To get to Margarethe von Trotta’s apartment in Paris, you need to find your way to Boulevard de Clichy, then skip the tourist throngs around Pigalle by turning south to the quiet streets of the 9th arondissement. The street number she gave me over the phone the day before turned out to be wrong—or, more likely, I wrote it down incorrectly while holding up the line at the reception desk of the drab Montmartre hostel I was staying in. “Who are you looking for?” asked the concierge who emerged at the wooden gate of the building. “Oh, she’s next door.” Are you sure? “Madame, I should know. I live here.” At the next gate the code finally works, and I go through the courtyard and find the building. Von Trotta opens the door herself and takes my coat. She is not alone. “Meet my other son,” she says of a tall, affable man who comes out of the office (in fact her biographer and long-time collaborator, she later explains). He offers to bring us tea, then leaves us alone. We will only occasionally hear the sound of his typing in the other room.
It has been a hectic year for the director. Hannah Arendt, her latest film, is opening around the world, so she finds herself only rarely at home. The film is the latest addition to her forty-five-year-long cinematic career which began when she was an actress in what would later be known as the German New Wave, including starring in many films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and her former husband, Volker Schlöndorff. Her first directorial credit was a collaboration with Schlöndorff, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), a film about an ideological witch hunt carried out by the right-wing tabloids. Her first independently written and directed feature was the The Second Awakening of Christina Klages (1978), with a very political yet goofy heroine at its center, who resorts to law-breaking in order to save her own modest piece of utopia. With films like Sisters, Or the Balance of Happiness (1979), Marianne and Juliane (1981), Sheer Madness (1983), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), and Vision (2009), she established a unique and recognizable style which involves a philosophy of filmmaking that is women-centered, politically conscious, and curious about other arts and historiography.
I have been watching her films since my late teens and if there is one thing that attracts me the most, it’s the air of freedom they have—they’re films in which women breathe. Perhaps von Trotta’s films offer a glimpse of a post-patriarchal cinema.
Just over seventy, she is deeply beautiful. I resist the urge to ask her about her hair, which is as spectacular now as it was in her role in Coup de Grâce—and instead I begin with Hannah Arendt, which opens in the US on May 29.
THE BELIEVER: I loved how you zoomed in on Arendt’s unwillingness to be the spokesperson for a collective. She wouldn’t do ethnicity, and she wouldn’t do nationalism. It was the toughest thing to refuse when she was covering the Eichmann trial. So you follow this incredible case of personal integrity… When you and co-writer Pam Katz amassed all the material, how did you decide to follow this particular thread—an individual being ostracized?
MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: In the beginning we thought we’d do a biopic. We would have started with her entering Heidegger’s seminar when she was eighteen and then go through her life. We’d have Heidegger more present than he is now—in the film he only appears in two flashbacks. But then we realized it would not work at all, we would have to jump from one episode to another and there’s a lot to tell. In 1933 she had to leave Germany for Prague, then went from Prague to Paris; when the Germans invaded France, they were treated like Nazis and put into an internment camp; then she fled from there to Marseille, from Marseille to Lisbon. In Lisbon, she was lucky to get a US visa for her and her husband. One love was Heidegger; then she had her first husband, whom she didn’t really love; they divorced in Paris, after which she met her second husband and so on… then finally came to America and stayed there. That would have been two hours already without going into her philosophical work at all.
We decided to take one period of her life and be there, precise and profound. And this episode with the Eichmann trial offered itself. It was probably the greatest controversy of her life. For me as a German filmmaker, this confrontation with our past was the most important moment. Through this event, you could really demonstrate her way of thinking and her way of being independent. She would not be put into an ideology or a philosophical school of thought. She was still very linked to Heidegger in her thinking, and to Kant and Plato, but she was forging her own philosophical path. There’s one phrase I like most in her writing: thinking without a banister. That is the film, summarized: think on your own.
BLVR: A lot of your films center on women who are very international and refuse the idea of a homeland. Am I right to assume it’s because you yourself are like that? A German filmmaker who chooses to live in Paris, and films in different countries…
MVT: I also lived in Rome for ten years. Perhaps that comes from my mother… She was born in Moscow, but was stateless. Her family lived under the Russian czars and when the Revolution happened and Communists took over, they had to leave because they were nobles. For me the “von” in von Trotta is just a name, but it was an aristocratic title then. They became poor and passport-less very quickly. My mother was stateless her entire life. When I was born, I received the stateless passport too. I became German only with my first marriage. So I know what it is to be stateless and to be a stranger in your surroundings. Even though I was born in Berlin, I was a stranger there.
This was all very boring because for every voyage I needed a visa—when I was eighteen, I came here to France from Düsseldorf to study and had to take the transition visa to cross Belgium and then get a visa for France. Visas were always expensive and I was an impoverished student. Once I had no money for the transition visa traveling from Paris to Düsseldorf and only had some change for the city tram ticket to get from the Düsseldorf train station to my mother’s place… and there was a very severe employee of the railway at the Belgian crossing who got me out of the train—“You have no transition visa, so out!” Middle of the night, dark border crossing station, there was nothing around… I had to wait until the morning there, then hitch-hike back to Paris.
BLVR: This was in the early sixties?
MVT: Yes. And the border guard went on and on about “You damn Germans, Nazis, what you did in the War…” But you see, I tried telling him, you are throwing me out because I am not German and have no German papers. He wouldn’t hear it.
But to go back to Hannah Arendt, she herself was stateless for a long time. We have her say this in the film too. I can understand how she felt being in America without speaking the language at the beginning. I wanted to put the two languages in the film: when they speak German among the German intellectuals, they’d get into these rowdy debates, and when she speaks in English, she sounds very different, and has a strong German accent. They all had impossibly strong accents back then. When you hear Thomas Mann speak English—he also was an émigré in America—he sounds terrible. They all came there from Europe having learned Greek and Latin and French because they often travelled to France or lived there part of the year, but never had any reason to study English. So they had to learn it very quickly as adults. Arendt, when she moved to the US, worked as au pair in order to learn English. Her husband refused to speak the language. As the war went on, they realized they were there to stay.
BLVR: It’s never stated in as many words by anybody in the film, but it is clear in that Arendt was pretty much the only woman in the company of political thinkers that she held.
MVT: Already when she was a student of Heidegger, there were very few women studying philosophy. She was one of two or three in his class.
BLVR: The fact of her unusual gender stands out in a couple of silent shots. There is a scene in which a gathering ends, people are leaving the room, and we see the cleaners—all women—coming in. Arendt, and the cleaners, are the only women to be seen. And in the final scene when you have her descend the stairs of a lecture hall. The place is packed, and completely silent, with the only sound heard the tick-tock-tick-tock of her high heels coming down.
MVT: Yes, the skirt suits were the order of the day, you had to be correct. And she was correct by choice, she didn’t like women wearing trousers. In this area, she was conservative. But that scene in the lecture hall… she is coming down into the arena. It is a coliseum that she is thrown into, and aggression awaits down below.
BLVR: OK, but your film actually makes theory and intellectual debate very sexy.
MVT: Entertaining too, I hope. Mary McCarthy’s wit also helps. They’re often together in the film.
II. BETWEEN WOMEN
BLVR: Speaking of women conversing, have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? You’ve been practicing it for decades before it was actually named.
MVT: I have?
BLVR: To pass, a film has to have at least two women, these two need to have some sort of conversation at some point, and that conversation needs to be about something other than a man. Most films fail.
MVT: I like it! And let’s add, they can’t be talking about babies and cooking and such.
BLVR: Your films have been showing us that when you put two women together in a sustained conversation or action that is not revolving around some guy, something happens.
MVT: Yes. And I’ve noticed that men still get unhappy about this… women talking about something other than men, or love, or babies.
BLVR: But you also show some of the darker sides of closeness between two women. In Sisters, for example.
MVT: Sisters was also a way to show the two sides of myself—they are so different, and so far from each other, the one who is doing and fighting, and the other who is so sensitive and so offering . . . I had to put it in two characters. At the end, the main character is there with a notebook and she says, “I have to become both Anna and Maria in one person.”
BLVR: And you based Die bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane) on the long conversations you had with one of the two sisters on whose life story the film is based.
MVT: Yes, Christiane. She became a friend. I met her at the funeral of her sister, Gudrun Ensslin, who was the so-called terrorist one. I added so many things to the story, but this basic difference between them was a fact. I lived in Germany in the fifties and there was really this bleierne Zeit—the leaden times. You understood unconsciously that there was something terrible in the past but nobody spoke about it. This grey cover over us… We felt there was something off but our parents didn’t tell us and we weren’t taught about it in school. That started only in the sixties. It was the same with the survivors in Israel. They didn’t speak with their children about the Holocaust—the victims didn’t speak, the perpetrators didn’t speak. Fifties was the silent time.
BLVR: So the Holocaust and the aftermath are important in the film, although not obviously at the forefront.
MVT: There’s a moment when the father of the two girls shows in his parish hall the film Night and Fog by Alain Resnais.
BLVR: What’s the second film that they’re watching as grown women?
MVT: Documentary images of the war in Vietnam. They are making the link between what they saw as young girls—the images of the Holocaust—and the images from Vietnam, with people running on the streets, being burned…
BLVR: So the character based on Gudrun saw her fight against militarism of her time as something that would resemble the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany in the thirties and forties?
BLVR: What is it that they did, Gudrun and her friends? You never show their actions. Other characters mention bombs being thrown, etc.
MVT: Yes, I didn’t want to make an action film. And I am following Christiane’s point of view, and she only saw her sister twice in this period when Gudrun was part of the terrorist group. Once they meet in a museum; second time, when Gudrun’s group come to her home late at night. We stay with her perspective all the way until and after Gudrun’s death. After the funeral of the real Gudrun in ’77 many people in Germany, especially on the Left, believed that they were murdered in prison. Few people believed that it was a suicide. Only perhaps ten years later we became aware that it could have been a suicide.
BLVR: You leave that indeterminate in the film.
MVT: I did the film in ’81 and we couldn’t know the truth then. Perhaps we will never know.
BLVR: What did the real Gudrun and her group do? Destruction of property, mainly?
MVT: They robbed banks. They also killed people.
BLVR: Where do you stand on violent action today? My impression was that the sixties and the seventies saw more serious and braver activists than we are today.
MVT: It was interesting to me to discover that there were many women in these groups that espoused violence. In larger society, women were far from equality—their talents and their will were not valued—and yet here we had these radical groups where women were accepted as equals. They could join in the fight. The anger they had in themselves, they could express and act on. And they were valued as thinking and acting human beings.
BLVR: And meanwhile in some other groups of the New Left, women still made coffee.
MVT: I have a scene in the film—really, I did it as Christiane told it to me, I could not have imagined a scene like this. Christiane said that the two men at one point in a meeting said to her, Make us coffee, and that she got up and did it. She was in the group, and she did the coffee. It’s a just a detail in the scene, but it’s there.
BLVR: But seriously, where do you stand on direct action? The only two groups I can think of today that employ direct action for the cause of equality for women are Femen, and La Barbe in France. Neither is violent, though. Do you think there is anything today worth doing something violent about?
MVT: I must say I was never in favor of violence, like Gudrun was. I am always in favor of expressing anger, though. I am always in favor of revolt, and can even understand some forms of property crime. But I am not in favor of killing—that for me is the line not to be crossed. I was a very serious leftist and feminist in the early seventies and Gudrun once asked me to come with her lawyer and visit her in prison. I didn’t go; I knew she wanted to convince me to continue her legacy—to become her. On the one hand I didn’t want to disappoint her, she was in prison and unhappy. On the other, I knew I couldn’t say yes. So I didn’t go.
BLVR: Wow. You would have been making very different films had you said yes.
MVT: I was a member of a group that helped political prisoners—not Gudrun, but other ones—and I went to prison visits once a month and corresponded and sent them things they needed… But her, no. I couldn’t. It’s strange, no.
Another group I was in had this terrible communist reductionist language, and that was for me always an obstacle. I read poetry, and was much more open to art… all of a sudden it was like a sin to still read poetry.
BLVR: Your film The Second Awakening of Christina Klages is also based on a true story—a woman whose daycare loses funding and she robs a bank to get some money so it could stay open.
MVT: The story is true, but I invented all the travels and the people she meets in the film. The woman who did it in real life plays a small role in the film, she is in the kindergarten scenes. It was after her prison years, so when she came out I put her in the film… after that she worked as the script girl for two or three of my films.
BLVR: I like that you give people jobs.
MVT: After that she did two films on her own as a director. But now I don’t know where she is, I’ve lost her on my way.
III. MUSIC OF THE TIME
BLVR: To go back to what you say about art and poetry… There are scenes in your films when music, for example, is a moment of respite from the political struggle, and from other kinds of divisions. Christina and her host the priest unexpectedly find common ground over a cantata sung by Janet Baker.
MVT: Three of my films have music sung by Janet Baker. She was my favorite singer for a very long time. In Christina Klagesthere’s the Bach cantata, in Sisters there’s Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and in Die bleierne Zeit I put Handel’s cantata “Lucrezia.” I’ve always loved Baker’s singing. For the first film, I couldn’t get the rights… but I happened to meet Alfred Brendel at a dinner, he was friend of a friend, and I told him, “I would like so much to include this song in the film, but the reproduction rights are too expensive,” and so on… He said, “write a letter to Janet Baker and I will give it to her.” So I did, and she wrote me back a wonderful letter in long hand, beginning with “I am so honoured that you would like to include the song…” I made a copy of that letter, and sent it to the publisher and got the permission. I used this letter for the second and the third film as well. There are still two arias of hers that I wanted to put in my films. One is by Monteverdi, Ottavia’s “Addio, Roma.” The other one is a song by Mahler, this perhaps I’ll put in my next film if I get the rights. (In my many moves I seem to have lost the letter!) It’s one of the Rückert Lieder, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—“I am lost to the world.” Baker has the most wonderful piano. I was a singer myself and I know that to produce a wonderful piano you need great strength. And she has it. [sighs]
BLVR: In Christina Klages, at one point after her many adventures, Christina rents an empty room, where she’s on her own. It’s a tabula rasa; she has some freedom now, and is thinking how to proceed.
MVT: She also writes on the walls of the room: To understand, to wait.
BLVR: There’s a similar scene with a woman in an empty room at the beginning of Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle. Your two films rhyme here. Were women then for the first time having rooms on their own?
MVT: In Virginia Woolf’s sense? Maybe, maybe that could be about that… But when you create a work of art, you don’t do everything consciously. So many things come up to you and then only afterwards you understand perhaps why you did it or you can find an interpretation. It’s not good to have an interpretation before you start.
BLVR: To me it looked like: These are my feminist ancestors; this is them at crossroads, beginning a new life, thinking what to do.
MVT: And at the end of the film, the lady from the bank says to the police who have been looking for Christina, “This is not her” and saves her from prosecution. It’s the beginning of women’s solidarity.
BLVR: And yet in Sheer Madness, the opposite happens. The woman implicates her friend before the courts.
MVT: Ah, but the ending in Sheer Madness is not reality, it’s character’s fantasy. It’s filmed in black and white, and through the film she’s had these black and white dreams in which she’s harming herself, always directing the violence against herself and this is the first time she’s turning the anger to her husband. The final fantasy is again in black and white. In her final account of herself, she thanks Hannah Schygulla’s character for being her one true friend. “I could not have done this without her.”
BLVR: Phew. So we actually see her consciousness at work, rather than any actual court of law.
MVT: Yes. She’s thanking her friend for helping her change.
BLVR: When the film first came out in ’83, did anybody take offense at two women briefly kissing in one scene?
MVT: Oh yes, that caused an uproar. People thought that it was a lesbian film, which was not the case. I responded at that time that if I wanted to make a film with lesbian characters, I would have had lesbian characters. I think what actually caused the scandal was the possibility of a transformative relationship between two women. And when they are together, they are not competing over a man but talking about art… The two female characters lived in a dimension that the male critics weren’t used to seeing.
BLVR: So maybe the potential of an erotic turn between two straight women was the most upsetting thing.
MVT: Back in those days, when we were friends, we kissed each other, we sometimes made love to each other, but that didn’t immediately make us lesbians. Some of the women did become lesbians, because for the first time they were free to do it and to discover their desires and bodies.
BLVR: And first accurate books about the female body started coming out around that time.
MVT: My early films are like a testimony of these times and of these longings for something else. I also felt that as a rare woman who had a chance to make films, I felt sort of a responsibility… I was a voice of so many others who did not have this possibility. I was, in a way, a representative.
BLVR: Let me ask you about your film about Hildegard von Bingen, Vision. There you describe Hildegard’s friendship with a young nun, which also based on historical records. So again we have two women in a close bond as a way of testing out utopia.
MVT: Hildegard became furious after Richardis von Stade was moved to another monastery and she did everything to bring her back. Hildegard herself was taken to a monastery as a child and could not rebel against her parents. She then builds a friendship with another nun who later dies—who leaves her in away, like her mother had left her. The young Richardis then comes in, and after they become close, she leaves, too. This time Hildegard can’t handle losing a beloved person. She cries out in one scene, “But she was my daughter… and I was her daughter.” Hildegard finally found her mother back in the figure of a daughter, in Richardis.
She wrote so many letters to try to get her back. She even wrote to the Pope about it.
BLVR: We get to observe irrational behavior of a great mind.
MVT: She was wise, a visionary, respected by the kings and the Pope, but when it comes to love, she reacted exactly like any other human would.
BVR: There’s a scene in Rosa Luxemburg when a young comrade asks Rosa if he should get married or if marriage is a bourgeois institution and he shouldn’t bother.
MVT: That’s in one of her letters. She was very amused by it, and I was too, and I simply had to put it in.
BLVR: You have her respond in the film, “Oh why not try it.” But this question returns later with a vengeance, in the arguments that Rosa has with her husband, who insisted she shouldn’t have children.
MVT: Because, he says, “your ideas are your children.”
BLVR: And “because a child will make you fearful.”
MVT: She always wanted a child. She wanted everything. And that is for me very contemporary, and understandable.
BLVR: It’s still unresolved for women, this question.
MVT: I also show this in Die bleierne Zeit, where Gudrun gives her child away to become a full-time activist. The child was suffering for that. He was put in a foster home… All that actually happened. Also the violence the child endured because people knew he was Gudrun’s son. He was set on fire while in his hiding place. In real life, he was hurt even more seriously. In the film, you see the boy who is healed, but in reality all his facial scars remained.
BLVR: So, in theory, we can demand all, but actually once the child is there, we are a little bit more fearful, dependent… And you can’t just drop a child on your sister, like Gudrun did.
MVT: I never judge, I just show. I am not saying, Do not do that. There are all these contradictions in people, created by politics and historical periods in a country… I show that. I want to understand. But not to judge.