Imagine. I open a British newspaper and read a report that in the days following the election of the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro military police entered twenty universities and confiscated teaching materials related to anti-fascist history and activism – an attack on thought, on freedom, on any form of opposition.
I’m lucky I can read a newspaper. Turn the page and there’s the ongoing story of journalist Jamal Khasshoggi’s murder in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Embassies had previously represented a space of sanctuary in my imagination. It’s maybe always been a naïve assumption but there it was, the idea that an embassy is always on hand to help citizens when they find themselves in need on foreign soil. This murder, and the layered tease of its media-unfolding, disrupts not only this idea of sanctuary but also the idea of unchecked freedom of expression. Mediation signals it globally. This, the murder says, is the kind of thing an authoritarian state can/will do, if its power goes unchecked. No – just can and will do. The notion of its power going unchecked is redundant. This is about power, all of it.
Turn the page. In New York the offices of CNN have been evacuated live on-air when a pipe bomb is discovered in the building. This is one of thirteen bombs sent to critics of Donald Trump’s presidency. A friend of mine who was working a few blocks away from CNN when the bomb was discovered says everyone whose phone was registered on a US network received a text from the New York police announcing the incident and telling them to stay put while the bomb was diffused. She was not American. She did not receive the security alert. She spoke instead of witnessing the moment of simultaneity as everyone around her experienced the shock of the news. In an instant she watched as the room was rendered passive by the transmission of information.
The stories that we’re told make us imagine differently. My next door neighbour’s a thinking, friendly man, but when he talks later to me about the bombs in America I’m surprised. Several times he tries to make a joke about the images that have been used on the previous night’s TV reporting of Hilary Clinton making a statement about the bomb she received on the same day as CNN. ‘Did you see her face?’ he keeps saying, like the bomb’s a funny prank, a kind of triumph – ‘she looked so scared, did you see her face?’
What’s happened when mediation makes us this blank to the reality of the world’s cruelty? In divisive times I see in my neighbour’s desire for a joke as another creeping aftershock – the idea that some people deserve this kind of attack more than others – and in his strange looped attempt at humour I realise something’s ignited and clarified in him: Hilary Clinton’s bomb is her comeuppance as a woman who speaks her mind.
So here we are. It’s nearly the end of 2018 and I’m thinking about women and mediation and Fascism. What a perfect time to revisit the film work of Margarethe von Trotta.
I first found her films the last time fear was used as a weapon of political control in the West. Imagine. It’s the 1980s. I am eighteen or nineteen years old. I move to a city I don’t know and think about what the future will bring. I read books. I wander around with my eyes opened wide to the new map that unfolds before me. I never feel quite at home. This isn’t a welcoming city. Time passes. Things get better. I find the city’s arts cinema.
At this time the city has several cinemas but none as exciting as this small cinema hidden away in a passageway between two fading local department stores; one sells ladies gloves and men’s underwear with a kind of post-war assiduousness that will soon vanish from sight, though this is a town where the past clings on for as long as possible before change sweeps it away.
The first film I watch in the cinema couldn’t be more incongruous in this setting. Maybe I choose it to shake things up. The film is Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy. The film is about a time just past, about the small gesture of revolution that punk had unleashed across the British landscape. This story doesn’t end well though. It is all too familiar. The woman gets killed first. The film ends. The credits roll. The doors open. The sound of Nancy Spungen slapping bloodily into her own oblivion onto a tiled bathroom floor is what stays with me. Come on, I mutter to myself. This can’t be all there is.
Then I see a new film poster has gone up outside the cinema. It’s a film version of the life of Rosa Luxemburg by a director that I don’t yet know but who will change how I think about cinema with her own revolution in film. There’s Luxemburg’s name written across the poster above the handsome face of the actress playing the part. Rosa Luxemburg. I don’t yet know who she is. Margarethe von Trotta. A woman. The director.
This film is an invitation. This is the door that opens that lets me think what resistance can mean.
Three decades later and I’m making a film about the aftermath of Rudi Dutschke’s shooting. Rudi Dutschke was the German student leader whose attempted murder by a fascist helped trigger the actions of May 68’. I’ve been thinking a lot about that time and the delicate ecosystem created in left politics towards making progress, making change. I think about then and I think about now. I think about what’s different. I think about the way left politics was not only ideas but about the action of thought that went into understanding and articulating those ideas; the struggle. I’m feeling my age I know. I’m grumpy. In the simplicity of our binary new century I miss complexity, I miss the restless struggle for ideas, I miss the sense that ideas are not simply evaluated as being right and wrong in the like/unlike of current debate. I miss the tolerance of ambiguity. I miss that political thought could be restlessness, the evolution of an idea and the wrestling of an idea into consciousness and into articulation. I miss the acknowledgement, post-Freud, that this process is hard and complex. I miss the patience that allows for the time and struggle it takes to realise that idea in the world.
I think of the first time I saw The German Sisters, von Trotta’s 1981 film. It is a film about this very struggle and about its impact. It tells the story of two sisters, but articulates the wider raising of political conscience in the generation of German people born into the aftermath of the Second World War, inheriting the legacy of the Nazi project. It tells the story of the different paths taken by each sister and how their relationship strains across the ideological landscapes they inhabit and the world they make with their actions. It is a startling, complex, moving film precisely because it is profound and unflinching in its observation of the difficulty and never-sentimental-possibilities of love between the sisters.
In von Trotta’s film the personal is political, not because people choose to sign up to particular political ideologies, but because all actions or inactions in the world are political. In one pivotal scene, for instance, a flashback reveals the two adolescent sisters being shown newsreel footage from the Nazi concentration camps in aftermath. We witness a witnessing – how seeing evidence of the Nazi project changes the girls. Questions of responsibility start to frame their beliefs. How they respond to historical terror has a chemical effect on the shaping of their minds and impacts on how they act in the future. The use of flashback has never been more political. Terror is already part of their landscape – past, present, future.
I saw this film once about twenty years ago and then re-watched it recently. What I’d remembered from my first experience of the film was that most of the scenes happen in silence as the two sisters sit across from one another in a prison visiting room. This isn’t true. It’s a false cinematic memory. These scenes occupy a very short amount of time in the film. But it says a lot about the power of a director that the most preoccupying cinematic moments are the ones when language and action stall. Responsibility, if you like, is thrown to an audience in these moments.
In von Trotta’s unpicking of struggle, these are the scenes that invite an audience’s participation. There’s a choice. You can sit outside and observe, or you can choose to be communal, invest in the strain of the sisters’ relationship, sit with the stillness of that relationship’s confounding. In a film that circles around whether political violence is or isn’t acceptable, these moments of stillness are where all the action of thought occurs. It is an audacious strategy by a brave director.
What’s more, if we’re thinking about women’s voices and the current culture of revolt against come-uppance for women who speak out loud, von Trotta’s films, made contemporaneously with the consciousness-raising that is second wave feminism, look at the complexity of women’s articulation by examining both the psychological complexity and the potential for female relationships while also revealing the complexity of voice versus silence.
Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, is a woman who speaks out at a time when as a woman, as an immigrant, as a Jew, never mind as a political force, she should be silent. Katharina Blum, the heroine of von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff’s 1975 collaborative adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, has to navigate her self-articulation in a time when the media storms her life to transform her into a news story. In a narrative that closely parallels Dutschke’s own defamation a few years earlier by the German Springer press, von Trotta and Schlöndorff’s version narrates not only the Kafkaesque reality that is unleashed on Blum but also uses cinema to articulate dissent with the increasingly authoritarian response of government in collusion with media to control the West German people in the Seventies.
So, here we are, in 2018. A century after Rosa Luxemburg was murdered for her views, fifty years after the actions of May 68’ protested authoritarianism and demanded greater human rights, and I’m writing this in a country where a British female Labour MP has been murdered for doing her job, and nothing’s changed. We have media saturation. We have increasingly authoritarian governments. We have suppression of voice. We have political violence. We have a Left under attack and a Right on the march. What we lack are spaces of thought and reparation.
Cinema is one of these spaces. It is a territory of thought at our disposal. The cinema of Margarethe von Trotta is being restored at the perfect moment. It’s time to watch these films on the big screen and in the communality a cinema audience provides. It’s time to enjoy the space von Trotta gives to complexity, to be renewed by the permission she gives for thought to surface and be understood.
In von Trotta’s first feature that she made alone, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), von Trotta’s heroine is thrown into a new moral position. Circumstance means that she’s presented with the challenge as an autonomous adult of how to elicit and accept help from another. This is the moral centre of the film. Can we ask for and receive help? Can we trust that community will stand for us? Can we hear what others need and respond?
In a time of downward-pressing global politics, it’s time to think about and test, as Klages does, whether or not there’s another way to live. In the cinema, in the coming together of strangers who’ll collect to watch these films, maybe it’s also time to re-imagine communality, collective responsibility. Taking back control, in von Trotta’s world, is a move away from overweening authority. It means having the courage to take back control of voice, thought, love and the integrity of each individual’s choice to be generous, responsible, hospitable.
Sarah Wood is an artist filmmaker and curator. Wood’s recent works include the films Boat People (2016), Azure (2016) and Memory of the Future (2018) and the book Civilisation and its Malcontents (2017) – an intervention into Freud. She’s currently artist-in-residence in the Kubrick archive.