Still from Rosa Luxemburg, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (1986) (Copyright New Yorker Films/courtesy Everett Collection)

Margarethe von Trotta emerged in the 1970s as one of the most invigorating European filmmakers, part of the New German Cinema, alongside such directors as Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog. Her generation experienced World War II as small children — von Trotta was born in Berlin in 1942 — and came of age during the turbulent period of the 1960s. As she told me during our phone interview: “In the 1950s, no one told us about our country’s past. When we finally really understood it, we were furious. We wanted to address the older generation about hiding their guilt from us. This made us sometimes more extreme than we should have been, but it led us to a more political vision of our world.”

It was a time not just of reckoning with the painful legacy of the war, but also new crises, such as the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, student protests — notably during the Iranian Shah’s visit to Berlin — the engaged writings of far-left journalist and militant Ulrike Meinhof, and the emergence of the Red Army Faction. Von Trotta’s cinema passionately engaged this political zeitgeist, yet it is also intensely personal and sensual, betraying acute existential preoccupations.

Still from Rosa Luxemburg, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (1986) (copyright New Yorker Films/courtesy Everett Collection)

It is therefore apt that the new film program of von Trotta’s work, titled The Political is Personal, now playing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, is framed by her latest feature, a documentary, Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018), which premiered in Cannes earlier this year. As von Trotta tells us in the film’s voiceover, she first came to Bergman via his masterpiece, The Seventh Seal (1957). The scene she includes to illustrate her introduction to the Swedish filmmaker shows The Seventh Seal’s protagonist, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), encountering Death. The allegorical configuration and the imaginative, pictorial breadth of Bergman’s cinema struck a deep cord with von Trotta. In the documentary, she interviews Bergman’s actress and partner, Liv Ullman; Bergman’s son, Daniel; and various other collaborators. Von Trotta’s own presence during the interviews is low-key, allowing her protagonists to do most of the speaking, and adding pointed personal comments. “He really was a child,” she says at one moment about Bergman. The thread of Bergman as child runs through the entire film, showing how the theme of his own childhood preoccupied him throughout his career and life, not only in the autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982), but also in the tensions he faced with his partners and children.

“Bergman was not only courageous but also anxious,” von Trotta told me. “Sometimes my own feelings are so extreme I find I need two women, two persons, to express them. That’s the feeling I also found in Bergman. He was willing to show the side of himself that he was not proud of, the truth about himself, about the human condition.”

Indeed, the duality present in Bergman emerges as a driving force in much of von Trotta’s work. Sheer Madness (1983), one of the seven films presented in the Quad program, in some small ways seems directly inspired by Bergman’s Persona (1966). In von Trotta’s film, an artistically inclined recluse, Ruth (Angela Winkler), finds support in a daring art professional, Olga (Hanna Schygulla). Ruth is emotionally and psychologically fragile. An early scene shows her conversing with a shrink, and those around her fear that she will never break out from her fiercely guarded shell. Yet Olga’s quietly assertive presence is both a challenge and a balm. One of von Trotta’s great gifts is the ability to always ground her work in specific social settings, which creates a rich cameral drama of jealous husbands, overprotective friends, and cowardly art dealers. This drama is also driven by ideas: Olga and Ruth speak of selfhood and independence, torn between loyalty to others and to self. They are sometimes frightened (Ruth) but also uncompromising in their feminism. These two are not opposites but rather two potentialities that come together. Neither is a pamphleteer type. Their drive is so palpable, as is, at times, their inner sense of systemic oppression. It’s hard not to think of them as ideal heroines for the current anti-glass-ceiling #MeToo moment.

Still from Rosa Luxemburg, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (1986)

Von Trotta commented on the remarkable range of women’s roles in her cinema, spanning not only famous heroines, such as Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg, 1986), or Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt, 2012), but also ordinary women.

“I wanted to show female friendships in my films, just as male friendships are often portrayed,” said von Trotta, who was one of only two female directors involved in the New German Cinema, in my conversation with her. “I didn’t want the women to speak only about the home but to be great heroines, as in a Greek mythos.”

Duality lies at the center of another of her films, Sisters, or the Change of Fate (1979), which revolves around an intense bond of two sisters with clashing personalities. Gudrun Gabriel plays Anna, a university student troubled by morbid thoughts. Anna wants a life that will put her directly in touch with her emotions, and not trap her inside a laboratory or a classroom. Her levelheaded sister, Maria, played by the glorious Jutta Lampe, is fiercely opposed to Anna’s desire to end her studies. Similarly to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), or Persona, the two are locked in interdependency, emotionally strained, and, at times, resentful. Maria is nearing middle age, and when she starts to date, Anna acts out, hysterical. Her tragic death will once again push Maria into solitude, haunting her with apparitions that invoke the sense of mystery, memories, and the otherworldly presence of ghosts, characteristic of Bergman’s intensely spiritual films.

The question of how to lead a moral life, so often present in Bergman’s films against the backdrop of his own strict religious upbringing, comes up directly in von Trotta’s The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978). Christa (Tina Engel) has a handicapped daughter, whose school is threatened by a lack of funds. Christa takes matters into her own hands, robbing a bank. She tries to turn the funds over to a friend — a priest. The two, clearly drawn to each other, exchange anguished arguments about ethics, the limits of one’s direct involvement, and about action as a type of prayer. After a life on the run, and then her apprehension, Christa’s fate ends up in the hands of a young bank assistant. The woman’s false testimony saves Christa from prison — an act of extraordinary generosity, and of sisterhood.

No other film by von Trotta feels as current, despite having been made over three decades ago, as The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), once again featuring Angela Winkler. A shy secretary spends one night with a man hunted by the secret police, and has her life turned upside down by a relentless media witch-hunt. The sheer manipulation and persecution directed against the stern, increasingly brave Katharina makes it one of von Trotta’s most nerve-wracking films. Von Trotta remains close in spirit to the eponymous novel by Heinrich Böll on which the film is based, focusing much of her attention on the media circus, and on the state’s intimidation tactics. What rights are we willing to give up to feel safe, and what do we sacrifice when we give in to fear?, von Trotta asks again and again. In today’s climate, these are questions very much worth dwelling on.

Still from Rosa Luxemburg, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (1986)

Margarethe von Trotta: The Political is Personal continues at Quad Cinema through November 8, 2018. 

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.