After 50 years at the forefront of feminist filmmaking, director Margarethe von Trotta is back with a cinematic work about the brilliant Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann. By Isabella Trimboli.

Director Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta.
Margarethe von Trotta.
Credit: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / dpa

An often repeated tale about Rainer Werner Fassbinder is that when he was found dead at 37 from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates, he was on his bed with a cigarette still pressed between his lips, with his script for a film about socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg lying next to his body.

It’s less well known that the film was eventually made, albeit by very different hands. While they were friends, peers and, once, even co-stars, Margarethe von Trotta and Fassbinder are in many ways opposites. Fassbinder made films of wild drama that were especially attuned to human ugliness and humiliation. Von Trotta directs films of delicate and haunting force, dedicated specifically to the inner lives and political awakenings of women.

Her version of Rosa Luxemburg – made in 1987 at the behest of Fassbinder’s former producer but with an entirely new script – in many ways set the template for her long career in cinema, which stretches across five decades. All her themes are there: women’s relationships with one another, the work of thinking, the struggle between violent and non-violent political action, how history haunts the present and the great entanglements produced by love and knowledge. She is often described as one of world’s leading feminist filmmakers, but this doesn’t mean dull didacticism – her vision is far looser and more curious.

Rosa Luxemburg marked the first in von Trotta’s string of biographical films about prominent historical women – from Hildegard of Bingen to Hannah Arendt – that enmesh their personal lives with their political creeds. “In the end,” she once said, “it seems as if I’m making a historical atlas.” Her latest film, Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert, which opened in Australian cinemas this week, maps four years in the life of the brilliant Austrian writer with von Trotta’s distinctive elegance and restraint.

In Europe, Bachmann remains famous primarily for her poetry. In the English-speaking world, she might be best known for her excoriating novel Malina (1971), which underwent something of a resurgence when it was republished in 2019. The bones of the narrative revolve around an unnamed woman writer and her relationships with two men, but the novel’s specific genius is its feverish view of the female psyche and its attempts to express the small, everyday deaths wrought by male cruelty. It explores the violence of non-physical male harm – the kind that often goes unmentioned or is too difficult to verbalise in the moment but that still scalds the soul.

I have pressed the novel into many friends’ hands, always with the kind of forewarning you might offer before dressing a wound: be wary of its sudden sting. It was planned to be the first in a trilogy but Bachmann died in 1973, a couple of years after Malina was first published, after she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and set herself on fire.

“I was linked to her from the beginning,” says von Trotta, now 81, speaking to me with exuberance and wit from Munich. She read Bachmann’s poems with fervour as a schoolkid. “I tried myself to write as all these young girls [were] trying [to] but then I gave it up early because I couldn’t stand the comparison with Ingeborg Bachmann,” she says, laughing. The director would meet Bachmann decades later in Rome, a year before her death. Von Trotta recalls her appearing as if she were an apparition, seemingly out of nowhere, at the home of a mutual friend, the German composer Hans Werner Henze. “She was very, very quiet … you could already feel that she was not so familiar with life.”

Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert focuses on Bachmann at two liminal periods. The first sees the poet (played by German actor Vicky Krieps) in Egypt, attempting to gain hold of her life after the dissolution of her relationship with Swiss writer Max Frisch. The second details her tumultuous time with Frisch, when she stopped writing poetry and tried with great difficulty to move into prose.

“I chose these four years that they were together because … it was the first time that she could believe that a man could give her protection but also let her be free, be independent,” says von Trotta. This ideal falls to pieces when the pair begin living together – kindness quickly curdles into jealousy and intimacy is overridden by indifference. In one scene, von Trotta reimagines the moment when Bachmann discovers Frisch’s diary and is disgusted to find his merciless depictions of her in its pages. She immediately sets it alight, reducing it to ash. Von Trotta also weaves in one of Bachmann’s most famous provocations, delivered in an interview right before her death: “Fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman.”

“I know that from my own experience – and the experiences of other women – on one hand, you want to be free and want to be independent and to do what you want,” says von Trotta. “[But] then when you are left by a man, nevertheless you fall very, very deeply.”

She is very familiar with the difficulties that arise out of a relationship between two people with their own artistic and intellectual lives. Her involvement in film began as an actor, working for her then husband, the director Volker Schlöndorff, and Fassbinder, who cast her as a glamorous gossip and a babbling chambermaid. She saw acting as a way to learn about directing without having to go through the formalities and expense of film school. This loose coalition of filmmakers, who came of age in a divided Germany and made their name making low-budget, state-subsidised films, would come to be known as the New German Cinema movement.

Born in 1942 in Berlin, von Trotta was raised solely by her mother, a Russian exile from an aristocratic family. Von Trotta’s childhood was marked by a strong attachment to her mother and by financial deprivation. In the ’50s she studied in Paris and received her informal film education at the city’s Cinémathèque.

“At this time, you could take a ticket at the beginning of the afternoon and you could stay the whole afternoon. You could watch a film three times – that was my way to learn a little bit about how a film was made,” von Trotta says. The Seventh Seal (1957) left an indelible mark; she cites Ingmar Bergman as her principal influence and “real teacher”. A few years ago, she directed her own documentary about him, Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018).

Her first experience with directing came in 1975 with The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, made alongside Schlöndorff. Adapted from Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novella of the same name, the film is about a housekeeper who is tormented by the media and the state after she sleeps with an alleged terrorist. The film is a mordant study of how a private life can be turned inside out and made to justify unjustifiable acts. Her solo directorial debut, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) – about a young mother who robs a bank in order to save her daycare centre – was a continuation of these ideas and solidified her resolve to direct films. “It was for me [also a] second awakening,” she says, “From then on I never acted again because I reached the idea of what I wanted.”

A few years later, she directed Marianne and Juliane (1981) or, as it was known in Germany, Die bleierne Zeit – “the leaden times”. The film was awarded the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, making von Trotta the first female recipient in its 40-year history. Despite this unprecedented reception, the film is almost impossible to find now and remains sorely underappreciated.

Marianne and Juliane follows the schisms of two symbiotic leftist sisters – Marianne, a journalist working for a women’s magazine, and Juliane, a radical left-wing militant. Over the course of the film, Juliane is imprisoned, goes on a hunger strike and then is found hanging in her prison cell. After Juliane’s death, Marianne, racked with grief, devotes herself to proving that her death wasn’t a suicide. Rather than being driven principally by political actions or events, Marianne and Juliane flows with the rhythms of their fluctuating relationship. From the perspective of Marianne, we witness the sisters struggling with their ideas of liberation, sacrifice and obligation, and the role of the dutiful daughter often so easily switching hands.

The film came out of a long conversation between von Trotta and Christiane Ensslin, the sister of Gudrun Ensslin, who co-founded what would later be known as the Red Army Faction (RAF) – a Marxist armed resistance group responsible for bombings, kidnappings and murders across Germany in the late 1970s. Von Trotta met Christiane at Gudrun’s funeral, after she and other RAF members died by suicide in prison in 1977.

During this period von Trotta was a member of Rote Hilfe, an activist group that offered aid and support to political prisoners. While the group disagreed with the RAF’s violent tactics, they were also critical of the surveillance and repressions of the state. Von Trotta visited political prisoners once a month, sent them essentials and wrote them letters.

“I was a very serious leftist and feminist in the early ’70s and Gudrun once asked me to come with her lawyer and visit her in prison,” says von Trotta. “I didn’t go. I knew she wanted to convince me to continue her legacy – to become her,” von Trotta said in an interview in The Believer magazine. “On the one hand, I didn’t want to disappoint her, she was in prison and unhappy. On the other, I knew I couldn’t say yes.” Christiane initially approached von Trotta and the crew of anthology film Germany in Autumn (about the brutal terrorist activities of 1977) to help her convince cemetery workers to allow Ensslin and her boyfriend – fellow militant Andreas Baader – to be buried in the same grave.

The sisters became a conduit for von Trotta to tell the story of Germany’s recent history: denial after atrocity, the festering wound of fascism and the eruption of violence that exposed the hypocrisies at the heart of West Germany’s new liberal democracy.

This insistence on scrutinising the long shadow of World War II, where Nazism remained in the groundwater but went unspoken, is an ideal that both von Trotta and Bachmann share. Their interest is in how political silences bleed into personal lives, blinker understanding between people and can make us complicit in our own subjugation or unravelling. This may strike some as morose but it is a profound and radical type of sensitivity, which hopes that by exposing cruelties and fractures, something else – mercy, joy, light, justice, humour – will be able to take the place of silence.

This is why, von Trotta tells me, she could only imagine Krieps in the role of Bachmann. She saw the actor in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and was struck by her expression, which could be so serious and determined but would abruptly shift to an incredible smile – both elated and mischievous. “It’s like the sun,” she says.

It reminded her of an old interview with Bachmann, where she spoke intensely about, and with disdain for, the bad behaviours of men. “You could feel that the interviewer [was growing] more and more scared in front of her,” von Trotta says, “and then all of a sudden she’s smiling in this way – so openly and so wonderfully – and said, ‘didn’t you know that?’  ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Letting in the light".

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