Possibly the most twisted film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, Martha (a favorite of his frequent cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) catalogs the tyrannical hold a bourgeois husband has over his wife. The similarities between this absurd tragicomedy and Luis Buñuel’s Él (itself a precursor of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) are unavoidable, and as such Fassbinder’s film plays out as a loose remake of Buñuel’s Mexico-era masterpiece. (Even the film’s elaborate dinner sequence brings to mind Buñuel’s warped renditions of the Last Supper for both Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel.) Margit Carstensen stars as Martha, a librarian who marries a rich businessman, Helmuth (Karlheinz Böhm), and finds herself slowly stripped of her freedom: he forces her to read a book on construction and listen to his favorite music and quits her job at the library without telling her.
The film opens with a black man entering Martha’s hotel room while she vacations in Spain with her father. Not long after throwing the man out, Martha discovers that the hustler was sent to her room because the hotel clerk thought he had seen her winking at the man. This scene foreshadows the film’s many domestic disturbances and the way the film’s men insist on doing the thinking for their women. Martha’s father dies of a heart attack during their joint Spanish vacation. She reacts indifferently to his death (seemingly more concerned with her stolen purse), no doubt irritated by his controlling nature. “You always dispute when you’re in the wrong,” he says before asking her to call a taxi. And as he clutches his chest dying on the film’s Spanish steps, he mutters, “Let go of me, please, Martha.” When she reaches for a cigarette not long after his death, it’s obvious that she is happy to be free of his hold.
In Martha’s pill-popping mother (a hysterical Gisela Fackeldey), Fassbinder sees the future of the film’s younger domestic prisoners. “She has a right to death,” says Helmuth as he watches the old woman overdose in front his daughter. The great irony here is obvious: although he believes everyone is entitled to death, he refuses to grant his own wife a right to life. Fassbinder unearths the man’s patriarchal excuse for his wife’s abuse during the couple’s honeymoon. While reading The Disinherited Mind by Ellrich Heller (who observed the sterilized sobriety of Kafka’s modern humanism), Helmuth insults his wife’s intelligence and suggests that if a man can support his wife, it’s embarrassing for her to work. When she half-sleepily defends female independence, he punishes her by letting her burn beneath the Italian sun. And though she now suffers from a severe sunburn, Helmuth passes his fingers threateningly over her skin and then mauls her sexually.
The reason Martha so easily suffers Helmuth’s wrath then is because Helmuth’s attacks are always preceded with reassurance. (She has no problem smoking on the veranda of their new home because he asks her nicely.) Trapped alone in their lonely castle, she brings a black cat into the house in order to surround herself with a living creature. He feigns sympathy, allows her to keep the cat, but kills the animal and ravages Martha right next to the carcass. However disturbing all of this may sound, Fassbinder plays the film’s horrors and many social blunders for laughs. When Martha pretends not to have met Helmuth before at a dinner party, she defends her actions by saying, “What will mother think? She has such a smutty mind. She regards ‘know’ in the bibilical sense.” Indeed, what with Martha being constantly surrounded by ominous jungle-like flowers and plants, Fassbinder sees Martha’s struggle with Helmuth no different than the one between Adam and Eve.