Sheer Madness

Margarethe von Trotta is a remarkably gifted filmmaker who made vital contributions to the New German Cinema movement of the '70s and '80s, only to be overshadowed by her contemporaries. She started as an actress in mostly small roles, appearing in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The American Soldier and Beware Of A Holy Whore. She married (and later divorced) Volker Schlondorff, director of that Oscar-winning piece of child pornography, The Tin Drum, as well as the new neo-noir Palmetto. After cutting her teeth on the terrorist drama The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum, which she co-directed with her husband, von Trotta began a new career behind the camera. While her solo directorial debut, The Second Awakening Of Christa Klages (1978), lacks the polish and insight of her later films, it's still an acutely observed reflection on her favorite theme: the powerful (and often mysterious) psychic bond among women. In the film's most fascinating subplot, a strange kinship is struck over a brief glance between a desperate young bank robber (Tina Engel) and the quiet teller (Katharina Thalbach) she holds at gunpoint. The dangers of such an intimate connection are explored in von Trotta's masterful follow-up, the ironically titled Sisters, Or The Balance Of Happiness (1979). Two siblings (Jutta Lampe and Gudrun Gabriel)—one a driven career woman, the other a flighty, emotionally unstable graduate student—also have a special relationship, though it's far from symbiotic. In lesser hands, the sharp contrast in the characters' personalities would invite pop psychology or, worse still, the sock-drawer formalism of a Peter Greenaway, but there's nothing tidy about the emotional ruptures in this disturbing film. Were it not for von Trotta's sophistication and the welcome presence of Hanna Schygulla—who gave a Dietrich-worthy performance in The Marriage Of Maria BraunSheer Madness (1983) would suffocate from its didactic feminism. Schygulla plays a professor of women's literature who befriends an reticent painter (Angela Winkler) and tries to free her from her oppressive husband, a character allegedly based on Schlondorff. What begins as another sensitive, enticingly strange chamber drama concludes with the sort of loaded, facile statements this trio of reissues had done well to avoid.

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