In an interview at the Goethe Institute about your new film Hannah Arendt, you compared the Nouvelle Vague to the New German Cinema. You said the Nouvelle Vague was a movement that mainly opposed conventions within cinema, whereas New German Cinema was more politically minded.
Not all of my films are political. We were politically-minded because we all came from the movement of ’68 and because in our country the past was ignored. During the 1950s nobody spoke about National Socialism, nobody spoke about our past. In school we had no information, and our parents wouldn’t speak to us about it either. It was all a big silence, but we still felt it. I tried to show that in Marianne and Juliane (1981). The original German title of the film is Die Bleierne Zeit, which means ‘The Leaden Times’. It is derived from the poem Der Gang Aufs Land (The Walk in the Country) by Hölderlin. For me the title symbolizes the atmosphere in the 50s: not knowing anything, but feeling it.
So regarding the scene in which the young Juliane is punished for saying she doesn’t like the poem they’re studying – something like that could have occurred in real life? Would the teachers have reacted that severely?
Yes. Absolutely, because that line Juliane wants to speak about is from a poem by Brecht, and Brecht was a leftist who spoke about the Nazi past very clearly. The teacher only wants to discuss poets such as Rilke or Benn, who don’t touch upon the past or history or politics. And therefore, when the truth finally came out and suddenly we had a picture of what happened – after seeing films of the Holocaust and so on – we were so angry and we were so destroyed, perhaps even more so than in our parents’ generation. This is why we were all so angry and very politically minded.
The Nouvelle Vague didn’t have this problem, on the other hand. They were invaded by Germany. They didn’t attack us, we attacked them. Of course they also had something to hide: the fact that they had collaborated. In general, however, they were the victims and not the aggressors. So they only had to go up against the big studio films; all the films that were carefully produced within a studio, never outside on the street, and so that was their counterpart. It was also partly our counterpart, seeing as we didn’t have the possibility financially to make big films in a studio. Because of this we learned from the Nouvelle Vague to go out into the street, to cast non-professional actors, and to just describe the life around us.
You started your career as an actress and you made your way into directing in the 70s. Is directing something you always wanted to do, or did your ambitions change along the way?
I wanted to direct from the beginning! When I went to Paris to study in the early 60s I saw the films of Ingmar Bergman. That was for me the revelation of my life.
Your film Die Bleierne Zeit has been compared to Persona. Is that a pertinent comparison?
Yes, but I didn’t actually know Persona when I did the film. That’s the strange thing: I was so involved in what Bergman was doing, that I made the film like he would have to a certain extent. But I didn’t know Persona. It was only afterwards that many people made the comparison.
Bergman was my master, his work was a real cultural shock for me, and from that moment on I wanted to become a director. But as you know for women in the 60s it was unthinkable to become a director. You could become an actress, but not a director, so I started off as an actress. It wasn’t like I had a plan to do that first and finally end up as a director. It was just an innocent and unconscious way to get into cinema. When the New German Cinema started, I soon met Volker Schlöndorff and I collaborated with him up until the point that I knew I could begin to direct.
Was there something that changed with time, which allowed women to become directors?
Yes, there was change. In the mid-60s there were some female directors already, but they mainly made documentaries. It was very difficult to get funding as a woman. This is much less the case today, but it still is difficult.
Was there something that other films of the New German Cinema seemed to lack that you wanted to bring to the screen?
Yes, it was the woman’s way of seeing into the world. We had other interests and other emotions than my male colleagues. But it was not pre-planned. I just wanted to make films, even without a political purpose. I didn’t go into films to express my political views. I wanted to make films and sit in a dark room to see them and feel emotions. And seeing as we lived in a politically minded time, that came out in my films naturally. I started as an artist and not as a political activist.
A recurring theme that has been picked up on in New German Cinema, is the portrayal of the protagonist as an outsider. I was wondering whether you would see this as a key element of the movement.
I don’t think I ever reflected upon it. As a woman I was of course always an outsider; I was always in rebellion, and I had to rebel because nobody gave me what I wanted deliberately. You always needed to fight to get something, so for me it was definitely true.
Wim Wenders and Voker Schlöndorff were the only ones of us that went to film school. Schlöndorff went to film school here in Paris and also spent his assistant years here with Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Resnais. Fassbinder didn’t go to film school, neither did Werner Herzog and nor did I.
My icon was Bergman, whereas Wim Wenders loved American films. Volker also wanted to go to America to make films, because that was the country of cinema. Fassbinder was a homosexual as well, so in a way even more of an outsider than we were. He also came from a very modest and uneducated family, so he educated himself. I was a woman who wanted to get into a profession that was normally only acceptable for men. That was my outsider position. And Herzog, well, he is from another planet, isn’t he? He never did films in Germany; he always went out into the world. Herzog is now living in America. Wenders did his films inside Germany, but always with a longing for America, with a longing to go away. His road movies show that, seeing as the characters never stay in one place. He is constantly moving. And I myself went to Italy where I made three films and then came here to Paris, so I was stateless until my first marriage. We were all outsiders, and I guess that’s why we ended up describing this state.
So the theme of the outsider originated from the fact that you all identified yourselves with films or culture from outside of West Germany.
Yes, and we didn’t have much of that going on in Germany. If you look at the films that were made in West Germany in the 50s, they were nothing. They were just bad.
Those so-called Heimat films from the 1950s were very escapist. Was it one of your aims to make your films anti-Heimat?
Not consciously. It’s just that we didn’t take those films seriously. My mother and I went to the cinema in the 50s when it was raining on Sundays and we had nothing else to do. It was just entertainment. We didn’t take it seriously. So when I saw Ingmar Bergman’s films I thought: “Ah! So that’s what you can do with film! That is art!” For me, art was painting and music and theatre. I was very connected to art, my father was a painter, but film for me was no art, and only in France did I consider or discover it as a possibility of art.
Sometimes I regret growing up in my generation, because film is just everywhere for me now. I don’t think I ever had a moment like that, a moment in which I discovered film in that way.
When I went to the cinema in the early 60s here in Paris I could still buy one ticket and stat in the cinema for the whole afternoon, so you could watch the film three times. That was the only possibility to see certain things and look at them more precisely. Then video came out, which allowed you to fast forward, rewind, and so on and learn how they did it. You could really study it, but nevertheless, like Truffaut said, it helps you only if you saw the film first on the big screen. Then you have the first impact, the first impression, and it stays with you. What’s so wonderful about going to the cinema is that it’s like you’re in your own dream. It’s almost as if you are in your bed in the dark.
My two masters are Bergman and Hitchcock, and Hitchcock is the perfect dream director. When you think about your own dreams, you don’t remember everything. And with a film of Hitchcock, you can see it even three times, you don’t really remember what you’ve seen. You’re very impressed the moment you are there, but when you look back it’s really like remembering a horror dream; for Hitchcock it’s always horror.
You come away from a film and you have this impression, this atmosphere, but you may only remember a few sequences.
But these few sequences, they really stay with you long after you’ve seen the film. For instance, the first Bergman film I saw was The Seventh Seal, which starts with a shot of the sky, a very dramatic sky, and in the sky there’s a black bird. I was only able to see the film once, and that was in 1961! Then in 2008 I did a film about Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval nun. So, like The Seventh Seal it is a film about the medieval times. I started to write my script, and at the beginning of the film I wrote about a dramatic sky with a black bird in it. I then held a lecture about Bergman at the embassy of Sweden in Berlin; they invited me to speak about him because I had also known him personally by then. When they asked me which film I wanted to show I said The Seventh Seal, because that was the film that had started everything for me. And when I saw the film again I realized where the idea of the dramatic sky had come from! But I hadn’t remembered it at all: it was in my unconscious mind. I changed the script immediately, so now my film doesn’t start like this. This is how images can stay with you. Your mind is like a big pool into which you deposit the images you see. You put them there, and when you write, ideas come out of it.
So, even when you don’t know that you’ve remembered sequences from films ages ago, they still pop into your head. That’s one of the beautiful things about cinema. The film becomes almost like a time capsule for who you were at the time you made it, because you preserve all the ideas you had at the time that you didn’t even mean to put into the film.
Absolutely. For example, I recently interpreted the beginning of my film, Rosa Luxemburg. It starts with an image of the sky and a wall on which two soldiers are walking in opposite directions. Then we pan far down and in the depths walks Rosa with a black raven walking behind her. When I did it at the time, it was just because I liked it that way. It was only afterwards that I found a real interpretation: Rosa is down in the depths and she wants to free and to liberate man kind. There in the sky is the symbol of freedom and liberty. She who wants to become free and free others walks down there. All of a sudden the shot has a meaning that I never intended.
That’s what’s so wonderful about film making and of any form of art: that you have a feeling about something, and the meaning comes afterwards. You just have to trust your intuitions.
When Thomas Elsaesser talks about your films he says that they, and especially The German Sisters, stand out because you structure the films in such a way that identification with the main characters becomes a very important element. Seeing as your films are often about people who have opinions that aren’t favored in the society in which they live, the films are actually made with the aim of having the audience sympathize with characters that they perhaps wouldn’t understand in real life.
Yes. I’ve now made Hannah Arendt, and she says one line which has been mine from the beginning, and it is, “I want to understand.” That’s my philosophy of film making. I don’t want to judge or to criticize, I want to understand. And I want to understand people who are maybe not so understandable for others, people who are immediately criticized or victimized like Hannah Arendt. And people are always attacked by others, because not everyone has this longing to understand.
Hannah Arendt also underlines the importance of our capacity to think. We question morality, and the fact that we do that already makes it important. Like Hannah Arendt said, one of the fundamental things we can do is to question ourselves.
Absolutely, and you can make your own opinion. You can look at the world and judge yourself in relation to it. Don’t give up on this capacity! This wonderful possibility of an ideology. And now, with all this media and all these opinions going around, so many people are giving up their own capacity to think. They let others do it for them.
Technology often ensures that you don’t have to think. It’s like what is said in Hannah Arendt: “thinking is a lonely business”.
But it’s also satisfactory. It could also be a passion to think for yourself. Although it can be a lot of work, it’s something wonderful!
In Nation and Identity Inga Scharf argues that New German Cinema was built around the showing of discontentment with society – like you said, showing the emptiness of the 1950s because of the neglect of the past – and that the movement became too stuck in doing so. The movement became too focused on expressing their discontent as opposed to suggesting alternatives, and this could be a reason why the movement came to an end somewhere near the end of the 80s.
Maybe there’s some truth in that, because throughout the 70s and the beginning of the 80s we had a hope to change society. We were all leftists and we wanted to make a real democracy. It was very utopian in a way. We were also a little bit naive. And then in the middle of the 80s this hope to change the world declined. Perhaps every movement starts very strong in the beginning and ends with a certain tiredness.
We originally made an impact because we were a big group. There were so many all of a sudden and they all did very different films. We did very different films, but we were all together. It was like a pressure group coming up all together, making films all together in one moment. And so the world looked at us.
By the mid-80s, we were no longer this group, this force, because Fassbinder died in ’82, Wim went to America, and Schlöndorff also wanted to go away. We all wanted to leave Germany and in 1988 I went to Italy. It felt like something was over and you can’t force yourself to stay with it. Perhaps it’s a natural development.
In the interview at the Goethe Institute you compare Rosa Luxemburg to Hannah Arendt. I think you said something along the lines of: “I took, in my eyes, the most important woman of the first half of the 20th century and now the most important woman of the second half”.
Those are explanations you give to it afterwards. In the moment I didn’t choose a person because I thought she was the most important person of that time. But afterwards we give all these intellectual explanations to it.
This is actually one of the reasons I really wanted to speak to you. It’s because I realize I am writing about something which is quite a personal matter, seeing as you were expressing how it was to live in West Germany at the time. I was hoping you could further explicate your notion national identity.
For me it is very easy to explain: firstly I’m a film maker and and artist. For me film is a passion and the only way to receive the world, to look at the world and then put it into images. And on top of that I’m living in a certain time, a certain epoch, and I’m looking outside and I see what’s happening. And that then comes into my films. But it’s not on purpose. I don’t say: “Now I have to do a film about Germany in the 80s.” It comes because I’m living in a certain moment and I’m living with open eyes. And that’s it! It comes naturally.
And that’s a part of being a good artist. I once read a quote by Michael Haneke in which he said something along the lines of: “Every time I open a film book I read about what I supposedly meant to do with my films, but didn’t at all.” It’s actually quite interesting that the conclusion we’ve reached here is that so much of the film making process is unconscious.
Yes, and it has to be. The importance of art is that you [leave] such space for the unconscious to come in. That is art! Ask a painter why he chose the colour blue in his painting. He chose it because he feels that he has to do it in this very moment. Then afterwards you can say that blue means coldness or this or that, but if he would do this in the moment it would be terrible. It’s a reduction of everything if you do it before. Marco Bellocchio, for instance, made wonderful films. And at a certain moment he met a psychoanalyst who became very important in his life, he did everything with him and consulted him when he made films and so on, and then all of a sudden he did films in which he would show water, because water meant something, he would show fire, because fire meant something, you know, in Freudian symbolism. And then they had no meaning anymore. It was just all applied. Symbols were applied and now that he’s separated from this guy, he makes good films again. For me that was the proof that you don’t have to know the meaning beforehand to make a meaningful work of art.
Are there things that you were trying to express, consciously or unconsciously, back in the 70s and 80s that are still relevant today?
I never look my films up again, only when I am forced to do it, but people tell me that Die Bleierne Zeit is still relevant today. I also think, and again this is an interpretation that came after I made it, the film is not only about German sisters, but also about two different attitudes towards the German politics in the moment I made it; it was also about sisters and their differences in character.
Which is perhaps a timeless thing.
Yeah, it’s like the Greek tragedy of Ismene and Antigone, which also revolves around the relationship between a more docile and a more rebellious sister. It is a timeless dynamic.
I was wondering about Die Bleierne Zeit: in one of the flashbacks of the sisters, like the ones we were talking about, Juliane is reading a book by Jean-Paul Sartre. Was that a deliberate reference to existentialism?
Yes, she is reading it because her father is a pastor, a Protestant priest, and her sister will go to go to Africa to save the world, to save the people who are ill, whereas she is reading a treatise on existentialism. And that has also to do with me, because that was a time in which I was in Paris and I read Sartre and Beauvoir.
Do you still believe in his philosophy?
No, now I’m much more on the side of Camus. When I was studying here I also liked Camus. It was a sort of existentialism we didn’t have in Germany so it was very attractive to us.
Once again this shows your identification with something outside of Germany.
There’s one quote I read from you in which you talk about how a hierarchical way of thinking inspires the separation between one’s personal and private life, whereas these should go hand in hand. Also, characters in your films combine their public and private life, because they speak openly about their private thoughts.
Yes, that was also a feminist statement in the 70s or the early 80s, that the private is also political. They are intertwined. You have to look to how people behave in their private life and not only how they behave in public.
I tried to do that in Rosa Luxemburg. She was always complaining that her comrades, the social democratic comrades, said one thing in public and did just the opposite in their private lives. As women we so often had the feeling that men in public said, “Yes, we have to do something for women!”, and then when you look at how they treat their own wives at home, it is just the opposite. So, that was the rebellion of our feminist part of the 70s.