Emotions Instead Of Sentimentality

Margarethe von Trotta is a German filmmaker. She began to work as a director in the 1970s after a career as an actress. In her films she deals with subjects including the complexity of female social relations, the dilemma of liberalism, and the use and effects of violence.

Looking at your films The German Sisters1, Rosa Luxemburg2 and Anniversaries3, it strikes me that the central figures are always women motivated by an acute political and social awareness. They act in the knowledge that their actions will have, or might have extreme consequences for them. In The German Sisters Marianne’s life is shaped by her political convictions, which ultimately lead to her death. Rosa Luxemburg too is an example of a woman who never gives up the struggle to spread her ideas, although she knows that it might mean her death. In Anniversaries the main character’s mother ends her own life because of guilt feelings induced by society. All are potential martyrs. Did you consciously set out to make several films in which the theme of self-sacrifice plays a central role?
Certainly not. Of course I don’t choose women because they are potential martyrs. That is not what I have in mind as I write about them or work on them. They are of course women with very strong convictions, and they intend to stand by them. These might lead to death, or there is a danger that they might die in the process, that’s quite clear. To that extent they are tragic figures.
I am interested in courageous women, women who will take on both fate and the authorities. That you can come to harm in this way is a calculated risk. I was brought up as a Christian and a Protestant, so the simple cross as a symbol of self-sacrifice that one constantly has before one’s eyes has naturally followed me since childhood. It may be that that has triggered something inside me. It’s not something I have consciously intended, but I don’t exclude the possibility of its being there.
In any case I have also made other films too. I haven’t only made films in which politics feature directly. I have made quite a number of films which were simply about fate or women or friendship, but have nothing to do with history or politics. The films you mention are the ones that made me famous. I have to defend myself a little against this tendency to interpret me on one single level.

In all the films I have named the women come to rather “sad” ends. Would you call these endings tragic?
Yes, naturally they’re tragic. Life itself is tragic. Death is the end of our lives, that’s the way it is. When it’s early or violent, we call it tragic. We should really call all life tragic because it always ends with death.

So it’s a matter of how you deal with it?
Yes, and whether you stand up to fate, or accept it, or just resign yourself. I said courageous women interest me. But I don’t know whether I myself would be all that courageous if it came to the crunch. I have never been put to that test.

Is that why you’re interested in courageous women?
Perhaps. I always hope that certain things and conditions wouldn’t corrupt me, that I wouldn’t just cave in. Wouldn’t walk away cravenly as so many did under National Socialism, wouldn’t be compliant to the point of resignation. This is something you hope as a German—that you wouldn’t have acted like that at the time—but do we know this? It’s easy to condemn others out of hand when your own courage isn’t being put on the line.

Are the subjects that you film tragic? Are you referring in your films to tragedy as in the history of the theatre?
Extreme states interest me more than everyday ones, of course. I don’t know whether this only has to do with the theatre. I have acted on the stage, but I’m not fixated on theatre. Greek tragedy is certainly the quintessential symbol for tragedy, for subjugation to destiny, for exposure to an unknown fate. Take Oedipus, who incurs guilt without knowing it. The idea that you are punished by fate without having done anything to deserve it. Incurring guilt as an innocent guilty party, it’s a big theme. To that extent tragedy has always interested me more than comedy.
But Ingmar Bergman plays a more important role for me. His were the first films I recognised as art when I saw them in Paris. As something that shocked and moved me, that I would have liked to have done myself.

Is tragedy in film connected with deeper emotions in the audience than a feature film with a happy end?
I think so. As a picture-goer of course I rather like films with happy ends. Like a child reading a fairytale—who wants it to end happily. We all probably have this need in us for our hopes not to be disappointed. But the emotions are deeper when the outcome is tragic.

Have you also made films where the protagonist fails to act according her convictions? What about cowards, are they of no interest?
No figure occurs to me at the moment. Of course I don’t reject these women, everything is human, as Chekhov says. As somebody who describes the human condition I have to try to understand it. I can’t afford to say he is good and he is bad. All I can do is look, observe and try to describe as exactly as possible.

You have often been described as a political, feminist filmmaker. Would you still describe yourself as feminist? What does that mean to you?
This description doesn’t come from me. The label of political or feminist filmmaker isn’t one I invented. They stick these labels on you. As soon as politics play any part in my films they call me a political filmmaker. There are quite different things in them, even in a so-called political film like The German Sisters. Ester Carla de Miro d’Ajeta4, the Italian writer, has pointed this out. She sees a great deal in my films that is apparently invisible to many others. My films are not one-dimensional. You just have to look at them more closely. The great German actress Agnes Fink, now deceased, who played in two of my films, once said to me: “your films are like icebergs. You only see the little peak above the water. But the real and true part lies below the water.” I see it that way too. Most people don’t take the trouble to look below the water.

Can the concept of the feminist filmmaker still be taken seriously today?
Even today you can take the concept seriously if you take matters that concern women seriously. And we certainly have not achieved everything yet. But take a look at what has happened since 1968. Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to have two female presenters for the TV duel between the two candidates for the Chancellorship. Twenty years ago only men were political correspondents or talk show hosts. To achieve such a high profile position in a profession that was formerly a male preserve is really extraordinary. I am a woman myself, I’ve had to overcome many kinds of resistance, and if I hadn’t been a feminist before, my profession would certainly have made me one. Being a feminist means recognising certain situations. But that all men are bad and all women good—my worldview is not as one-sided as that. [laughs]

Your films often combine very personal narratives with a political, historical background. Like The German Sisters for example, where you allude with the figure of Marianne to the life of the Red Army Fraction terrorist Gudrun Ensslin. At the beginning of the film Marianne’s sister Juliane rejects her sister’s radical political life. In the course of the film however, she comes progressively closer to her sister and to her radical attitude to life. After Marianne’s death she doesn’t believe the official version of suicide in prison, but tries to prove murder at the hands of the State. You often present the emotional, human side of a story, without prejudice to the historical background. Is this “mixing” of several realities a central theme in your films?
I would describe the Doppelgänger as the main theme in many of my films. In The German Sisters Marianne incorporates one side and Juliane on the other side of a single person.
In Sisters or the Balance of Happiness one sister pursues her ideal to the death, while the other sister sees it as a deliberate affront to bourgeois morality. At the end the surviving sister understands that she has to integrate what the other sister represented into herself. Roughly speaking, to give more space to dreams and fantasy, and not just go on functioning in the same old rut, she has to make that into part of her own life.
When history or politics feature in my films, they are presented from a private and individual point of view. The German Sisters for me however is also, to come back to Greek tragedy again, the story of Antigone. In her childhood Marianne tends towards Ismene and Juliane is Antigone. And then Antigone is supposed to turn into Ismene, because Marianne overtakes her in a way that Juliane can no longer accept. She resists this, doesn’t want to be the conformist.
Sometimes it is tragic to be born and brought up at a particular time. In relation to Gesine in Anniversaries I once said, if one could choose when to be born, one would certainly not opt for 1933 in Germany. To be born at a certain time and have to live with that, with its deformations, reductions, humiliations, and restricted freedom …

Have you developed particular forms or some sort of filmic vocabulary for applying a charge of emotion to historical images?
You would have to get somebody who has examined the images analytically to tell you that. It’s something I do spontaneously or unconsciously and I don’t want to go into it too much. I draw on many sources, myths, painting, music, and psychoanalysis, religion, literature, even spiritualism.

So that flows automatically into the images?
Yes it flows in automatically. These are things that have preoccupied me all my life, and my view is that the more unconscious the flow, the better. You can then discover it and interpret it retrospectively. If you put everything in consciously it just gets strained. It seems to me like a kind of zip fastener to the unconscious which you open. Of course I use symbols. And often, when I am putting them in, I also know that I am using them for certain things, which the audience doesn’t necessarily have to recognise as such. A symbol can be more effective than a simple image. According to C. G. Jung’s notion of the “collective unconscious” every human carries around so many bundles of meaning that can be tapped by such images to release an emotion. But filmmaking it is not a mathematical exercise, it’s not like working at a drawing board. That must be exactly the same with you. Picasso once said, if you knew exactly what you were going to make, what would be the point of making it? On the way to making it you discover so many things, and that is precisely what’s so exciting about it.
Camera angles, colours or cutting sequences all vary from film to film. There is no recipe. You start right back at the beginning each time. It is often the case that my cameraman and I have a particular painter in mind, Max Beckmann or René Magritte for example, though this is not necessarily visible afterwards, but for us, while we are working on the film, it is working on our subconscious.
In Sisters or the Balance of Happiness5 I used a picture by Magritte. In Sheer Madness6 I alluded to Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at the Window. These were conscious borrowings.

I think it is the task of art today to expand consciousness, and the start of this is that the artist tries to do this himself. He/she should know as much as possible about his/her means, and should use them consciously to enable him/her to go a stage further. If we could analyse emotions precisely, we could insert them or omit them consciously in order to “manipulate” the audience’s feelings.
I don’t want to manipulate anybody. If anything I want to grab them, but not manipulate them.

But is wanting to grab them not a kind of emotional blackmail? You can for example present a character’s political vision and at the same time make him/her emotionally credible. Say a Nazi, by depicting how he arrived at his conviction in a particularly human way.
The Nazis were not all absolutely evil men. There were also the fellow travelers and the ones who didn’t even notice what was happening to them. You always have to look very closely at each individual.

You are often criticised for your choice of conventional narrative strategies. Why do you choose such forms?
I come from the narrative cinema, I love stories, I like to listen to stories, I have always read a great deal and I really don’t understand why telling a story is regarded as conventional. The important thing is HOW you tell it and WHAT it’s about. Whether there is truth in it, that’s crucial. Not only experimental films are unconventional.

Would you say that these personal stories are best told in a clear narrative form?
In American narrative cinema there are quite clear recipes. In the first ten minutes this has to happen, then in the first half-hour that. Of course you can manipulate emotions. But I try not to do that. I try to find a grain of truth in every moment. And if that truth also triggers an emotion, good, but I try not to dabble in emotions in a sentimental way.

So you see a clear difference between emotion and sentimentality?
Yes there is a clear difference between sentimentality and real emotion. To come back to Greek tragedy for one last time, they too wanted to shock and move, these are unsentimental, very powerful emotions. Or aren’t they?

  1. Die bleierne Zeit [The German Sisters], written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 1981. In the film von Trotta examines, in conjunction with the biographies of the sisters Christine and Gudrun Ensslin, the differing careers of two women growing up in the “leaden years” of the Fifties. Both take part in the 1968 movement and commit themselves in different ways to the cause of social change. One sister meets a violent death as a terrorist.
  2. Rosa Luxemburg, written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Czechoslovakia/Germany, 1986. The film paints a picture of the Social Democratic movement in Germany on the eve of World War I, and draws a portrait of the Socialist Rosa Luxemburg against this background.
  3. Anniversaries, directed by Margarethe von Trotta. A four-part TV film based on the novel Jahrestage, aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl [Anniversaries: from the Life of Gesine Cresspahl] by Uwe Johnson, Germany, 2000.
  4. Ester Carla de Miro d’Ajeta and Margarethe von Trotta. L’identità divisa, Recco, Genoa, 1999.
  5. Schwestern oder die Balance des Glücks [Sisters or the Balance of Happiness], directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Germany, 1979), centres on two women and their private and psychological conflicts.
  6. Heller Wahn [Sheer Madness], written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Germany/France 1983), deals with a friendship between two women.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Tragedy, pages 143-149