The political films of Margarethe von Trotta

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Credit: Bioskop Films

Bronagh McGeary
Deputy News Editor

Deputy News Editor Bronagh McGeary talks to iconic German director Margarethe von Trotta about her famous Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and politics on screen

In February, Glasgow Film Theatre took part in a retrospective around prolific German director Margarethe von Trotta as part of their CineMasters series. Three of her works, Rosa Luxemburg (1986), The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) and The German Sisters (1981) have been screened all over the country in commemoration of her lifetime achievements. Von Trotta’s films focus on powerful female stories in a political context and their personal struggles throughout their lives. One of these stories focuses on the life of Rosa Luxemburg, often nicknamed “Red Rosa” by her opponents and contemporaries, a Polish Marxist theorist who fought tirelessly for democracy and socialism. This year marks the 100th year of Rosa Luxemburg’s death, and Von Trotta’s masterpiece is being re-released in her honour.

Von Trotta’s works as a whole have been extremely influential to German cinema, as they were a part of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Not only do her films deal with a multitude of complex and controversial themes, particularly in relation to women, but they are still extremely relevant to today’s society, as they incorporate complex and current topics of violence and equality. This celebration of her work is a celebration of her artistic expression, and of the personal within the politics.

We were lucky enough to be able to ask Margarethe a couple of questions about Rosa Luxemburg, and the role of politics in cinema.

Glasgow Guardian: You first started your career as an actress working solely under the direction of men; did this experience influence on decision to highlight the lives of women on screen?

Margarethe von Trotta: Yes, I did start as an actress, but I always wanted to be a director right from the start. However, this was something that was completely unthinkable for a woman in the 1960s. It happened purely by chance. It was also never my aim to show only female characters, it just came very naturally to me.

GG: You’ve focused a lot on the personal lives of political women, particularly with regards to Rosa Luxemburg, a renowned political activist. Was it your main goal to break down Rosa’s persona and start a discussion about the personal and the vulnerability within the political?

MvT: I started directing in 1977 and the times were quite wild in Germany. I think the personal and political always go together. However, Rosa Luxemburg was never my idea. It was originally Fassbinder’s film, but he died before he could finish it. The producer approached me and said “You are a woman, you can do it.” I studied her life for two years, and I wanted to find a woman’s point of view of Rosa. I studied 2,500 of her letters, which were a huge help in understanding her personality. They were letters from friends, political figures and family. They were absolutely essential, as they really gave me a mosaic of her life. If I had only focused on her political writings, the film wouldn’t be very interesting. It gave me a personal view of who she really was.

GG: Barbara Sukowa gives a really powerful performance as Rosa Luxemburg, and you’ve worked with her for decades since. What was it about her that initially led you to cast her as Rosa?

MvT: Well initially I searched for an actress in Poland, as she needed to have a polish accent and speak Polish, Russian and German. I couldn’t find anyone in Germany who resembled the real Rosa and was a good enough actress. However, that wasn’t the most important thing to me when casting her. What was more important was that the actor believed that Rosa was a brilliant political thinker. Rosa had a love of nature, of flowers and of cats, and was this extraordinarily rich character. I had to find someone who I could believe could be Rosa, and could portray her character. The resemblance to the real person isn’t as important to me; it’s about how the actor captures you with emotion. It was the same when I later cast her as Hannah Arendt (2012). After five minutes of watching her, you forget to look for any resemblance, you only look at [Barbara Sukowa] as a wonderful performer. You accept everything.

GG: Your films focus on political figures and issues. Do you think cinema today is more focused on entertainment, and that these issues aren’t being debated as much as they should be?

MvT: Not really, there a wide number of political films today. I’m not sure how it is in America or Britain, but that’s the case here. I think it’s making a big comeback. There are so many extreme and nationalistic parties, and filmmakers are now being forced to redefine and defend themselves politically. I think entertainment is more mainstream cinema. Serious filmmakers are looking at politics, the world and their country. Migration is being talked about; and many films are being made about migration and climate change. I think we’re moving into a new era of political filmmaking.

GG: Do you not think it’s cinema’s duty to convey political issues?

MvT: No, it’s definitely not a must to be political. I would never say to colleagues that they had a duty to do so. It’s a completely private choice, and it derives from how you feel in your own country and in the world. If people feel the need to react, then they should do so. However, we still need poetic films to contribute to the industry.

Von Trotta’s insightful approach to filmmaking and the individual in Rosa Luxemburg manifests visibly in her other works. The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) and The German Sisters (1981) both deal with turbulent issues such as the role of morality and ethics in a political context. Christa Klages meditates on the morality of robbing a bank in order to save her day-care centre, thereby meditation on the ethics of committing an illegal act for a good cause. The film follows Christa’s battles to overcome her choice to break the law, and highlights the powerful bond between women. This gives the audience an insight into a struggle that has nothing to do with the bank robbery or terrorist acts, instead focusing on the nature of sisterhood, relationships and violence. Don’t let the large number of bats unsettle you from giving this film a watch.

The German Sisters evaluates two different types of political activism, showing the lives of two sisters amidst the repercussions of Nazism in 1980s Germany. Based on the lives of the real story of the Enslein sisters, the film shows how Margarethe continues to bring the personal and political together by showcasing the struggle to fight for women’s rights in West Germany. In depicting a feminist journalist and a terrorist revolutionary (akin to a Baader-Meinhof group), von Trotta illustrates the fascinating and dangerous path to emancipation from two completely contrasting perspectives. The tension is almost tangible, as the intense emotions running on screen highlight the fierce determination of both sisters in their attempt to secure female rights. It shows the unbreakable bond between sisters, and the somewhat bleak and depressing reality they had to live through.

As a director who is said to have been overlooked in favour of other prominent directors of the time, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, von Trotta’s films deserve full recognition for the contribution they give to feminist cinema, and German cinema as a whole. Her work puts the spotlight on prominent issues that still affect society today. From contraceptive rights to terrorist acts, her films convey a powerful message on the nature of the political individual, and of human relationships in the midst of violent surroundings. In the politically turbulent time we are living through today, these films retain their sense of immediacy and power to spark a debate on current societal issues. If there’s anyone you need to add to your list of “must-watch” directors, von Trotta should claim the top spot.

Rosa Luxemburg is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download.