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Rosa’s 120 minutes of cinematic fame

Barbara Sukowa’s Luxemburg in Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic has become as iconic as the revolutionary herself. Why didn’t the GDR make its own film about the Red Rosa? On Jan 7, Arsenal screens the GDR's few cinematic portrayals of her.

Image for Rosa’s 120 minutes of cinematic fame Barbara Sukowa’s portrayal of Luxemburg in Margarethe von Trotta’s West German biopic has become as iconic as the red revolutionary herself. Why didn’t the GDR make its own film about the communist poster-child? Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the one to have originally envisioned a film on Rosa Luxemburg. As later recounted by producer Hanns Eckelkamp, he’d worked on a script and wanted Jane Fonda for the main role. Legend even has it that when the West German director suddenly died of a drug overdose in 1982, the finished script was found open on his body. Fassbinder’s producer would have then turned to Margarethe von Trotta, one of the filmmaker’s favourite actresses and a director known for her female-focused features, and said: “now you have to do the Luxemburg film.” When offered the job, the 40-something West German knew next to nothing about the revolutionary icon. Luxemburg was associated with East Germany’s communist regime. Not the kind of role model young Wessi girls identified with at school. So Von Trotta got in touch with Luxemburg’s official biographer, GDR historian Anneliese Laschitza. She even gained permission to travel to East Berlin, where Laschitza was preparing Luxemburg’s letters for publication. The women ended up spending four weeks together in Paris, where they wrote the script for Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, or, Rosa Luxemburg, as it is known in English (photo). Released in 1986, the film remains to this date the one and only Rosa biopic for cinema, Barbara Sukowa’s portrayal of Luxemburg its quintessential film incarnation. It won the 1986 Best German Film award, and Sukowa received the Palm for Best Actress at Cannes. And it was not only praised in the West: although not officially released in East Germany, it played to a full house at the iconic East Berlin Kosmos Kino and at the Akademie der Künste. It even received the GDR’s Kritikerpreis in 1987. Evidently, the East Germans wanted to see their revered martyr on the big screen, even if she was portrayed by the Wessis. So where was red Rosa hiding before then? Too hot to be handled Luxemburg’s (non)-representation in East German cinema is a consequence of the tricky legacy she left behind. On the one hand she was at the forefront of the communist propaganda: a square and an U-Bahn station in Berlin were (and still are) named after her, and she was the most visually depicted woman in GDR textbooks. But due to her anti-Bolshevik and anti-Leninist stance, her fully-rounded personality was curated and carefully edited by East German censors. For example, the 1951 edition of her work, Selected Speeches and Writings, removed her most controversial essay “The Russian Revolution” due to its criticisms of the Bolshevik movement. Unsurprisingly, she was a highly suspicious topic for a film business entirely subjected to the Soviet canon. This explains why Luxemburg would never be given a biopic, only appearing in brief, enigmatic snatches, more icon than human, in films mostly dedicated to her historical male counterparts.
Patriarchal screen time During the GDR, film was a political affair, subjected to the state-owned film production Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), with a Babelsberg-based film studio that formed in the wake of World War II. Historical biopics played a huge part in edifying and educating East German citizens, and would be played in both schools and factories. Luxemburg appears in two of these – in the first half of Ernst Thälmann’s biopic Sohn seiner Klasse (1954) and in the two films about Karl Liebknecht, Solange Leben in mir ist (1965) and Trotz alledem (1972). Each time she is reduced to a supporting character, making her seem ancillary to the revolution rather than one of its key instigators.
“During the GDR the focus was on Karl Liebknecht. They wanted to have him as a classic hero, so Rosa Luxemburg was put aside.”
In the 1950s Sohn seiner Klasse, she only appears in one early scene alongside Liebknecht, before their brutal murder sparks Ernst Thälmann – leader of the communist party in the 1920s and 1930s – into action, creating a direct founding myth for the fledgling communist nation. Judith Harms, in her debut role, does little with the material, giving a rather matter-of-fact interpretation of the famous revolutionary. Later, in the Karl Liebknecht biopics, Luxemburg is given more to do, but is still reduced to a cameo. She appears only in two brief scenes in both films, gives no speeches, and is always presented in relation to Liebknecht himself – either to inspire his peaceful mission or relay information about how he is being perceived in other cities. Zofi a Rysiówna, the actress playing Luxemburg, doesn’t really dig into what motivates Rosa, with her eyes constantly gazing approvingly at the male politician instead. “Rosa Luxemburg didn’t have any big moments in these movies because the focus in the GDR was on Karl Liebknecht. They wanted to have him as a classic hero, so she was put aside,” explains film historian Günter Agde. Liebknecht was the one who on November 9, 1918 declared Germany a socialist republic, gathering at the same city palace at which war had been declared just four years earlier. Of course, an event of this significance just had to be dramatised (in Sohn seiner Klasse) for educational purposes.
The Lenin issue The GDR might have been a ‘patriarchy’, but it doesn’t mean there were no heroines. Luxemburg’s close friend and comrade, Clara Zetkin, was given her own biopic, 1984’s Where Others Keep Silent, in which the septuagenarian was depicted returning to Germany from Russia in 1932 to address the Reichstag. Directed by Ralf Kirsten, the film famously ends with her speech calling for a unified front against fascism, in a finale reminiscent of The Great Dictator (1940). Sebastian Heiduschke, author of East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History, says Kirsten was safe and well-liked by DEFA and the SED because of his previous films. But why Clara and not Rosa? “Well, while Luxemburg criticised Lenin and his ideas, Zetkin interviewed him [on the women’s question in 1920]. That might be one of the reasons why Zetkin was appropriate to be commemorated in a film.” Luxemburg may have been born in the same year as the first Soviet leader, but, as Agde says, “the government of the GDR had problems with her critical stance against Lenin.” For Luxemburg, Lenin’s strategy of “a central committee acting as the only thinking element in the party” could only lead to a communist dictatorship. She famously contended that “freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party – though they are quite numerous – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom for the one who thinks differently.” According to Heiduschke, this was too controversial for East Germany. “Is that something the SED could have tolerated? I don’t think so. She was always quoted by dissidents.” Luxemburg’s essays such as “The National Question” and “Russian Revolution” were banned in the GDR, and unsurprisingly this was mirrored in the country’s very Soviet-conservative film environment. “If you want to see Soviet ideology you should actually look at East German cinema. DEFA cinema was more Soviet than Soviet cinema!” Her personal life, Heiduschke continues, was also a cause for concern: “Luxemburg enjoyed sex. She was known to have multiple lovers, sometimes at the same time, without wanting to commit to one. She was a strong woman in charge. Zetkin focused largely on women, but Luxemburg ‘transgressed’ into the realm of men. I guess that made her somewhat problematic and threatening to them.” Her brief appearances, therefore, can be seen as compromises. Given this context, navigating a Rosa Luxemburg biopic in and of itself would’ve been an ideological minefield.
West Germany to the rescue While West Germany had its own structural patriarchal problems, Margarethe von Trotta still found a way to assert herself in the boy’s club of the New German Cinema movement. She started as an actress, working in films by Fassbinder and Victor Schlöndorff, before slowly muscling her way into directing a variety of female-focused features, such as The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (1975) and Marianne and Juliane (1981) – also starring Barbara Sukowa. Rosa Luxemburg was a fitting match. The fact that Regina Ziegler — Germany’s leading woman in the producing business — suggested the film to Fassbinder and ended-up producing Von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg might also be no coincidence. The film starts with her imprisonment in Wronke prison in 1916 and ends with her brutal murder by the Freikorps, weaving in flashbacks to her time in Warsaw and her love affair with Leo Jogiches. In both style and content, Von Trotta’s film has much in common with the DEFA biopics. Much time is given to her speechmaking, criticism of the Social Democrats and the general sense of turmoil that gripped Germany at the time. But Von Trotta also humanises Luxemburg. We see the person behind the politician; when she is in prison, for example, we see her tending to a little garden. Unlike the rote performances by Judith Harms and Zofia Rysiówna in Sohn seiner Klasse and Karl Liebknecht respectively, Sukowa’s performance brims with personality. Despite its East Berlin premiere at the Kino Kosmos in Friedrichshain, which was covered by the official party paper Neues Deutschland, its rollout in the GDR wasn’t so extensive. As historian and leading Luxemburg expert Jörn Schütrumpf says: “it wasn’t officially banned, just not distributed to the small cinemas, so it just ended up only being shown in a few select theaters.” Nonetheless, as Agde says, “many East German spectators at the time asked why DEFA didn’t make a film about Rosa Luxemburg. The question remained unanswered. The movie made by Von Trotta was so solid that no other author in the GDR dared to touch the material. Basically, everything that was to be said about Rosa Luxemburg was said with this movie.” It seems appropriate, for the famous internationalist, that it took the efforts of a woman from the other side of the wall to finally get her story to the big screen. Coming out 67 years after her death, the long wait made the German title of the film – Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg (“The Patience of Rosa Luxemburg”) – feel rather fitting. Rosa Luxemburg Night, 7 January, 19:00, Kino Arsenal, in German Rosa Luxemburg, 15 January, 18:00, Moviemento, in German