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The Review/Interview/

An Interview With Fassbinder’s Muse, Barbara Sukowa

The German Meryl Streep who melts into her roles is coming to TIFF Bell Lightbox to introduce Berlin Alexanderplatz

by Nadia Litz
Nov 11, 2016

See Barbara Sukowa in Lola, Fassbinder's take on The Blue Angel in a beautiful 35mm print on Friday, November 11. The actor will introduce screenings of Berlin Alexanderplatz at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Parts one to three will be screened on Saturday, November 12 and parts four to seven will be screened on Sunday, November 13, as part of our retrospective on the great German auteur.

One of the more gutting quotes that I have ever read is from the late director Rainer Werner Fassbinder who said: “It is still a fact that you win by playing by the rules, and the pure person doesn't have much of a chance.” This quote exemplifies some of the most haunting downfalls of humans, of women, in particular. I never bought into the notion that Fassbinder was a misogynist. I thought he really understood something about the darker side of women. It’s the kind of trick we sometimes play on the patriarchy when it places limitations on us. An “act” of compliance that exists within us at various stages in our lives. The women in Fassbinder films always seem to be “acting,” but their role playing is a way of rebellion.

I was consumed by Fassbinder films in university. I was always defending him, even from himself. Recently, I rediscovered an adorable old email that I wrote to my teaching assistant in a Women in Cinema class. It was written at 1:32 AM, so clearly the issue was weighing heavily on me:

In Bordwell and Thompson, it says that Fassbinder doesn't use the Brechtian technique of alienation, yet in essays I have read and personal observation, his films do use it… The quote Bordwell and Thompson use is from Fassbinder himself who says that he doesn't use Brechtian techniques because that would mean there is no emotion yet, in the readings I have done it is not that Brechtian techniques are void of emotion, but rather they play with "expected" emotions… For the sake of my essay, can I assume that the Marriage of Maria Braun does employ Brecht’s techniques?

It was clearly very important to me that I could interpret Fassbinder’s films as being both political and emotional, while still employing a Brecht’s distanciation lens. I wanted to give myself permission to pour over them with boundless love, while still seeing his work as feminist. One of the reasons I held his films so dear was in no small part because of the actresses. Hanna, Ingrid, Margrit, Rosel, Irm… Barbara.

Barbara Sukowa is someone that every actress should study with the purpose of getting a PhD in how to be an actress. Originating from the theatre, she is masterful on screen. A kind of beguiling German Meryl Streep who melts into roles, she rejects the notion of easy sentimentality. Her performance in Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) is inexorably linked to that face (hipsters think prototype Petra Collins), which mercurially vacillates from intelligence to glamour puss, depending on the mood. Lola solidified her place as an icon. It was after meeting Fassbinder in a theatre bar late one night that she came to be first cast in his operatic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) also known as the 15-hour film that is a right of passage for any cinephile to watch in the theatre (bring sustenance and reinforcements!) I spoke with Barbara Sukowa over email about that first Fassbinder meeting, muses, female friendships and more.

How did you meet Fassbinder? What was your first impression of him?

I met Fassbinder in Frankfurt where he was director of the Theater am Turm and I was at the Städtischen Bühnen Frankfurt. We met late at night at an actor hangout after a performance. He tried to provoke me, but the provocation did not land very well. The rest of the night he sat next to me and told me about very personal things which were never later mentioned between us again.

I remember watching the BRD Trilogy (Fassbinder’s three films The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola) and thinking, now those are real roles for real actresses. Those characters spoke to me. I loved them because women in Fassbinder’s films seem “in on the joke” of what it can feel like to be a female in our society: the feeling of being a commodity.

This is a great observation. I’ve never heard that before, from anyone. I totally agree. That is why I do not see any misogyny in Fassbinder, as a lot of people do.

Where do you think we are at with roles for actresses?

I think in a lot of big-budget movies, many of the actresses are just pretty assets but there are interesting roles in independent films. Actresses certainly have great possibilities in all of these new TV series. We are developing really complex characters now.

Other than maybe Lars von Trier (Sukowa starred in his 1991 film Europa), there are very few great “auteurs” in the current canon who have made women the focus of their films. Do you think that Fassbinder got the inner workings of women right?

It’s hard to say because we don’t know if the great female characters in films and literature have been modeled after women or if women modeled themselves after literature and films. It’s an interesting interaction. Fassbinder portrayed women always with a certain glamour. He was not interested in “kitchen realism.” It was an idealized version. It was interesting for him to do that at a time when glamour was not really en vogue in Germany. Women fought for intellectual acceptance. Fassbinder does not have intellectuals in his films.

Actresses like yourself and Hanna Schygulla leave such an enduring imprint through Fassbinder’s films. Did you consider yourself his muse or an equal collaborator?

Certainly not equal collaborator. Maybe we have inspired certain things in him regarding the characters.

What was that time like? Were you friends with the other actresses in his films?

I was friends with Hanna [Schygulla] during the shooting. We had a very good relationship, although some people tried to prevent that and tried to seed negativity between us. But I have absolutely no interest in competing with other actresses. I am very fortunate that all through my professional life, I’ve had wonderful female partners and lasting friendships that came out of the work.

I love this quote where you say what binds all of the characters you have played: “All of them were stepping over some border. They wanted more than was given to them in their time and they were all thinkers.” It feels like we don’t often see women on screen as thinkers.

You feel there are a lot of male thinkers on screen? The screen is maybe not the right medium for thinkers.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

As long as I'm not an activist, can I say I'm a feminist? If you can lay out what you mean exactly what would make me a feminist, maybe I could answer that question. I have the impression today that it means something different than it did 30 years ago.

I think your titular performance in Hannah Arendt is one of the greatest performances ever by an actress. I’m so interested in what it was like to work with your long-time collaborator, the great Margarethe von Trotta. Are there any differences in your experience between working with female directors versus male ones?

There is a difference between talented and untalented directors, nothing to do with gender. Margarethe von Trotta and I are close friends. We collaborate much more, we also dance. There are quite a few movies where we portrayed historical figures — people that have actually lived — and we have to do a lot of research. We have one thing in common: we really love to learn and exchange our opinions and ideas about the literature that we read regarding the character we are working on. We would not only talk about the movie, but our private lives, our families. And now we have a big chest of life experience to inform the movies we are making.

Music is something that inspires me as an artist, although I’m shit at making it! You sing in Lola and I read that you are in a punk band.

Music has had a big part in my life, but not the rock band. In 1983, I was asked by the Dutch Schönberg ensemble to do a famous piece by Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. It was a humongous task for somebody who was not classically trained. It is a very difficult piece and at the time it was only performed by opera singers, although it has a lot to do with speaking. My performance of it (because they heard it for the first time from an actress) caught the interest of other conductors. And I was offered to perform pieces that required a similar skill set. So over the years, I was very lucky to have had the chance to perform at wonderful venues all over the world. It is still totally nerve-wracking for me and it is difficult to plan because the classical music world schedules concerts years ahead.

Finally, what was it like shooting Berlin Alexanderplatz with Fassbinder?

Long and wonderful for me, mostly in the Bavaria Studios in Munich. I had only done one small film before with Gabi Kubach (Sold Dreams). For Günter Lamprecht who plays Franz Biberkopf, it was a marathon of epic proportions. Fassbinder sometimes handed him huge texts before lunch to be shot after lunch. Fassbinder also mixed actors with whom he had worked with already for a long time with new actors. The cast was a mix of movie actors, old-time German movie stars, theatre actors and non-professionals. But unlike many TV series today where the writing often happens during the shooting, all 13 episodes were written and ready to be read by the actors.

A FINAL THOUGHT FROM NADIA:

As with all of Fassbinder’s work, this recounting of the artistic preparation for Berlin Alexanderplatz sounds like the ultimate precursor for the auteur-driven TV miniseries of today. Very ahead of its time. Very Fassbinder.