The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975 / STUDIOCANAL

The German Sisters, 1981 / STUDIOCANAL

Rosa Luxemburg, 1986 / STUDIOCANAL

Mutual Exposures: Margarethe von Trotta’s Early Films

Hannah Paveck

German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta’s approach to history is one of mutual exposure. As she expressed in her 2017 lecture for the European Graduate School, creating intimacy between figure and filmmaker—by “expos[ing] herself to a historical figure”—enables a point of contact between past and present, private and public. This intimate approach informs the nationwide season of her work organised by the Independent Cinema Office, The Personal is Political—The Films of Margarethe von Trotta, which premiered at the Barbican in October 2018.

As the season’s title suggests, von Trotta’s films refract historical events through portraits of fictionalised individuals, with a distinctive focus on female subjectivity and the relationships between and among women. In our phone conversation during the week of the premiere, von Trotta noted, “that is my way to go into a person, looking from her into the outside world and looking inside her […] I need to introduce her into my body in order to write the script and then make a film.” Whether focusing on a woman accused of terrorism in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) or robbing a bank to finance a crêche in The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), the Red Army Faction leader Gudrun Ensslin and her sister in The German Sisters (1981)—the first film by a woman filmmaker to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival—or the titular Marxist revolutionary in Rosa Luxemburg (1986), the films all explore women’s (political) agency within, and despite, circumscribed contexts. Neither dogmatic nor simplistic, von Trotta’s early work offers a nuanced consideration of state and media power, the conflation of radicalism and terrorism, and tensions that can arise between women’s and leftist movements – all issues that remain timely.

Born in Berlin in 1942, von Trotta became a central figure within New German Cinema: counter-cinema movement from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, characterised by artisanal production and an acute engagement with socio-political issues, particularly in relation to post-war West Germany. After working as an actor, in 1970 von Trotta began collaborating as a writer and assistant director with her then-husband Volker Schlöndorff, with whom she co-directed her first film, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Based on Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novel of the same name, the film marks the beginning of von Trotta’s engagement with the issue of terrorism in 1970s West Germany. In the wake of the 1968 student movement, and in response to US imperialism and the perceived complicity of the West German government, a small number of radical leftist groups (notably the Red Army Faction) turned to violence. As in the original novel, Katharina Blum critiques how the state and the media handled this threat, while revealing the level of misogyny cutting across both institutions.

The film unfolds over five days, tracing the repercussions suffered by Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) for having a brief romantic encounter with a suspected terrorist. It opens with grainy, black-and-white surveillance footage, implicating the spectator as we focus in on the camera’s target. We linger on footage of Katharina and the target entering the elevator. Day two: an armed police unit quietly approaches Katharina’s flat. The subtraction of dialogue and music intensifies this abrupt tonal shift, amplifying the quiet of the unit’s movement and their subsequent excessive use of force. We watch as Katharina is subjected to a series of interrogations, first at home, and then at the police station. Across these interrogations, the film juxtaposes long shots of Katharina, her movement circumscribed by the crowd of police and press, with intimate close-ups, drawing us into her interiority as she refuses to submit to authority. This juxtaposition emphasises both Katharina’s vulnerability and her defiant agency: the camera tracks in as she bites into her toast, continuing to eat breakfast while the police unit searches and upturn her flat; and later, as she agrees to be locked up rather than join the interrogation officer for breakfast.

Throughout The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, the viewer’s attention is always directed to the abuse of authority – whether by police officers at Cologne’s Carnival, or by the journalist from Die Zeitung who sneaks into Katharina’s mother’s hospital room. “Is the state unable to protect you against this garbage?” Katharina challenges. Most striking, however, is the recurrent focus of both police and press on Katharina’s sexuality; asking, “Did he fuck you?’ ‘Was she a whore?”, as if the answers could determine her innocence. When a journalist’s sexual advances lead Katharina to defend herself, the dramatic culmination of the film offers us the cathartic release of a feminist revenge narrative.

This feminist orientation imbues von Trotta’s work. In the talk that followed the Barbican screening of Rosa Luxemburg, Erica Carter highlighted the close connection in West Germany between the emergence of the women’s movement and women’s filmmaking. Unlike filmmakers such as Helke Sander, Carter explained that von Trotta was never directly involved in the ‘organised women’s filmmaking movement’ of the late 1970s and 1980s; yet, her films display a feminist sensibility, both in their concern with women’s (circumscribed) agency, and with recuperating women from the past. This portrayal is not without nuance. Rosa Luxemburg sets Luxemburg—a leading Marxist figure with little interest in feminism—against the foil of her friend Clara Zetkin, the head of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the German Social Democratic Party (SDP). In one key scene around a luncheon table, Luxemburg (Barbara Sukowa) critiques the party’s decision not to call a mass strike, accusing a group of male SDP members of inaction and abdication of responsibility. Party head August Bebel (Jan Biczycki) dismisses her as an “argumentative woman,” suggesting Luxemburg should devote more of her political energy to women’s suffrage. Despite Zetkin’s (Doris Schade) own commitments, she defends her friend against Bebel’s misogynistic dismissal, sarcastically interjecting: “and leave the big issues to men, right?” Here, dialogue is used to smooth over any tensions between the women’s movement and Luxemburg’s own politics, resolving them in an affirmation of female solidarity.

The German Sisters, however, places the tensions between women’s and leftist movements in the 1970s at the forefront—a tension that harks back to the formation of the new German Women’s Movement, which emerged out of the student movement and its (male) leaders’ perceived disregard of gendered oppression. Based on the history of Gudrun Ensslin, a founder of the Red Army Faction, The German Sisters centres on the relationship between Juliane (Jutta Lampe), a journalist at a feminist magazine and an anti-abortion activist, and her sister Marianne (Barbara Sukowa), a radical leftist who has been arrested and imprisoned for terrorism.

An early scene makes explicit the tensions between their diverging politics. As Juliane walks to meet her absenting sister, recently returned from hiding, the camera tilts upward, tracking across the male marble statues which line the path – as if nodding to these monuments to (patriarchal) history. Immediately, the sisters broach the question of politics: when Marianne challenges Julianne over her work at the feminist magazine, stressing the urgency of revolution, the latter is steadfast (“It’s absolutely essential”). Later, when Marianne and her male counterparts pay Juliane an unwanted night-time visit, the camera fixes in a frontal, theatricalised tableau: two men seated at the kitchen table; Marianne turned to the back, making coffee; Juliane at the edge. Their silence magnifies the sense of stillness, before guiding our attention towards the movement in the centre of the frame. The man directly facing us smokes languidly, shifting his gaze around the room, adjusting his body to make his presence felt. In the spatial arrangement of this single tableau, The German Sisters registers the subtle, yet gendered power differentials in the room, evoking, by way of association, those within Marianne’s radical leftist group.

Following Marianne’s imprisonment, the film intercuts between Juliane’s visits to her sister; and extended flashback sequences which reveal their religious, patriarchal upbringing during the Nazi period, tracking the development of the sisters’ diverging politics. This focus on the sisters’ relationship has led some critics to accuse von Trotta of prioritising the personal over the political. Upon closer examination, however, the political stakes of The German Sisters lie less in the circumstances of Ensslin’s case, and in the representation of a generation in the process of reckoning with their country’s Nazi past. As the film’s engagement with the tension between Juliane’s feminism and Marianne’s radical leftist politics makes palpable, the personal here does not supersede the political. Instead, it allows the film to challenge attempts at resolving contradictions, and to interrogate the tangibility of history.

History in The German Sisters is resolutely material: mediated through the photographs of Marianne which bookend the film; shots of Juliane preparing a photographic exhibit about Hitler’s policies toward women; the motif of clothing as mnemonic connection between the sisters; and the use of documentary footage of concentration camps from Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956) and the Vietnam War. For von Trotta, combining this footage and framing it diegetically in the form of classroom screenings, was necessary to “create a line of development in the mind of the young sister to then to become a so-called terrorist. I had to have these pictures to understand as a spectator what was going on inside of the young people and then adult people when they saw [this footage].” Through its self-reflexive staging of Juliane’s ambivalence about writing her sister’s story, the film invites the spectator to not only reflect on how history shaped the sisters’ intellectual and political development, but also on what it means to (re)tell it.

From the flashback technique which tracks the sisters’ development, to the sequence of Juliane pacing which opens the film, The German Sisters highlights von Trotta’s acuity in portraying thinking women. This is also particularly overt in Rosa Luxemburg, where von Trotta mobilises the activity of writing and diegetic speeches to attend to female subjectivity and the female voice. The film was initially attached to fellow New German Cinema filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and when Fassbinder died, von Trotta was approached to continue the project. “It was the first time it was an advantage to be a woman,” she joked. Von Trotta spent two years researching Luxemburg’s writing and correspondence, resulting in a film that spans her imprisonments, involvement with the SDP and founding of the Spartacist League, and eventual murder following the failed 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin. The film includes Luxemburg’s romantic relationships in order to sideline them, prioritising Luxemburg’s female friendships and, more urgently, her political agency.

Throughout Rosa Luxemburg, von Trotta interweaves scenes of Luxemburg writing—either for the political press or personal correspondence—deploying the use of voice-over to stress her structuring presence within the film. Scenes of party life showcase Luxemburg holding the floor, often emphasising her quick-wittedness in conversations with men. When male SDP members joke about Luxemburg and Zetkin traversing through a firing practice area, suggesting possible epitaphs, Luxemburg quips, “Here lie the last two men of German Social Democracy”. The most memorable scenes, however, are those that depict Luxemburg’s political speeches. In their content and duration, these scenes feel motivated less by narrative, than by a desire to allow Luxemburg’s voice to fully resound. Her speeches often begin in long shot as the camera tracks across a crowded room, immediately aligning us with the audience in a shared act of listening. As the speeches progress, the camera becomes increasingly proximate. Close-up shots of Luxemburg at the podium, and then of the individual listeners, reflect the power of her voice as a call to listen. These scenes render her later failure—or refusal—to come to the podium all the more affecting.

Barbara Sukowa, who played both Marianne in The German Sisters and Luxemburg is an actor with whom von Trotta has since had a long-standing collaboration, later playing the title roles of Hildegard von Bingen in Vision (2009) and Arendt in Hannah Arendt (2012). When I asked von Trotta abouther desire to revisit these figures, she proposed, “For me, they were feminists even without considering themselves as feminists.” Through von Trotta’s attentiveness to the voice, her films consider what it means to represent historical female figures with thoughtful subjectivity and potent political agency. Through her nuanced portraits of thinking women in charged historical contexts, von Trotta’s early films anticipate her lifelong work of listening, and exposing oneself, to history.

Hannah Paveck is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at King's College London and a staff writer for Another Gaze.