One of the major figures of the New German Cinema movement in the 1970s, Margarethe von Trotta (b. 1942) has taken part in acting, screenwriting, directing, assistant directing and art direction since the mid-1960s. She collaborated with noteworthy contemporaries like Volker Schlöndorff (to whom she was married from 1971 to 1991) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, including having acting roles in Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague (1970), The American Soldier (1970) and Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), a starring role in Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grâce (1976) and, bringing all three together, co-starring with Fassbinder in the Schlöndorff-directed TV movie of the Bertolt Brecht play Baal (1970). From her earliest directorial efforts in the 1970s, like The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) and Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness (1979), to more recent films like the Holocaust drama Rosenstrasse (2003) and the 11th/12th-century-set Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (2009), her films show a fascination with German history as well as a commitment to telling stories of women from different social strata and political leanings. Now in her seventies, von Trotta continues to work, her new film Die abhandene Welt scheduled to be released in Germany sometime in 2015.
Marianne and Juliane (1981) – Von Trotta established herself as a major player in international cinema with this drama, which made her the first female filmmaker to win a Golden Lion, the top award that a film can receive at the Venice Film Festival. (Only three other women have won the same award in the thirty-plus years since then: Agnès Varda, Mira Nair and Sofia Coppola.) Von Trotta also won five other prizes at Venice for the film, as well as honors from various festivals in Germany, Italy, Spain and even Chicago. Marianne and Juliane stars Barbara Sukowa and Jutta Lampe in the title roles as sisters who take divergent paths in efforts to enact social change (including abortion rights) in late-1960s Germany. Von Trotta wrote the script herself and worked with many other women behind the scenes, including film editor Dagmar Hirtz, production designer Barbara Kloth, costume designer Monika Hasse, assistant director Helenka Hummel and script supervisor Margit Czenki.
Rosa Luxemburg (1986) – The famous Polish-Jewish political activist and revolutionary who co-founded the Communist Party of Germany in 1918 is portrayed here by Barbara Sukowa, who has worked with Von Trotta many times over the past few decades. For her performance as Luxemburg, Sukowa won the “Best Actress” awards from the German Film Awards and the Cannes Film Festival; the film was also nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or. Again Von Trotta wrote the screenplay herself and collaborated with editor Dagmar Hirtz, costume designer Monika Hasse (who passed away in 1985 – the film is dedicated to her) and four women as assistant directors (Margit Czenki, Eva Ebner, Helenka Hummel and Eva Kadankova). The film also stars Otto Sander (one of the two angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire a year later) as Karl Liebknecht, the co-founder of Luxemburg’s Communist group, as well as the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski as the Marxist rebel Leo Jogiches. Another interesting bit of casting: Luxemburg’s mother is played by the Polish actress Barbara Lass, who had been married to Roman Polanski (1959-1962) and actor Karlheinz Böhm (1963-1980).
The Promise (1995) – A romantic drama that spans from the first days of the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s to the post-Wall era of rebirth in the 1990s, The Promise was Germany’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. (It did not receive a nomination.) Moreover, for her direction Margarethe von Trotta earned a Bavarian Film Award and the film as a whole won the “Gold” award from the Guild of German Art House Cinemas (I’m guessing that’s the equivalent of the US’s Independent Spirit Awards). A number of up-and-coming young actors, some of whom had never made a movie before, were cast in roles for the early-60s section of the film, but one of the actresses who was cast for the later sections of the film is Eva Mattes, who had established her career in the 70s and 80s by working with Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and one of von Trotta’s female peers, Helma Sanders-Brahms. Otto Sander appears too, playing a professor. I would also like to point out the film’s editor, Suzanne Baron, who edited my favorite Jacques Tati film, Mon Oncle (1958), as well as over a dozen works by Louis Malle and a couple of films by Schlöndorff and Herzog.
Hannah Arendt (2012) – Edited by Bettina Böhler and photographed by one of filmdom’s few really notable female cinematographers, Caroline Champetier, von Trotta’s most recent theatrical release stars her frequent muse Barbara Sukowa (who, incidentally, lives in Brooklyn now) as controversial German-Jewish political theorist Arendt. English actress Janet McTeer co-stars as writer Mary McCarthy, who was friends with Arendt. The film’s appeal was wide-ranging, picking up honors at festivals and awards ceremonies in Germany, Austria, Romania, Estonia, Japan and the US. I also recall that when the film played at Manhattan’s Film Forum last year (spring 2013), there were Q&As with von Trotta, Sukowa, McTeer and screenwriter Pam Katz (who wrote the script with von Trotta).