Martha, the eponymous heroine of Jiri Weiss' new movie, Martha and I, would look quite at home in a house made of gingerbread. As played by Marianne Saegebrecht, Martha wears her blond hair tied in a bun that sweeps back from chubby cheeks dusted with rose. Behind her apron lies the bulk of a thousand strudels.
Yet Martha is substantial rather than fat — a dignified anchor in a world shattering dizzily along layer upon layer of fault lines. That world is a Czech border town in 1935, a place so divided as to have no certain name. The Czechs call the town Most. The Germans call it Brux. Czechs and Germans alike speak German, even Dr. Ernst Fuchs (Michel Piccoli), the obstetrician with “the golden hands” — and a Jew — for whom Martha works as a cook and housekeeper.
Fuchs regards himself as a Czech and agnostic rather than a Jew, and true to this vivacious cosmopolitanism he is married to Ilona, a beautiful Hungarian woman considerably younger than he is. Ilona's bold car-driving is attributed to her “Hungarian blood”; so too, presumably, is her adultery, which Fuchs discovers upon returning home unexpectedly from a late-night call.
Ilona's naked boyfriend is given the bum's rush into the windy night, and the doctor is briefly unpleasant to his teen-age nephew Emil, exiled from Prague for trying to diddle the help. Emil awakens to the sight of his uncle throwing the other man out the door, and as Fuchs sits down at his organ to soothe himself with some midnight Mozart the boy muses in silence about the incomprehensibility of adults.
But the turbulence passes. Fuchs' soul is spacious, and while he quickly divorces Ilona, he hugs her goodbye, too, after making her a settlement that leaves his lawyer talking to himself. There is something cleareyed and grounded about Fuchs; he sees the prospect around him, he accepts people for what they are, and despite his occasional outbursts of temper he is at heart a celebrator of life and an engine of vigor.
Yet for all Fuchs' easy perspicacity, he does not seem to see the Nazis and the threat they pose to the little democracy where he lives his agreeable life. Martha does see; of course she is German, born to the working classes whose embitterment Hitler found to be such a concentrated propellant for his politics of criminal megalomania. When Martha and Fuchs arrive to announce their engagement at her family's home — a hovel pitched on a rural hillside — tension shimmers under the thinnest veneer of manners.
Fuchs' family, a battery of Prague sisters, is no better. They mutter among themselves that Martha has somehow contrived to marry their golden brother for his money. The truth is that Fuchs, being a prominent physician in a small town, needs a wife. Love as the young understand it, that fireball of passion, does not figure into the equation that joins him to Martha. Despite the family difficulties, they get along, largely by laughing.
In preparation for becoming a doctor's wife, Martha visits the dentist to have her ruined proletarian teeth reconstructed. There is new lingerie as part of an entirely new wardrobe. The modest civil ceremony (attended only by Emil) is followed by a large nuptial dinner at a table set with every class and religious and social difference that stalks 1930s Europe.
Martha's thuggish brother Werner (soon to be a Nazi functionary) fumes over his bone china and lead crystal, and after a bit of beer he begins railing about ancient German claims to the Sudetenland. The Czechs, he contends, stole the district. When a Czech guest disputes his reading of history, Werner accuses the man of being a Jew — a charge the man furiously denies. Only Fuchs' smooth intervention prevents the two from coming to blows.
Fuchs embodies the polite disbelief, common to many educated Jews of the time, that so comically crude a figure as Hitler could rouse the German nation to wage war on the Jews of Europe. His long steeping in culture and civilization have left him impervious to Hitler's beer-hall grandiloquence. Martha warns him that the man means what he says, but Fuchs cannot grasp what he cannot imagine, and Hitler's plans, as Martha understands them, seem to him to be unimaginable.
There can be no truly happy ending to a story about Europe's Jews in the 1930s, and Martha and I doesn't have one. What the movie offers instead is a last gleam of buttery light as night falls. Martha and Fuchs are about as mismatched as two people of that time and place could be, yet between them they grow a laughing affection that thrives on some essential human compatibility unencumbered by category or impending disaster.
Like John Boorman's Hope and Glory and Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants, Martha and I taps the vivid memory of a childhood innocence that dies in Europe's greatest crisis. (Jiri Weiss, who wrote and directed the movie, was born in Czechoslovakia and lived there until fleeing to England in 1939; he returned to his homeland after the war.) When Emil, watching his cuckolded uncle, finds himself baffled by the world of adults, he is baffled by a greater mystery than he can recognize, for those adults are leading a civilization to the abyss, a world into war, a people into extermination — all for what?
At the end of the war, Emil, in a British uniform, returns to Martha's ancestral shack in search of clues to her whereabouts. He finds in residence only Martha's brother Bertl and his family, Werner having died in Africa. Where is Martha? Nobody knows. She has disappeared, says Bertl's son Siggi, from a railroad overpass where she kept hopeless vigil for Fuchs, long since “resettled” in the East.
The FYhrer's Jewish policy was a mistake, the serenely ignorant Bertl confides to Emil man-to-man between puffs on a Lucky Strike. The Jews were too strong; they conspired against him and brought down the entire German enterprise.
His chillingly casual remark is the movie's last reminder of the hatred that drove the war and survived it, unlike the unlikely lovers who found a measure of human connection before the roof gave in.
Martha and I opens Fri, June 9, at the Bridge in