Leading feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta turns 75

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Launching a solo career

As the wife and collaborator of director Volker Schlöndorff, her producer wasn't enthused when she tried to start directing her own films: "Why don't you continue co-writing with your husband and acting? You had such a nice arrangement," was the reaction. Margarethe von Trotta still managed to direct her first film, "The Second Awakening of Christa Klages" in 1978 - but with a different producer.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

40 years and 24 films later

"There wasn't enough confidence in women at the time," Margarethe von Trotta later said. Things have changed since, she feels: "I believe that nowadays we don't have to fear that women are being underrated. The old conflicts, arbitrary acts of paternalism, still continue, but in private."

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Strong women

Her favorite actresses, like Barbara Sukowa or Hanna Schygulla (left on picture, with von Trotta) were women with strong personalities. The filmmaker became good friends with many of them, including with the journalist Christiane Ensslin, who she met while working on "Marianne and Juliane," a film which depicts a fictionalized account of RAF terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and her sister Christiane.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Successful team: von Trotta und Brokemper

New actresses employed by Margarethe von Trotta include German stars Katja Riemann and Maria Schrader. For her 2013 film, "Hannah Arendt," von Trotta worked together with film producer Bettina Brokemper (photo). A successful collaboration: the film obtained several awards.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Strong-willed women

Margarethe von Trotta's films often depict history's strong and unfaltering women, such as Gudrun Ensslin, Rosa Luxemburg (picture from her 1986 film), Hildegard von Bingen and Hannah Arendt. However, she claims the selection of those characters wasn't planned: "Originally, Fassbinder was to direct 'Rosa Luxemburg.' The characters come to me - not the other way around," she once said.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

A great love: Volker Schöndorff

During her 20-year marriage to Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta worked with him as an actress, co-director and screenwriter. Together they shot "A Free Woman" (1972), one of Germany's first feminist films. "We shared a passion for the French language, for film and politics, we were meant for each other," - that's how Schlöndorff described the time they spent together on his website.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Still friends today

They separated in 1991, but the two great filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta remained friends to this day. They are pictured here meeting at the Berlinale in 2014.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Enge Bindung an langjährige Weggefährten

Filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder discovered the stage actress Barbara Sukowa and recruited her for his film "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980). Afterwards, she starred in several films by von Trotta, including her award-winning performance in "Marianne and Juliane" (photo). Sukowa's depiction of Rosa Luxemburg also earned her the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986.

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

Seven films together since

Both women have left Germany. Barbara Sukowa has been living in the US since 1992, and Margarethe von Trotta lives in Paris. But living on separate continents hasn't affected their friendship. Most lately, Barbara Sukowa played the main role opposite Katja Riemann in von Trotta's latest and highly personal film, "The Misplaced World" (2015).

Margarethe von Trotta: a life in front and behind the camera

New projects in the making

Margarethe von Trotta is now preparing her next film and working on a documentary on scriptwriter and director Ingmar Bergman, whose films had also inspired von Trotta to become a filmmaker, back when she was 18 years old.

The first female filmmaker to achieve international acclaim, Margarethe von Trotta is referred to as a "leading force" of the New German Cinema movement. As she turns 75, here are the highlights of her career.

In 2016, only 20 per cent of film directors were women - and that in spite of the fact that nearly half of all students at film academies are women. That's the result of a new study carried out by the Filmförderungsanstalt (FFA), Germany’s national film funding institution.

The study, however, could not explain why some female directors manage to be so successful. Among them: Margarethe von Trotta, who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

She began her career in 1975. Awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1981, she became the first female filmmaker to achieve international acclaim. Over the last 40 years, Margarethe von Trotta has received nearly 30 awards - proof of her endurance and dedication to her own will.

Fleeing from bourgeois narrow-mindedness

In 1960s Germany, the typical career trajectory of a woman looked clear: high school, office job, marriage, and housewife. And Margarethe von Trotta was no exception to this trajectory, initially.

Born on February 21, 1942 to an impoverished noblewoman and a painter, she grew up in the largely destroyed city of Berlin until the family later moved to Dusseldorf.

After finishing school, she visited Paris at the age of 18 - a trip that changed her life. She spent a lot of time watching movies together with her French friends: "These films opened my eyes to what a film could be like," she once said in an interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung."

"Of course, that made me keen on making films myself. But these were the early 1960s, and it was highly improbable that as a woman, I would be able to follow that path."

With Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 'Baal'

Back in Dusseldorf, she studied art, and later on Romantic languages and German philology in Munich and Paris. She didn't finish her studies, switching instead to a drama school in Munich.

She met Jürgen Moeller, an editor in a publishing house; they married in 1964. In 1965, her only son Felix was born. At the same time, she worked at a theater and from 1967 onwards began working in film.

An important milestone in her career was her work with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his films "Gods of the Plague" and "Beware of a Holy Whore." Together with him, she stood in front of the camera in the film adaptation of Berthold Brecht's "Baal" directed by Volker Schlöndorff. The encounter with Schlöndorff had consequences. They fell in love and got married in 1971. Their marriage lasted for 20 years. Schlöndorff taught her the art of film directing.

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Quick international success

Together with Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta co-directed her first film, "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," in 1975. From 1977 on, she did her own work: "Volker was a bit divided concerning my work. On one hand, he was proud of me, but on the other, he had a hard time coming to terms with it, especially when I started to receive awards for it," she recalled.

Those awards came in quickly. Her first solo work as a film director for "The Second Awakening of Christa Klages" was awarded the Filmband in Silber, a prestigious German film prize.

A scene from 'Marianne and Juliane'

Magarethe von Trotta's third film, "Marianne and Juliane" (1981), which tells the story of the sisters Gudrun and Christiane Ensslin, won the Golden Lion in Venice. It marked the international breakthrough of 39-year old von Trotta - the first woman director in Germany after the war.

While the film was seen as a huge success in Germany, von Trotta's next film came under fire. "Sheer Madness" (1983) was about an intensive friendship between women which enabled the protagonist to protest against her unhappy marriage. "Some critics were obviously scared by this friendship between women," von Trotta said in an interview in 2012. "Some of the critiques were so harsh and sexist, that one would hardly believe it nowadays. This friendship was so strong that men reacted to it with a feeling of insecurity and anger."

Strong women companions

Cover of Emma: 'Why we are suing the Stern' magazine

Margarethe von Trotta makes her statements not only through her films. Together with the German feminist magazine "EMMA," she sued the weekly news magazine "Stern" in 1978 over sexist and pornographic pictures of women. Although the accusations were rejected, the campaign was nevertheless successful, as it raised public awareness of sexism.

Those hostile reactions to her film "Sheer Madness" also encouraged von Trotta to keep on telling stories of strong women. In 1986, she created a film adaptation of Rosa Luxemburg's life story: "This woman was permanently attacked too," she said to explain her choice. 

With Barbara Sukowa, who played 'Hannah Arendt'

Von Trotta has her favorite actresses, such as Barbara Sukowa who starred in both "Marianne and Juliane" as well as in "Rosa Luxemburg." The two women also worked together in "Hannah Arendt" (2012) and "The Misplaced World" (2015.)

Although von Trotta's later films received rather mixed critiques, she remained successful in discovering and adapting strong stories. Her 2003 film "Rosenstrasse," for example, features mixed German-Jewish marriages and their struggle against the Nazis in 1943 in Berlin.

Her political attitudes and commitment can be traced in her films, even though Margarethe von Trotta's optimism doesn't seem as strong as in the 1970s: "I have tried to change the world so many times without success. That doesn't mean that I don't perceive things anymore; I still think that we should remain committed. It's just that we shouldn't assume that things become any better," she said in an interview with the "Berliner Zeitung" after the release of "Rosenstrasse." Still, she says, "Every morning when I wake up, I'm happy that I'm still alive. And I'm very happy about still being able to make films."