On September 2018, an event in St Paul’s Church (Paulskirche), Frankfurt-am-Main, reaffirmed Margarethe von Trotta’s status as a cineaste of major international note. The occasion was the award ceremony for the Adorno Prize, given every three years in memory of the Jewish Marxist philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, and awarded in 2018 to von Trotta in recognition of her life’s work. The first female director to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1981, von Trotta had already garnered numerous film awards and nominations including the Gaudi Award for Best European Film for her 2013 Hannah Arendt, a Golden Globe for her 2003 film of female anti-Nazi resistance, Rosenstrasse, and most recently, a Cannes Golden Eye nomination for her documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018), which she co-directed with her historian and filmmaker son Felix Moeller.
But the Adorno Prize also recognized von Trotta as a public figure who has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity of narrative film to energize political minds. The venue for the 2018 ceremony boasted a history that reached back beyond Adorno to the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, a short-lived early experiment in German liberal democracy whose principal seat was the Paulskirche. The church’s symbolism was not lost on Ina Hartwig, the city councillor for cultural affairs who introduced the event. Speaking warmly of the conjunction of democratic with artistic engagement that she considered characteristic of von Trotta, Frau Hartwig suggested that ‘in times in which the democratic foundations of our society need defending with special urgency, the award of this prize to such a decidedly socially engaged filmmaker as Margarethe von Trotta sends a powerful signal.’
The Independent Cinema Office’s retrospective The Personal is Political – The Films of Margarethe von Trotta mirrors the spirit of the Adorno prize in its selection for UK audiences of four of von Trotta’s most explicitly political early films. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), co-directed by von Trotta with her then husband Volker Schlöndorff, is a taut thriller that illuminates an ongoing crisis in West Germany’s fledgling democracy. An adaptation from Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll’s titular novel, Katharina Blum was released in a period of sharpening polarisation between the West German state and its left-liberal critics. Along with two further films in the season, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) and The German Sisters (1981), Katharina Blum is set in a period—the 1960s and ‘70s—that saw deepening antagonism between the leftist extra-parliamentary opposition (APO), the ‘bourgeois’ mainstream, and established institutions of representative democracy including the mainstream parties, parliament, and the boulevard press. From 1968 on, West Germany saw escalating violence on both sides of this socio-political divide. Arson attacks on department stores, as well as bombings, bank raids and kidnappings by revolutionary terrorist groups, most prominently the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Group) were countered by intensifying state security, and by inflammatory press denunciation of left-leaning activists, who were condemned as terrorist sympathizers most prominently by the populist Bildzeitung, owned by right-wing media mogul Axel Springer, and recast in Katharina Blum simply as ‘The Newspaper’.
The Bildzeitung was widely seen by liberals including Böll to have lent legitimacy to state-sanctioned as well as far right violence, the latter including the April 1968 attempted murder by a neo-Nazi sympathiser of student movement leader Rudi Dutschke. One month after the assassination attempt, the ruling Grand Coalition passed Emergency Laws that extended state powers to limit basic constitutional rights. When the Emergency Laws were followed in 1972 by a Decree on Radicals enabling political screening and employment bans for civil servants—which in the FRG included train drivers, postal workers and teachers as well as higher-grade public officials—the country entered a period of social tension that would culminate during the so-called ‘German autumn’ of 1977 in the kidnap and murder of prominent industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer; the hijacking of a passenger plane by members of the terrorist underground; the mysterious death in prison of three high-profile terrorists, including the figure later fictionalised in The German Sisters, Gudrun Ensslin; and in 1978, an International Russell Tribunal condemnation of ‘grave’ human rights violations perpetrated in the name of counterterrorism by the West German state.
When The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum premiered in Germany in October 1975, it was greeted by the liberal daily Frankfurter Rundschau as ‘an event chronicle’ of these turbulent political times. The film narrates a handful of days in the life of the domestic help Katharina (Angela Winkler), whose one-night stand with the suspected terrorist Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow) explodes into a living nightmare after a police raid on her flat. Pursued by media hacks including the ‘Newspaper’ journalist Tötges (Dieter Laser); verbally abused and sexually taunted by police chief Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) as well as anonymous poison pen mail that dubs her a Marxist or ‘Communist sow’, Katharina captures in her fragility and bewilderment something of West Germany’s crisis-ridden contemporary mood. But Katharina Blum is more than a filmed history of political crisis. Scripted by von Trotta and Schlöndorff in close collaboration with Böll, the film uses crime film conventions—an urban setting, a white male detective as masterful but flawed protagonist, an innocent victim, raw screen violence—but turns the genre on its head, presenting police commissioner Beizmenne as a misogynist bully working in cahoots with the yellow press reporter Tötges, while avoiding melodramatic oppositions between perpetrator and victim with a film language that is at times quietly observational, at times analytical, at times suspenseful, but also occasionally—especially in its close shot contemplations of Katharina—lyrical and sensuous.
This simultaneously analytical and poetic exploration of experiences that are both private and profoundly social was to become a staple feature of von Trotta’s films. By the time she shot Katharina Blum, von Trotta had an established film career as an actor-screenwriter working with New German Cinema directors including, alongside Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Herbert von Achternbusch. Katharina Blum sets the scene for her later films as sole director in the first instance through the studied intensity of its film style. In Katharina Blum as in von Trotta’s later films, slow camera and long takes of the body and face of key protagonists register the distortions wrought on social and individual bodies by popular prejudice, state authoritarianism, and corporate power (the power in this instance of the Springer press). To twenty-first century viewers, Katharina Blum appears eerily prescient in its presentation of a surveillance society where the popular press collude with authoritarian political forces to construct perverted visions of an enemy within. Less familiar is the artistic ensemble that generates this vision, with von Trotta and Schlöndorff’s collaborators including the leftist modernist composer Hans Werner Henze, prolific independent producer Eberhard Junkersdorf (who produced all four films in this von Trotta season), and actors much prized by other German New Wave directors: the gloriously sardonic Hannelore Hoger (Trude Blorna in Katharina Blum, but also a staple casting choice for directors Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz); or Mario Adorf (Commissioner Beizmenne), a film and theatre veteran who later worked on films including The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff 1979) and Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1981).
Most illustrative of von Trotta’s work with film actors is however Angela Winkler in her rendition of Katharina. Like other lead women whose performances shape the look, pace and atmosphere of von Trotta’s early films—Tina Engel in Christa Klages, Jutta Lampe and Barbara Sukowa in The German Sisters and Rosa Luxemburg (1986)—Winkler brings to her film roles a meticulously verisimilar form of performed social gesture developed among other sources from her work at Peter Stein’s politically radical West Berlin Schaubühne (also a training ground for Engel and Lampe). In Katharina Blum, Winkler’s performance registers an often mute but nonetheless powerful form of bodily protest that is radically libertarian in its chafing at state and media intrusion, but also feminist in its refusal of Katharina’s demonization as a sexually voracious jezebel. Von Trotta’s feminism comes yet more clearly to the fore in her first film as sole director, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages. Though Tina Engel as Christa may be more belligerent than Katharina in her refusal of sexist norms, the two share an impetus to female autonomy, expressed by Katharina’s insistence on the right to private happiness (which she briefly finds in her relationship with Götten), and by Christa’s willingness to place herself outside the law in the service of a greater social cause.
While Katharina’s struggles are however only implicitly feminist, Christa’s are explicitly rooted in women’s movement politics. The cause for which she fights is free collective childcare, a dream briefly realised when she opens a creche in her home town. When funds dry up, the collectivist utopia crumbles; so Christa turns to crime (a bank robbery), and enlists help from a pastor acquaintance (played by writer and student movement activist Peter Schneider) to launder the stolen money and bail out the struggling creche. Von Trotta’s choice of childcare as a focal point for Christa’s radicalism would have been as resonant for 1970s German audiences as were Katharina Blum’s references to the terrorist underground. West German feminism coalesced in the late 1960s around movements for collective childcare. The self-styled Kinderladenbewegung (kids’ store movement) emerged out of ad hoc feminist organising in Frankfurt and West Berlin and was rooted in film culture through the prominent involvement of von Trotta’s filmmaking colleague and women’s movement activist Helke Sander. Sanders’ own films, including The all-round reduced personality: REDUPERS (1977) and The Subjective Factor (1981) would later tell the story of a movement emerging among other sources from shared childcare initiatives, and finding eloquent expression in a celebrated speech by Sander to the 1968 Socialist Students’ Association conference, which Sander delivered in her capacity as founding member of the Action Committee for the Liberation of Women.
Von Trotta’s Christa Klages is less explicitly agitational: not a call to action, but a crime drama of proto-feminist dissent. Yet this and other von Trotta films nonetheless have clear connections to what was by the mid-1970s a vibrant and explicitly feminist West German women’s film culture. The infrastructure that had fostered the 1960s and ‘70s Young and New German Cinema, including new institutions of state and public broadcasting funding, newly founded film schools, a blossoming non-commercial film press, and lively arthouse and underground cinema networks, also provided the seedbed for a burgeoning women’s filmmaking sector, with prominent feature directors including, alongside von Trotta and Sander, such diverse figures as Ula Stöckl (The Cat has Nine Lives, 1968), May Spils (Go for it, Baby, 1968), Jutta Brückner, (Years of Hunger, 1980), Claudia von Alemann (Blind Spot, 1980), Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany Pale Mother, 1980), and Jeanine Meerapfel (Malou, 1981). The emergent women’s film movement morphed into an active industry lobby in 1975, when the feminist film journal frauen und film distributed leaflets at the Berlin Film Festival demanding funding parity for women in film. Those calls were formalised in the 1979 manifesto of the newly formed Association of Women Filmmakers, which demanded fifty percent women’s quotas in production funding, in employment and training, and on decision-making committees relevant to the sector.
Though von Trotta was an Association member, her feminism is more clearly discernible in an aesthetic that resolutely interlaces poetic with political concerns. What concerns von Trotta across all four films in this season is the intersection of German and European twentieth-century history with a more intimate politics of the body, of feeling, and of personal relationships in private life. All the films address women’s involvement in political violence. Marianne in The German Sisters, like Christa Klages, inhabits the terrorist underground, Rosa Luxemburg is a revolutionary, Katharina Blum the object but also ultimately the perpetrator of violent assault. But these stories of female dissent unfold in an image-driven narrative mode in which sound and camera cleave to the bodies of their protagonists, exploring through subtle shifts in gesture, voice and facial expression the passions that infuse the protagonists’ actions and anchor them emotionally in their respective historical times.
Von Trotta’s feminist exploration of a viscerally personal politics is tied, moreover, to considerations of sisterhood, whether in its metaphorical manifestation as female bonding, or literally, as in The German Sisters, in sibling relationships. Here, Barbara Sukowa’s character Marianne (modelled explicitly on RAF member Gudrun Ensslin) explicates her radical politics in intermittent dialogues with her on-screen sister Juliane (von Trotta’s double for Christiane Ensslin, who collaborated on the published book that emerged from Rosa Luxemburg, and was a founding editor of the feminist magazine Emma). Juliane’s feminism surfaces narratively in the film when she demonstrates against abortion legislation, writes on terrorist violence as the product of a not-yet-post-fascist bourgeois family, or critiques the body politics of a hyper-vigilant state whose prison methods for terrorists include solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, and force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike. But the feminist sensibility that infuses von Trotta’s work is just as compellingly evident in her Bergmanesque treatment of facial and bodily mirroring between the sisters, when the film cuts between their faces in close-up for instance, or has the camera follow movements, gestures, shared objects, memories, even articles of clothing that are relayed back and forth during the two women’s intense tussles over radical politics and its expression in private and public life.
Feminine political empathy is in fact a recurrent theme for von Trotta; it shapes Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with her Social Democrat confidantes Clara Zetkin (Doris Schade) and Luise Kautsky (Adelheid Arndt); and it creates a similarly passionate connection between Christa Klages and Lena Seidlhofer (Katharina Thalbach), a victim of Christa’s bank robbery whose obsession with Christa is confirmed in intense mutual gazes at various points throughout the film. The same reciprocal mirroring and doubling occurs when Juliane in The German Sisters vomits as Marianne is force-fed for instance, or when Juliane’s face is reflected in the security window that separates her from Marianne during a prison visit, generating a confusion between self and sister that is at once intensely painful—because Juliane longs to see her sister fully—and a visual expression of the mutual mirroring that is a feature of their troubled sibling love.
One facet of von Trotta’s intervention into a visual culture dominated by masculine vision is thus her creation of a cinematic vocabulary for the expression of woman-to-woman private and public desires. The social constraint that trammels such relationships is however also rooted in a specifically German history, as is signalled in occasional archive inserts recalling World War One, the 1918 November revolution, or German fascism and the Holocaust, the latter in footage in The German Sisters from Alain Resnais’ film essay on the camps, Night and Fog (1956). The sombre mood is heightened by von Trotta’s often muted colour palette; by painterly references to German Romantic landscapes (the forest in The German Sisters for instance); or by the bars, fences, window and door frames or prison milieus that locate her films in both historical and psychic space, underscoring the claustrophobia of a society whose authoritarian reflex seems as pervasive in state structures as it is in family relations and private lives.
It would be wrong, however, to end by confining von Trotta’s films within stereotypical accounts of German cine-political melancholy. In her speech at the 2018 Adorno prize ceremony, von Trotta spoke of Hannah Arendt, the Jewish exile philosopher whose work she honoured in her 2013 biographical drama (a film that once again featured Barbara Sukowa in its title role). Arendt’s writings on the condition of statelessness hold special meaning for von Trotta, herself rendered stateless by her maternal family’s early twentieth-century flight from revolutionary Russia. For von Trotta, the prize ceremony, she said, was a homecoming of sorts, a recompense perhaps for her early experience of the alien condition, but also a reminder of Arendt’s demand for analytical thinking to ‘protect’ future generations from such ‘criminal acts’ as forced expatriation or state persecution.
Von Trotta’s films are a scintillating response to Arendt. Digitally restored after years of relative neglect, they reveal to contemporary audiences a filmmaker with all of Arendt’s commitment to analytical clarity. Von Trotta’s brilliance is evident in the precision and beauty of her cinematic vision, but also in a political acuity which, while it may be a common feature of her generation of engaged German cineastes, is surely unique to von Trotta as an uncommonly luminous commentator on past and present political times.
Erica Carter is a Professor of German and Film at King’s College London. Find out more about German Screen Studies Network.