We first see Rosa Luxemburg in a snowy prison yard, guards patrolling the walls high above her. As she walks a raven hops beside her, the first of many references to Rosa’s affinity with nature. It’s 1906 and Rosa has been locked up in Poland for her involvement in the 1905 Russian Revolution.
Rosa was imprisoned many times and Margarethe von Trotta’s powerful and moving 1986 biopic reflects this. For a film about a woman who spent her life advocating the politics of mass movements, it often depicts her alone, her thoughts, based on the many letters she wrote to friends, voiced over.
The film, fully restored in a 4k edition and available with English subtitles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray, feels fresh and vibrant despite its age. Barbara Sukowa’s performance brilliantly conjures a Rosa who is intelligent, passionate and forceful. Her energy radiates off the screen — and anyone who has read Rosa’s speeches and letters will recognise this.
It is near impossible to encapsulate someone like Rosa in a two hour film — she was a remarkable individual who lived through a time of great transformation. In an interview with the director included on the disc, von Trotta talks about how she read all of Rosa’s works and biographies, and then read her letters five times without taking notes, using what had stuck to build the character.
The film’s focus is on Rosa’s personal and political relationships. In a clever New Year’s Eve party scene we are introduced to key figures — Leo Jogiches, her comrade and lover from Poland; Karl Kautsky, at first an ally in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) though later an enemy; Luise Kautsky, Karl’s wife and Rosa’s close friend; August Bebel, one of the founders of the SPD and owner of an impeccable beard.
She spurns the offer of a dance from Eduard Bernstein — after all, it is 1900 and she has been at war with him for two years over the question of reform or revolution.
Later we meet Clara Zetkin, a powerful ally for Rosa, and her grown up son, Kostja, with whom Rosa has a relationship.
The film powerfully portrays Rosa’s wit and force in political debate — her put-downs visibly cutting the revisionists in the SPD. As in Raoul Peck’s recent The Young Karl Marx, we get real, convincingly Marxist debates here, for example when Rosa tries to apply the lessons of the 1905 revolution to Germany.
The film does not attempt to portray the huge social changes taking place outside. Actual footage of the First World War and the German Revolution is interwoven, but otherwise the focus remains closely on Rosa and the figures around her.
This makes you wonder about how else such a film could be made. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the best known of the German New Wave filmmakers, was working on a film about Rosa Luxemburg when he died in 1982. He had spoken to von Trotta about it, because he knew she also wanted to make a Rosa film and didn’t want to tread on her toes. Von Trotta replied that she was fine with it, as she didn’t feel she was ready yet — and besides, there was room enough for two films about such a woman!
The producers asked von Trotta to take over after Fassbinder’s death, and so she threw herself into the project, throwing out his “melodramatic” script and starting again. I wonder what those films could have been — the Fassbinder melodrama and the mature von Trotta version.
Nevertheless, this film — which has taken far too long to be made available to an English-speaking audience — is a vibrant tribute to a woman whose drive and commitment to socialism were such a threat to the establishment that they had to have her killed.
Von Trotta’s film brings her back to life.