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Martha raises strange questions. Why is our heroine so thoroughly dominated by her parents? How did that Libyan gigolo (El Hedi ben Salem) get directed to her hotel room? Why is she so attracted to Helmut Salomon? Martha posits a cold world where all of Martha's girlfriends are unhappily married or trying hard to get unhappily married. As soon as they do, they stop working and become chattel for their husbands. Martha's own marriage turns out to be a terror trap of petty domination and psychological torture. Since there's no treasure to be found, this isn't Gaslight, but Martha's husband seems bent on driving her insane. Or is he just convinced that she needs to be conditioned in order to become the submissive bride he wants?
Martha starts as a confused virgin who can't take a carnival rollercoaster but is soon the recipient of savage, one-sided lovemaking. Helmut leaves bites on her throat and is happy with sex only when there's a component of suffering involved - he's aroused when she's in pain or upset. Withholding his attention unless he receives unquestioning compliance for his every request, Helmut dictates what Martha wears, what she reads, what records she listens to and what she serves for dinner. She tries to please him with a different hairstyle and he laughs out loud at her. Soon he's contradicting himself while forcing her to acknowledge that the "mistakes" of memory are her own. If this were an out-and-out horror film, Helmut would be The Horrible Dr. Hichcock with a hidden plan to drain Martha's blood or send her raving to the asylum. As it stays close to the lines of a standard domestic soap opera (without the satisfaction of a happy ending), the best interpretation of the film makes Martha a critique of soap operas, or of marriage itself.
The stylization is acute, to say the least. Martha and her girlfriends always have exacting curled hairstyles and wear confining, stylish clothing. Her actions are as rigid and proscribed as the exacting direction. When her horror honeymoon reduces her to a moaning body covered with sunburn and attacked by a sadistic husband, the camera tracks to the window to stare at the sea. It seems a reference to the porthole shot in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, another film about frustrated and perverse romances. There are many shots using reflections in mirrors and the fancy houses and settings could all fit very well into a gothic horror film. Any doubt that Martha zeroes in on the Douglas Sirk world is dispelled when our heroine gives her address as "Douglas Sirk Strasse."
Most of the picture stays uncomfortably tense, the exception being a cute little song Martha sings to her new work partner about what a mouse does on Thursdays. She smiles elsewhere, but rarely with pleasure. It's a chilling picture.
Margit Carstensen is a daring actress with a fascinating, original face. She registers denial, petulance and fear quite well, and toward the end has a couple of screaming fits worthy of Diabolique. Her Martha doesn't start out as all that sympathetic a character, but by the end she has our full attention and concern. The best-sketched scenes show her unsure and in doubt about her situation, such as the nicely-written exchange with her girlfriend where she wants to express her full dread of Helmut, but keeps taking back her own words: "No, not violent, exactly.."
Karlheinz Böhm at first comes off as a normal guy and then morphs into a domestic monster. He's far less endearing than his character in Peeping Tom, and his behavior would seem to have no explanation other than pure sadism. Martha is from a story by pulp fiction champ Cornell Woolrich but I suspect its anti-marriage message and general loathing of humanity has to be the director's own philosophy. In tone, the movie is somewhere between Diary of a Mad Housewife and Luis Buñuel's El.
Fantoma's DVD of Martha presents this made-for-German TV film for the first time on American video, as it was reportedly never distributed here. The image is good if not excellent and Michael Ballhaus' moody cinematography is fairly well displayed. The only music is sourced from the records Helmut forces Martha to play; the audio is clear and bright.
Critic Jonathan Rosenblum's liner notes dare to include possible criticisms of the film. He also addresses issues concerning the Douglas Sirk source films - were they really subversive dramas or did they in fact celebrate the status quo in fifties Hollywood. I'd say they were definitely subversive; his work in other genres, however, could be very conservative. 1
Also on the disc is a full docu called Fassbinder in Hollywood. Robert Fischer directed; it's a telling of Fassbinder's story by his friends and co-workers Ulli Lommel, Wim Wenders and Hanna Schygulla. It's fast and thorough and uses many film clips as well as a visit to a Santa Monica playhouse that performs the director's early plays. The DVD quality of the docu is excellent.
This rare Rainer Werner Fassbinder soap may not be the perfect date movie but it's a great think-piece about the darker side of marriage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Martha rates:
Supplements: Fassbinder in Hollywood, a feature length documentary.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 10, 2004
1. Sirk's Korean War film Battle Hymn is due on DVD soon; can't wait to find out if it's as oppressive and fascistic as I thought it was in film school.