Fassbinder was my way into melodrama. True enough, I grew up catching my grandma’s stories with her. I never quite recoiled from reality TV the way I was supposed to. Just because I could appreciate the virtues of ham, did not, however, mean I understood its purpose. It’s one thing to feel touched by swelling orchestral music and Scarlett O’Hara’s tears; it’s another entirely to see what’s gained by going big. Aside from the goosebumps, the heightened feelings, that come with a swing for the fences, why bother? What’s wrong with a little realism anyway?
While I’ve been chewing on this one for a while, the beginning of an answer came to me while watching Fassbinder’s Martha (1974), a classic tale of an abusive relationship. Martha (Fassbinder mainstay Margit Carstensen) briefly encounters a man named Helmut Salomon (Fassbinder mainstay Karlheinz Böhm) while on vacation in Italy. The camera swings wildly around the pair as they cross paths outside the German embassy, not pausing even as they go their separate ways like two party guests swirling in an embrace briefly before returning their proper place. Upon her return, Martha finds out that Helmut is her boss’ brother. Their romance begins, as does her undoing.
The plot is terribly typical. Not in a bad way, of course. But this is nothing we haven’t seen before. Fassbinder elevates the material with some truly horrific sequences (imagine yourself pale. Imagine your spouse won’t let you use sunscreen. Imagine next that he decides he wants to have sex once, hours spent in the sun, you’re back in your hotel room). Helmut asks Martha to memorize engineering textbooks; he tells her what music to listen to, convinces her she keeps screwing up. It’s a bog standard (God forgive me for using this word) toxic relationship.
No, what struck me is everything that comes before Helmut, all that we learn about Martha the person before she becomes Martha the wife. We open rather voyeuristically, creeping in through her hotel window as she dresses. A Black hotel employee (Fassbinder mainstay El Hedi ben Salem) creaks open the door and stands there. She turns toward him as we cut to him slowly unzipping his pants. She rebuffs the gesture, though not with any shock, and finishes getting ready. On her way down the steps, the hotel concierge asks if she liked the treat he’d sent up; he had seen her ogling him the day before after all.
Martha has no time to be offended; her father is waiting in the lobby and complains how she and her mother always make him late. Light family fighting—typical vacation stuff. They ascend the Spanish Steps, dressed in early 70s bourgeois finery. All around them are hippies in gigantic jeans, singing, dancing, and begging for money. Something is just a little bit off: there are too many hippies and they are too dirty, their wildness rising against and out of the harsh, sunlit white of the steps.
Martha’s father collapses. She stands mouth agape as the unwashed mass runs in to help. We can’t tell at this stage if she’s upset, happy, indifferent, merely shocked that something, anything, has happened. After an eternity, she reaches toward her father, then looks to the ground. “My purse! Someone has stolen my purse!” The hippies look on as Martha screech crescendos still more: “my purse!”
We are at the German embassy now, and our heroine is on the phone. She blithely informs her mother that “papa has died.” The camera takes her in, almost giddy, as the embassy employee types away across a big wooden desk, asking her to wrap it up. His workday is almost over. “Mama, everyone is so nice to me here! I’m even smoking my first cigarette. Someone gave it to me!”
Not more than five minutes have passed. I cannot stress how disorienting this all is: what sort of person is this Martha? Does she hate her father? Does she hate herself? Is the movie going to take place in Italy? Of course, in terms of the plot, these few minutes have served to hand Martha over from one pater familias to another. She is, it turns out, less cruel than naïve, more a creature of bourgeois weakness than some crone happy to see her insipid father pass on.
Not only does this approach add depth to the film’s exploration of abuse (no longer is the relationship merely “toxic” in our terms; it’s an extension of Martha’s repressed, even unknown, need for authority in her life, making her both a “more perfect” victim and, by cinematic alchemy, less sympathetic) it also made the whole melodrama business click. These few minutes are real life; they are not simply more entertaining to watch or more pathetic (in the older sense).
Would a real Martha joyously chirp about how much people like her in Rome before her father’s body is even cold? Maybe not, but her naivete and need to be valued, to be liked, comes through dynamically. Upon first seeing the scene, we do not know if Martha is cruel, callous, or confused (just as would be the case were we to overhear or see such a person do such a thing). Fassbinder plants the seeds of her character in but a few, over-the-top events: sexual inexperience, naivete, submissiveness, a kind of damnable innocence. Melodrama makes possible not merely a distillation of the real but something like its actual feeling. To live, to experience someone like Martha, is to hear her brag about smoking her first cigarette; it is to remove the guardrails and figure the feeling of being around a person, an event, a home. Melodrama is, at bottom, yelling in an argument: “you said this!” The other person responds, “no, I didn’t!” Puzzled, you reply, “you basically did!” Melodrama is the truth of that “basically,” one that rises beyond the calculation of mere words.