Born in Berlin, Margarethe von Trotta grew up with her mother in the German city of Düsseldorf. She started her career as an actress, in theater and appearing in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff. She also collaborated with Schlöndorff on script and direction, for “The Sudden Wealth of The Poor People of Kombach” (1971) and “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (1975). Active in the fight against pornography and misogyny, she became a leading female director of European auteur cinema. Her solo debut as a director came in 1978 with “The Second Awakening of Christa Klages.” In 1981, her film “Marianne & Juliane” about the “German Sisters” Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin won the Golden Lion in Venice, followed by two German Film Awards and an Italian David di Donatello as well as the Critics’ Award of both East and West Germany. “Sheer Madness,” with Hanna Schygulla and Angela Winkler as fundamentally different friends, ran in Competition in Berlin in 1983 while “Rosa Luxemburg,” about the German-Polish socialist, premiered in Cannes in 1986, where it won Barbara Sukowa the Best Actress Award. The film also received an Honorary Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. She returned to Cannes in 1988 with “Love and Fear” and in 2018 with “Searching for Ingmar Bergman.” Her 2003 drama “Rosenstrasse,” about the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest of non-Jewish wives and relatives of Jewish men, won the Volpi Cup for Katja Riemann in Venice, followed by the Italian Golden Globe and another David di Donatello as well as a nomination for the European Film Awards (European Actress for Katja Riemann). “Hannah Arendt” (2012), a portrait of the German-Jewish academic, won two German Film Awards and got lead actress Barbara Sukowa a nomination for the European Film Awards. Her latest feature, “Bachmann & Frisch,” deals with the relationship between writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch.
At this year’s European Film Awards, Tara Karajica sat down with Margarethe von Trotta, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and discussed her career and feminism in film.
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
Margarethe von Trotta: I saw a film by Ingmar Bergman when I was eighteen years old. I was studying in Paris. I was not very fond of cinema before. I went to the theater, exhibitions and concerts, but cinema, for me, was just rubbish. And then, I saw in Paris, this film [The Seventh Seal] by Ingmar Bergman and that was like a revelation. From then on, I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker.
You are the face of New German Cinema, but also Germany’s foremost female film director and the one that is the most sustained and successful female variant of auteur cinema in post-war German film history.
M.v.T.: I didn’t feel like I was the protagonist of women’s filmmaking. Because when I started in Germany in the 70s, there were already five women making films and they started before me, so we were a whole group. Only that my film Marianne & Juliane got the Award in Venice and I became a little bit the image of German women’s filmmaking because of that, but I was not the only one.
I know you reject the idea of being a feminist filmmaker.
M.v.T.: I am a feminist. But I’m not a feminist filmmaker. That’s the difference.
Can you talk about this difference?
M.v.T.: In the beginning, I had to fight to be myself, to have my own ideas, not to be too dependent on the ideas of men. And, that was also my mother who was a very independent woman and so, I followed her in a certain way, because my mother educated me in a very independent way. But then, I saw around me how other women lived and were treated by their husbands or men – and also myself – but in a way, I had the strength to defend myself because my mother taught me how to defend myself. So, I was a feminist in the first place already very early on, when I was eighteen. But when I’m making films, I’m a woman and not only a feminist because I have the feeling that the feminism is then a little bit reductive.
You made films that reject tradition for women – was it because it was inherent to the condition of being a woman or were there other reasons?
M.v.T.: I didn’t start as a feminist. I didn’t say: “I’m a feminist, what can I do for women to be more present in the world, to be more present on screen?” I wanted to become a filmmaker because I saw a film by Ingmar Bergman, who is a man, and in this period when I saw all these films, they were only by male directors. So, my role models were male directors. And, I didn’t say: “Oh, they are men and I’m a woman and I must make a film.” No. They made art, for me. It was art cinema that I wanted to make. And then, I had to fight more than if I had been a man to enter this scene. I saw how difficult it is for a woman to enter this world. So, I became a fighter. This was not set in the sense that I was a feminist and I had to make films. That came in a natural way because I had to fight so much against men to become a filmmaker.
Do you see any difference now?
M.v.T.: I hope that there won’t be a new backlash afterwards because, for the moment, women are very, very visible. And they get awards at every festival and they win Oscars and so, they really entered the scene very, very strongly. Only, we had that already in the late 70s. We had a certain moment where all these women’s film festivals started and all of a sudden it was said that women are able to make films and then came a backlash in society, and therefore I always have a little bit of fear when women are all of a sudden so visible; that there will be a counterrevolution in a certain way. I’m afraid of that.
But now, young female filmmakers have role models as opposed to before.
M.v.T.: Yes. I’m very happy about it.
When you were in television, you fought for your art and your voice and for not doing what is expected of you. Can you delve into this experience a bit more?
M.v.T.: In the beginning, I always said I would never do television; that I would never work for this little screen. And then, came a moment where I had a project and I didn’t get money for it. And, all of a sudden, I couldn’t live anymore because I had no fee and I my project was turned down. And then, television came at this moment. They understood that I needed to have some money to live on and so, I had to accept to make television. I discovered that it’s also something you can do. I was a little bit haughty, saying: “I only want to make films for cinema.” No. That was a new experience and you have conditions, which are a bit tougher. And so, to make a good film with these conditions, I liked that. That was a challenge. I did several films for television and then, I went back to film and now in all these years I have only made films. I tried to be myself like before. I didn’t change. I didn’t do these close-ups. I did three television films in Italy and the director of the network came and said: “You have to make close-ups because it’s television.” And, I said: “Okay, Okay. I will do what I want. I don’t follow the rules that you have.”
Out of all the films you made, which is the one that changed you the most? One that left a mark on you? One that you cherish the most?
M.v.T.: It was my second film. The name is Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness. That’s still today my favorite film. Because it was very personal. I discovered with this film that I had a sister and I didn’t know I had one. That was a revelation, but without knowing that it was a revelation. I wrote a script and one woman was, for me, Anna and the other one, Maria. And, while I was writing the script, I already thought: “I can’t keep these names because they are so biblical,” but it was stronger than me. So, they remained – Anna and Maria. When the film came out, my mother died and after her death, I received a letter saying: “Your mother was Elizabeth and she was born in Moscow” and some question, and I wrote back: “Yes, that’s all true. But perhaps you know something about my mother, which I don’t know.” And, she wrote back: “I’m your sister.” My mother never told me. She was fourteen years older than me. My mother gave her away for adoption and never told me. And, her second name was Anna and my second name is Maria. So, that was like a revelation.
This is an amazing story!
M.v.T.: Yes! It’s amazing! And, therefore, that is still, to this day, my favorite film. But I had the feeling that I am linked to something else and invisible.
Were you still in touch?
M.v.T.: Absolutely! Afterwards, yes.
This is absolutely wonderful. The power of film that transcends!
M.v.T.: Yes! Only because I wrote the script and I already had images and how to make it and so on. Then, it reveled something I didn’t know before.
What a truly powerful and magnificent story! How you see cinema today? How has it changed? How are you adapting to the modern times in your filmmaking?
M.v.T.: I’m still making films! I have just finished a film, which is going to come out in October. So, I’m going through with cinema, but not with the 24 frames. That’s over. We have to use the electronic stuff. We can’t defend our first love; we have to take it as a second love now!
But are you still true to your cinematic self?
M.v.T.: Yes, yes! Perhaps it is a little bit old-fashioned now. Perhaps I should make a film for Netflix to discover something new, but I’m not so fond of that. As long as I am able to and I get the conditions to make real cinematographic films, I will work. I’m too old to change!
No, no. You’ re never too old!
Photo credits: European Film Academy.
This interview was conducted at the 2022 European Film Awards in Reykjavik, Iceland.