Cast & Crew
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Following the death of her cold-blooded father, a virginal librarian marries a tyrannical sadist and strives to be a dutiful housewife.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
El Hedi Ben Salem
On the surface, Martha is the story of a perfect relationship - a sadist and a masochist - but of course, it's more complicated than that. Martha, a pale, cadaverous-looking librarian in her thirties, is clearly established as a victim from the opening scene, accompanying her domineering father in Rome. He suddenly dies of a heart attack on the Spanish steps while rebuffing her attempts to help him ("Please let go of me!") and in the ensuing confusion her purse is stolen by a thief. Yet her grief is short-lived (she seems more upset by the missing purse than her father's death), replaced by a sense of liberation - one that ends the moment she meets Helmut Salomon, an engineer who appears to be as cruel and uncaring as her father. Magnetically attracted, the two begin an ominous courtship that leads to marital hell in a scenario that perfectly illustrates Ambrose Bierce's definition of marriage in The Devil's Dictionary: "The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two."
Is Martha intended to be a black comedy satirizing the conventions of a bourgeois marriage? Or is it a psychological thriller about the need for one partner to dominate another in a relationship? It's certainly an exercise in controlled cruelty, filmed like a fairy tale in bon-bon colors. Some viewers may feel like they are being as abused as the heroine in such sequences as Martha's seaside vacation: she's encouraged to sunbathe by her husband, despite her fair skin. Later, we see that she's badly sunburned and in pain, yet her misery arouses Helmut who makes brutal love to her. It's just one of many scenes that will make you squirm. Perhaps Fassbinder's own assessment of Martha can be taken at face value when he said it's "the story of a woman whose happiness comes from being oppressed." He also added this observation (in Fassbinder Filmmaker by Ronald Hayman): "If, at the end of the film, she's no longer capable of living alone, she has achieved what she wanted....Most men cannot be as perfectly oppressive as women would wish."
In comparison to more accessible Fassbinder films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Martha confronts the viewer with a difficult, enigmatic female protagonist. You're never sure why Martha is so desperate to play the perfect wife or why she would subject herself to such increasingly demeaning treatment from her husband. Helmut is no less a mystery. Does he have an ulterior motive for his sadism? Is he trying to crush her spirit so he can mold her into his own creation? It's all open to debate but there's no denying the hypnotic quality of the film; it pulls you in, even as you fight the urge to flee. Fassbinder is a brilliant puppeteer, manipulating his two leads in a Punch and Judy show of disturbing proportions. Margit Carstensen, who was so memorable in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Fear of Fear (1975), is perfect as the self-deluded and increasingly paranoid Martha while Karlheinz Bohm (the sensitive serial killer of Peeping Tom, 1960) makes a grim and frightening tormentor. The scene of the two of them on a roller coaster - Martha wide-eyed with fear, Helmut ecstatic at her terror - is a perfect illustration of the stylized performances on display. You want to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of it but the laugh dies in your throat; the sense of claustrophobia and oppression becomes almost palpable.
The Fantoma DVD of Martha features a new digital transfer in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the image looks exceptionally good for a made-for-TV movie from the seventies. Fans of the director will particularly enjoy a low-budget but engaging video documentary, Fassbinder in Hollywood, which features interviews and comments from several of the director's former collaborators, now living and working in Los Angeles. Foremost among them are actor/director Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla, and the award winning cinematographer Michael Ballhaus whose merry-go-round tracking shot of Martha and Helmut's first meeting in Martha is justly celebrated for its sheer virtuosity. The disc also includes excellent liner notes by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
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by Jeff Stafford
Released in United States 1994
Released in United States January 1996
Released in United States September 1994
Shown at New York Film Festival September 23 - October 9, 1994.
Shown at Venice Film Festival (out of competition) September 1-12, 1994.
For over twenty years, this film was withheld from theatrical release in Germany due to a copyright impasse.
tvm (West Germany)
Released in United States 1994 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 23 - October 9, 1994.)
Released in United States January 1996 (Shown in Los Angeles (American Cinematheque) as part of program "New Films From Germany" January 12-14, 1996.)
Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Venice Film Festival (out of competition) September 1-12, 1994.)