The highly touted, doggedly stupefying German import "The Marriage of Maria Braun," now at the Dupont Circle, is further proof that the reputation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who inspired the immortal film festival lament. "It never rainer-werners but it fassbinders") has been grossly exaggerated.

A ramshackle chronicle of the ascent of a love-starved, mercenary young slut in the years following World War II, "Maria Braun" suggests a distaff variation on Lina Wertmuller's equally shallow social epic, "Seven Beauties," and shows no advance in Fassbinder's complacently vicious art. Once again, he achieves a mucky blend of pedestrian despair lightened by sudden mawkish outbursts, a poor imitation of kitschy movie soap opera and a heavy-handed, heavy-footed approximation of camp humor.

Typically, this humor proves so elusive that admiring critics have to explain that Fassbinder isn't trying to be inept or banal at each excruciating point, if it looks that way. What he's doing you're asked to believe, is commenting on some tradition of melodramatic cliche.

This rationalization may account for the distinctive confusion that accumulates as Fassbinder slogs through the expository swamps of "Maria Braun." One feels as if some German translator had scrambled the plots of vintage trash like "Madame X," Random Harvest," "Leave Her to Heaven" and "Written on the Wind." Fassbinder's woeful narrative style probably derived from a fond overindulgence of such movies, perhaps in scrambled German versions.

The movie begins with an explosive downbeat as a poster of Hitler is blown away to reveal the heroine and her intended, a German soldier named Hermann Braun, struggling to complete their marriage ceremony at a registrar's office in the middle of an Allied Bombing raid. The calculated comic confusion of this prologue soon gives way to Fassbinder's shoddiness and absentmindedness. The sequence ends abruptly, leaving it uncertain whether the ceremony has been completed or whether the newlyweds have even survived.

When the credits fade and the story resumes, the war seems to have ended. Maria reappears haunting a railroad station, searching in vain for Hermann among the returning troops. Fassbinder's lack of epic flair is immediately apparent when one compares his cramped inert depiction of this setting with John Schlesinger's direction of the rail-terminal finale in "Yanks" or Franc Roddam's direction of the Brighton street riots in "Quadrophenia."

It's amazing that such a figure should inspire a cult when there's no shortage of sophisticated talent. Or is it? Like the grueling mock-realist John Cassavetes or the primitive avant-gardist Stan Brakhage, Fassbinder is so unaccomplished at his chosen means of expression that he may impress some naive souls as a more sincere uncompromising breed of filmmaker. People who feel uncomfortable with or intimidated by polished, astute stylization may make a perverse virtue of the ragged and inarticulate.

Despairing of Hermann's return and reasoning that A Girl Must Live, Maria turns for solace to the conquering soldiery. She become the mistress of a chubby black GI known as Mr. Bill. In the midst of a preposterous strip scene, Maria and Bill are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Hermann, a giant specter who provokes greater hilarity by decking Maria before hungrily seizing one of Bill's smokes.

Fassbinder sustains an awkward tableau of Hermann puffing and Bill kneeling beside a fallen Maria. Several hours later Bill hurls himself at Hermann. The suitors wrestle inconclusively, forcing Maria to grab a handy bottle and administer a fatal braining to poor deluded Bill.

Maria is arrested. Hermann disrupts her murder trial by making a false confession and goes to jail. More devoted than ever after profiting from this sacrifice. Maria brushes off a slight complication -- pregnancy by Bill -- and presses on, attaching herself to a German textile merchant destined to strike it rich in postwar nylons. Although she consorts with this protector and becomes notorious in business circles as "the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle," Maria remains true in her heart to Hermann. Every dirty thing she does to get ahead is ostensibly done for love of Hermann (not a bad title . . .).

By the time Maria and Hermann are reunited, she's so aflutter that she accidentally blasts them to a Greater Reward.This denouement is "ironically" juxtaposed with a broadcast of Germany winning the World Cup, allowing Fassbinder cultists to point out how subtly he has summarized the spiritual malaise beneath Germany's postwar resurgence.

A generation ago in Hollywood someone like Hanna Schygulla in the role of Maria would have been instantly, astutely typed as a poor studio's Laraine Day. She resembles Day while lacking her skill and feminine appeal. Fassbinder insists on playing her single specialty, a lustful leer flung carelessly over her left shoulder, into the ground. A peculiarly ungainly actress, Schygulla moves as precariously as the octogenarian Mae West of "Sextette." When she drops a sheet to reveal her short-legged physique from the rear, you feel embarrassed rather than aroused. Neither actress nor director has mastered this simple sexy flourish.

Schygulla recalls the androgynous exhibitionism of the Warhol starlets. Like them, she seems closer to female impersonation than natural, self-possessed femininity. No one would have mistaken Hanna Schygulla for a star Before Warhol. Why anyone chooses to mistake her director for an important filmmaker is a mystery perhaps too pathetic to reward investigation.