If the passing of the beloved Agnès Varda this year has taught us anything, it’s that there is immeasurable joy in bringing the resilience, wisdom, and work of veteran female filmmakers to a younger generation – especially while those veterans are alive to enjoy it. In 2019, looking at the reputation of West German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, it’s clear that she has much to offer in this vein – and that a resurgence of her work is long overdue, especially in the English-speaking world.
Now 77 years old, von Trotta is receiving some of this long overdue attention following a project to make her films more widely available to new audiences. ICO’s restoration of four of her major works (The Personal is Political: the Films of Margarethe von Trotta) set out to do just that, touring around the UK throughout 2019. The truth is, few cinephiles and critics I know have seen her movies, and barring a few recent online pieces, there aren’t many easy-to-access studies of her career in English. There are no recent books about her. That’s why a touring season like this one is so crucial.
Since her 1978 debut, von Trotta has consistently engaged with feminist politics and storytelling from a deeply humane standpoint. Among her most well-known works are sympathetic biopics of two of the 20th century’s great women ideologues: murdered Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, in 1986, and theorist Hannah Arendt, in 2012.
When von Trotta began her filmmaking career in the 1970s, it was through a collaboration with her husband, the well-known director Volker Schlöndorff. This was not uncommon for many talented women in film throughout the 20th century, who entered the industry under the auspices of a male associate or husband to go on to individual success: Elaine May, Barbara Loden and others launched their careers from similar collaborations before distinguishing themselves as singular creative talents with unique insights into the female perspective.
Von Trotta’s first major work was one she co-wrote and co-directed with Schlöndorff in 1975, with great success in Germany: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. And while her influence can be readily seen and felt in the film, where she focused mainly on actors and their performances, she was not fairly credited on the picture. This experience prompted her desire to direct her own film. ‘As a director, I make the decisions myself,’ von Trotta said in an interview from the time. ‘I’ve watched and collaborated enough.’
It was not until her first solo outing as a director, in 1978’s The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, that she could fully establish her worldview. Von Trotta’s socio-political interests stand out: her heroines are frequently activists of some kind or another. This began with Christa Klages, who is ostensibly a bank robber but is really working on behalf of a contemporary feminist movement in Germany known as Kinderladen, which focused on getting state-sponsored childcare for mothers in need. In that vein, Christa’s criminality is largely sympathetic; a product of desperation that any mother might understand. A whole system has failed her, and she strikes back against it any way she can.
In The German Sisters (1981), von Trotta takes on an even greater taboo: that of women involved in terrorist activity, and what it means for women to commit the same acts of political violence men do. Less than five years after Baader-Meinhof group co-founder Gudrun Ensslin’s mysterious ‘suicide’ at 37 years old in a German prison, von Trotta renamed her heroine for the screen and examined her life through the eyes of a less-radical sister. Still, it was clear who The German Sisters was really about, and it was shockingly empathetic toward the terrorist herself – even if she did abandon her duties as a mother, typically a trait that male filmmakers use to signal a woman’s moral downfall.
Von Trotta’s most renowned work came in 1986, in her historical biopic of Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered in Berlin by right-wing conspirators in 1919. Her tireless, courageous energy is captured by a regular in von Trotta’s films, Barbara Sukowa, who portrays Luxemburg with luminous intellect. Her performance earned her a Best Actress award in Cannes that year.
At first glance, contemporary audiences might feel intimidated by the historical specificity and hard leftist slant of von Trotta’s films. Those who know little about the Baader-Meinhof group or the Russian Revolution might worry about needing a syllabus before watching her cinema, or worry about the importance of having the proper political and historical context. But the fact is that von Trotta’s work breathes with real life; her tone is never didactic or forbiddingly cerebral. She relies more on characterisation, psychology, and female relationships than most other New German Cinema proponents.
Visually, von Trotta’s work reverberates with women looking at one another, looking into mirrors, and mirroring one another. She watches her women characters with a kind of love and affection, and her women often share this with one another, along with a kind of quiet solidarity. The observant eye for female bonding – i.e. flashbacks to the two young siblings of The German Sisters, or the surprising alliance in Christa Klages between a bank clerk and the woman holding her up – is borne from an innate understanding women seem to share.
This links so many of von Trotta’s characters, even in other emotions or states of being that are exclusively female: shared sorrow, or a shared sense of imprisonment. Imprisonment, too, is both a visual and literal theme in her work, where women are physically boxed into their environments, pushed to the corners of the frame, or literally imprisoned for their actions. Von Trotta grew up in abject poverty, raised by a single mother and forced to panhandle on the streets as a young girl. Nonetheless, her relationship with her mother was incredibly close. At risk of mapping biography too closely to theme, many critics have noted the running interest in female solidarity and bonding throughout von Trotta’s film work.
The granular, personal detail in von Trotta’s filmmaking allows for a porous relevance beyond setting or era, particularly in an age where women filmmakers are becoming increasingly political. And while the subjects of her film may seem to belong to some distant past, the issues her work deals with are things we can understand all too well: childcare, abortion, violence, political radicalism, the complexity of mother-daughter or sister bonds, and the vagaries of being both a woman and a public figure.
As von Trotta herself said in an interview with the BFI early this year, ‘Perhaps the past that we thought was over is, in fact, still with us.’ This proves to be a succinct description of the importance of her filmmaking; her compassion, verve, and incisive feminist thought are just as needed by young women in film now as they were when she started working forty-odd years ago.