Revisiting History

This year marks the 100thanniversary of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg, whose remarkable story was fittingly told by director Margarethe von Trotta, the decisive female voice of the New German Cinema. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1986, Barbara Sukowa played the dedicated Marxist and pacifist, who during her lifetime was convicted and imprisoned for her political activities. In opposition to the endorsement of World War I by the German Social Democrats, she founded the Sparticist League, later the Communist Party of Germany. In conversation with ASFF, von Trotta discusses her pursuit of fantasy, her concerns over the future of the European Union, and how the cinematic audience has changed since the time of Rosa Luxemburg’s 1986 release.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
I spoke all about that in Searching for Bergman, who was a filmmaker that inspired me. I’d gone to Paris in the early 1960s and only opera was a conscious thought – I had nothing in mind with the cinema. Then some strange friends who were very enthusiastic about the Nouvelle Vague pushed me to go with them to the cinema, and the first real art film I saw was The Seventh Seal. When I saw that film, I knew immediately that I would like to do this once in my life, only it was rather a fantasy in the early sixties for a woman to think of becoming a director.

With the ambience of cinema being strong, when the New German Cinema started in 1965, I tried first to enter cinema as an actress. Then I met Volker Schlöndorff and with him I did several films as an actress, but also as a co-script writer, and then we co-directed Katharina Blum. After that I made the jump to become a director on my own with my first film called Awakening.

ASFF: When telling a story, is it essential for you to stay present in the moment of that individual experience?
When I did Rosa Luxembourg for instance, or Hannah Arendt, I had to go back into the past. I am not looking back to my own work, but I have to go back to look at the work or the life of others. I am very connected with the past in a certain way because I more or less try to describe the whole of the last century, from the beginning with Rosa Luxembourg, Hannah Arendt in 1963 with the protest of Adolf Eichmann, and then Marianne and Juliane at the time of the Baader-Meinhof Group and Gudrun Ensslin. So, I have the feeling that with my films I describe a little bit of the whole German century, but not just the German century, the century of Europe also.

Searching For Bergmanwas the first documentary I’ve done, and it was also the first film about a man because in all my other films, the protagonist is mainly female. Also, the next film I have the idea to make is about a very famous German female psychoanalyst from the 50s, and so I am permanently confronted by the past in that way.

ASFF: The themes of your films – of terrorism and media sensationalism – are relevant concerns within our contemporary society. Could you expand on this?
In Germany now, we have this feeling of going back to the time before Hitler came to power. It’s a fear that we could go backwards, in a totally opposite direction politically. We know enough about this time even without having lived it, and now it is everywhere in Europe. We were so glad when Europe was united for the first time after the Second World War that we thought now we are rid of all our troubles, and all of our hate. But all of a sudden so many want to end it. Your country wants to leave and there’s an impulse everywhere, and in Germany it is very controversial now too. It’s a new period of very heavy opposites and hate, and techniques that when you have an idea, even a bad idea, you are able to immediately put it out there on Facebook, and that creates an atmosphere that I’m fearful of.

ASFF: The re-release of Rosa Luxembourg offers a new generation the opportunity to discover this film. To your mind, has the audience changed from the time of its initial release to now?
MVT: The young audience are not going to the cinema anymore; they are watching films on tablets or cell phones. When we went to the cinema or when we discovered cinema, it had to do with going into the dark. The moment before the film started and it went dark was like you were in a dream, and when the film started, it was like a dream had started. So you were always connected with your own subconscious. It was this connection between the film image and your own image that you have in your mind, or in your life, your body or soul. To me that is an essential connection to cinema and people are not going to the cinema anymore, and so they’re not awaiting this moment when it starts, which is a very important one. I see spectators now on the airplane or on the metro, and wherever people are going they are able to watch films on their telephones or on their tablets. Seeing a film is not this wonderful moment of entering into yourself.

ASFF: Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, or even for the experience of an audience in watching a film?
Yes sometimes, and with several films. I made Marianne and Juliane in 1981 and I still meet people who say that the film has stayed with them all this time, that it was a moment of transformation in their life. So was The Seventh Seal for me, and so yes it could be, but perhaps it’s not so with every film.

Rosa Luxemburgis released for the first time in the UK on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download as part of Studio Canal’s Vintage Classics library.

Paul Risker

1. All images from Rosa Luxemburg.