Looking Good, Looking Great: Clothing, Power, and Identity in “The Last Laugh” and “The Marriage of Maria Braun”
(Author’s Note: This was originally written for my German Cinema class.)
In response to a rather myopic comment about a purse, Doug (Rich Sommer) shoots back, “Fashion is not about utility. An accessory is merely a piece of iconography used to express individual identity.” Much about this costuming and construction of identity is discussed in the 2006 adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, but this idea of creating one’s own form of iconography through accessories is exemplary in FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh – where the clothes seem to literally make the man – and in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun – where, in spite of economic strife, the lead exerts her power through clothing.
Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) hinges on the idea of literalizing the phrase “the clothes make the man”, a phrase oft used to describe the way in which style foretells perception. But here, clothes are not merely ruler of projection of identity, they are identity in and of itself. The Doorman (Emil Jannings) works at an ornately adorned hotel in an unnamed metropolis, and his coat is equally ornate in its decoration. It appears to be made of wool, carefully stitched, with intricate threaded patterns, pockets everywhere, gold buttons, and an ostentatiously designed hat to top it off. Towards the beginning of the film, the Doorman wears this coat not merely as a badge of honor, but as a part of his identity. To be the Doorman is not just his job title, it is him. He goes unnamed in the film, as if to suggest his position as doorman is intrinsic to his own understanding of his identity.
And while he may be in the service industry, he feels that to be in service to these very bourgeois people is his passion, a role that is granted to very few. The way he walks in this coat exudes confidence, even a sense of power in an odd way. (Even service industries have hierarchies.) Thus it comes as quite a shock to him when, one of his superiors seeing him struggle with one of the more basic tasks of the job (carrying luggage), he is declared no longer fit for the position of doorman. His coat is taken away and placed in a brown closet. His identity is no longer what it once was.
To really ascertain the extent to which that coat is an aspect of his constructed identity, one look no further than the scene in which he comes home to the working class complex in which he lives. People line up to greet him, and, despite the fact that he is technically of the same socioeconomic breed, he almost contains a sort of patriarchal power very the inhabitants of the area. His steps are theatrically pompous, his smile performatively large. He is empowered by the coat because in every way, the coat is him and vice versa. It is unimaginable for the Doorman to exist in a world without this as a way to not only express his identity but for it to be his identity. He is known within this area as the man who works in the hotel, to the degree that, long after he’s been demoted, his sister goes to visit him with lunch under the assumption he still has this position. This seems to be an example of the limitations in which clothing can be a part of one’s identity, or at least the limitations of the Doorman placing his understanding of his identity into one piece of artifice.
It also seems significant that, against the guests of his hotel, he does look ornate and fastidious. These patrons are presumably upper middle class to upper class individuals, and yet he, more than any person in the building, including the other staff members, stands out. What the Doorman does not appear to have realized is that the coat is not only an extension of his identity, but of the hotel’s. Hotels rely on the very image of fastidiousness that such a fine coat and doorman project, and the Doorman is a willing, oblivious pawn in this unofficial competition of artifice and identity.
When he is demoted to working in the washroom, his clothes are representative less of what the job actually is and more of how he thinks of the job. Worn out, unglamorous, the work of someone much lower in the hierarchy. And while that may or may not be true, these ideas are exacerbated by the former Doorman’s attitude. Ill-fitting white jacket, baggy slacks, a sour disposition, and a hunched back combine to create an ugly amalgam of who the Doorman has become. Here, his clothes become just as prone to being totally representative of his identity as the coat. In addition to this, once the rest of his community finds out he longer has that job, they do nothing but laugh at him, completely without the markers of a version of himself he once held so closely onto.
Curious, then, is the wish fulfillment at the end of the film, as he acquires a fortune and good clothes, and despite his effort in helping other staff members, doesn’t exert the same kind of power he once did. The actual wealth doesn’t seem to matter, even if it means that his clothes are better tailored. Though that itself is a sign of class distinction, there’s a sense that the Doorman wielded even more power donning little else but that large, seemingly cumbersome, outrageously impressive uniform, perhaps because it became uniform with his identity.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun has a much wider array of costumes, but for Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla), fashion operates not totally dissimilarly from the way it does in The Last Laugh. However, the clearest distinction is that clothing empowers Braun in a way that transcends the circumstances she is in, the settings around her, time, and the perhaps the very context within which she exists.
Her clothing seems to be an amalgamation of styles from the haute couture mode of fashion in Paris, from the fur hat and coat the color of ash she wears when in search for her husband, to the cerulean dress with the hemmed waste and leaves tracing up and down the front. In addition to these elements culled from fashion houses outside of Germany, Maria Braun’s face is frequently veiled, either via gauze or fishnet, suggesting an elusive quality about her character. But these factors put together present a particular image, and one that makes sense for Fassbinder as a quasi-cinephilic auteur: the femme fatale.
This seems to be significant in the way that Fassbinder often culled from other films to inform his own, most notably Douglas Sirk. The influences of Sirk are there in the color of the clothing, but the construction of it – the shape, the silhouette, the posture – is more reminiscent of noirs like Gun Crazy and Double Indemnity. Maria Braun may not explicitly wear a trench coat, but she does hold herself like Stanwyck, and she does look into the camera like she’s Marlene Dietrich. Calling Maria Braun a femme fatale, however, is slightly unfair and reductive, for, though she does find agency in the way she presents herself, which does partially manifest through her sexuality, it denies the ways in which she can transcend that archetype. She is able to ascend to power, maintain her sexual agency, and maintain her feminine agency without the supposed base connotations that are often associated with the femme fatale. She is, like her clothing, complex and nuanced, capable of containing multitudes.
That much of this clothing seems to have existed prior to World War II is not only a testament to her thriftiness, but also to the film’s awareness that identity is a constructed artifice. She looks as if she’s walked out of the Givenchy house, but it’s crucial that much of what she wears, no matter how glamorous, is also makeshift. That very versatility in use of resources heavily defines Maria Braun’s character, who uses her wiles as a way to ascend to wealth, class, and power without overt “scheming”. She uses what she has and uses it well. The clothes flow off of Braun’s back easily, effortlessly, as if they were meant to be worn by her, and the numerous costume changes are also emblematic of her chameleonic powers.
Maria Braun is bookended by white, as if to imply that white is the beginning and the end of everything. It is also bookended by explosions, seemingly debunking a purity that is often assigned to white, and even whiteness. Clothing does not empower Maria Braun; her singular character seems to empower the clothing, manifesting a kind of symbiotic relationship between she and her costumes. Though the artifice of power and class is crucial to The Marriage of Maria Braun, there’s a sense that it’s almost inherent to her as a character.
A gulf of decades, styles, wars, political regime changes, and movements may exist between The Last Laugh and The Marriage of Maria Braun, but the way in which these films hone in on the ways that characters express and construct their identity through clothing is both startlingly similar and starkly different. The Doorman’s identity is contingent on him wearing the coat, but Maria Braun’s quick changes all exude the same kind of feminine power, making up for bland patriarchal rule. For both of them, it’s about iconography. They tacitly, like everyone else, live for the applause.