Margarethe von Trotta is GFT’s latest CineMaster
Trailblazing feminist filmmaker and New German Cinema hero Margarethe von Trotta is the latest filmmaker to be celebrated in Glasgow Film Theatre’s ongoing CineMasters strand
During the 1960s and 70s, world cinema was awash with filmmaking waves. The Nouvelle Vague were reinventing film language, the New Hollywood were shaking American filmmaking loose from the studios, while the cinema of Japan, Senegal, Czechoslovakia, Australia and the UK all went through purple patches too. Burning as bright and as hot as any was the New German Cinema, with the nation's young firebrand filmmakers rejecting the commercial concerns of the existing German film business and set on building a new model founded on artistic invention.
Many of the filmmakers who spearheaded the New German Cinema – directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff and Werner Herzog – are rightly still celebrated, with regular retrospectives and restorations of their work. Such is the status of Herzog that a cinema in Scotland has been screening one of the cult director's films a month in a long-running series. But one of New German Cinema’s fiercest talents seems to have slipped through the cracks: Margarethe von Trotta. Thankfully Glasgow film fans can acquaint themselves with this thoughtful and gifted director this month as Glasgow Film Theatre anoint Von Trotta their latest CineMaster.
Screening in the mini retrospective are four recently restored features that see Von Trotta portraying how the personal is political. The season includes her first film behind the camera, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (7&8 Jan), which she co-directed with her husband Volker Schlöndorff. “I’d wanted to direct for some time, but it wasn’t easy for women back then,” Von Trotta told Erica Carter during an interview for BFI. “Volker knew that, so he gave me the chance to be on set.”
Despite finding the opportunity to direct, some of the people involved in the production of Katharina Blum were concerned. “All of a sudden I wasn’t going to be named [in the film’s credits] because my gentlemen colleagues thought that having a named woman director might be counterproductive,” she recalled. “There was no malicious intent; they just thought audiences would be turned off by the notion of a female co-director.” They needent have worried. While the films of Herzog and Wenders were generally ignored by the German public, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum became one of the few films of the movement to be a critical success and also turn a buck at the country's kinos.
Katharina Blum is no less powerful and relevant today. It’s a film depicting the brutishness of the German police and the viciousness of the tabloid press, who turn the screws on the title character, a young housekeeper played by Angela Winkler. Katharina’s crime? She spends the night with a suspected terrorist who she randomly meets at a house party he crashes while evading the authorities. When the mystery man absconds from Katharina’s flat in the early hours before the police arrive, she’s left to deal with the fuzz, who ransack her home and brand her a terrorist sympathiser. The muckraking media do even worse.
Winkler, who most recently turned up in the Berlin-set Suspiria, is at her most statuesque and forceful as she absorbs all the abuses that are thrown at her. Von Trotta and Schlondorff’s camera is sensitive to these indignities, but like Katharina, refuses to look away from the sexist bullies who try to break her.
Perhaps Von Trotta’s finest film is her fourth feature, The German Sisters (18&19 Jan), which is another extraordinary film where the personal and political intertwine. It follows two sisters in West Germany in the mid-70s, who find their lives on divergent paths. There’s Juliane (Jutta Lampe), a journalist who writes for a feminist magazine and who lives a somewhat bourgeoisie life with her architect partner (Rüdiger Vogler) in a spacious Berlin apartment. Juliane’s younger sister Marianne (Barbara Sukowa) is also dedicated to women’s rights, but she’s fighting the system in an altogether different fashion: she’s abandoned her young son and is off building bombs and trying to start a violent revolution with a group of Baader-Meinhof types.
The German Sisters (1981)
Much of the film takes the form of dialogues between the sisters once Marianne has been imprisoned and Juliane is visiting her. Marianne wants to smash the system; Juliane believes in reshaping it from within, and sees her sister and her fellow terrorists as no different from the violent fanatics of National Socialism.
What makes Von Trotta’s film so powerful is that she blends psychological insights and human emotion in with the didactic debates and conflicting political views. In flashbacks to when the two women were children, we see it was the older sister who was the rebellious one while Marianne was easily led astray. A character in the film reminds us of the famous Susan Sontag dictum that “ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and ten percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.” The flashbacks suggest Marianne is part of this 80 percent.
The German Sisters confirmed Von Trotta as a masterful director and a force within the New German Cinema. It also scooped a number of awards including the Golden Lion at the 1981 Venice Film Festival, making her the first female director to win the award. Among The German Sisters’ most ardent fans was Ingmar Bergman, who named it one of his all-time favourite films in 1994.
GFT’s retrospective also includes Von Trotta's first solo effort The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (4&5 Jan), which is based on a true story of a young mother who robbed a bank in order to raise funds for her daughter’s day-care centre, and the award-winning biopic of Rosa Luxemburg (21&22 Jan), the revolutionary Polish Jew who was killed by Germany's provisional government for her role in the Spartacus Revolt of 1919. Speaking to BFI, Von Trotta explains that she took over the latter project when the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982, aged just 37, although the producer's reasons for offering it to her were rather crass. “When he died, his producer asked me to take it on, because ‘you were Fassbinder’s friend, and Rosa Luxemburg was a woman, etc etc’. It was very strange to be told for the first time that being a woman was such an advantage.”
With the rise of right-wing groups across Europe, Von Trotta’s films are as relevant as ever. “We are all a little afraid of the new nationalism,” she told the BFI. “You can’t call it National Socialism, but there is a nationalist resurgence now. So perhaps the past that we thought was over is in fact still with us.”
CineMasters: Margarethe Von Trotta screens films recently restored by StudioCanal and distributed as part of ICO's touring season The Personal is Political – The Films of Margarethe von Trotta. For more info and GFT's season, head here. And for more on Von Trotta, head to independentcinemaoffice.org.uk/tours/margarethe-von-trotta