Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working from his own story, combines the names of the Virgin Mary and Eva Braun (Frau Hitler) to create a character that one critic said represented the postwar Germany of the "economic miracle"—dragging itself up from the hideous and shameful disaster of war to an attractive creature wearing jewels and expensive clothes, but totally without a soul.
Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries her German soldier Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch) as the world turns to a blasted outhouse around them. The Justice of the Peace tries to escape the bombing but the almost-married couple runs after him through the street, tackling him as explosions go off all around them, and force him to sign the legal document. The next thing we know, it's the following day and Hermann has been sent to the Russian front. Maria will say later that she is fully married—after the ceremony she and Hermann had a half day and a full night before he was shipped out.
After the war, her best friend Betti's (Elisabeth Trissenaar) husband Willi (Gottfried John) returns with the news that Hermann was killed. Maria chooses to disbelieve this story and determines to prepare for the day of her husband's return by accumulating as much money as possible. To this end she buys the best dress she can and becomes hostess at a bar catering to American occupation troops. Having learned to survive the war, Maria now has to learn how to survive the peace. She takes up with Bill (George Byrd), a black soldier and becomes pregnant by him. This affair ends suddenly in a character defining moment when Hermann proves her right by showing up again.
Even with proof of Hermann's survival, Maria follows in the footsteps of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and continues to do what she needs to do in order to improve her situation and keep the money coming in. Brecht preached the gospel of survival at any cost—grub first, he wrote, and then morals—but even after she is able to support herself well, Maria seduces and then goes to work for half German, half French factory owner Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny) and becomes a partner with Oswald and his accountant Senkenberg (Hark Bohm).
Maria will be accused of cynicism, but in the world of German reconstruction cynicism is reality. "It's not a good time for feelings," she says. "And that suits me." Over lunch in a fine restaurant, Oswald fears she's grown bored and will soon leave him. She denies any possibility of unpleasantness. "You were brought up well," she says, "and I pretend that I was."
The film combines the rags-to-riches plot of American films like Baby Face with an eye for historical detail and the upscale melodramatics of Douglas Sirk, a German director who immigrated to Hollywood and made a series of silky women's pictures for Universal in the 1950s. That's not a criticism. Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows are as good as most other genre films of their time, and much better than most.
What Fassbinder and leading lady Schygulla add is a pinch of Dietrich from The Blue Angel. Maria only displays emotion when she wants to, whether she's actually feeling it or not. At one point late in the film, she shows up in her underwear, and it's an almost perfect dominatrix outfit. A touch of masochism has been noted in many of Fassbinder's men.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is the first movie in what is seen as a loose trilogy of pictures dealing with strong women finding out what it takes to live through Germany's 20th Century, one hundred years of national horror, humiliation and hubris. It's a key film in the movement known as "New German Cinema."