Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

ROSA LUXEMBURG *** 1/2 (Germany, 1986)

Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Cinematography, Franz Rath. Editing, Dagmar Hirtz.Sound, Christian Moldt.Art direction, Bernd Lepel, Karel Vacek.Costumes, Monika Hasse.Music, Nicolas Economou. Producer, Eberhard Junkersdorf. Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Daniel Olbrychski, Otto Sander, et al. A Bioskop Film-Munic production.In German (and some Polish)with subtitles.122 minutes. No rating.
High-quality German cinema and transfixing history combine beautifully in ROSA LUXEMBURG, a film I recommend highly. It covers mainly the crucial years 1898-1919 of "Red Rosa"'s life, when the Polish-born political activist, heroine and martyr of the Social Democrats, lived mostly in Germany.

On January 15, 1919, Rosa and her comrade Karl Liebknecht were murdered by Freikorps troops of--ironically--the new Social Democrat German Republic. Arguably, they were the first victims of the Nazi system to come.

Rosa was an idealist and a purist, intransigent in politics and love. She was a spellbinding orator, an indefatigable worker, speechmaker and writer, a firebrand who tolerated no timorousness, personal or ideological compromises or political cliches. Prison was a way of life for her--she was jailed nine times.

Margarethe von Trotta's film should fascinate all those who are interested in cinema that deals with big issues which--like this work--even transcend their main subject. And Rosa Luxemburg is a very tricky subject to handle. Today's standards are infinitely more exacting than the old ones of barefaced propaganda (e.g. films made under the Third Reich) or the old Hollywood biographies with their sentimentalities, heroics, simplifications and feeble-minded manicheism.

Now films like ROSA must re-invent the genre, case by case. Director Von Trotta does this excellently, balancing dangerously between documentarism and fiction, between personality and the wider historical context.

Rosa was so active and complex that any single film on her must be selective. On my second viewing of ROSA in 20 months, I found the film's presentation of its intense heroine and its political background even more entrancing than the first time. There is enough here to feed a miniseries.

Before the movie came out, Von Trotta said :" I have collected so much material that I could make two more films....Some historians will find my film very incomplete. It wasn't my aim to create a work of history but a portrait of Rosa. But I feel that for all the people who don't know her, the film will help them discover her. Rosa is used in the East as in the West. In West Germany, the stamp showing her portrait was unacceptable to the public. In the East they use her for political ends and play down her opposition to Lenin."

Curiously, historians did not object to the film. Only a few "instant-expert" reviewers criticized some of the movie's liberties--specifically the death of Kostia Zetkin, Rosa's lover and the son of her friend Clara Zetkin--when in actuality it was Hans Diefenbach, Kostia's successor, who was killed in World War II.

The big--and perhaps only--love of Rosa's life was Leo Jogiches (played with sober presence by Daniel Olbrychski), who, even after he was rejected by Rosa because he had cheated on her, remained her collaborator.

Neither Jogiches nor anyone else from the movie's Who's Who among the Social Democrats has a foreground role in ROSA. Wisely, Ms. von Trotta has concentrated on her central figure without diluting her two hours of Rosa with efforts to fill in details of Karl Liebknecht, Karl and Luise Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, August Bebel, Jean Jaures, and the other, by now legendary, political figures of the period.

Nonetheless, they are all there. By making every moment of their screen presence count in a forceful way, those activists are woven into history without being merely supporting cast. But it is, of course, Rosa who dominates the film, both by the way the script is written and through Barbara Sukowa's superb performance. She won the Best Actress Award at the 1986 Cannes Festival.

Luxemburg-Sukowa is a true believer in the people, above parties and systems; she is a figure of utter resilience, passionate yet lucid; she is a woman deeply conscious of art, literature, and of nature (in contemporary German terms she would be both a Red and a Green). Rosa is also a woman of abnegation who suffers for others but not for herself.

Of her approximately 2, 500 letters that von Trotta studied, one, addressed to Sophie Liebknecht, describes in Rosa's wonderfully touching prose the mistreating of a wagon-pulling ox by a soldier in Rosa's prison yard.

Von Trotta has condensed it with skill, retaining its essence as well as its ending :"Oh my poor buffalo, my poor beloved brother, here we are, the two of us, powerless and helpless, united in our pain and nostalgia."

The writer-director originally tried to find a bilingual (German-Polish) as well as Jewish actress for the part . She was unable to do so. It was a stroke of luck, as she turned to Barbara Sukowa, who, although she looks nothing like the real Rosa, has absorbed her personality magnificently. She even learned Polish and uses a slight Polish accent in her German.

Rosa's Jewishness is not stressed in the movie. This is not an avoidance reaction on the part of Ms. von Trotta, but because at the time the intellectual Jews were totally assimilated into the German mainstream. Furthermore, Rosa herself had a world view of her mission, which precluded any feelings of nationalism or ethnicity. On the other hand, the predominance of Jews in the SPD (German Socialist Party) is obvious in the film.

The movie is one of much talk and dialectics, of considerable excitement if you are in the least curious about history. There are uncanny relevancies to our own day--not only to the situation in the Germany of the 1980s but also in Rosa's resounding, pacifist speeches.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of this hearfelt film is the 1914 defection of socialists, all over Europe. Initially they resisted the coming war. Alas, pressures, conformism and chauvinism led to a mass betrayal of principles, of logic and of sanity. It happened in Germany, it also happened in other countries. The door to the madness and tragedy of the guns of August was open.

Remarkable too is ROSA's powerful feminism--but not in the usual sense. Rosa herself was impatient with it and delegated this particular struggle to others. The feminism lies in the way that the movie's Rosa, though given a great deal of femininity, is not for a moment thought or spoken of as a woman, a female or an exception, whether within or without the socialist circles.

The question of sexism never comes up. The way von Trotta puts us before a moral-social given of equality and non-discrimination, the way it flows so naturally, ennobles, in this respect, the socialists of all hues, even those who were Rosa's ideological adversaries. We have not progressed much in one full century.

[Note: Review written Nov.20, 87. A third, recent screening of the film changes nothing of its quality and validity].

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel