Writers & Company

Margarethe von Trotta on telling the story of Germany through the eyes of women

Eleanor Wachtel speaks to revered filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta about highlighting controversial women in German history.
Margarethe von Trotta's 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg is the first of three films that form a portrait of nearly a century of German life.

What does it mean to be German? Who belongs? How are these questions addressed by Germans of foreign background — both immigrants and those born within the country? This episode with revered German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta originally aired on April 10, 2016 and was the first of a four-part series: "At the Centre of Europe: A Changing Germany." Other episodes in the series include interviews with Reinhard Kleist, Navid Kermani and Zafer Şenocak and Alina Bronsky.

Margarethe von Trotta is a German filmmaker whose work over the past 40 years has told the story of her country. Starting with her first film, 1975's The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, her work has been politically charged and yet also deeply personal. Her highest-profile films focus on important historical moments and figures — especially women — and she looks to Germany's past to find the stories that haven't been told.

Von Trotta lives much of the time in Paris, but she spoke with Eleanor Wachtel at her flat in Munich. 

On being stateless in 1950s Germany

My family on my mother's side was a very old aristocratic family, and my mother didn't marry my father [German landscape painter Alfred Roloff]. They were rooted in the Baltic lands, in Riga, part of the Russian empire. After the revolution, all the aristocratic people had to leave, so they were all immigrants and they became very poor. My mother went to Germany because they were German originally, and she became stateless — she had no passport, no nationality. She stayed stateless until her death, and because I was her child I was stateless too, until my first marriage.

When you are stateless for so long, whenever you are asked about your identity, about your nationality, you have to say you are stateless. Then it's like you are homeless, like you have no patria, no country which belongs to you. I have no roots, so I feel I can live anywhere — even though I was born in Berlin, I was born there after the war and what I remember of it as a child is ruins. Everything was destroyed. For me, Berlin, my native town, was destruction. Afterwards I understood where the destruction came from, but when you are a child you don't know that yet.

On growing up ignorant of recent German history

Growing up the 1950s, it was like we were living under this leaden cup. There was something heavy in the atmosphere, and we didn't know what it was. We felt it — that there was something terrible in the past — but we didn't know what because nobody spoke about it. Not our professors, not our parents — they were silent, it was like an unspoken law not to speak about the past. I had no friends who knew what had happened with the Nazis, and in school history they jumped from the '20s to the present, with just ignorance in between. Only in the 1960s did we slowly start to know more and more, and then there was a student rebellion — it really blew up.

On telling the stories of controversial German women

It's astonishing to me that I did these three portraits, because women were not portrayed in history. The history was always made by men. This unintentional trilogy started with Rosa Luxemburg (1986), set in the beginning of the century, and she was a writer and thinker and went with the philosophy of Hegel and she had this confidence in history. The present was terrible, but in the future they will know what to do and will do the right thing. She was a sort of utopian, and she was murdered by people who then became Nazis.

Then there are the women of Rosenstrasse (2003), there are these women standing in the street and fighting for their men [Jewish men in a Nazi prison] in 1943. They did not have any big hopes — they were really in a terrible situation and they were only thinking of getting their men out. 

And then comes Hannah Arendt (2012), which is set in the early '60s and she is looking to Eichmann and she is looking back, trying to understand what happened. She has no utopian ideas — she knows that was a dark time, and she looked back to the dark times.

Margarethe von Trotta's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Unterirdischperformed by the Alexandra Lehmler Quintett.