The Schaubühne's Thomas Ostermeier is no slouch when it comes to restaging plays that have been famously staged over and over again (Hamlet, for instance), but what happens when he sets himself the task of staging a work whose author turned it into one of the most iconic monuments of post-war German cinema? Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun is a stunning piece of filmmaking, and the script (also by Fassbinder) is powerful in its own right, telling the story of the eponymous "self-made woman" who rises from wartime squalor to post-war industrial fortune using only her good looks and above all her canny intelligence. Fassbinder's film is pretty much untrumpable. So Ostermeier, in setting himself the task of translating the script to the stage, turned radically away from the film—he says he didn't even look at it when he was planning his own production—to produce a performance that both works on its own terms and puts Fassbinder's story in the context of post-war and contemporary German theater.
To describe Ostermeier's strategy in a nutshell: He cranks up the volume on the Brechtian slant already present in Fassbinder's play. Forget realism. This production uses only five actors (four men and the glorious Brigitte Hobmeier) to fill the play's 25 roles, which means, among other things, men playing various female roles while wearing wigs and speaking in masculine voices; they aren't so much disguised as women as displaying markers of feminine identity. One wig even serves double-duty (one actor wears it as nature intended, the other back-to-front, and they sometimes hand it off mid-scene). Ostermeier makes heavy use of gestural techniques, e.g. having the character of the doctor (whose costume is a woman's coat, too small for him, worn with the front open to the back) stand repeatedly in a characteristic semaphore shrug of helplessness—after all, it's his job to issue women certificates of health so they can engage in prostitution and then return to him for treatment once they've contracted STDs or gotten knocked up. Ostermeier handles his props epic-theater-style as well: All those big mismatched 1950s padded armchairs that turn the stage into a sort of big waiting room (the play is set in the Waiting Room of History) get shoved into many different configurations, signifying an apartment, then a train, a car, a restaurant. And a character driving a car pantomimes not only the steering and shifting but also the windshield wipers.
All the Brechtian gestures in Ostermeier's staging come together at a key juncture in Maria Braun's trajectory: the moment when she has just sealed her first triumphant business deal after her boss has failed and then—in a perhaps even more significant victory—won over her former adversary, the firm's cautious accountant Senkenberg. Both coups bear witness to Maria's extraordinary psychological astuteness; she intuits not only what people want but how to give it to them, or more specifically: how to herself embody their desires. She is, in her own words, "the Mata Hari of the economic miracle." And at this moment in the play it is clear that she is destined for a successful career. Ostermeier marks the moment with a projected slide-show montage of commercially produced objects of desire accompanied by a loud cacophonous din, but not before offering us a brilliant bit of theatrical intertextuality: He has two actors approach the microphones at the front of the stage to accompany Maria's triumphant celebration with a chorus of loud panting. For those familiar with the Berlin theater scene, this is an obvious citation of the opening gambit in Heiner Müller's iconic 1995 staging of Bertolt Brecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the Berliner Ensemble. By equating Maria Braun's story with Arturo Ui's, Ostermeier provides a cynically subversive reading of Fassbinder's play that both Brecht and Fassbinder would have heartily approved of: Maria Braun's riding the waves of capitalism to wealth and power in the aftermath of war is just like Arturo Ui's (i.e. Adolf Hitler's) rise to power in the wake of economic crisis. After all, Fassbinder named her "Braun," the official color of the Nazi party—as Maria herself points out when she remarks apropos of her new lover, an African-American GI: "Better black than brown." Better indeed.
Overall, Ostermeier's Maria Braun is less striking and stunning than, say, the Hamlet he staged several years ago. He recycles from that play various techniques that have meanwhile become familiar to us from other stages as well: using video cameras on stage to project the faces of actors on parts of the set, even using their clothing as screens to project snippets of film. In this case, the use of film on stage is counterproductive because it just reminds us of Fassbinder's own (richer) images. Given the heartbreaking explosiveness of Fassbinder's final scene, it is perhaps unfair to carp that Ostermeier's staging of the play ends less with a bang than with a whimper. But where Fassbinder used to powerful effect the hysterically ecstatic voice of a radio announcer proclaiming Germany's victory in the 1954 World Cup, Ostermeier instead emphasizes a different pair of radio addresses, both by post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—in the first, Adenauer declares himself vehemently opposed to the constitution of any sort of German army, and in the second, several years later, he announces his intention to create a new army for a new Germany. As Ostermeier sees it, commerce and militarization are two sides of a single coin. The career of his Maria Braun is merely a continuation of the war by other means.
Photos © Arno Declair and Sara Krulwich