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Rosa Luxembourg / Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2019

This is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed in Britain by the Independent Cinema Office. The programme is titled ‘The Personal is Political – the films of Margarethe von Trotta’. The standpoint presented in this title has some justification. In her films von Trotta most frequently focuses on a female protagonist and presents their life [or part of it] by intertwining personal experiences with social and political events. However, I would counter to this a stance of ‘the political is personal’. I do this because whilst the films portray personal relationships the stories von Trotta uses are [to varying degrees] taken from historical events. In this way the social contradictions which made these stories prominent enough to justify a commercial film structure both the public and personal events involving the characters. This film, both a biography and a celebration of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th, seems to me clearly to demonstrate such a relationship between the political and the personal.

The film, written and directed by von Trotta, has a complex and non-linear structure. On its release critics noted [and often complained about] the difficulties of making sense of such a narrative. I think this was more noted outside of Germany. One audience member at a recent screening was seeing the film for a second time and remarked that he followed it more easily this time as he had greater knowledge of the context and background of the film’s story. Indeed when the film was released in Britain,

“The Press handout implicitly recognises this by including a helpful chronology of Rosa’s life and substantial historical background.” (Pam Cook’s review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1986).

For the same reason I set out here the chronology of the film.

It opens in 1916 with Rosa in a German prison.

Following the opening credits the film cuts a Polish prison in Warsaw in 1906.

There follows a flashback showing Rosa, and her lover Leo, arriving in Poland a year earlier; with the 1905 Revolution in Russia under way.

The film cuts to 1899 as Leo joins Rosa in Berlin.

We then witness a New Year celebration at the dawn of 1900 by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD).

The film returns to 1906, still in Berlin, and Rosa’s relationship with the leaders of the SPD and her personal relationship with Leo.

By 1907 Rosa has moved to the left of many of the SPD leaders, including her former mentor Karl Kautsky. And her relationship with Leo changes after she learns of his affair with another communist woman.

By 1913 Rosa has become a leader of a ‘left fraction’ in the SPD. Opposing ‘revolution’ to ‘reformism’. She has begun a relationship with, Kostja, the son of her friend Clara Zetkin. And she meets Paul Levi, a lawyer and to become another lover. She is tried by the German Authorities for ‘inflammatory behaviour’ in her opposition to the coming European war.

In 1914 she is working with Karl Liebknecht, another anti-imperialist war revolutionary. But the SPD supports the 1914 war by voting credits in the German parliament.

In 1916 Rosa is arrested and imprisoned. On release she and Liebknecht found The Spartacist League (Spartakusbund).

By 1916 she is back in prison where she remains till the end of the war. We see her visited by friends, in particular Liebknecht’s partner Sonya.

On release in 1918 she and Liebknecht, supported by Leo and others, return to revolutionary activity. Revolutionary actions by the German working class force an end to the war and the declaration of a republic with the SPD taking power. At this point the film interweaves it fictionalised portrayal [in colour] with black and white archive film from the period.

An uprising, led by the Spartacists, [who at the start of 1919 became the Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands] is suppressed by the Government using right-wing volunteer militia, the Freikorps, [proto-fascist organisation]. Rosa and Liebknecht are murdered. Rosa body is thrown in a Berlin canal.

The film ends though Rosa ‘s body was later recovered and given a proper burial.

This cutting back and forth can be followed but the actual period and characters have to be either recognised or surmised. It is only after several scenes in which she appears that Clara Zetkin is identified by her full name. Other characters like Karl Kautsky or August Bebel are identified by name and the dialogue gives a sense of their relevance to the events. But organisations such as the Second International, which Rosa attends at one point, probably need the viewer to already understand where they fit in events and political contest.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918

An important point to note about the narrative is what of Rosa’s life and activism is left out. Thus the narrative presents Rosa when she is already involved in the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy – both under Czarist rule) and the SPD. We only see her early years in two brief flashbacks, one with her studying a flower with her mother, and the other teaching reading to her nanny. The cause of her lifelong limp [a hip ailment in childhood] is unexplained as is the point that the family was Jewish. The latter occasioned epithets directed at her by enemies just as was the case with Leon Trotsky. One important facet that is missing is that Rosa became active in revolutionary politics whilst she was till a school student. And her sojourn and studies in Zurich is only noted in the dialogue. Another important point that is missing is her marriage [of convenience] in 1897 in order to obtain German citizenship. And whilst the film identifies her relationships with Leo and Kostja, that with Paul Levi has to be surmised from his behaviour. The oddest omission for me was almost no reference to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The former is named once by Paul Levi. The latter do not get a single mention. Given both the common standpoints on imperialist wart and the impact of the Russian revolution on The Spartacist League, this is a serious omission. Rosa actually met Lenin in London in 1907 at a Russian Social Democrats Party Conference. Whilst this is mentioned in the dialogue, neither the title nor an explanation is provided.

This serious overlooking of people and influences of central importance to Rosa seems to be part of a deliberate playing down of the Marxism which was her political ;philosophy. In her struggles with the SPD there are references to her emphasis on the importance of organisation and of the General Strike; also of the need for the proletarians to control and push forward the Party leadership. But the content of this, set out noticeably in her 1900 article, ‘Reform or Revolution’ is missing. From 1913 the emphasis shifts to her opposition to the war. This is presented as capitalist but also militarist, so that the way that Rosa, along with Lenin, held to the prescriptions of Marx and Engels is not clearly set out. This seemed to me to result from a strategy of emphasizing Rosa Luxembourg as a feminist icon and pioneer. This is clearly problematic and the film has to recognise [in a comment to Clara Zetkin] that Rosa saw the struggle around gender as subordinate to that of class. But the emphasis in the plotting and characters continually emphasises Rosa’ work and friendship with other women, especially Clara and Sonja. Within the SPD her opponents are all men. Whilst Leon, Karl and Paul are all men who support her political standpoint; Leo is partially discredited by his affair and Karl by the film presenting his initiating of the Spartacist uprising as opportunist. The latter misrepresents both the events and Rosa’s standpoint. We do see French socialist, Jean Jaurès, making an anti-war speech but he is not actually identified. And, as noted, the most important revolutionary figure of the period, Lenin, is absent.

Pam Cook, in a very good review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, comments on the relationship between the political and personal;

“In effect, von Trotta has fictionalised Rosa Luxemburg, creating from real events of her life an idealised figure. This is particularly evident in the many sequences devoted to Rosa’s brilliantly evocative public speeches, which stand as spectacular ‘performances’ in their own right, almost like set-pieces in a musical bio-pic; and in the way Rosa’s actual words, painstakingly culled from her many letters and other writings, are abstracted from context and translated into intimate scenes with her cat, her woman friends, her family or her lovers.”

But Pam Cook also notes how the contradictions in this film and in its subject ‘strain’ the fictionalising process. This is apparent if we compare the film with a more conventional biopic of a revolutionary, Warren Beatty’s’ John Reed in ‘Reds’ (1981). The witnesses in that film are unidentified and their political viewpoint abstracted. In a scene where John Reed explains his politics to Louise Bryant he fails to finish a single complete sentence as several hours are transformed with ellipses into about five minutes, And, at the film’s end, this revolutionary internationalist is depicted as another homesick ‘American’. Rose Luxemburg avoids such failures. And the complexities of what is essentially an ‘art film’ treatment of the political bio-pic renders the narrative tapestry reflexive in a way that encourages viewers to notice those contradictions emerging in the fissures of the text. So the non-linear narrative produces a complex story telling. Whilst the political standpoints in the film are limited they are explicit, something that is fairly rare in commercial cinema.

One of the aspects that the film presents is the contradiction between the relative bourgeois life style of the leadership in the SPD and the proletarian situation of the mass of their members. In fact we only see proletarians in the prisons, as an audience in the public meetings where Rosa and others speechify, and at the end in the combat as the Spartacists battle the representatives of the German state. The film does not explicitly draw attention to the gulf that exists, but it is evident in the mise en scêne. The household of Bebel and Kautsky appear fairly affluent and they both have servants. The apartments that are used by Rosa and Leo and by Rosa and Kostja are also very comfortably furnished and ample in size. Rosa too has a maid and, later, a secretary. But the latter is called to participate in a political meeting by Rosa. This is an aspect of the film that demonstrates the importance of the contributions of the craft colleagues of von Trotta.

Music by Nicolas Economou

Cinematography by Franz Rath

Film Editing by Dagmar Hirtz, Galip Iyitanir

Set Decoration by Stepan Exner, Bernd Lepel

Costume Design by Monika Hasse

Make-up Department Bernd-Rüdiger Knoll

plus their colleagues working with them.

The film recreates the period with what seems to be great accuracy and detail. Sets range from the dark forbidding prisons to the comfortable households of the leaders to public halls where events are held and, at the film’s end, both the streets and the offices where the Spartacist organise and fight.

The cinematography is excellent. Varying from the noirish gloom of the prions to the bright, colourful public spectacles and, finally, the dark and dank resting place of Rosa’s corpse.

The visual detail in the film is impressive. There is one fine long shot of Rosa framed and dwarfed by the monumental Reichstag building as she leaves after the the SPD has betrayed the revolution and voted in the Reichstag for war credits. But the shots are not only dramatic but also ironic and even slightly humorous. The pre-credit sequence shows Rosa walking back and forth in a German prison with snow on the ground. She is first followed and then accompanied by a blackbird, who hops along in the snow.

The brutality and sadism of the reactionary state forces is clearly presented in the film. At the start we watch as women revolutionaries are distraught at the execution of male revolutionaries by the Polish military. This is followed by a mock execution of Rosa before an interrogation. At the film’s climax Liebknecht and Rosa are taken by the Freikorps, knocked unconscious and then shot. The reactionary hatred displayed to the revolutionaries by the right-wing militia and their supporters is clear.

In the closing sequences the film uses archive film to presents the revolutionary ferment that forced an end to the German war actions and then set the scene for a German revolution, which unfortunately failed. This is is well cut into the fictionalised representation and bring an elan to the drama. It is slightly unfortunate that this archive film has been reframed to fit the film ‘s own ratio, 1.66:1.

Rosa Luxemburg is a flawed and in some ways contradictory film. It shows the limitations of von Trotta political approach to film drama but also the way that the stories that she tells break free from some of the limitations of her approach. But I do not know of nay other filmic treatment of Luxemburg. She is both influential and frequently portrayed in literature, drama, painting, and music. It is a real credit that von Trotta has essayed this treatment. The screenings organised by the Independent Cinema Office included a short introduction by von Trotta herself. She explained that a fellow German film-maker and radical, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, originally planned a film treatment on Luxemburg and wrote a script. This was titled ‘Rosa L’ and was, apparently, found by his body after his death. One source suggests that he wanted Romy Schneider to play Rosa, another Jane Fonda; either suggesting a very different approach for that in von Trotta’s film. Von Trotta herself worked out her own script after a lengthy study of the sources on Luxemburg.

The British release [though limited] is opportune. 1919 sees the centenary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A memorial demonstration was held in Berlin on the anniversary, January 14th. Luxemburg remains an iconic presence in revolutionary history. Her writings are still published and republished. Her ‘Reform or Revolution’ is major text; read it with the capitalist crisis of 208 in min d, and see its relevance. Both Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom disagreed with some of her work, were full of praise for her.

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