A sit-down with Margarethe von Trotta
Sam Fentress | Monday, April 25, 2016
In a master class last Wednesday, German director Margarethe von Trotta said “imagination is more truthful than documents you find.” She was referencing the process of research for her biographical films, but this rings particularly true of von Trotta’s imagination, which has provided the world with more than 20 feature films since “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” her 1975 directorial debut. She has been called “narrative cinema’s foremost feminist filmmaker,” and not without reason: Her films have received international acclaim for decades. Tinged by the influence of Ingmar Bergman and the French New Wave, her work is forcefully dramatic, deeply psychological and distinctly humanistic.
Last week at Notre Dame, von Trotta lectured, fielded a slew of questions and introduced her latest film “Die abhandene Welt” (“The Misplaced World”) as the focal point of the Nanovic Institute’s annual Nanovic Forum. Her lecture “My Approach to Biography” detailed her efforts in cinematically chronicling the lives of a host of historical figures — most notably “Hannah Arendt” (2012), “Rosa Luxemburg” (1986), and Hildegard von Bingen (“Vision,” 2009), all of which feature her favorite actress and longtime collaborator Barbara Sukowa.
I had the delightful opportunity to catch up with von Trotta last week and speak with her about her career as a filmmaker.
Sam Fentress: You’ve spoken a lot about your subjects and themes in the last day but I’m curious about your work behind the camera. What’s your relationship with your cinematographers like?
Margarethe von Trotta: In the beginning I started with only one cameraman because I was an actress before and I knew him already as a cinematographer. My husband, Volker Schlöndorff, he was a famous director already. So when I started to make my first film he said, ‘You have to be surrounded by people or by collaborators who can do the film without you.’ That was his making fun of me, no? So I knew [cinematographer] Franz Rath, and he was always very attentive and very friendly. We had other photographers who were very authoritarian and very ill-tempered, and he was very interested in actresses so I chose him. We liked the same images and the same actors.
When I went to Italy, I had to choose an Italian cameraman. They have great, great directors of photography, so I learned a lot with them, too. And then we came back to Germany and did two more films together [with Rath]. And then after a certain while I had the feeling I had to change, because I had to move on with other ideas and other points of views. Since then, I’ve used the same cinematographer, Axel Block.
SF: Do you sit next to the camera with them, or are you looking at a monitor?
MVT: In the beginning when we still had real cameras and real film material and there was no possibility to sit and see what happens, I was always sitting over beside or under the camera and looking to my actors and acting out everything that they acted. Sometimes Barbara Sukowa said, ‘Please hide,’ because I said every sentence with her and I had the same expression. I was like a mirror for her and it was sometimes very disturbing, but I couldn’t do it in another way. I had the feeling that I gave all my emotions to [my actors] telepathically.
Then the possibility came to have a monitor and to see directly what the cameraman sees during rehearsals. Sometimes you have a lens with which you can approach the face of an actor but sit miles away. With the appearance of monitors, you could see it immediately. At the beginning my actors were a little bit disturbed because they were so used to me sitting there and they could have contact with me even if they couldn’t look at me. When I was sitting behind the monitor, they couldn’t feel me so much. So that took some getting used to.
SF: You spoke in the master class yesterday about having to completely devote yourself to subject in order to make a film — it’s years of planning and shooting and editing. Which subjects have you kept with you through the years?
MVT: In a way, all my films stay with me. It’s like you have a depot inside of you where you put them, a sort of archive — but it’s a vivid archive. They are living with you. When I’m doing a film with Barbara Sukowa and I look at her, in the moment she’s acting I see all the other figures she did before. They are always there. And she has the same feeling. She’s said, sometimes, that I have only to look at her and she at me, and we know exactly what we want. It’s a whole background she’s giving me with her presence.
SF: Especially in the Barbara Sukowa films, there’s a recurring theme of teaching, especially women mentoring other women. There’s a fantastic moment in “Rosa Luxemburg” where, as a very young girl, she’s teaching her nanny how to read.
MVT: Yes, she [Luxemburg] was very ill, and therefore she limped. She had to stay in bed for a year, so she started to read and started to write very early, and had this passion to give her knowledge away to others. For me that was the starting point of her being this utopist, of giving her ideas to the world and to the workers and to the [Democratic Socialist] party members. It was a very early passion.
SF: One of your other films I’ve watched, “Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness” (1979) is much different from “Rosa Luxemburg,” mainly in that it’s fictive, but it’s also a very psychological film that takes you into the minds of its characters. Were you reading a lot of psychology at the time?
MVT: When I went to Paris [as a teenager], I met these young French students and they were so passionate about cinema, so they took me to the Cinemathèque. I became very good friends with one of them. He studied philosophy and we had no philosophy in school in Germany. So we went through Paris and he told me about Plato and [Baruch] Spinoza and [Martin] Heidegger. He also gave me books of [Sigmund] Freud. I think I read 10 [Freud] books in French, because I had no money to buy them in German. So that was my very first lecture of psychology. Afterwards I discovered [Carl] Jung and I think I’m much more attached to Jung than to Freud. Jung has this “anima and animus” and the both in one person. And so that is a recent and frequent theme in my films.
SF: Moving back to themes: People have called you a feminist filmmaker for years, a title you seem a bit hesitant to accept. To me, what’s so wonderful about your films is that female characters never seem forced or gratuitous; they exist very organically, but still purposefully, in your movies.
MVT: I’m a woman, and I know much more about women. My father was not married to my mother, so I lived with my mother and he came only once a year. In this time, there were no schools mixed with boys, so we were at an all-women’s school, so I had not too much experience with men in my childhood. When I started to make films, I wanted to tell something about me and about us and about my experience and my knowledge. I think men are mainly making films about men, so when I have the chance to make a film and in the time I started there were not so many female directors. I felt also a little bit like a duty to speak about women, like I was a voice for other women who didn’t have this possibility to speak. I have nothing against feminism, and surely I’m a feminist, but the word is used now, mainly by men, in an ironic way. They say, ‘Oh, that’s just a women’s film. You don’t have to go in, it’s not interesting for you as a man.’ I’m very much against this.
SF: There’s a great quote from an interview you did a few years ago in “Filmmaker”: “I am always attracted by a woman who has to fight for her own life and her own reality, who has to get out of a certain situation of imprisonment, to free [herself].” That idea of an imposed reality, it seems to come up a lot in your films.
MVT: It’s two points. On one hand, I’m interested in persons — not only in women, but in my films, sure, it’s mainly women. You’re born in a certain time, or you’re born in a time, like me, of fascism and regulations and dictatorship and you have not so many chances to be on your own and to decide for yourself because society or the rulers are deciding for you. How you can manage, in this situation, to become a real person for your own — that is my one point. I am always interested in that.
On the other hand, for women who were not asked to be important persons but more or less servants for a long time: what are the methods to come out of this prison of society?