Margarethe von Trotta: “Becoming a director was always the real goal”

With her new Ingmar Bergman documentary on the festival circuit and a touring retrospective in the UK, the renowned German filmmaker sat down with us to discuss four key films from her career.

Erica Carter

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Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta

The interview begins with a demonstration of what I am fast coming to know as Margarethe von Trotta’s characteristic generosity. London traffic has made me late and flustered; von Trotta settles me down and commiserates on my persistent cough. I am instantly charmed by a director whose work I have admired over a filmmaking career spanning five decades.

Von Trotta came to filmmaking in the late 1960s, working initially as an actor and occasional screenwriter with New German cineastes including her former husband Volker Schlöndorff, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Reinhard Hauff. Since moving into her own directing career in 1975, von Trotta has made over 20 films, mainly narrative features, many biographical or historical dramas, though she has also directed political thrillers, TV crime dramas, family melodramas and essay films.

Most celebrated in the Anglophone countries for political biopics including Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Hannah Arendt (2013), von Trotta has recently attracted attention for Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018), a feature-length film essay co-directed with her historian-filmmaker son Felix Moeller. In the wake of the Bergman film (which Screen Daily called “essential viewing for cinephiles”), 2018 also sees a welcome revival of von Trotta’s earlier films. Currently touring the UK under the auspices of the Independent Cinema Office are four digitally restored titles from von Trotta’s 1970s and 80s oeuvre: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975, co-directed with Schlöndorff); The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), The German Sisters (1981) and Rosa Luxemburg. Launched in October 2018 under the rubric The Personal is Political, the films remind UK audiences of von Trotta’s continuing significance as a director for whom filmmaking is always also an act of political communication, both with her audience, and with her filmmaking peers.

The topics von Trotta selects already show her fearlessness in engaging contentious political issues. Katharina Blum explores the counterterrorist tactics of the post-war West German state, including their controversial treatment of prisoners in Stammheim high-security prison. The film is also unrelenting in its critique of the 1970s right-wing version of ‘fake news’. Its ire focuses centrally on the populist Bildzeitung, and the smear tactics which its journalists pursue against imagined sympathisers with the terrorist cause.

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978)

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978)

A further preoccupation for von Trotta is female violence, addressed in all four films, but most centrally in The German Sisters, which explores two strands of revolutionary thinking, the feminist and the terrorist, through a fictionalised portrait of two German sisters, the journalist Christina Ensslin and her Red Army faction sibling Gudrun.

Von Trotta is equally significant for the filmmaking practice she models in her work. Confounding critics who chastise her for an embrace of apparently well-worn genres and forms, the four ICO titles reveal a director whose films perpetually shift register, moving easily from the observational to the lyrical to the expository to the suspenseful, using fluid camera, measured rhythm and muted colour palette to strip the mise-en-scène of glamour, fostering a mode of concentrated looking that invites reflection, and indeed action, in response to the profoundly socially embedded individual stories her films narrate.

In interview, von Trotta reveals this social engagement as the product of a dialogic filmmaking mode in which she becomes the interlocutor of key contemporary cultural and political figures, from the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, through feminist filmmaking contemporaries Helke Sander, Ula Stöckl, Claudia von Alemann and Jutta Brückner, to a whole generation of actors whose socially embedded mode of verisimilar realism shaped postwar (West) German filmmaking, including Angela Winkler and Mario Adorf (Katharina Blum), Tina Engel and Katharina Thalbach (Christa Klages), Jutta Lampe and Rüdiger Vogler (The German Sisters), or her persistent female muse, Barbara Sukowa (The German Sisters, Rosa Luxemburg).

Von Trotta is also generous in her dealings with rising generations, working since 2002 as a professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and encouraging in her students the same professional compassion for actors and crew for which she herself is widely known. I left the interview beguiled by her warmth and good humour, but also marvelling at the political energy that continues to animate her filmmaking, even in our current 21st century version of the “leaden times” (the German title of The German Sisters) that are the subject of her early work.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

Let’s start with Katharina Blum. The film dates from 1975, and the German broadsheet Frankfurter Rundschau called it at the time an “event chronicle” of its political moment. But it’s also a thriller, and a literary adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel of the same name. What first prompted you to make the film?

We were already halfway through developing a script from the book Böll wrote before Katharina Blum, Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with a Lady, 1977). He’d agreed to an adaptation, but when the project collapsed he sent us the proofs of this new novel and said, “Have a look. I think you might like this.”

Because of course he knew we were right up there with him on the front line, mounting whatever resistance we could muster to the government of the time and their treatment of so-called terrorist prisoners. Not that we supported the terrorists – but we opposed the treatment they were getting, including a very particular form of solitary confinement in jail. We were enthusiastic and wanted to develop a script; in fact we started work even before the novel was published.

This was also your first experience of directing. Was it the topic that motivated you to make the move on from an acting career, or did you just want to be more in the driving seat?

I’d wanted to direct for some time, but it wasn’t easy for women back then. Volker knew that, so he gave me the chance to be on set.

That gave me visibility, at least until we got the poster stage. Then all of a sudden I wasn’t going to be named, because my gentlemen colleagues thought that having a named woman director might be counterproductive. There was no malicious intent; they just thought audiences would be turned off by the notion of a female co-director.

In those days it was unusual for actors to move into directing. The women who’ve made that transition more recently – Maria Schrader comes to mind – have often carried on acting. But when I made Christa Klages, that was the end point for me. I stopped acting the moment I became a director: that was always the real goal.

Your reviewers often comment nonetheless on your relationship with your actors; they talk about the very nuanced sense you have of an actor’s work. Is this something you took with you from your own experience of film acting?

I do think it comes from my own acting experience. I recently made a film about Ingmar Bergman, and he also said you need to create a safe haven around your actors, because they’re vulnerable.

I’ve felt that myself as an actor, but it’s something many directors don’t grasp. These days, I tell my students they need at least once in their lives to have stood in front of a camera, so they understand how vulnerable and exposed it feels. You have to love your actors, you have to convince them you trust them and that they can push themselves further than they might otherwise dare, because you’re there to bring them back.

Barbara Sukowa always says, “I’d perform the telephone directory if you asked me to: I completely trust you, so I know I can take all kinds of risks, because you’ll rein me in if it gets too much.” Angela Winkler felt that too; she said she might not have got through Katharina Blum without me, as did Mario Adorf, who told me recently that without me the actors wouldn’t have delivered the performances they gave in the film.

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages

So how does that relate to Christa Klages? It’s a film with a completely different, more ironic tone and atmosphere from Katharina Blum, and it deals with a topic that’s relatively unfamiliar to British audiences, the ‘kids’ store movement’ (Kinderladenbewegung), which was part of a feminist campaign for collective childcare.

The Kinderladen theme was certainly topical. But the film is actually based on a real woman, Margit Czenki, who robbed a bank, and was written up in the press, especially the Bildzeitung, as a major criminal. When I looked into her case, I realised she’d done it to raise money for her creche. So she did it to help children; she actually wasn’t some common-or-garden crook.

In fact she was so terrific I gave her a role in the film. She plays the blonde nursery worker. She’d just been released from prison, so I cast her…

And this at a time when women filmmakers were already involved in the Kinderladen movement, not least your colleague Helke Sander, who was especially active. In fact both you and Sander belonged to a women’s film movement in West Germany that was making waves internationally, including towards the end of the 1970s when the Association of Women Filmmakers was formed as a lobby group.

Yes of course, I was one of the Association founders, together with Helke Sander and Ula Stöckl, Claudia von Alemann, Jutta Brückner and many others. That was towards the end of the 70s, and it was also the year the Berlin Film Festival Forum ran The Second Awakening alongside Helke Sander’s REDUPERS. Both films were much praised, and suddenly the mood music was different: “Look, there are women, and they can make films.”

So The Second Awakening became for me a version of what the title suggests. The first awakening, as it were, is birth, and the second is the moment when you know who you are and what you want to do with your life. Even if the moment passes, which it did: at one point everyone was saying, “these are women filmmakers, and we want to support them,” but the backlash came pretty quickly: it was all forgotten by the early 80s.

The German Sisters (1981)

The German Sisters (1981)

But despite that you went on to make a very courageous film: The German Sisters, which is based on Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin, and takes you back to questions of terrorism in West Germany and the conditions Ensslin endured in prison. What prompted a return to that issue?

It was at the time of Germany in Autumn (1978), the omnibus film that was partly filmed at the funeral of the Stammheim prisoners. I was working on Christa Klages, so I didn’t contribute to the film, but I did go to the funeral and ended up spending two days talking to Christiane [Ensslin]. She knew I’d made Katharina Blum, so I was someone she could confide in because I clearly wasn’t a woman of the extreme right!

At first I just listened, but after six months or so I realised that this was an issue I could use to be provocative by presenting Germany with two opposing views of so-called revolution: the extreme view that leads to terrorism because it has no patience for what we used to call the “long march through the institutions”, and the other perspective, which sees violence as a crime.

Of course I also identified with Christiane, not least because both she and Gudrun belonged more or less to my generation. So I’m showing my own experience to some extent. That’s why I don’t use original names in the film. It made me freer to show the 1950s as I had experienced them. The German title is Leaden Times, which is a quote from a Hölderlin poem, Walk in the Country. And ‘leaden times’ was exactly how I experienced the 1950s.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

And yet after The German Sisters you moved back further in time, to the early 20th century and Rosa Luxemburg. What prompted that historical move?

Rosa Luxemburg was actually a film that Fassbinder had wanted to make; it was his last project. 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.

Then somehow the notion of the film stuck. Making The German Sisters had already raised questions for me about the source of all this German violence. I’d begun to wonder where it came from: actual violence, not just some violent propensity. I’d come to see it as starting with the death of [Karl] Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, then continuing, at first underground, but then more openly, with National Socialism. And of course Rosa Luxemburg was not only on the left; she was also Jewish, and a Polish foreigner. There were so many reasons for this woman to have to be murdered and done away with.

There’s a fairy-tale element to her story; the ending has three components, just like in fairy stories, where everything has to happen three times before it’s really over – so she’s first struck on the head, then she’s shot, then she’s thrown into the Landwehr canal. So it really did take three attempts not just to kill her, but to make absolutely sure that this woman would never return. And this for me was the beginning of a German history that then continued with National Socialism.

The restoration of Rosa Luxemburg and other titles has now made it possible for us to follow that story again. Why is it important from your perspective for these films and the political histories they bring with them to be revisited now?

I see many of the questions they raise as relevant precisely in today’s Germany. The issue is whether the past is really over, or whether something is resurfacing that we all thought had been put to bed, but that was somehow still present under the surface. We are all a little afraid of the new nationalism; 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.

Translated by Erica Carter, in collaboration with Hannah Vinter.


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