Margarethe von Trotta

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Touching base in a different sense is how Margarethe von Trotta, perhaps Germany's most successful woman director and not part of the Basis Film Verleih, entered filmmaking. She started as an actress - for Fassbinder, among others -then became a screenwriter, working on the films of Volker Schlondorff. Together they directed The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), but by 1977, she had achieved a breakthrough as a solo writer-director of The Second Awakening of Christa Klages. The story of a nursery teacher and her two male companions who rob a bank, in order to raise enough money to keep their daycare center going, it is based on a fait divers and has echoes of the early days of the "Baader-Meinhof Group".

Feminist thriller, social issues film, Euro-pudding, lesbian romance, and docu-drama about post-'68 Germany, Christa Klages was immensely successful. Coming after Katherina Blum, and made in the same year as Germany in Autumn, Von Trotta's film formed part of the broad sweep that led the German cinema directly into political issues, at a time when public discussion about the Red Army Fraction, the assassination of Schleyer, the hijack and Special Commando rescue of hostages at Mogadishu airport, and the suicides in the Stammheim security prison had polarized the country into dangerously dogmatic either/or positions.

All the major motifs of Von Trotta's later films are already present in Christa Klages: violence for a good cause, female friendships, isolation and suicide, mothers and daughters. Von Trotta is a feminist, but as she once said, she "cannot imagine making a film that does not have a direct bearing on our situation in Germany." This also means that she has always aimed at the largest possible public, not shunning formula plots, emotional manipulation, and sentimentality. The German Sisters (1981), her best-known film abroad, was accused of sensationalism in Germany. As the barely fictionalized story of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the members of the "Baader-Meinhof Group", told from the perspective of her sister, a journalist working for a feminist magazine, the film borrows the investigative plot of the thriller, works with conventional suspense techniques and positive identification figures. In Hollywood or France, this aesthetics of the mainstream would make Von Trotta a commercial director working within the established film industry. But since in Germany such an industry had not existed for the last thirty years, she is in fact an "independent."

In her stories, social or political conflicts are personalized, and the narrative is charged with resolving them, at least metaphorically, by providing the necessary elements of closure. Binary oppositions, symmetrical situations, repetitions and visual parallels are structural features much in evidence. In Christa Klages, the daycare center cannot survive because the landlord wants to open a sex shop; Lena, the bank teller, is both a double of Christa's school friend Ingrid and, in another context, symmetrically related to Christa's own young daughter. In Sisters or the Balance of Happiness, the heroine Maria has a double in the severe matron presiding over the typing pool, and Maria and Anna are echoed in the blind old woman, always shouting at her sister. Miriam is interested in Maurice who gets Maria, and Robert is interested in Maria but gets Miriam. In The German Sisters, Marianne the terrorist has presumably thrown bombs that have wounded innocent people; her innocent small son becomes the victim of a hideous arson attack when someone finds out who his mother is. Juliane works for a feminist magazine, but the editorial meetings are distinctly authoritarian, and so on.

On the other hand, the form connects to the themes: all of Von Trotta's films are about role reversals, mutually sustaining projections and dependencies intertwined like daisy chains. They are about sisters - blood sisters (Sisters, The German Sisters), or female bonding (Christa Klages, Friends and Husbands, 1983). In each case, an identification across difference is the base line of the story, with a third woman (or a child) acting as the catalyst or mediator. In Sisters, where the paradigm appears in its purest form, Maria finally accepts the Anna within herself, ending the process of repression and disavowal that effectively killed her sister. Despite its historical basis, The German Sisters follows this pattern very closely. Here, too, Juliane ends up "becoming" the dead Marianne, finding her way back to her own rebellious youth, while making a more positive commitment to life than her sister, by raising Marianne's child. In neither film do the men have any significant role, and if they help to bring the issues into the open, they are dropped as soon as the conflict proper gets under way. The distinctive feature of both films is the return to the past, in the form of flashbacks to the sisters as small girls, and through visits that bring into play the looming presence of mothers and absent (dead, denying) fathers.

What distinguishes Von Trotta's films from those of other German filmmakers is that her social ethos has its roots in the German Lutheran Church, over the centuries perhaps the most durable home of bourgeois humanism and liberalism, with its own tradition of political nonconformism, social work, education, child care and, more recently, a principled anti-fascism and anti-nuclear militancy. This is the moral and ideological milieu in which her observations are uncannily apt and her stance most consistently intelligent and generous. The conflict is between a sense of impersonal duty towards a common good and the almost inhuman isolation it entails. In Sisters, Maria's solitude becomes a temptation to use moral righteousness as a weapon in an essentially psychological struggle. And in The German Sisters, the elitism of unmediated spiritual suffering that makes Protestantism so strong is also what emotionally explains -even if it does not justify - the radicalism with which terrorist violence and direct action rupture the social contract. This rich tissue of moral and historical complications and nuances is what Von Trotta catches in her images, the brusque or rapid gestures of the women, their energy that can take cold and brutal forms or suffuse the films with a particular emotional flow. These are qualities of the mise-en-scène, more interesting than the linearity or diagrammatic neatness of her narratives.

Personalizing conflict as Von Trotta always does, might be seen as a reduction of the political to psychological categories, but her strength may still be in finding the psychological in the political, and the political in the personal. If political terrorism is ostensibly about macro-politics - imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy - Von Trotta's strategy is to transform these themes into micro-politics (daycare center, a rural commune, giving a child a home). This is both a feminist position and a sound audience strategy for a popular filmmaker. But it also plays safe because Von Trotta always scales down the issues she takes on in her films. A bank robbery for a daycare center rather than for an arms deal or for forged papers: Christa Klages is about a little bit of terrorism and for an unambiguously good cause. Through an attention to detail, a density of visual texture and mood, her films locate a certain truth about her characters, building up the emotional resonance, irresistible and corny at the same time. She succeeds supremely well in making comprehensible a chain of motivations and situations that "leads" an individual to extreme acts: but in the process she makes the radically other into the familiar, the extreme into the logical, by balancing everything out with symmetries and parallels - rather than, as do the other feminist filmmakers discussed, insisting on the otherness of a person or a motive, and deriving emotional force from obliging the spectator to acknowledge difference, without providing the categories or emotions that translate difference into recognition and "making sense."

Yet empathy is precisely the thematic center of her films, and hence something that remains contradictory and problematic for her. One of the catchwords of the 1970s was Sympathisanten; sympathisers. From the point of view of the government and the police, it designated all those who overtly - in the form of demonstrations, writings, and speeches - expressed sympathy or agreement with "terrorists or extremists," and thus anyone who had a word of explanation or reflection to offer on the emergence of this type of radical militancy and desperate violence. For having written the story of Katharina Blum, for instance, novelist Heinrich Boll found himself called a terrorist sympathizer by the Springer press. Such a strategy of isolation, exclusion, and expulsion towards those who dissent or merely think differently imposes on the writer or filmmaker a quite distinct task - to create the possibility of understanding through sympathy, not at least by dramatizing the psychological mechanisms of disavowal, projection, and identification. Von Trotta's cinema - "classical" and conformist as it may seem when viewed formally - has, in its intense preoccupation with identity, doubling, splitting, and the transference between self and other, a political dimension both within and outside her feminist positions. In the context of a tradition of liberal humanism that in Germany as elsewhere in the 1980s seemed threatened by authoritarian conservatism, she not only reclaimed herself from the mirror projections of erstwhile fans. She also made films mirroring a Germany that is still in search of its image.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum


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