Monday 4 February 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #5 - Rosa Luxemburg (Germany 1986: Dir Margarethe von Trotta)

If Margarethe von Trotta's excellent, moving biopic of activist Rosa Luxemburg has a ring of Fassbinder to it, it's no coincidence; Fassbinder was due to develop the project himself but died in 1982 aged just 37. It was one of his last wishes that von Trotta should direct, and despite her initial reluctance, she was the perfect choice to make the movie, an actor who moved behind the camera, with her debut being the spellbinding The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum in 1975.

Despite attempts to highlight her work - the Independent Cinema Office mounted a retrospective of four of her films last year - von Trotta remains a rather unsung figure in the New German cinema movement (although that movement is far from 'new' these days). Hopefully STUDIOCANAL's new restoration of one of her finest films will do something to redress this injustice.

Polish born Rosa Luxemburg's reputation as one of the most important political figures in early 20th century German history is tough to condense into a two hour film, but von Trotta perfectly captures the enigmatic disrupter's life of provocation. Opening with Rosa in prison (she was imprisoned nine times for her dissenting views), incarcerated as a precaution to prevent her gaining more influence in a revolution primed Germany, we move backwards and forwards in time. Luxemburg is always on the move; battling with the male elders of the far left who saw war as an inevitability; or continuing her idealistic tussles with Leo Jogiches, with whom she parts romantically but remains attached to in developing her political campaigns. But often we're left alone with Rosa, either in her apartment, with just Mimi her cat for company, or in prison, where her endless pleas for books are met with contempt.

Von Trotta regular Barbara Sukowa, while looking little like Rosa physically, absolutely inhabits the role, retaining her political passions from her first flush of youth to her final incarceration. A strong, determined woman weakened by ill health and her spells in prison, what emerges is a person whose convictions remain constant while those around her vacillate. Daniel Olbrychski as Leo is equally persuasive in his role, being unable to live with her or without her.

Rosa Luxemburg is an ambitious film which, despite its historical sweep, refuses to set itself up either as a lavish costume epic or as conventional biopic. In truth it's something in between (although Nicholas Economou's overly stately score wants us to believe it's the former), and those unfamiliar with early 20th century history may want to do a little catch up so as not to get lost in the events. It's a movie which places equal importance on dissenting thought as much as deeds, and the final, tragic scenes show just how much of a threat those thoughts were, and how little was learned from them as the century unfolded.

Rosa Luxemburg is released on 4th February 2019 for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download, as part of STUDIOCANAL’s Vintage World Cinema label. Bonus content includes fascinating, and rare, filmed interviews with Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa, plus the original theatrical trailer.


  1. I thought I was fairly well versed in Fassbinder, but it seems I wasn't aware of Margarethe von Trotta's film (or perhaps I'd forgotten it), so thanks for this David, it sounds very intriguing indeed. Now if someone would put out Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's film Hitler: A Film From Germany

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Looks like it is available Wes if you have a spare £35: