Rosa Luxemburg was a noted “revolutionary socialist” and Marxist theorist who was Polish but eventually made her home in Germany. This 1986 biopic was directed by Margarethe von Trotta, who was probably the most noted female director of the “New German Cinema” from the late ’60s into the early ’80s. She is best known for co-directing The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum with Volker Schlöndorff, who was her husband at the time. She felt she was being seen as secondary to her husband. and starting directing films solo after one more collaboration, Coup de Grâce, which she only wrote the screenplay for.
The movement known as “The New German Cinema” arguably died when Rainer Werner Fassbinder overdosed on a cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982 after one of the prolific careers of any filmmaker who ever lived. Many of the most well-known directors, like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Fassbinder, had already started making films in English or in America by that time. The basis of a film on Rosa Luxemburg goes back to Fassbinder, who at the time of his death was planning a film on her life, and had actually already cast Jane Fonda in the role… oh how I would’ve much preferred that film! Instead, Margarethe von Trotta took the project on after making her name as one of the foremost feminist filmmakers, not in just Germany but in world cinema, with films like Sheer Madness.
Von Trotta tells the story in a relatively non-linear fashion, but without any indicators to tell you the year or country you are in, so at times the film can be confusing, especially to anybody who hasn’t studied early 20th century German socialist history. Luxemburg’s personal life is given just as much time as her political life, which is a conscious decision, but her political life was far more interesting. Von Trotta was going for the “personal is the political” angle here. Luxemburg was born into a relatively bourgeois Polish left-leaning family and had various romantic relationships, but the real meat to her life was her activism, whether that was being vocally against the first World War, going against the more mainstream Social Democratic Party of Germany, or forming her own party, the Spartacus League.
Her assassination is almost an afterthought in the film. Luxemburg was arrested, tortured and killed by commander Captain Waldemar Pabst and his cronies, Pabst was a fascinating figure, a hardcore fascist who nevertheless did not join up when the Nazis came to power, and had a relatively ambivalent view of them. A film on him would be fascinating. It’s long rumoured that some of Luxemburg’s “comrades” were in cohoots to get her rid of her: the Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert ordered his private army to destroy the revolution… not very democratic is it? The assassination came after the German revolution of 1918-19, which was inspired in part by Russia’s October Revolution in 1917.
The whole film hinges on the performance of Barbara Sukowa as Luxemburg. Sukowa was one of Fassbinder’s go-to actresses, most notably in Lola. She does justice to Luxemburg’s fiery speeches and gives it her all. Some of the prison scenes are harrowing: Luxemburg was in and out of prison for much of her adult life. Sukowa won the Best Actress award at Cannes for the performance. The film is probably too sympathetic to Luxemburg and simplifies a lot of the story, but it’s a film. I would be very curious as to what the Fassbinder film would’ve been like…. he was hated by Marxists and conservatives alike, so I’m sure his version would’ve ruffled far more feathers. Finally a special mention to Luxemberg’s cat who isn’t in the film remotely enough but steals every scene it’s in.
The disc includes interviews with both Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa.