Two of the best political films I’ve ever seen, both released in 1986 and both about influential leftist women, are Juraj Herz’s Night Overtake Me, about Czech Communist journalist Jožka Jabůrková, and Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg, which covers the titular German Socialist revolutionary. There is a great deal of responsibility required to make a film about Jabůrková and Luxemburg. To portray the essence of figures who truly lived their politics is to go beyond the casual structure of most political cinema, which is too often satisfied with separating person from politics and delivering mealy-mouthed, symbolic idol-worship.
Margarethe von Trotta, a cinematic revolutionary in her own right as a seminal figure in the New German Cinema movement of the 70s and 80s, begins Rosa Luxemburg in a jail cell where her central character is carried off to what is assumed to be her execution by firing squad. This is a bold political announcement from the get go. It’s a remark to the audience that this is a film about someone who risked her life and liberty. This is not a safe film, nor is it a movie that tip-toes around confrontation and conviction.
There is an immediacy with which Rosa Luxemburg dives into the importance of the moment. We see Luxemburg make her stand and begin to organize immediately after her release from prison in 1918, insisting on a consistent tone and fervor to the words of her party in helping gain support for a revolution like the one in Russia just one year prior, though her disagreements with Lenin’s autocratic approach suggested a different path. Post-WWI Germany was a nation at a crossroads, in dire economic straits with its populace yearning for change in the course of the country’s politics. Luxemburg knew she was the woman of the moment with a chance to steer the country toward liberation.
The Social Democratic Party were in power after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but their power was standing on frail stilts with the party desperately trying to play both sides of the political coin to quell as many citizens as they could. Germany in 1919 had a choice to make – keep on with their futile balancing act and allow the pressure from the right-wing to tilt the scales, or follow Luxemburg’s lead and, in her own words during the revolution, “seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all.” If the following decades were any indication, it was clear which path they chose.
No such choice exists currently in America because here we already chose to indebt ourselves to money more than sixty years ago. There is no Rosa Luxemburg to give us that choice either. No Luxemburg to stand with conviction on behalf of the people who are failed by both ruling political parties – both of whom demonstrate different degrees of antagonism towards social and economic justice. Even in Germany, which had shown clear potential for a worker’s revolution, Luxemburg knew that such an endeavor had to be carefully planned and that she and the workers of the nation were still up against unfavorable odds.
A wonderful rally scene depicts Luxemburg standing up on stage with the camera tilting up at her as a figure of ideological authority in the room. However, as she begins to speak, the camera moves away from her and scans the rows and rows of workers in the audience listening intently, her words washing over them. This movement isn’t about her, it is about them. Von Trotta makes it clear with this framing that Luxemburg’s words aren’t to prop up her ego or make her a martyr. They are a map and a guide for the people to use to shape their future, collectively. She paraphrases Friedrich Schiller’s play Death of Wallenstein saying, “Mars, God of War, rules the hour, but the day is nigh, the day belongs to us… when we come to power, we will create a society worthy of humanity.”
In an interview with ‘Film Comment’, Margarethe von Trotta claims that she never “sets out to make political cinema, but films about people and the times they live in.” One could argue that is just as much of a unique trait of political cinema as any because people are inevitably shaped by the politics of their time. Even with its concentration of political revolution, Rosa Luxemburg certainly embodies the personal intimacy with which von Trotta means to portray her titular figure. Outside of the ideological arenas where she spars with her supposed comrades of the German Social Democratic party for their own Bolshevik style revolution to overthrow the Kaiser Wilhelm, she deals with issues of an unfaithful partner, death in the family, and, more existentially, the beauty and cruelty she witnesses in nature.
At the beginning of the film, she speaks of the sparrows chirping by her jail cell giving her hope, but towards the end she sees a bull being mercilessly beaten until it starts bleeding and is overwhelmed with a wave of misery. Rosa Luxemburg is not a happy journey. It’s a film in requiem for a lost opportunity in history and in veneration for the revolutionary leader who dared to try and make it a reality. Barbara Sukowa deserves praise for the elegance with which she portrays the humanity of Luxemburg – both fiery but filled with heart and warmth. Even in her most tested moments, there is never a sense of bitterness or calculation in the performance. Sukowa exudes the greatest trait of Luxemburg – an undying belief in a better world even when confronted with its unsurmountable tragedies.
The New York Times, in a 1987 review, said that “there’s no way Margarethe von Trotta’s seriously conceived new film… can set the record straight on this complex woman. No film could.” Rosa Luxemburg takes the best approach possible, setting itself and its central political figure in the midst of Germany’s 1919 revolution, an event which embodied both the hope and tragedy of Luxemburg’s political career. It remains as relevant and important a political film as ever because its stakes are real and a flashpoint that defined a century. History is made from choices and Germany chose the wrong one. If our Rosa Luxemburg comes along will we listen? Will we make the right choice?