Von Trotta’s Visionary “VISION”

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Last night, the great German auteur, Margarethe Von Trotta, appeared in person at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington to introduce her latest visual benediction to one of herstory’s important lost female voices. VISION is the story of popular saint and renowned German artist and mystic Hildegard Von Bingen.

I’m not going to review the film here. One can go to many sites for judgments and opinions. (How much easier to criticize than to actually MAKE a film!) From my perspective, suffice to say that the film is Von Trotta’s lyrical and visual apogee. It is like watching a Vermeer painting in motion. The look of the film so realistically inhabits the aura of this ancient past, that it imagistically mirrors the prophetic powers of Von Bingen herself.

In the past twenty years, Von Trotta’s oeuvre has moved beyond the voice of a German filmmaker into the borderless ions of movie-maker to the world. The Promise (1995) centers on two lovers separated for nearly three decades on either side of the Berlin Wall until the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989. For the next decade, she turned to writing and directing for German television. In 2004, she turns her eyes toward the real life events of non-jewish women who participated in a nine-day silent protest outside an office building on Berlin’s Rossenstrasse in order to prevent Nazi officers from deporting their Jewish husbands who remained inside. The film marked a turning point in German cinema, which previously shied from themes related to noble actions of Germans during the Holocaust. Along with its dramatization of a little – known moment of protest against the Nazi regime, Rosenstrasse also joins other recent German films – most prominently, Aimee and Jaguar – in rediscovering the Jewish role in German culture and the intertwined private lives of Gentiles and Jews before and during the Holocaust, commented Robert Sklar in Cineaste, 2004.

In 2010 I did a personal Von Trotta film festival, in which I watched all of her films again, this time in chronologic order. What was so clarifying and fantastic about this experience is that one gets to see the voice of the filmmaker so clearly. The intimate experience of female bonding is the glue that holds every one of her films together. The creed her protagonists live by is laid bare by the sub-character equivalent, her female initimate, her mirror. These foremost relationships are the things that influence, strengthen and change each of her main characters. No other filmmaker in history has paid such tribute to the import and the impact of female bonding.

I met Von Trotta just after she had completed Rosa Luxemburg in 1986. At that moment, she would have sworn on her life that she would never make another “bio-pic” as she called it. She felt so hampered by the tight structure of the realistic facts of biography. But…never say never. In 2009 she would once again tackle the resurrection of another of history’s remarkable women in VISION – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen, the story of the great mystic visionary, writer and musician who has yet to be canonized. Her extraordinary visions often ran counter to the patriarchcial world she was steeped in. In spite of her conviction that she would not again touch a “bio-pic,” it seems Von Trotta had actually encountered the idea to fictionalize von Bingen even before embarking on Rosa Luxemburg.

In the 1970s, women involved in the Women’s Movement were looking for historical role models. At that time there were few female role models. History was written by men and made by men. The history of women was not told, and women were marginalized, as if they had never played any role. We came across Hildegard von Bingen in this search for forgotten women. Sometime thereafter, a lot of people were becoming involved with alternative medicine and were looking into the effectiveness of medicinal plants. It was then that Hildegard’s name resurfaced anew. So, I had already become interested in her before writing the screenplay for Rosa Luxemburg. That was in 1983, and soon thereafter I asked myself whether her life wouldn’t be good material for a movie. I even wrote a few scenes, but I thought that there wouldn’t be a producer who was ready to make this movie. So, I shelved it for a while.

When I met her again last night, I asked her why the 360 turnabout on what she previously felt like the “constriction” of the biographical format? Curiousity she said. That’s the main thing. I was so drawn to Von Bigen because of her grand curiousity. Von Bigen wanted to know so much. There’s nothing more alluring, to be deeply curious. I am so curious.

The Vatican’s appalling denouncement of the ordaining of female priests (comparing it a crime equal to priests molesting children!), makes it apparent that little has changed for women these many centuries within the Catholic Church, and makes VISION that much more prescient. Von Trotta points out two other issues of contemporary relevancy,

The film addresses two issues that are important to us today. One is the holistic approach to medicine. She once said, “First the soul must heal; then the body will follow.” The other was the warning that the elements could turn against us. At the time, people spoke of elements; today we speak of nature turning against us, or destroying us, if we don’t protect it. Both of these points make her relevant.

Hildegard’s accomplishments were many. She was a prolific composer of Gregorian chants, (fragments of which are heard in the film). She was a playwright, the lyrical drama, “Ordo Virtutum” is excerpted in a scene in VISION in which nuns uncharacteriscally don jewels and silk. She was also well read, a scholar by modern standards, with an amassed a library at a time when books proved a rarity. Further, she practiced holistic medicine and had a sophisticated knowledge of healing with herbs.

Von Trotta has been asked about her appeal to put strong women at the forefront of her films.

The figures that appeal to me are always strong women who also have moments of weakness;therefore, I never try to make heroines out of them. Instead I show how they fought to find their own way, how they put themselves out there, and how much they had to swallow in order to find themselves. I am fascinated by how they overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals. Hildegard von Bingen had a dream of founding her own abbey, and she suffered a lot of setbacks in the process. The moments of her greatest weakness are when the nun Richardis is to be taken away from her. In this situation, she behaves either like a small, abandoned child, or with fury. This conduct is all recorded in her letters. And it is precisely these moments of extreme self-abandonment that I find so beautiful, surprising, and contradictory. Hildegard von Bingen demands for herself what she usually gives to others. I absolutely did not want to portray her as a saint.

VISION marks the sixth collaboration with one of Von Trotta’s favorite muses, Barbara Sukowa, who has described her connection with Von Trotta across the decades as,

Certainly a friendship. It is always a special treat for me to work with Margarethe von Trotta, because she used to be an actress herself; she truly understands actors, and so she understands both positions. She is helpful and listens very carefully. I also find her very exciting as a person. On the one hand she is very intelligent and intellectually minded, and on the other, very warm and open to anything, even the irrational. When she began to make films, women still had to fight hard within the male-dominated world of cinema. So, sometimes she came across as harder than she is, because of how much she had to assert herself. Her other, more humorous side has come through even more so over the years.

When I met Von Trotta in the mid-80’s, (and probably, every who meets her has this experience), I felt I had known her many lives. Certainly her sympathies, the way she chooses to spend her hours, completely coincide with my own. I see no more interesting and important occupation of one’s time than to resurrect forgotten stories of remarkable women lost to the world’s patriarchy. The reason for so much of our global disintergration comes from the loss of great female intuition, knowledge, voices.

And so this great filmmaker, now in her late 60s, ardently continues her singular and visionary quest. Her next grand curiousity will be four years in the life of the great German Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt. One would think after nearly half a century of an auteur’s transformative work that raising monies for the next film would be a fait a compli. Does this struggle never end for women filmmakers the way it seems to for many male auteurs?

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