Interview        MARGARETHE von TROTTA


Margarethe von Trotta


Margarethe von TrottaMargarethe von Trotta

To get to Margarethe von Trotta's apartment in Paris, you need to find your way to Boulevard de Clichy, then skip the tourist throngs around Pigalle by turning south to the quiet streets of the 9th arondissement. The street number she gave me over the phone the day before turned out to be wrong—or, more likely, I wrote it down incorrectly while holding up the line at the reception desk of the drab Montmartre hostel I was staying in. "Who are you looking for?" asked the concierge who emerged at the wooden gate of the building. "Oh, she's next door." Are you sure? "Madame, I should know. I live here." At the next gate the code finally works, and I go through the courtyard and find the building. Von Trotta opens the door herself and takes my coat. She is not alone. "Meet my other son," she says of a tall, affable man who comes out of the office (in fact her biographer and long-time collaborator, she later explains). He offers to bring us tea, then leaves us alone. We will only occasionally hear the sound of his typing in the other room.

It has been a hectic year for the director. Hannah Arendt, her latest film, is opening around the world, so she finds herself only rarely at home. The film is the latest addition to her forty-five-year-long cinematic career which began when she was an actress in what would later be known as the German New Wave, including starring in many films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and her former husband, Volker Schlöndorff. Her first directorial credit was a collaboration with Schlöndorff, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), a film about an ideological witch hunt carried out by the right-wing tabloids. Her first independently written and directed feature was the The Second Awakening of Christina Klages (1978), with a very political yet goofy heroine at its center, who resorts to law-breaking in order to save her own modest piece of utopia. With films like Sisters, Or the Balance of Happiness (1979), Marianne and Juliane (1981), Sheer Madness (1983), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), and Vision (2009), she established a unique and recognizable style which involves a philosophy of filmmaking that is women-centered, politically conscious, and curious about other arts and historiography.

I have been watching her films since my late teens and if there is one thing that attracts me the most, it's the air of freedom they have—they're films in which women breathe. Perhaps von Trotta's films offer a glimpse of a post-patriarchal cinema.

Just over seventy, she is deeply beautiful. I resist the urge to ask her about her hair, which is as spectacular now as it was in her role in Coup de Grâce—and instead I begin with Hannah Arendt, which opens in the US on May 29.


THE BELIEVER: I loved how you zoomed in on Arendt's unwillingness to be the spokesperson for a collective. She wouldn't do ethnicity, and she wouldn't do nationalism. It was the toughest thing to refuse when she was covering the Eichmann trial. So you follow this incredible case of personal integrity... When you and co-writer Pam Katz amassed all the material, how did you decide to follow this particular thread—an individual being ostracized?

MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: In the beginning we thought we'd do a biopic. We would have started with her entering Heidegger's seminar when she was eighteen and then go through her life. We'd have Heidegger more present than he is now—in the film he only appears in two flashbacks. But then we realized it would not work at all, we would have to jump from one episode to another and there's a lot to tell. In 1933 she had to leave Germany for Prague, then went from Prague to Paris; when the Germans invaded France, they were treated like Nazis and put into an internment camp; then she fled from there to Marseille, from Marseille to Lisbon.

In Lisbon, she was lucky to get a US visa for her and her husband. One love was Heidegger; then she had her first husband, whom she didn't really love; they divorced in Paris, after which she met her second husband and so on... then finally came to America and stayed there. That would have been two hours already without going into her philosophical work at all.

We decided to take one period of her life and be there, precise and profound. And this episode with the Eichmann trial offered itself. It was probably the greatest controversy of her life. For me as a German filmmaker, this confrontation with our past was the most important moment. Through this event, you could really demonstrate her way of thinking and her way of being independent. She would not be put into an ideology or a philosophical school of thought. She was still very linked to Heidegger in her thinking, and to Kant and Plato, but she was forging her own philosophical path. There's one phrase I like most in her writing: thinking without a banister. That is the film, summarized: think on your own.

BLVR: A lot of your films center on women who are very international and refuse the idea of a homeland. Am I right to assume it's because you yourself are like that? A German filmmaker who chooses to live in Paris, and films in different countries...

MVT: I also lived in Rome for ten years. Perhaps that comes from my mother... She was born in Moscow, but was stateless. Her family lived under the Russian czars and when the Revolution happened and Communists took over, they had to leave because they were nobles. For me the "von" in von Trotta is just a name, but it was an aristocratic title then. They became poor and passport-less very quickly. My mother was stateless her entire life. When I was born, I received the stateless passport too. I became German only with my first marriage. So I know what it is to be stateless and to be a stranger in your surroundings. Even though I was born in Berlin, I was a stranger there.

This was all very boring because for every voyage I needed a visa—when I was eighteen, I came here to France from Düsseldorf to study and had to take the transition visa to cross Belgium and then get a visa for France. Visas were always expensive and I was an impoverished student.

Once I had no money for the transition visa traveling from Paris to Düsseldorf and only had some change for the city tram ticket to get from the Düsseldorf train station to my mother's place... and there was a very severe employee of the railway at the Belgian crossing who got me out of the train—"You have no transition visa, so out!" Middle of the night, dark border crossing station, there was nothing around... I had to wait until the morning there, then hitch-hike back to Paris.

BLVR: This was in the early sixties?

MVT: Yes. And the border guard went on and on about "You damn Germans, Nazis, what you did in the War..." But you see, I tried telling him, you are throwing me out because I am not German and have no German papers. He wouldn't hear it.

But to go back to Hannah Arendt, she herself was stateless for a long time. We have her say this in the film too. I can understand how she felt being in America without speaking the language at the beginning. I wanted to put the two languages in the film: when they speak German among the German intellectuals, they'd get into these rowdy debates, and when she speaks in English, she sounds very different, and has a strong German accent. They all had impossibly strong accents back then. When you hear Thomas Mann speak English—he also was an émigré in America—he sounds terrible. They all came there from Europe having learned Greek and Latin and French because they often travelled to France or lived there part of the year, but never had any reason to study English. So they had to learn it very quickly as adults. Arendt, when she moved to the US, worked as au pair in order to learn English. Her husband refused to speak the language. As the war went on, they realized they were there to stay.

BLVR: It's never stated in as many words by anybody in the film, but it is clear in that Arendt was pretty much the only woman in the company of political thinkers that she held.

MVT: Already when she was a student of Heidegger, there were very few women studying philosophy. She was one of two or three in his class.


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