrama, creating a spectacle that is absurd and yet emotionally truthful in a way most films deny their audience.
The pinnacle of such expression comes in the moment Martha and Helmut meet for the first time. As Martha exits a taxi cab, she walks towards the camera, before in a soft motion, it turns to reveal a smartly dressed handsome man, Helmut, walking into frame from the opposite direction, where inevitability their paths will cross. However, rather than use complex editing or a subtle glance between the two to illustrate the connection, Fassbinder turns the scene into a melodramatic swoop of fate, as the camera spirals around the two as they come face to face, it moves clockwise as they move counter clockwise, eyes locked on each other, the spiral coming to a delicate stop as Martha exits the foreground and Helmut walks to the taxi in the background. Fassbinder’s emotionally resonant camerawork explicitly captures the moment these two lives are bound together in a unique and beautiful style that feels real rather than forced.
Another example that reinforces the concept of the emotionally resonant camera comes later when Martha has been horrifically burnt in the sun during her honeymoon. As she lies on the bed whimpering, Fassbinder cuts between Helmut’s hand touching her stomach, Martha’s reaction of pain and Helmut’s perverse look of enjoyment, reinforcing his pleasure in seeing Martha in pain. He then forces himself on top of her, Martha screaming in pain. Rather than focus on Helmut’s rape of Martha, Fassbinder has the camera pan away across the room, looking out of the balcony windows into the distance. By doing so, Fassbinder’s camera makes the event more traumatic by avoiding the voyeuristic spectacle.
Martha is an exquisite film about a beautiful human being left shattered and tormented by a cruel and ugly world. A perverse homage to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s, twisted within the context of Germany’s troubled history; creating not only a remarkable piece of art but a comment on the fascism of the past and present within German society. Fassbinder utilises the power of the camera with such tenderness and stylistic bravado that the film becomes, above all else, a testament to cinema’s ability to capture emotion and express the deepest desires of the soul.