I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa discuss their history together, the role of radical women in Germany and their latest film, Hannah Arendt.
Since the 1960s, German actress, writer, and film director Margarethe von Trotta has put out an impressive number of intricate close-up portraits of women—always fervent and independent thinkers, ahead of their era, and determined to widen their more or less restricted radius of action. Many of Von Trotta’s films take place in 20th-century Germany at critical junctures, in times of repression and violence, or at the cusp of historic change. Rosa Luxemburg (1986) takes us to the days of the pre-communist Spartacus League of 1919; Marianne and Juliane (1981) to the 1970s of the Red Army Faction, Germany’s militant extreme left; Rosenstrasse (2003) to 1943 Berlin and the Holocaust; and The Other Woman(2006) to post-wall Germany coming to terms with its split personalities.
Von Trotta tends to not dwell on illustrating the tense, riotous, or terrifying streets of an era; she rather zooms in on its human faces. As viewers, what we see and hear are less the gunfire and the shouts of a time period than the protagonists’ most subtle interactions, their shared thoughts, and, often, simply silences. A decisive moment, an instance of personal or political upheaval might only be reflected in the movement of an eye or the twitch of a facial muscle. It is this minute detail, this very intimacy and Hautnähe (closeness to the skin) that make for the human largeness of Von Trotta’s films. The psychological acuity she brings to her characters, along with her inquisitive and unbiased approach to “historicized” figures, are what make her works so memorable and engrossing.
Von Trotta’s latest feature, Hannah Arendt, looks again at Germany and its darkest years, but this time from New York and through the eyes of German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, who fled her country and found exile in the United States. The film focuses on a distinct and challenging period in Arendt’s life, the years around her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 and her theory of the “banality of evil,” which resulted in great controversy and affected Arendt’s life and work for years to come.
While Von Trotta has worked with many exceptional German performers (among them Jutta Lampe, Katja Riemann, Hanna Schygulla, and Maria Schrader), the actor who has appeared most frequently in her films is Barbara Sukowa, who is superb here as a bold, vulnerable, dignified, shaken, and brilliant Hannah Arendt.
Sabine Russ Barbara, you are based in New York, but Margarethe, you are here from Germany for the official opening of your film Hannah Arendt in the United States.
Margarethe von Trotta Yes. The film was sold in 30 countries—Mexico, Japan … and they all want us to come and promote the film. We could go everywhere (only the Arab countries are not interested). This morning I was invited to Santiago, Chile. But we can’t go everywhere; we have to go on with filmmaking and not only speak about what we already did.
SR You two have a long history of working together.
MvT This is the sixth film we’ve done together since I cast Barbara in the role of Marianne as Gudrun Ensslin. That was in Die Bleierne Zeit (or Marianne and Juliane) in 1981. I knew Barbara from the Fassbinder movies.
SR After making films about several headstrong and unrelenting women like Rosa Luxemburg, the Ensslin sisters, Hildegard von Bingen—all of whom were played by Barbara Sukowa—Hannah Arendt is another quite challenging role.
MvT Very challenging. I feared Hannah Arendt and it took a long time to make the film. I wrote a part of the script in my relatives’ apartment in New York and I had a big portrait of Hannah on the wall—with a cigarette. I used to say to my sister-in-law, “Oh, she is so not friendly with me.” (_laughter_)
Barbara Sukowa I had the same experience. I had a photo of Hannah on my desk while we were working on the movie. At some point I just had to turn it around—I couldn’t stand the way she was looking at me so critically. But now she looks friendly. I think we just projected our fear onto her.
MvT Lotte Köhler, Arendt’s close friend and editor, was very helpful in the process. She told us things that you don’t find in Hannah’s biographies or in her letters. Lotte was very fond of the idea of Barbara playing Hannah’s part. Hannah liked Rosa Luxemburg and Lotte liked the way Barbara played Rosa in the film. When Lotte Köhler died two years ago, just before we started filming, all of a sudden I had the feeling that Hannah Arendt was now with us.
SR Lotte Köhler released her to you, so to speak?
MvT Perhaps she went to Hannah and said, “It’s okay for them to make a film about you, I know them, you can trust them; they are sympathetic and intelligent.”
SR You have made many memorable films about women who changed the way we look at certain things—among them a 12th-century saint, a revolutionary socialist, a revolutionary terrorist, and a spy for the Stasi. What was it that drew you to the political theorist Hannah Arendt?
MvT She is one of the most interesting figures of the 20th century. And after I had done several films about German history of the last century, Hannah Arendt fit in a way that allowed me to speak about something I couldn’t speak about before—she is looking back, while Rosa Luxemburg was looking forward. Rosa was full of utopian ideas and hopes and she was imprisoned and in the end murdered. There was a real contradiction between what she was expecting and envisioning and the suffering she endured. Then there were the women in Rosenstrasse, they lived through “the dark time,” as Hannah described those years. That was really the middle of the century, the Second World War, the Holocaust: the dark time. And then came Hannah Arendt, a German Jew, who experienced and survived this time, and she is looking back, trying to understand it. No one can understand the crimes of the Nazis of course, but she looked back not in anger but asking, “How could they?”
SR You played Hannah’s role so intensely, one could say genuinely. The film shows both the joy and torment of thought, of inquiry—
BS Yes, that’s in the script of course. But as an actress I have to really understand what was going on in her head, or at least I have to imagine what was going on in her head. When I approached her, I first read her books and did a lot of research on her work, on what she was writing about, trying to find out what her position was. The next step was to learn about her personal life, which you find out in letters to her friends and the letters to her husband. So you kind of build that person for yourself. You have to find an entrance for yourself—where do I connect to her?
SR There were many silent scenes where Arendt is just immersed in thought—a mind rather than a body.
BS In life I actually have a really hard time hiding my thoughts. People can easily read me—if I’m angry about something, it’s visible. Maybe that was good for this role. When I was thinking something it came across. But this also has to do with the way the film is built. There are these spaces of thinking—when Hannah is lying on her couch smoking, or when she’s watching Eichmann at the trial. These are the moments where also the audience gets a chance to reflect. There is this quiet space where the viewer is let into the process. No quick editing or music is glued over it.
SR It is rare in film nowadays to find this slowness and these breathing spaces.
MvT Arendt’s thinking position was to lie down while smoking and looking up to the ceiling. This is an actual description by Mary McCarthy.
SR How much did Hannah’s character change from the script once you started filming?
MvT We followed the script but Barbara is a thinking person and not only obeying a director’s orders. She knows exactly what to do.
BS Of course there’s the script but then, when you come onto the set, it’s always a different situation. Then you have other actors. That changes and stimulates things. If you are face-to-face with Janet McTeer something more is triggered in you. For me it’s very important to work with good actors, to have somebody to riff off, to respond to. When you are open to that it enhances and changes the role.
SR In all of Margaret’s films you’ve played these really potent roles. There is some deep connection between the women you have portrayed; they are all rebels in a way, ahead of their time.
BS All of them were stepping over some border. They wanted more than was given to them in their time and they were all thinkers. But as an actress I have to make them very differently as people, the way they move their bodies, the way they look out. Hildegard von Bingen, for instance, was in a monastery where everything is very quiet around her. So I’m not moving my eyes a lot. Hannah Arendt is much more alert, she has a very different way of looking at people. Hildegard has a more meditative demeanor. This comes all together in the way the movie is filmed, in the costumes and in the set. Rosa was a warm person, she loved plants—
MvT —and birds.
BS It’s a whole different thing in your body that get’s stimulated and triggered by the outside.
MvT And Rosa Luxemburg also had a physical deficiency, she limped.
BS There is one thing they all have in common that’s really interesting to me—they all had, at a very young age, a traumatic experience. Rosa was sick, she spent a year in bed; Hildegard was taken away from her family; and Hannah Arendt lost her father at the age of six. That might have resulted for them in intellectualizing things, fleeing reality, and going into the world of thinking or imagining.
SR Was this a connection you were conscious of, Margarethe?
MvT I approached these women as historical figures but it is an unconscious process too. I think my choices have a lot to do with me, which is normal. You can’t escape yourself. The script for Hannah Arendt I wrote with Pamela Katz, but Rosa Luxemburg and Vision, the film about Hildegard von Bingen, I wrote alone, the script is all me. They all had a loss in their childhood but they also searched for something that was not meant for them in their time or went way beyond what their era offered to them. They wanted something that was not then granted to them as women and that is interesting to me.
After every film or Q & A, people come up to me with suggestions—“Here is another female historical figure who is perfect for you. You have to do it.” Yesterday, someone said, “I wrote a book about Communist resistance in Germany, you should make a film about this woman.” They can’t imagine that I’m not just making films about women that were important in history. There has to be something more for me and it’s also significant that Barbara played them all. I always say to Barbara, “You have to do it”—because there is a line that connects our lives to these women.
SR Your films don’t evaluate or judge these women’s paths or their historical circumstances. You don’t monumentalize the characters, which would remove them from us. Instead you are bringing them intimately close in a human way. There are achievements and failures in equal measure. They are shown with both their vulnerabilities and their strengths.
MvT None of my characters are portrayed like heroes or put on pedestals. I could have done Rosa Luxemburg as a revolutionary hero but that was not interesting to me. I actually could have done a coproduction with the former GDR. They were eager to step in. But I had a friend, an expert on Rosa Luxemburg in East Germany, who gave me access to a lot of material, among them letters, which were not yet published at the time. But my friend, who was even in the Communist party, said, “Don’t do your film with my country. They will force you to do a pedestal movie, to make Rosa Luxemburg into—”
SR —a bronze statue. That’s what she was for us in the East. I grew up in East Germany. There was only one official story of Rosa Luxemburg that seemed like eternally written in stone. You made your film in the mid-80s, before the wall came down.
BS There was not much material in the West in 1985. We bought our books about Rosa Luxemburg in East Germany.
MvT And it was my triumph that after the film you could buy books about Rosa Luxemburg in West Germany too. Suddenly the bookstores had her writings, her letters, and so on. Same with the Hannah Arendt film, now you can find her book about the Eichmann trial in the stores. More people are reading Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem than before. Even when it first came out in 1963, it was not as successful as after this film.
SR How do feel about historical accuracy—if something like that exists—versus your interpretation of these figures?
MvT I’m not a historian and I’m not a documentarist. I’m a fiction-maker, even if I’m trying to be true and to be as close as possible to the person I’m describing. But I have the freedom to mix it up. There are some scenes where we put two people in one. For instance, the dialogue when Hannah comes to Jerusalem and her friend Kurt Blumenfeld turns his back to her is from a letter exchange she had with Gershom Scholem. Because Scholem is not in the film, we put his lines in the mouth of Blumenfeld. These are the liberties you can take as a fiction filmmaker compared to a historian. When I describe a person like Hannah, I don’t have to come from today’s perspective and from what we know about her at this point or take into account the critiques she has gotten on her work—no, as a filmmaker I just go with her. I’m looking with her eyes, describing her with her own eyes. And the people who are criticizing her, they are right there with her in the film. As a spectator you can choose: Am I on her side or on the side of Blumenfeld?
SR People don’t read as much these days but depend more on bits from information networks and on images for their knowledge of history. For many viewers, your film might be their only encounter with a historical figure like Hannah Arendt—
MvT But I’m not a teacher and I don’t want to give lessons to anybody. I’m reading all the time and with great pleasure. For me books are like bread, I can’t live without them. Hannah Arendt wrote so many things and it’s sometimes difficult to understand her. You really have to concentrate. It’s not like novels, which you can “digest” much more easily.
In my film, I wanted to give the sensation of the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of trying to reach the depth of something instead of just flying over it. In the film you get the feeling that Hannah can just go deeper and deeper, that she understands more and more. And if you give the viewers the chance to go with her, they feel the pleasure and the satisfaction too. Not only because of what they have seen but because they made an effort to follow her.
BS One of my sons, who by no means loves every film I do—I don’t think Hildegard von Bingen was on top of his list—came out of Hannah Arendt and said, “You know, this is the kind of movie I want to see with my friends and then go out for dinner and talk about it for hours.” You say you don’t want to teach but your films are invitations to ask questions and to talk.
SR I read that Rosenstrasse—your film about non-Jewish wives standing up for their Jewish husbands who had been imprisoned in a Berlin factory building in 1943, awaiting deportation—stirred up a lot of controversy in Germany. It was said that the events shown in your film didn’t really happen that way.
MvT There was one historian who spoke against the film, saying that the Jews held at Rosenstrasse were not meant to go to Auschwitz. But all the people I spoke with—there were still eyewitnesses, when I made the film in 2003—were convinced that the prisoners were headed for the concentration camps. But even if this weren’t the case, the women couldn’t know that. In the film you are there with them. The focus is on their protest and on the fact that they had the courage to stand up for their men, their Jewish husbands. They came back day after day and eventually it became a demonstration. It was a strong signal and that was the point of the film.
SR And another point was to ask, “If such protest was possible, why wasn’t there more of it?” What has been your experience with the historians’ response in Germany to the Hannah Arendt film?
MvT There have been some historians who complained about the film not being based on new findings, like, “Now we know that Eichmann was much more intelligent and that he played up a role during the trial.”
BS But it actually doesn’t matter, it’s about the phenomenon of this type of person. So if he wasn’t the obedient bureaucrat he pretended he was, there were hundreds of people who were like that.
MvT When film critics are not so familiar with a subject, like Hannah Arendt’s work, in order to not embarrass themselves, they prefer to have historians write about the film. And then the historians “know it better.”
BS As an actor or a director, when you are so involved in your subject, you really know quite a lot about it. And of course if someone is writing a review, you can’t expect the writer to know everything. For example, Mary McCarthy had said that Hannah Arendt lecturing was like watching Sarah Bernardt, the great French actress, who was really over the top. But we made a decision to not show her that way in the film. Just recently somebody sent me a review from the Süddeutsche Zeitung that said I played Hannah way too “pathetisch,” meaning exalted, “which Hannah Arendt wasn’t.” I thought, wait a minute, first of all, she actually was exalted and, second, I actually didn’t play her like that.
MvT I remember the New York Times critic writing about Rosenstrasse, criticizing that I showed no men protesting on the street. She said I did that because I’m a feminist and only want to show women. But obviously, all the non-Jewish men were at the front, they were soldiers and couldn’t have been there. And then she wrote, I only show the Jews as victims while they also had weapons. That negative review really affected the reception of the film in the US.
SR After getting so close to her life and her thinking, how does Hannah Arendt live on for you?
BS I’m still reading her. I still try to understand certain things about her. It’s strange, when I play a character I really don’t know what part stays in me. For me it’s kind of over when the film is finished.
SR I guess you have to make room for the next thing.
BS I also forget a lot. Some of it is really a pity because I invest so much when I’m working on these roles. It’s great to read about the character and dive into all the material, figure it out, read between the lines, try to get the essence of somebody, try to get the mask of this person, find out what was done for others, what was their real temperature. It would be so nice to have that as a library in my head because for other things it would be good to be able to access these experiences, but then it’s like a faint memory.
SR Maybe it has to be like that.
BS I should ask Meryl Streep if she has the same problem—after all the characters she has played. (_laughter_) Some essential stuff stays, some basic facts, but the details are just gone.
SR For many viewers you will be so identified with these characters you have played. You are almost inseparable. But you just leave them behind.
BS There were quite a few people who were against my casting as Hannah Arendt.
BS Because I really don’t look like her. It was even more strange with Rosa Luxemburg. There was all this resistance against my playing her part but eventually people thought Rosa Luxemburg looked like me because there are not so many photos of her.
You know, the older I get the more mysterious acting becomes to me. There are all the things you do, but then there are also all the things you don’t do that have something to do with it. Hannah Arendt actually said this one thing, which I thought was so amazing: You are the least alone when you are all with yourself and when you do nothing the most happens—or something like that. So there is a lot happening when you don’t do anything. I don’t know what happens sometimes, it just kind of flows into the performance. It’s not something I consciously determine.
MvT It’s like Buddhist meditation. Your brain works the most vividly when you are meditating, when you think of nothing. Scientists measuring brain activity found the least brain activity in couples in love. (laughter)
SR Was it difficult to get the original footage of the Eichmann trial?
MvT No, that was easy. It’s all in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive in Jerusalem. Spielberg had bought the entire original video record of the Adolf Eichmann trial. The foundation was very helpful and they gave me the material for not too much money. Also, the Israelis were co-producers; we got subsidized by the state and also by the city of Jerusalem. They were in the boat with us from the start. Whereas we tried to get money for writing the script from Filmförderungsanstalt [German agency for film funding] and we got rejected with the reason that the film was not commercial enough.
SR What are you working on now?
MvT Going back to sisterhood. Making a film about sisters. The first one we did was Marianne and Juliane 
BS You made another sister film before, Schwestern oder die Balance des Glücks .
MvT And then there was Fürchten und Lieben , filmed in Italy, which was an adaptation of the Three Sisters by Anton Chechov. And then I did Die Schwester [2009/10] and now comes the fifth sister film. This one has to do with my own history.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee