Margarethe von Trotta is one of the leading German filmmakers working today and was one of the major figures in the New German Cinema movement. She started working in cinema as an actress in films directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and by her ex-husband Volker Schlöndorff. She began writing and directing in collaboration with Schlöndorff and together they made such films as The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975). Her first solo film was The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978). She went on to create an unintentional trilogy of films about the relationship between sisters: Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness (1979); Marianne and Juliane (1981); and, Three Sisters (1988). Von Trotta has also made a number of historically themed films, including Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Rosenstrasse (2003), and Vision (2009), about the life of Hildegard von Bingen.
Von Trotta’s most recent film is Hannah Arendt. The film deals with the life of the famed German-Jewish émigré intellectual as she covers the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker and writes her book on the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The film also touches on Arendt’s relationship with her mentor, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, through flashbacks. Barbara Sukowa, who has appeared in many of von Trotta’s films, plays Arendt.
Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker (Rail): You made a film about Rosa Luxemburg in 1986. She was a very different kind of person and intellectual from Hannah Arendt, the subject of your current film. Were there similarities in the way you approached these two very different women?
Margarethe Von Trotta: In the first place, Rosa was more sympathetic to me because she was much more emotional. She showed compassion for people who suffered. It comes through in her letters. I could become friends with her and admire her much more easily than I could Hannah Arendt. Arendt was very strict in her thoughts, but I started to feel closer to her and friendlier with her by reading her letters. I read her correspondences with Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Mary McCarthy, and with her husband. Reading Arendt’s letters helped me. You need this other facet in order to describe a person as a character. You cannot base it on their intellectual work alone. I couldn’t look only at Luxemburg’s speeches or writings on Marxism. I had to have something more, which I got from her letters. It was the same with Arendt. With every correspondence you have another nuance of your character comes out. So, from the letters together with the intellectual work and articles, a person emerges.
Rail: You are one of the few filmmakers to make films about the lives of historical philosophers and intellectuals. The only other filmmaker who comes to mind in this respect is Roberto Rossellini. Why are you so interested in making films about the lives of intellectuals?
Von Trotta: I always say that I’m the eternal student. I would like to learn more and more. I’m attracted to studying these people so that I can learn more than I knew before. I studied for years before I made Rosa or Rosenstrasse.I read everything about German history, Jewish history, and Nazism. I enter into a small point in world history and I grow in the process. I feel like I am entering a circle. I like that. Ultimately, I make a film out of the story and I have to edit it. Still, the first project for me is to know and to understand. One of Hannah Arendt’s major quotes is “I want to understand.” Even when I made Marianne and Juliane, my main concern was to understand.
Rail: You are frequently labeled a feminist filmmaker. Do you see yourself as a feminist filmmaker?
Von Trotta: I was a feminist before I knew what feminism was. That was just my personality. It was part of my “being in the world.” You might call it part of my human condition, as Hannah Arendt would say. When I was introduced to feminist theory, I said, “Oh yes. That’s me. I’m with them. I’m fighting with them.” But I was against being put in a ghetto because so many great feminists were ghettoized. If you were seen as “only a feminist” or “only a feminist filmmaker” that meant you and your work were not so important. It meant, “They’re just women and they’re making films, but you do not have to pay attention to them.” I was against being labeled that way. So, in response, I would say, “I am not a feminist.” But when you are aware of women’s condition in the world, you cannot just forget it. It stays with you even if you don’t label yourself a “feminist.” Once you have a certain perspective on life and are aware of what is going on in the world, you cannot help but see the advantages and disadvantages that women have.
Rail: Many of your early films deal directly or indirectly with the political climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s. What do you think of the way that period, particularly in German history, has been portrayed in more recent films, like The Baader Meinhof Complex?
Von Trotta: I hate it. They are using that period to make action films. There is so much more to that history. You have to go deeper to understand what happened. It was not just about terrorists or people trying to make trouble. The roots are elsewhere. I’m interested in the roots and not only the consequences or effects. In this way, I am much more a philosopher than a filmmaker.
Rail: It has become more and more difficult to make films that deal with social and political issues, but you are successfully continuing to do so.
Von Trotta: I think I’m a dinosaur. I’m a survivor of another time in filmmaking. I don’t think I have to make such films because it’s my task to speak about social problems. I make films about what I’m interested in. Unless I change totally, I will go on doing so as long as you give me the money for it. It is much more difficult now. That is for sure. But take Hannah Arendt for example. Nobody wanted to make it. In the end, we made it and it has had success in Germany and in France. All of a sudden, you realize that there are people who are interested in the same things you are interested in.
I never saw film as a way to promote a message. I saw film as an expression of yourself and what is in the world. It is just like writing or painting. It is a way of looking into the world. Sometimes you also give a message, but you don’t make films to give a message. When you have a message, you have to write tracts that you hand out in the street. The first film I saw that made me want to become a filmmaker was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. When I saw that film, I thought, “That has everything! There are your fears. There are your positive and negative thoughts. There is your imagination, your mysteries, your religion. Everything!” That film made me realize that with filmmaking I could express myself in a very universal way.
Rail: Why did you decide to make a film about Arendt?
Von Trotta: She was someone who looked at the world around her. Before 1933, she was a pure philosopher. She was changed by what happened to her because she was a Jew and because she had to flee Germany. She was confronted with all of these terrible things going on in the world. She was also very disappointed by the fact that so many former friends of hers supported Hitler. She said in a famous interview that it was not surprising to her that Hitler had a following. The real shock was that so many of her intellectual friends found something positive in Hitler. That was the real disappointment. She was thrown into history.
Initially, my generation was not interested in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. As leftists, we could not stand that she compared Nazism and Communism as forms of totalitarianism. It was only after the Wall came down that we realized that she was right. One of my favorite quotes by Arendt is “thinking without a bannister:” thinking without anything to hold on to. There’s still value in that, in wanting to understand and not judge.
Rail: World War II was such a rupture in the development of German culture. How did the filmmakers of your generation deal with the way in which the War disrupted the development of German filmmaking?
Von Trotta: It was not only the War, but also the whole period of Nazism. All of a sudden there was a new form of filmmaking. First there was Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, and all these wonderful directors in Germany. All of a sudden, the Nazis brought new content and a new style of filmmaking. Filmmaking became propaganda, but without always being obvious propaganda. They made films very cleverly. After the War, there was nothing very memorable in German cinema. Some of the films were good. They were not all crap. When the German New Wave filmmakers started making films, they saw themselves as the inheritors of the first generation of German filmmakers. We wanted to forget the Nazi films and the films of the ’50s. We wanted to take up the mantle of the filmmakers of the ’20s. I love those filmmakers very much, but I cannot compare myself to those filmmakers. They are so wonderful. They were such masters. They created the language of film. They came out of the silent era and knew how to speak with images alone. My generation could never compete with that era in filmmaking. That was the great era of filmmaking.
Rail: What is your next project?
Von Trotta: I have made several films about sisters and now I am going to tell another story about sisters. I looked into history, but now I am going back to making a film about sisters. Everyone asks, “Who is going to be your next strong woman subject?” No! I’m not a filmmaker who only makes films about strong women.