Margarethe Von Trotta, Vision
One of Europe’s preeminent film directors for more than three decades, Margarethe von Trotta (Rosa Luxemburg, The Promise) was born in Berlin 1942 and relocated to Düsseldorf with her mother after the war. In Paris, where she moved after high school, Von Trotta immersed herself in film culture and became a major fixture of the New German Cinema, acting in early films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Gods of the Plague, Beware of a Holy Whore) and collaborating closely with her ex-husband Volker Schlöndorff, with whom she co-directed the 1975 political drama The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, before helming her first feature three years later. In 1981, Von Trotta won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Marianne and Juliane, about two idealistic sisters caught up in the tumult of ’68-era social revolt (one is a feminist journalist, the other joins a terror cell), the first time the top prize had gone to a female director since Leni Reifenstahl won “the Mussolini Cup” for Olympia in 1938. Since then, she has directed more than 15 feature films that touch on themes of sisterhood, strife, and personal acts of resistance.
Von Trotta’s latest feature, Vision, recounts the life story of 12th-century mystic, composer, and healer Hildegard von Bingen, played by the director’s frequent collaborator, Barbara Sukowa (Berlin Alexanderplatz), who expertly conveys Hildegard’s fierce inner strength and earthy grace. The recorded details of the revered nun’s life are the film’s central mapping points: born in the midst of millennial fervor, Hildegard is tendered to the care of Jutta the Holy (Lena Stolze), a surrogate mother who raises her in the virtues of Saint Benedict at the monastery of Disibodenberg. When the old woman passes on twenty years later, so too does the ascetic tradition of self-flagellation and barbed-wire corsets that defined her age and style of worship. Hildegard is elected abbess and begins to assume the role of seer and modernist reformer, advancing the cause of science and medicine as much as her own mystical visions, which make her the object of cultish veneration and place her at odds with petty Abbot Kuno (Alexander Held). She’s also, in Von Trotta’s rendering, a protofeminist figure, abandoning traditional codes of behavior in performing her famous musical morality play Ordo Virtutum and demanding a separate cloister for the sisters when a young nun is discovered to be pregnant, taking her case up the chain to the Archbishop of Mainz. A film about love and friendship as well as virtue and knowledge (Hildegard’s closest friend is the curate Volmar, played by Heino Ferch), Vision is a passionate portrait of a mercurial figure who may have lived in an age of unquestioned faith, but whose polymathic talents and worldly, independent cast of mind make her an icon as worthy of modern regard as Leonardo Da Vinci or Simone de Beauvoir.
Filmmaker spoke with Von Trotta about the lives of saints, religion and science, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and kissing on the lips. Zeitgeist Films opens Vision at Film Forum today.
Filmmaker: Hildegard’s not a martyr like Joan of Arc or a victim of oppression like Suzanne in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun. She fights for her sisters and defends her beliefs—and triumphs. She’s actually a creature of iron will.
Von Trotta: I chose her for that, too! Perhaps I insisted a little bit too much on that. [Laughs] Before I made the film, I spoke with experts and I was also at a monastery that still bears her name near Frankfurt. I spoke with a nun who was there, I read biographies and so on. I feel that I’m true in what I am showing. She always said “I’m so weak,” but she had to say that in order to be accepted. She was a believer, she had a very profound faith, so for her it would have been death to be excommunicated.
Filmmaker: She’s also a person of ambition.
Von Trotta: Absolutely. I think she felt she had a talent. She had a responsibility for her own creativity. To speak a little bit in the Catholic tradition, for a moment: If God gives you a challenge, you have a responsibility to realize it. She felt this, and it was not easy for a woman at that time.
Filmmaker: Hildegard, as you portray her, also rejects the ascetic tradition of her surrogate mother, Jutta, and embraces a more joyful practice of devotion.
Von Trotta: Yes, and that is well documented. When Jutta died–and there’s this tradition where you have to wash the body–she saw this woman’s torture of herself, and she was so shocked that she never accepted asceticism. She accepted fasting before Easter, of course, but not in an extreme way. Because, speaking in her [idiom] again, if God gives you a body and a life, why do you have to throw it away?
Filmmaker: You really accent those qualities of her character that mark her as a reformer, a modernizer of her faith. But she has interests in medicine and science, too.
Von Trotta: We know now, through psychology, that the subconscious is very powerful. And her subconscious was very powerful. She had these visions to go to Rupertsberg and put her monastery there. Why? Because she came from the provinces and it was very close to Mainz, and Mainz at this time was the most important seat of the archbishopric. It was situated on the Rhine, which was a very important [crossroads] for the pilgrimages. Everything came from the South on the Rhine, so she was very close to new knowledge. She believed that God [directed] her there, but it was really her own wish to go there.
Filmmaker: Even though she’s a visionary, there’s really only one moment when we see what she sees, “the living light.”
Von Trotta: The visions are so specific and of their time that I felt if I tried to modernize them, if that was even possible, then you would really go out of the time. It would be kitschy or something. I tried to be very rigorous with the images. I tried to be very simple also. Perhaps if [artist] Robert Longo, Barbara Sukowa’s husband, had done it, that could have been interesting, to come from somewhere other than my filmmaking. I had a feeling I could not [represent] it in the right way.
Filmmaker: To me the decision not to focus on her visions worked in the sense that we’re really getting more of a sense of her as a human being rather than as a saintly figure whom we can’t access or understand at all. And Hildegard’s knack for not following the rules of her monastic order or her male-dominated environment really positions her in the lineage of so many of your female protagonists.
Von Trotta: Yes, she is in the line of my other protagonists. When I’m searching for a woman in the very distant past, I look for a woman who is in a way near to my own vision.
Filmmaker: And how would you characterize that?
Von Trotta: I am always attracted by a woman who has to fight for her own life and her own reality, who has to get out of a certain situation of imprisonment, to free [herself]. That is perhaps the main theme in all my films.
Filmmaker: The idea of sisterhood, too, and the bonds between women is important, at least in the early films.
Von Trotta: It’s not my point of view as a feminist, you know, it has nothing to do with feminism. Perhaps it does as seen from outside, but it’s not an ideological choice. For me, it’s an existential choice.
Filmmaker: I found it odd that in so many scenes, Hildegard and Volmar—two chaste individuals—kiss each other on the lips, as do other characters. Is this something you discovered in your research that was common at the time?
Von Trotta: [Laughs] Even the nuns at the monastery named for Hildegard were astonished. That was their first question! I have a friend who is a medievalist, and she read a book written by a French historian [Yannick Carré] called Le baiser sur la bouche au Moyen Age [“Kissing on the Mouth in the Middle Ages”], and there was a description about how even when an emperor made an agreement with a servant, they kissed on the mouth to confirm the contract. People in the Middle Ages were not puritanical, they were very open. But that was before the plague. Then they feared to touch each other, I think.
Filmmaker: Let’s discuss the architecture of Vision as a period film. Hildegard lives in the medieval age, in the 1150s. Yet the mise-en-scène of the film is Baroque; it’s almost like a Vermeer painting, especially in the way Axel Block has composed and lighted each frame. What’s the rationale for this?
Von Trotta: When you see medieval frescoes of this time, people are always standing and they are looking straight at the spectator. They are really very frontal. And also with the nuns, you have to film them always from the front, because from the profile or from the back, you don’t know who it is. That gives you already a style which perhaps I wouldn’t have used otherwise.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about the nature of Hildegard’s relationships, too, in the film. Her friendship with young Richardis, for instance …
Von Trotta: It’s not a lesbian love! At one point she says, “She is my mother and I’m her mother, I’m her daughter and she’s my daughter.” Hildegard couldn’t have children, so in a way Richardis is her daughter and friend and mother [all at once], it’s a very deep love.
Filmmaker: Did the figure of Richardis come from Hildegard’s own writings?
Von Trotta: The main book which gave me a lot of information was a book of correspondence. Mainly these letters are to Richardis, and when this woman was taken away from her, she wrote to the mother, the brother, the abbot, the archbishop—she wrote even to the Pope to get this woman back. She really became crazy, out of suffering from losing this woman! These letters still exist, so I took it all from there. And the letters to the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa also exist.
Filmmaker: One of the themes that interested me because of how I see it play out differently in other films is the relationship between faith and science. They really cohabit in Hildegard’s world quite peacefully.
Von Trotta: Absolutely. If she would have lived today, she would be a scientist, because she was so curious. You know, she also had a secret language. But nobody knows what she wrote about because no one can read it! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: What are your thoughts on the conflict between religion and science today?
Von Trotta: Einstein, if you remember, was very religious. Some physicists are still very religious and have faith. The biochemists and all these other scientific people don’t believe in God anymore. In the medieval ages, knowing and believing were the same, there was no difference. There was no doubt. There was an absolute certitude that good and evil existed. But at the time they still believed that the earth was flat. Hell was down under your feet, and heaven was above. When we speak now of God, we look into the heavens as if he would still be there. That comes straight from this belief!
Filmmaker: The neurologist Oliver Sacks has a theory about Hildegard’s visions.
Von Trotta: Yes, he wrote in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that she had a very [intense] migraine, and others have said it was a form of epilepsy. And it’s true, with epileptic [seizures] you are in the middle of the world and then all of a sudden you are outside it. But you are not in a coma, you are really present. And in the medieval ages, as we said, faith was undoubtable. The Bible was her material, so Hildegard worked with this [to explain her visions]. If she’d been a Buddhist, she’d have worked with different material.
Filmmaker: You moved to Paris out of high school and quickly got involved in the film world there, writing scripts and acting and immersing yourself in cinema. What inspired that kind of devotion in you at such a young age?
Von Trotta: Oh, because I saw my first real cultural film, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—which is also medieval! [Laughs] And I saw it once only at the beginning of the ’60s, and I was so impressed that when I wrote the script for Hildegard, my first image was a big black bird in a very dramatic, clouded sky. I wrote that, and then the Swedish embassy in Germany asked me, because they knew one of my films, Marianne and Juliane, was one of Bergman’s favorites, to show a film by him that liked. I chose The Seventh Seal and saw it again, and then I realized that the first image in his film is this bird in the sky! I was so shocked, I copied this without knowing! Then I immediately gave it up. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: That’s quite an homage.
Von Trotta: He convinced me that filmmaking was a wonderful thing to do, even if I never reached his [level of] mastery.
Filmmaker: What else did you learn in those early years working with Fassbinder and Schlöndorff, when you were acting and writing and thinking about directing, but not quite there yet?
Von Trotta: I learned by looking at films. At the time when I saw the Bergman films, in Paris you could buy one ticket and stay for the whole afternoon. Now you can get a DVD and go back and see everything, but that was not possible in our time. I just sat at the [same] film three times, one after the other. Then, as an actress, I really looked to learn as much as possible, and sure from Volker I learned the most, because we were husband and wife, and from the beginning I was scripting. I was always present, you know, and even more in the cutting room than he was. I think to have been an actress was really helpful for me to direct actors afterwards, too. I feel exactly what they feel and sense what they need. They are so vulnerable, you know?