On the occasion of the European Film Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, actress, director and screenwriter Margarethe von Trotta and producer Bettina Brokemper, member of the Board, remember their first encounter and talk about the danger of being put into the corner for “strong women”, producing in Europe and choosing the right subject.
Bettina Brokemper: We first met halfway, in Brussels; you came from Paris, I came from Cologne. Two film women, always on the move in Europe. In the meantime, more than ten years have passed during which we have repeatedly found back to each other in different projects. What does filmmaking in Europe mean to you against the background that you live in Germany and France, and also lived in Italy for many years?
Margarethe von Trotta: I remember well our first meeting in Brussels, in a restaurant on the Grand Place. Opposite a house where Karl Marx is said to have lived for a while. And I remember how surprised I was that you had read Hannah Arendt’s writings, of course not all of them, even I don’t know all of them to this day. But until then I had only met people who had never heard of her, except for Martin Wiebel, former editor at [German broadcaster] WDR, who had really pushed me into the project. In any case, it was immediately clear to me that in you I had found a companion, and not just for this one film, a European like me.
Yes, I lived in Rome for many years, shot three films there, all with an all-Italian crew, but with actors from several countries. Those were the conditions at the time when several countries participated in the financing. We called it “Europudding”. Still, this way of making films was more pleasant than the conditions today. When several countries participate in the financing, not only the actors but also the team members have to be cast from the respective countries, which led to the fact that in my last film I had never worked with any of the crew before, which gave me restless nights at the beginning, but for which I was rewarded afterwards.
BB: Half a century as an author and director. In the most diverse constellations. Sometimes in a team with producers, some male, some female. Have you noticed a difference in business, personal or creative interaction when working with men or women?
MvT: At the beginning of my work as a director, yes. The men didn’t think that as a woman I was competent enough. That changed after I managed almost without overtime and consequently never went over budget. Basically, I can only praise my producers, most of them trusted me and tried to help me.
BB: What criteria do you use to select the personalities to whom you dedicate a film? When does it click, and your interest is aroused in such a lasting way that you want to dedicate time to such a person for years?
MvT: Of course, I would have to distinguish between the historical personalities and the people in my films as a whole, i.e. do I have to approach a person first or do I already know them, from my life or because I invent them. Rosa Luxemburg was brought to me from the outside, as was Hannah Arendt. Making a film about the life of Hildegard von Bingen, on the other hand, was my own wish, which I was only able to fulfil relatively late, because in the 1980s the times were still too politicised for a producer to be able to warm to the Middle Ages. When I am offered a project about an important historical personality, I always ask for time to think about it, to be able to deal with this person and to find out whether an approach is possible. Only when I have the feeling that I can do justice to this woman, because up to now it has always been women, do I agree. In doing so, I never have the implacable gaze of a historian, but that of a “companion”.
BB: You were always a filmmaker who accompanied social currents with an alert mind. For example, also the RAF* period of the 70s in Germany. How do you experience the danger of increasing right-wing currents in Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries? Was political cinema more active back then and would you be interested in taking a stand on film?
MvT: It scares me. I would like to make a film about these changes in Western European countries, but I need a person with whom I can identify, and I don’t find that person among the right-wingers and new nationalists. So, it would have to be a character who stands up against these new tendencies.
BB: You are known as a director who usually deals intensively with women’s biographies. Many offers you receive are certainly based on this fact. On the one hand, as an artist, you certainly want to be “a brand”. On the other hand, a creative person fears nothing more than being pigeonholed. How do you experience this dilemma? Is it a curse or a blessing?
MvT: Yes, that is a trauma for me. Being relegated to the box of “strong women”. I feel it’s a restriction. I have made many other films, such as FRIENDS AND HUSBANDS or LOVE AND FEAR, in which I show women as vulnerable and helpless. However, I also try to discover moments of helplessness or despair in the so-called strong women, without these “dark” sides they don’t really interest me.
BB: It is striking that your films about women with a real background are fictional. Your film about Ingmar Bergmann is a documentary. Is that a coincidence or is there a strategy behind the fact that you approached the man and “professional colleague” in a documentary way?
MvT: That was also one of the films I would never have chosen for myself. My admiration for Bergman was too great for that. But after the producers asked me to approach him as personally as possible, out of gratitude, so to speak, that he had included one of my films in the list of his favourites, and I was the only one of the directors named in it who was still alive, I took the risk. With his film THE SEVENTH SEAL he had triggered in me the desire to make films. And the fact that he was a man was unavoidable at the time. There were no women making films, or only very few. The Italian films or those of the Nouvelle Vague that aroused my admiration were films made by men. But at least I can name one woman, Barbara Loden, with her film WANDA, who gave me courage because she was, as I was at the time, an actress and married to a director, Elia Kazan.
BB: What advice would you give to young female directors starting out in the film industry? What would you have liked to know back then, when you were at the beginning of your career? What experiences do you wish you could have done without?
MvT: What would I have liked to know? That perseverance is more important than talent. Doing without … I could have certainly done without being relegated to the “women’s film” corner along with other women who made films in Germany in the 70s, because that meant something like “as a man, you don’t need to watch those.”
BB: How do you assess the current state of German cinema in general and arthouse cinema in particular within the European cinema landscape?
MvT: Since I live more in Paris than in Germany, I am still happy about the wonderful cinephilia of the French. I was afraid that it would be damaged by the pandemic, but fortunately that is not the case. While in Germany cinematic art has never really been able to hold its own against theatre or opera as “art”, you only have to look at the French newspapers on the day of the programme change and the pages of film criticism and presentation to see the difference from Germany.
BB: How do you view the relationship between streamers and cinema? As an extension of the work on offer or as a threat to the cinema experience? Can Netflix and co. entice you?
MvT: I can only answer with Bergman, who said on the occasion of his appearance at the founding of the European Film Academy: “Long live the cinematographic art!”
BB: I just had the great pleasure of making another film with you: INGEBORG BACHMANN – JOURNEY INTO THE DESERT. It was an incredibly exhausting (filming) journey through many countries, the filming took us from Jordan to Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. What do you remember the most?
MvT: Yes, after the initial fears of having to shoot in so many different countries and with a team I didn’t know yet, I was ultimately amazed and relieved, I said so, that we all managed to survive this journey not only into the desert, but through Europe. Of course, you were also a great help to me. I remember almost every moment of this adventure, my special joy, even today when I think of them, are the actors, Vicky Krieps and Ronald Zehrfeld. I had never worked with them before either. The fact that they trusted me so much that they could “surrender” themselves to their characters to be portrayed still fills me with wonder and gratitude.
*RAF: Rote Armee Fraktion or Red Army Faction, a West German far-left Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla group engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades (1970 – 98).