For its Conversation with Filmmakers Studies series, the University Press of Mississippi has provided a volume of interviews curated to reflect the influences and accomplishments of director Margarethe von Trotta. Edited by Monika Raesch, associate professor of film studies and video production and chair of the Communication, Journalism and Media Department of Suffolk University, this collection includes twenty interviews and speeches written by von Trotta spanning her work from 1983 to today (due to copyright issues, pieces from von Trotta’s period of work as an actress and her directorial projects prior to Sheer Madness aren’t included, while a 2015 interview by Raesch herself is the last item in the collection, which stops short of covering two features and a documentary von Trotta completed after this curation).
Widely recognized as the most prominent female director of the New German Wave of the 1970s and regarded as one of cinema’s preeminent auteurs, von Trotta often shirks the constant label of ‘feminist filmmaker’ simply because she makes films about women, with many of her most notable works classified as biopics of noted historical figures.
Her struggle for recognition began as a child, raised mostly by her mother after emigrating to Germany from Russia, where she would find herself without country affiliation until she married her first husband—in essence, she was always regarded as a foreigner.
Her second marriage to director Volker Schlondorff, another titan of the New German Wave (he won the Palme d’Or in 1979 for his controversial adaptation of Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum) assisted in the fulfillment of her ambition. Previously an actress in several now-notable items from Rainer Werner Fassbinder (she appeared in his early films Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier and Beware of a Holy Whore), she would star in several of Schlondorff’s productions, including the Fassbinder scripted version of Brecht’s 1970 film Baal (read review) as well as A Free Woman and Morals of Ruth Halbfass (both 1972), culminating in his memorable 1976 title Coup de Grace. She would co-direct 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, an experience which would lead her to strike out on her own as a director.
The influences of von Trotta include a love for Hitchcock, but it was really her reverence for Ingmar Bergman which really inspired her confidence in filmmaking as an art form. Many of her earlier works earned comparisons to Bergman, whose The Seventh Seal is cited as her initial introduction (she would eventually direct a documentary about her artistic mentor in 2018’s Searching for Ingmar Bergman, which screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival).
What’s most striking about reading von Trotta’s transcripts is how aggressive some male journalists were in questioning her approach, style, and content of her films (Rose Luxemburg seems an especially touchy subject for many of the male critics of the period) and there’s a marked defensiveness von Trotta seems accustomed to until the collection skips ahead to the 2000s, where her reputation has become cemented into that of an auteur.
Raesch does include excerpts from an early interview with Schlondorff and von Trotta discussing Coup de Grace, but the collection really takes off following the divisive response of 1983’s Sheer Madness (which starred Angela Winkler and Hannah Schygulla) after its premiere in competition at the Berlinale.
It was von Trotta’s fourth solo feature, earning her the unfair reputation as a man-hating feminist as well as her follow-up to the Golden Lion winner Marianne and Juliane (1981). The collection spends a lot of time on 1986’s Rose Luxemburg, in which von Trotta regular Barbara Sukowa won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival as the….(little time is spent on von Trotta’s other Cannes competitor, 1988’s loose Chekov adaptation of Three Sisters, which featured the intoxicating trifecta of Fanny Ardant, Greta Scacchi and Valeria Golino).
The late 1980s also marked the dissolution of the New German Wave and von Trotta would navigate to Italy, and the collection briefly entertains the local controversy surrounding the release of 1993’s The Long Silence (aka Zeit des Zorns). Mention is made of the successfully received Rosenstrasse, von Trotta’s third and last time competing for the Golden Lion, with much more coverage focused on 2009’s Vision and 2012’s Hannah Arendt, both featuring sublime performances from Barbara Sukowa (a 2013 interview featuring both director and star, who have worked together seven times, is of special interest).
Although as a sampling of von Trotta’s overall career this curated swath of interviews and speeches does feel incomplete, it gives a broad overview of some of von Trotta’s greatest hits (though a lack of documentation from her 1981 Golden Lion win seems a major slight). There’s little to be gleaned about several titles, including 1990’s The African Woman, 1995’s The Promise and 2006’s I Am the Other Woman. However, von Trotta’s passions and intelligence are center stage in a collection which finds the director repeating many statements about her past in the three decades covered here, but often applying them in different, evolving ways in her approach to characterizations and intentions.
One wishes there had been some more coverage past the 2015 end date to discuss two titles which von Trotta directed that have never received US distribution, 2015’s The Misplaced World and the 2017 comedy Forget About Nick, while her 2018 Ingmar Bergman doc seems an especially fruitful item of interest to gather von Trotta’s thoughts on.