By Christina Schultz
“Margarethe von Trotta is two things: the most important woman director to emerge from the New German Cinema, and narrative cinema’s foremost feminist filmmaker. Bold claims indeed – but irrefutable ones in my opinion, for there is no other director, male or female, who has matched von Trotta’s single-minded determination to show cinema audiences real female characters.” - Ben Andac, Senses of Cinema
When you think of German Cinema, I bet the names of many male directors come to your mind: Fritz Lang (Metropolis 1927, M 1930), Volker Schlöndorff (Young Törless 1966, The Tin Drum 1979), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul 1974, The Marriage of Maria Braun 1979), Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo 1982, Grizzly Man 2005) and Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas 1984, Wings of Desire 1987).
Perhaps you know other male directors to add to the list but can you name any female directors from Germany (besides Leni Riefenstahl)?
To get you started, here’s one I would like to introduce you: my personal favorite female filmmaker from Deutschland, Margarethe von Trotta (1942-).
Associated with the “New German Cinema” from the 1960s to the early 1980s and aforementioned directors Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlöndorff, Wenders and others, Margarethe von Trotta is one of the few female counterparts to the heavily male dominated auteur cinema (Autorenkino) at that time. Her films tell stories of women and therefore her work has often been labelled as part of the Frauenfilm (Women’s Film) movement, which includes other female directors such as Helke Sander and Helma Sanders-Brahms. Margarethe von Trotta’s films, like those of her female filmmaker contemporaries in Germany, portray strong, emancipated women, usually sisters or close friends, and can certainly be considered feminist, which is why I recommend that you, the Femfilmfam, familiarize yourself with her works.
Below is a very small overview of some of her key films. There are, however, many more you could watch and all would be relevant if you are interested in films made by women about women.
For example, her film Heller Wahn/Sheer Madness (1983) stars the venerable Hanna Schygulla as Olga and Angela Winkler as Ruth. The two women form a bond closer than the ones they have to the men, or any other people in their lives. Olga helps Ruth free herself from the constraints and limitations placed upon her by her husband and Ruth’s subsequent transformation shows how powerful a friendship between two women can be. Another film with a similarly powerful message of female liberation and emancipation is Die bleierne Zeit/Marianne and Juliane (1981), starring Barbara Sukowa (with whom von Trotta has often worked) and Jutta Lampe. The characters, Marianne and Juliane, are loosely based on Red Army Faction member Gudrun Ensslin and her sister Christiane respectively. Marianne leaves her husband and young child to “join a terrorist group, while Juliane is active in the women’s movement and works for a feminist magazine”. Definitely not your ordinary sisters. Both of them fight for what I would consider ultimately boils down to similar causes, i.e. more control and liberation from the man and the system, but in opposite ways. A more recent film is the biopic Hannah Arendt (2012) chronicling the fascinating and somewhat controversial life of the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), played by none other than Barbara Sukowa. Arendt was an intellectual through-and-through and wrote important works about the Nazis, totalitarianism, the crimes against humanity and the “banality of evil” (also the title of one of her most famous works).
As you can see, Margarethe von Trotta’s film subjects, whether real or fictional, do not fully partake in the patriarchal society, even though it still exists. The women in her films, much like the women who play the characters and the woman who directed and wrote the films, choose to see the world differently and act according to their own desires. The liberation of the characters in her films has a liberating effect on us the viewers, but not just the female audience members, I would argue. Margarethe von Trotta’s films, then and now, challenge all of us to think about what life might be like were we to change the way women were treated and the way they interacted with the world around them. If you consciously choose not to follow the “rules,” if you remove the concept of woman as object, which I argue her films do by and large, we see something revolutionary: unobjectified women represented as worthy beings with their own stories, independent of men. That is why von Trotta’s films inspire, empower, challenge women to stand up, take action and play with the boys by not playing with them.
Please feel free to leave your comments or to ask me for further feminist film recommendations!
And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and on Instagram (@femfilmfans).
 Andac, Ben. "Margarethe von Trotta." Senses of Cinema, Issue 23, December 2002, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/von_trotta/.
 Knight, Julia. New German Cinema: Images of a Generation. London: Wallflower, 2004.
The entire film Heller Wahn/Sheer Madness, as well as Die bleierne Zeit/Marianne and Juliane, are available to watch on YouTube! Happy viewing :-)