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Legacies of Sade: Cruelty as Romance in Fassbinder’s Martha

Greatest director of all time (fight me) Rainer Werner Fassbinder covered a range of genres throughout his absurdly prolific career, from science fiction and western to crime film and the melodrama he loved so much, but his overarching theme was emotional cruelty. Whether young, old, male, female, gay, or straight (and even Fassbinder himself in his 1975 masterpiece Faustrecht der Freiheit aka Fox and His Friends), his tortured protagonists often experience love—be it familial, romantic, or sexual—as a source of acute torment, leading to degradation, madness, violence, and, frequently, death. While he isn’t generally thought of as a director to explore Sadeian themes as overtly as other arthouse masters like Buñuel, Pasolini, or Robbe-Grillet, Fassbinder’s unfairly neglected made-for-TV film from 1974, Martha, goes beyond the director’s typical explorations of emotional cruelty: he imagines bourgeois marriage as a sadomasochistic act, where a wife aids and abets her own destruction.

Martha (Margit Carstensen), an unmarried librarian, is vacationing in Rome with her controlling father (Adrian Hoven) when he suddenly dies of a heart attack. Back home in Germany, her mother (Gisela Fackeldey) rapidly unravels—drinking and taking pills—and makes several suicide attempts. Meanwhile, Martha’s new degree of freedom coincides with the marriages of some of her social circle; her boss (Wolfgang Schenck) at the library proposes to her, but when she declines, immediately marries her co-worker (Ortrud Beginnen). At a friend’s wedding, Martha meets the groom’s brother, Helmut Salomon (Karlheinz Böhm), a man she noticed in the street in Rome. Their passionate attraction to each other is interrupted by Helmut’s cruelty and possessiveness. He insults Martha and sadistically causes her pain, only to violently ravage her after she starts to cry. The increasingly abused Martha begins to wonder if she should run away from Helmut, and becomes paranoid and convinced that he is going to kill her.

Influenced by the gorgeous melodramas of Douglas Sirk—at the German embassy in Rome, Martha gives her address as Douglas Sirk Street—and based on “For the Rest of Her Life,” a story by brilliant noir writer Cornell Woolrich, Fassbinder transforms romance into thriller. In this sense, the film reminds me of a text by Woolrich’s contemporary, Patrick Hamilton, the play Gas Light (1938). The English author of novels like Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Hangover Square (itself the basis for a wonderful 1945 John Brahm film), as well as the play Rope, the source material for Hitchcock’s morbid drama of the same name, Hamilton was known for his bleak works of black humor, violence, romantic cruelty, and spiritual deprivation. The twisted Gas Light was turned into a film twice in the ‘40s—by Thorold Dickinson in England in 1940, and by George Cukor in Hollywood in 1944—both of which Fassbinder must have seen.


The general plot follows a man who murders a wealthy older woman, planning to rob her of her fortune in jewels, but is never able to claim them. Years later, he returns to her property as a newlywed, and proceeds to manipulate and subtly abuse his wife, slowly driving her insane, in order to safely claim the jewels without any doubt being cast on him. Both films gradually reveal that the husband’s motivation is greed, but the bulk of Gaslight is more insidious and it seems that the husband is merely out to torment his wife, delighting in her deterioration. But while the husband in Gaslight has this clear intention—particularly in Cukor’s version, where his wife is the murdered woman’s niece and he wants to eliminate the only person who could possibly have witnessed his crime, while also inheriting all her riches, as an incredibly fucked up coup de grâce—Fassbinder’s Helmut is a character of darker purpose, one driven by a deep psychological impulse that lies at the core of his identity.

It is possible to draw a connection between Helmut, played by the ever wonderful Karlheinz Böhm, to his career-making role in Michael Powell’s solo masterwork, Peeping Tom (1960). There he plays Mark Lewis, a voyeuristic serial killer and budding filmmaker who finds women to model for his camera and then kills them. The same cold, reserved sensuality is at play with Helmut, as well as his fastidiousness and obsessive need for order, for rigid control. Even more than first two acts of Gaslight, Martha bears a connection to another 1974 film, Liliana Cavani’s erotic essay on sadomasochist romance between a concentration camp survivor and a Nazi officer, Il portiere di notti (The Night Porter). While Martha does not as obviously immerse itself in the world of sadomasochistic fantasy as Cavani’s masterpiece, it is arguably a more perverse and insidious look at the same theme, with some genuinely shocking moments of cruelty.

What places Martha closer to The Night Porter than to Gaslight is that Martha is complicit in Helmut’s torment and degradation of her. Like Gaslight, many of his acts subtly erode her self-esteem and sanity, and his dictatorial decision making often seems to be in her best interest. He forces her to go on a roller coaster—to confront her fears—and she vomits from the terror; this expulsion inspires a marriage proposal. Later, when they find her mother in the midst of a suicide attempt, he hints that they should not call an ambulance, but then rebukes Martha’s secret desire to kill her mother. He criticizes her appearance, but laughs at an attempt at a new hairstyle; he tells her his favorite meal, but later says he is allergic to the ingredients and that she must be confusing him with her father.

Though Martha rebels at first—she insists on smoking, listening to her own records, and not reading a book about engineering that she finds dull and confusing—he finds ways to break down her will power. Requests that she not leave the house turn into demands; he has the telephone service shut off and murders her pet cat, which has become her only companion. He denies her any physical affection, but is quick to rape and ravage her at the first sign of tears. Like all of Fassbinder’s abused protagonists, Martha is far more than just a battered spouse. The marriage occurs immediately, after seemingly one meeting and a subsequent date, and it seems mere weeks before she is driven to insanity. Inspired by a lifelong relationship with her father—there were no romantic relationships before Helmut and she reluctantly admits to her virginity—she confuses control and domination for love and seems to crave both sadism and humiliation.

One of Fassbinder’s most famous quotes—“Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression“—is reflected in his many onscreen portrayals of marriage and coupling. Nearly all his films express this theme: it began with his French New Wave-inspired early films like Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love is Colder Than Death, 1969), but was his overriding obsession in the ‘70s, the most prolific period of his life. Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1972), Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), Nora Helmer (1974), Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), Effi Briest (1974), Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975), Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear, 1975), Ich will doch nur, daß ihr mich liebt (I Only Want You to Love Me, 1976), Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976), Frauen in New York (Women in New York, 1977), and Bolwieser (The Stationmaster’s Wife, 1977) are all basically exclusively concerned with the overlap of romantic and domestic misery—not counting his many other titles where it is also a significant theme.  

Some of these are relatively restrained works of melodrama, but Martha is one of Fassbinder’s most overtly confrontational films and is a combination of sadomasochism and black comedy. With the film, there is the sense that Fassbinder is making fun of his own repeated attacks on bourgeois culture and marriage. It bears a direct relationship with Nora Helmer and Effi Briest, his two other films about suffering wives from 1974. Helmut’s home, a hot house crowded with plants, ornate wooden furniture, and disturbing medieval artifacts, is a hostile domestic space, a masculine inversion of the feminized homes in Effi Briest and Nora Helmer. One of Fassbinder’s greatest actresses, Margit Carstensen, reprises similar roles in both Nora Helmer and Martha, but she was cast in variations on this type frequently throughout their collaborations together, including Bremer Freiheit (Bremen Freedom, 1972), the incredible Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette, and Women in New York.

In Martha, Carstensen’s image is reflected and bisected throughout the film—thanks to brilliant work from one of the greatest cinematographers, Fassbinder regular Michael Ballhaus, which reflect a lurid film noir-cum-gothic influence. Her femininity is exaggerated, alien, from the moment the title appears on screen in pink, swirling letters, flashed over a bathroom shelf lined with women’s cosmetic products. While she is sympathetic, she is also histrionic and grotesque. Her body is a site of horror and debasement: she is revoltingly thin and shows signs of anorexia. Helmut says to her, “When one looks at you, one can almost feel your bones.” She wears heavy eye makeup, ridiculous hairstyles, and often child-like dresses, giving her appearance the alien look of a mannequin, an awkward drag queen, of a teenager frozen on the brink of sexual maturity trapped in a woman’s body. As with Böhm’s work in Peeping Tom, it is also possible to follow the trajectory of Carstensen’s leading roles throughout Fassbinder’s films. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, his brilliant Ibsen adaptation Nora Helmer, and Fear of Fear, she explores a variation on the same theme: a lost, lonely woman desperate for love who is complicit in her own victimization and always ready to relinquish her agency.

Her sexual awakening doesn’t occur until the moment she meets Helmut, a sweeping sequence that is among my favorite in all of cinema: a staggering tracking shot rotates around the couple, going in circles and circles, a brilliant moment where the audience is drawn into the protagonist’s disorientation and sense of physical dislocation. Before this, her father complains that she always want to touch him, and it is clear her world is one of profound physical isolation. She is frequently framed by massive, ornate, cold rooms, where her voice and the sound of her high heels on the floor echo ridiculously. If you listen closely, male voices, particularly Böhm’s purring, seductive tones, are recorded completely differently: up close, invading the space, as Martha herself becomes more distant. Martha is often shot very close up in the foreground, sweating, nervous, her makeup clownishly smeared, while she is observed by various characters positioned as far in the backgrounds of shots as possible. Her solitude isn’t one of freedom or space, but of surveillance and claustrophobia. There is the constant sense that she is being physical shadowed, including numerous scenes of people walking along behind her, constantly observing and judging: beautiful sequences of awkward, choreographed movement. Her shame and self-loathing take on an eerie, tangible presence in these moments.

Martha is a work of spectacular melodrama fused with black humor—making it far more than a straightforward tale of spousal abuse—and it is clear that Helmut did not transform Martha into an abused creature of desperation and paranoia as in Gaslight; he merely coaxed out and developed what already existed. Early examples of Martha’s penchant for hysteria can be seen in the Germany embassy in Rome, when she shrieks to her mother on the phone, alternating between laughter, an overly loud, though jovial conversational tone, and a few quiet sobs (with the angelic Kurt Raab as a nonplussed, chain-smoking secretary in the background). There are religious undertones to her suffering—underscored by tableaux-like scenes, such as a seeming Last Supper of Christ-inspired wedding, where she has her formal introduction to Helmut and where her mother tries to commit suicide on a table of waxen flowers. The film closes with the sense that Helmut’s sadism has become his life’s work, even his art; through him, Martha martyrs herself, or rather Fassbinder martyrs her to the gods of emotional cruelty, sexual devastation, and supreme isolation.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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