von Trotta, Margarethe

views updated May 21 2018

Margarethe von Trotta

Margarthe von Trotta (born 1942) is largely regarded as Germany's foremost female filmmaker. Associated with the movement known as the New German Cinema, which also includes directors Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and von Trotta's former husband Volker Schlöndorff, von Trotta's films typically center on complex female characters and explore feminist themes. She tends to favor emotional impact over straight narrative and often employs dream–and fantasy–like elements in her work.

Von Trotta was born on February 21, 1942, in Berlin, Germany, which was then part of the Federal Republic of West Germany. Her father, an artist, died when she was quite young, leaving von Trotta and her mother, a Russian aristocrat, with little money. Von Trotta attended trade school and worked briefly as a secretary in Germany before relocating to Paris, where she worked as an au pair and regularly visited the city's Cinématèque, where she met several directors, attended film–related discussions, and participated in a number of film collectives. Soon, she began collaborating on scripts and co–directing short films. In the early 1960s, von Trotta returned to West Germany and commenced university studies. She then enrolled in acting school in Munich. "I wanted to direct films—and then again not," she is quoted as saying in an essay by Christian–Albrecht Gollub in The New German Filmmakers. "I didn't have a role model. At that time, in the early 1960s, there weren't any female directors in the Federal Republic. So I became an actress." She married in 1964 and had a son.

Turned to Filmmaking

Von Trotta acted in the theater and on television and also landed roles in Fassbinder's Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier as well as films by Franz–Josef Spieker, Klaus Lemke, Claude Chabrol, Herbert Achternbusch, and Schlöndorff, among others. She often worked with minimal direction, developing her characters according to her own intuition. In 1969, she and Schlöndorff began collaborating on the script for his film The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach, based on the true story of the capture, trial, and execution of a group of peasants who robbed a tax collector in the 1820s. During this time, von Trotta divorced her husband and married Schlöndorff. A custody battle for her son ensued and became the basis for her next collaboration with Schlöndorff, A Free Woman. Von Trotta co–wrote the script and played the lead role, earning a number of acting awards for her performance. The film adopted a decidedly feminist slant, depicting the difficulties of a single mother in her thirties trying to start a career and gain custody of her son in a male–dominated society.

Von Trotta made her directorial debut in 1975 with The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, also a collaboration with Schlöndorff. The film is based on the semi – autobiographical work of German author Heinrich Böll. In 1971, Böll spoke out against a sensationalized tabloid account of a bank robbery in Germany committed by the infamous Baader–Meinhoff terrorist group. Böll was quickly labeled by the authorities as an accomplice to the group and the police searched his house. Following this episode, Böll wrote a novel centering on a young housekeeper wrongly labeled as a terrorist by a tabloid newspaper. He sent the proofs of his novel to von Trotta and Schlöndorff, who were, at the time, working on an adaptation of his Group Portrait with Lady. The couple decided to switch their attention to Böll's newer work. While many critics thought the film overly slick and stereotypical, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum became the most successful German film of the mid–1970s and earned von Trotta and Schlöndorff international recognition.

Von Trotta's final collaboration with Schlöndorff was an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's 1939 novel Coup de Grâce. She served as co–scriptwriter and lead actress in the production, which centers on an aristocrat who becomes involved in both a convoluted love affair and revolutionary politics. Following this project, von Trotta and Schlöndorff worked independently. The couple later divorced.

Pursued Independent Career

Von Trotta continued to focus on complex female characters and the barriers posed by a male–dominated society. "I prefer the so–called private topics, problems of living together," she remarked, as quoted in The New German Filmmakers. "How do women try to get out of restricting situations." The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, directed by von Trotta and written in collaboration with Luisa Francia, centers on the true story of a Munich kindergarten teacher who robbed a bank to fund an alternative day–care center. The film was released in 1977. It was noted in The New German Filmmakers that von Trotta's preference for an emotionally driven plot focusing on the evolution of characters emerged in this film. "Unlike Schlöndorff, who begins with a story on which actors are imposed, von Trotta begins with fully conceived characters and asks herself, 'What could happen to them? In what relationship do they stand to one another, to their environment? What conflicts do they live?' "

Von Trotta's next film, Sisters or the Balance of Happiness, released in 1979, explores the relationship of two sisters: Maria, a hardworking secretary with controlling tendencies who supports her younger sibling, and Anna, a biology student given to episodes of depression. When Maria begins an affair with her boss's son, Anna flies into a rage and then commits suicide. After her sister's death, Maria befriends Miriam, a typist, who becomes her roommate and a surrogate for Anna. "In The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, I showed the possibilities for clarity and friendship between women," von Trotta told the New York Times, after the American release of Sisters. "But for my second film, I had to go a step further. We are contradictory and we are living in a society which is not Utopia." Again, von Trotta favored emotional impact over a straight–ahead narrative. "The main emphasis is less in the story than in the emotional flow running through the story, and this may well be a particularly female mode of expression," she told the New York Times. Soon after the release of the film in Germany, and following the death of her mother, von Trotta discovered she had a sister of her own. After the airing of a documentary about her on German television in which she mentioned her mother, von Trotta was contacted by a woman who turned out to be her sister, born 15 years before von Trotta and given up for adoption. Von Trotta's middle name is Anna and, she discovered, her sister's is Maria.

Von Trotta revisited the theme of sisters, and again drew on the troubling legacy of the Baader–Meinhoff group, in her 1981 film, Marianne and Juliane. The title characters, who are sisters, are both concerned with political reform, but Juliane pursues change through journalism and activism, Marianne through terrorism. When Marianne is arrested and dies in prison. Juliane abandons her career to raise Juliane's son and uncover the true circumstances surrounding her death, which is suspected to have been a suicide. The character of Marianne is based on Gudrun Ensslin, a member of the Baader–Meinhoff gang, and Juliane is based on Ensslin's sister Christiane, to whom the film is dedicated. The film earned the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1981.

Focused on Women, Historical Themes

Von Trotta's next film, Sheer Madness, released in 1983, centers on the friendship between Olga, a feminist professor, and Ruth, a depressed female artist, as well as on Ruth's husband and his inconsolable jealousy over the women's relationship. Sheer Madness was followed in 1986 by Rosa Luxemburg, a relatively straightforward biography of the radical socialist and her activities during and leading up to World War I. The Long Silence, released in 1993, tells the story of a gynecologist's wife who continues her husband's work exposing government corruption following his murder. The Promise, released in 1995, centers on two lovers separated for almost three decades on either side of the Berlin Wall until the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989.

Following The Promise, von Trotta spent almost a decade writing and directing films for German television. In 2004, she released Rosenstrasse, a World War II–era drama co–written with Pamela Katz. The film, based on actual events, centers on a non–Jewish woman who participated in a nine–day silent protest outside an office building on Berlin's Rossenstrasse in order to prevent Nazi officers from deporting her Jewish husband and several others, who remained inside. The film marked a turning point in German cinema, which had long shied away from themes related to noble actions of Germans during the Holocaust. "Along with its dramatization of a little–known moment of protest against the Nazi regime, Rosenstrasse also joins other recent German films—most prominently, Aimee and Jaguar—in rediscovering the Jewish role in German culture and the intertwined private lives of Gentiles and Jews before and during the Holocaust," wrote Robert Sklar in Cineaste in 2004. "For a long time, you couldn't even think of making a film about Germans who saved Jews," von Trotta told the Financial Times in 2004. "It would have been unseemly after so many cruelties. But now the time has come when we can also speak about these other people, to show that this was possible, and that much more could have been done." The film debuted in the United States in November 2003 as part of a Kino film festival retrospective of von Trotta's work.

While a small controversy arose in Germany over the historical accuracy of the film, von Trotta stated that her aim was to remain true to the numerous accounts she collected in her interviews with witnesses to the protests. "[I]t's important for me not to take the position of a historian saying, this was the way it happened," she told Cineaste in 2004. "There are historians who say, never trust an eyewitness. But for me people are more important than documents. People make me cry and touch me when they tell their stories. There's a jump from being interested to being involved. As a filmmaker you have to be moved." Von Trotta and Katz collaborated again on The Other Woman, a television film which later received limited theater distribution. The film centers on women recruited as spies for East Germany. "Her fascination with how political structures affect relationships, especially between women, is given an ideal frame in this fact–based tale of an East German Romeo sent to the West to recruit women as spies," wrote Jay Weissberg in Variety.

Von Trotta told the Financial Times in 2004 that her personal situation inspired the social criticism in her work as well as her interest in national historical events. "I was stateless as a child," she said. "My mother, who was not married when I was born, was an aristocrat, born in Moscow. Her family had to flee after the Russian Revolution and, because their roots were German, they came to Germany. But my mother, until her death, never accepted the German nationality. So on the one hand, being born in Berlin, I feel like a German. But on the other hand I've always been able to stand back and look detachedly at German society—because of having felt isolated and not totally accepted."


Phillips, Klaus, New German Filmmakers: from Oberhausen through the 1970s, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984.

Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.


Cineaste, Spring, 2004.

Detroit News, May 13, 2003.

The Financial Times, August 14, 2004.

New York Times, January 31, 1982.

Variety, June 28, 2004.


Margarethe von Trotta, Contemporary Authors Online,http://galenet.galegroup.com (December 5, 2004).

von Trotta, Margarethe

views updated Jun 11 2018

von TROTTA, Margarethe

Nationality: German. Born: Berlin, 21 February, 1942. Education: Universities of Munich and Paris; studied acting in Munich. Family: Married director Volker Schlöndorff. Career: Actress in theatres in Dinkelsbül, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt, 1960s; worked only in TV and film, from 1969; directed first film, Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, 1975. Awards: Golden Lion, Venice Festival, for Die Bleierne Zeit, 1981.

Films as Director:


Die verlorene Ehre der Katherina Blum (The Lost Honor ofKatharina Blum) (co-d, co-sc)


Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (The Second Awakening of Christa Klages) (+ sc)


Schwestern oder Die Balance des Glücks (Sisters, or TheBalance of Happiness) (+ sc)


Die Bleierne Zeit (Leaden Times; Marianne and Julianne; The German Sisters) (+ sc)


Heller Wahn (Sheer Madness) (+ sc)


Rosa Luxemburg


episode of Felix


Paura e amore (Three Sisters/Love and Fear)


Die Rückkehr (Return; L'Africana)


Il lungo silenzio (The Long Silence)


Das versprechen (The Promise) (+ co-sc)




Mit fünfzig küssen Männer anders


Dunkle Tage (for TV) (+ sc)

Other Films:


Schräge Vögel (Ehmck) (role)


Brandstifter (Lemke) (role); Götter der Pest (Fassbinder) (role as Margarethe)


Baal (Schlöndorff) (role as Sophie); Der amerikanische Soldat (Fassbinder) (role as maid)


Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (Schlöndorff) (co-sc, role as Heinrich's woman); Die Moralder Ruth Halbfass (Schlöndorff) (role as Doris Vogelsang)


Strohfeuer (Schlöndorff) (role as Elisabeth, co-sc)


Desaster (Hauff) (role); Übernachtung in Tirol (Schlöndorff) (role as Katja)


Invitation à la chasse (Chabrol) (for TV) (role as Paulette); Georgina's Gründe (Schlöndorff) (for TV) (role as Kate Theory)


Das andechser Gefühl (Achternbusch) (role as film actress)


Der Fangschuss (Schlöndorff) (co-sc, role as Sophie von Reval)


Blaubart (Bluebeard) (Zanussi) (role); Unerreichbare Nahe (Hirtz) (sc)


By von TROTTA: books—

Die Bleierne Zeit, Frankfurt, 1981.

Heller Wahn, Frankfurt, 1983.

Rosa Luxemburg, with Christiane Ensslin, Frankfurt, 1986.

By von TROTTA: articles—

"Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum," in Film and Fernsehen (Berlin), no. 8, 1976.

"Gespräch zwischen Margarethe von Trotta und Christel Buschmann," in Frauen und Film (Berlin), June 1976.

"Frauen haben anderes zu sagen . . . ," an interview with U. Schirmeyer-Klein, in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), no. 4, 1979.

Interview with Sheila Johnston in Stills (London), May/June 1986.

Interview with Karen Jaehne and Lenny Rubenstein in Cineaste (New York), vol. 15, no. 4, 1987.

"Rebell helt enkelt," an interview with P. Loewe, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 35, no. 6, 1993.

"Lernprozesse," an interview with Margret Köhler, in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 3 August 1993.

On von TROTTA: books—

Franklin, James, New German Cinema: From Oberhausen to Hamburg, Boston, 1983.

Phillips, Klaus, editor, New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausenthrough the 1970s, New York, 1984.

Todd, Janet, editor, Women and Film: Women and Literature, New York, 1988.

Elsaesser, Thomas, New German Cinema: A History, London, 1989.

On von TROTTA: articles—

"Le Coup de grâce Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 February 1977.

Elsaesser, Thomas, "Mother Courage and Divided Daughter," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1983.

Dossier on von Trotta, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.

Moeller, H.B., "West German Women's Cinema: The Case of Margarethe von Trotta," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Winter 1984/85; reprinted Fall-Winter 1986/87.

Linville, Susan, and Kent Casper, "The Ambiguity of Margarethe von Trotta's Sheer Madness," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 12, no. 1, 1987.

Donough, Martin, "Margarethe von Trotta: Gynemegoguery and the Dilemmas of a Filmmaker," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 17, no. 3, 1989.

Kauffman, Stanley, "The Long Silence," in New Republic, 30 May 1994.

Toiviainen, Sakari, in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 5, 1995.

Martin, Michel, and Maurice Elia, "Margarethe von Trotta toujours présente," in Séquences (Haute-Ville), November-December 1996.

* * *

An important aspect of Margarethe von Trotta's filmmaking, which affects not only the content but also the representation of that content, is her emphasis on women and the relationships that can develop between them. For example, von Trotta chose as the central theme in two of her films (Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness and Marianne and Juliane) one of the most intense and complex relationships that can exist between two women, that of sisters. Whether von Trotta is dealing with overtly political themes as in The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (based on the true story of a woman who robs a bank in order to subsidize a daycare center) and Marianne and Juliane (based on the experiences of Christine Ensslin and her "terrorist" sister) or with the lives of ordinary women as in Sisters or the Balance of Happiness or Sheer Madness, von Trotta shows the political nature of relationships between women. By paying close attention to these relationships, von Trotta brings into question the social and political systems which either sustain them or do not allow them to exist.

Although the essence of von Trotta's films is political and critical of the status quo, their structures are quite conventional. Her films are expensively made and highly subsidized by the film production company Bioskop, which was started by her husband Volker Schlöndorff and Reinhard Hauff, both filmmakers. Von Trotta joined the company when she started making her own films. She did not go through the complicated system of incentives and grants available to independent filmmakers in Germany. Rather, she began working for Schlöndorff as an actress and then as a scriptwriter, and finally on her own as a director and co-owner in the production company which subsidizes their films.

Von Trotta has been criticized by some feminists for working too closely within the system and for creating characters and structures which are too conventional to be of any political value. Other critics find that a feminist aesthetic can be found in her choice of themes. For although von Trotta uses conventional women characters, she does not represent them in traditional fashion. Nor does she describe them with stereotyped, sexist clichés; instead, she allows her characters to develop on screen through gestures, glances, and nuances. Great importance is given to the psychological and subconscious delineation of her characters, for von Trotta pays constant attention to dreams, visions, flashbacks, and personal obsessions. In this way, her work can be seen as inspired by the films of Bresson and Bergman, filmmakers who also use the film medium to portray psychological depth.

"The unconscious and subconscious behavior of the characters is more important to me than what they do," says von Trotta. For this reason, von Trotta spends a great deal of time with her actors and actresses to be sure that they really understand the emotions and motivations of the characters which they portray. This aspect of her filmmaking caused her to separate her work from that of her husband, Volker Schlöndorff. During their joint direction of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, it became apparent that Schlöndorff's manner of directing, which focused on action shots, did not mix with his wife's predilections for exploring the internal motivation of the characters. Her films are often criticized for paying too much attention to the psychological, and thus becoming too personal and inaccessible.

Von Trotta has caused much controversy within the feminist movement and outside of it. Nevertheless, her films have won several awards not only in her native Germany but also internationally, drawing large, diverse audiences. Her importance cannot be minimized. Although she employs the commonly used and accepted structures of popular filmmakers, her message is quite different. Her main characters are women and her films treat them in a serious and innovative fashion. Such treatment of women within a traditional form has in the past been undervalued or ignored. Her presentation of women has opened up possibilities for the development of the image of women on screen and contributed to the development of film itself.

Von Trotta's films have continued to express other concerns that were central to her earlier work as well. These include examinations of German identity and the impact of recent German history on the present; the view of historical events through the perceptions of the individuals those events affect; the personal risks that individuals take when speaking the truth or exposing the hypocrisy of those in power; and, in particular, the strengths of women and the manner in which they relate to each other and evolve as their own individual selves.

Rosa Luxemburg is a highly intelligent, multi-faceted biopic of the idealistic, politically committed, but ill-fated humanist and democratic socialist who had such a high profile on the German political scene near the beginning of the twentieth century. Love and Fear, loosely based on Chekhov's The Three Sisters, is an absorbing (if sometimes overdone) allegory about how life is forever in transition. It focuses on a trio of sisters, each with a different personality. The senior sibling is a scholarly type who is too cognizant of how quickly time goes by; the middle one lives an aimless life, and is ruled by her feelings; the junior in the group is a fervent, optimistic pre-med student.

The Long Silence is the story of a judge whose life is in danger because of his prosecution of corrupt government officials. After his murder—an unavoidable occurrence, given the circumstances—his gynecologist wife perseveres in continuing his work. The Promise, which reflects on the downfall of communism and the demise of the Berlin Wall, tells of two lovers who are separated in 1961 during a failed attempt to escape from East to West. With the exception of a brief reunion in Prague in 1968, they are held apart until 1989 and the fall of communism in East Germany.

—Gretchen Elsner-Sommer, updated by Rob Edelman

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Margarethe von Trotta

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