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Martha (1974) is one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most disturbing cinematic creations. Made for West German television, Martha is a startling look at the possessive nature of marriage told in the cinematic vernacular of Brechtian melodrama. The core relationship in Martha is the antithesis of the primary romantic narrative of Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day (1972). Like Michael Ballhaus’ famous tracking shot of Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen’s first meeting, Fassbinder’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s short story is a whirlwind experience; a cavalcade of toxic masculinity, sadism, exploitation and surrender.

The sex in a film by Fassbinder is very rarely romanticized, and if it is, it is with the purpose to juxtapose the sex that occurs later in the film. Sex to Fassbinder was not about love.  Dominance was derived from sex. Control was derived from sex. Anything that was sociologically necessary to a character was derived from that character’s sexual relationship with another character; for Fassbinder sadism was melodrama.

In Fox And His Friends (1975), Eugene uses sex as a way to control Fox. Fox is a naïve romantic, and Eugene employs sex as a means of convincing Fox that love is a component in their relationship so that he may exploit Fox’s lottery winnings. The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1978) uses sex the same way; to ensure financial success, Maria seduces her employer Oswald. In Querelle (1982) sex is again used to exploit another individual for selfish gain.

In The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1972) and Martha, sex is a means by which one character subdues another. What Fassbinder’s characters gain from this is a means by which to control their partners through both pain and fear. In The Merchant Of Four Seasons a wife seeks to control her husband through adultery. In Martha, a husband wishes to possess his wife completely beyond all other things. Over the course of their marriage he drives her to a nervous breakdown that results in a car accident in which she is crippled, and thusly turned into an inanimate object to adorn his house.

For Fassbinder, these dark themes that permeate the sexuality of his films comprise elements of his own sexual relationships (queer and otherwise). If one were to read any literature on the life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it becomes very clear that he was a master manipulator of people, resorting to all kinds of methods of control. The reflection of this behavior in Martha speaks to the morbid fascination Fassbinder must have had for these perverse relationships he carried on with the people in his life.

Martha, like most of Fassbinder’s films, is not one sided, focusing equally on both the perpetrator of sexual control and the victim. So his films become a meditation on the conditions that allow these relationships to occur and flourish. This sort of heavy “personalization” may account for the vulnerability one feels when one views a Fassbinder film.

That Fassbinder was able to achieve this level of personalization so unapologetically speaks to just how cold and distant a person he was. Artistically, what is remarkable about these relationships in his films is that they gradually became more complex and intricate. With each meditation or film, Fassbinder, along with his audience, came to understand something deeper and more profound in these relationships.