Festival pays tribute to New German Cinema veteran

The onscreen face of the New German Cinema, Hanna Schygulla will be forever identified with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for whom she served as muse, star and, occasionally, nemesis.

They first collaborated on his 1969 feature debut, “Love Is Colder Than Death”, and their partnership encompassed such classics as “The Merchant of Four Seasons,” his 12-part TV adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” Not since Dietrich and von Sternberg had a German actress enjoyed such a fruitful working relationship with a director.

Her rapport with the driven, self-destructive filmmaker was as fractious as any of his intimates — but unlike many of the others, Schygulla was not so in awe of Fassbinder to not challenge his authority. While shooting their 12th film together, his 1974 adaptation of Fontaine’s “Effi Brest,” actress and helmer clashed over their differing interpretations of the material.

But then Schygulla went a step further: she protested her low salary, and urged the other cast members to join a revolt. The director’s response was blunt and unambiguous (“He said, ‘I can’t stand the sight of your face any more. You bust my balls.'”), and she found herself exiled from his circle.

It took five years for the pair to be reconciled, when the director cast her in the title role of his landmark 1979 drama “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” for which she won the best actress award at that year’s Berlinale. Thereafter they continued to work together until the helmer’s early death in 1982, aged just 37.

“The tragedy of his life,” Schygulla recalled, years later, “was that he regarded slavery as a proof of love. He could be a torturer, yes. But geniuses are always intolerable, more or less.”

With Fassbinder gone, one might have expected Schygulla’s star to wane; however, to the surprise of many, she proved resilient. She’d already worked with fellow New German Cinema star Wim Wenders, on 1975’s “Wrong Movement,” and soon starred alongside Isabelle Huppert in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Passion” in 1982.

The following year she earned a best actress nod at Cannes for Marco Ferreri’s controversial “Story of Piera,” co-starring once more with Huppert. Further collaborations followed — with fellow Fassbinder alum Margarethe von Trotter (on 1983’s “Friends and Husbands”) and, the same year, with Polish helmer Andrej Wanda (“A Love in Germany”).

But then, unexpectedly, she scaled back her appearances — first to care for her mother, who, she says “fell into old age in a very dramatic way” — and then for her father, a former German infantryman and American P.O.W..

“I dedicated lots and lots of time to these two people that I owed my life to, and who’d not been very happy in their own lives. I thought I could contribute to making them happier, and also make up for something.”

It was during this period, hungry for a creative outlet, that she turned to theater — starring in a range of one-woman shows that combined music and performance, and leading to a parallel career as a singer. When her father finally passed away, she felt able to return to filmmaking.

But the passing of time meant she was being offered different roles — what she now calls, with mordant humor, “the parts of age.” More recently, she’s been seen in Faith Akins’s “The Edge of Heaven,” and, at 66, is currently filming an adaptation of “Faust” for Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, in what would seem a nearly-perfect marriage of director, performer and subject matter.

“I don’t think acting is that difficult,” she has declared. “It’s simply about being present in the moment when you are doing something. In that sense, everybody has to be a good actor just to live a full life.”

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