Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Rosa Luxemburg was the anti-Hillary Clinton. Born in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, to a Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, she was one of the first women in Western Europe to earn a doctoral degree. Considering her brilliance as an economist, she could have probably become wealthy. Instead she chose to fight for the working-class. In 1914, after the German Social Democrats voted to fund the First World War, a betrayal far more shocking than the Democratic Party’s decision in 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq, she became one of the leaders in the fight against European militarism. Her Junius Pamphlet, smuggled out of the prison where she was placed in “preventative detention,” is still the classic, Marxist polemic against socialist collaboration with imperialist governments. She would have hated Bernie Sanders. Released in 1918 after the fall of the German monarchy, Rosa Luxemburg helped found the Spartacist League, a group that eventually became the German Communist Party. Her freedom was to be short lived. She and her radical colleague Karl Liebknecht attempted to lead an insurrection in Berlin in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, but the uprising was suppressed by the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske. She and Liebknecht were captured by a proto-fascist group of military veterans, bludgeoned to death with rifle butts, and thrown into the Landwehr Canal.

If Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 biographical drama is not well-known in the United States, it probably has a lot to do with how the screenplay’s fractured chronology presumes that the viewer is not only familiar with Rosa Luxemburg, but also has a thorough grounding in the history of German and Polish social democracy. If you’ve never heard of August Bebel, Klara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches, and Louise Kautsky, if you don’t know that Luxemburg lived in Warsaw in 1905 and 1906 under the alias “Anna Matschke,” you’re going to spend a lot of time scratching your head in confusion. What’s more, von Trotta makes no concessions at all to lazy, careless viewers. I saw Rosa Luxemburg in during its original theatrical run in the United States in 1987 when I was an undergraduate. I was already thoroughly familiar with German history, and the history of the First World War, but I still missed a lot of what von Trotta was trying to say simply because my level of concentration was more attuned to Hollywood than to the language of the European art film. Rosa Luxemburg is not a movie for people with a low cinematic IQ. That being said, and if I haven’t scared you off, you should watch it anyway, especially since it’s on YouTube in full with English subtitles. Copyright issues being what they are, it might not last. As far as I know, it’s not available on a DVD that will play in the United States.

My suggestion is to view it for the first time without trying to figure out what’s going on in the background. Rosa Luxemburg is not only a beautifully shot film, it features the German actress Barbara Sukowa in what might be one the best performance of the 1980s. Outwardly, Sukowa doesn’t closely resemble the historical Rosa Luxemburg, but it doesn’t matter. She thoroughly embodies the spirit of a revolutionary the German government considered so dangerous they decided to lock her up during most of the First World War, and then finally have her murdered her before she could succeed in becoming another Lenin. One image in particular stands out. Jailed in Warsaw in 1906 by the Russian government for her participation in the Revolution of 1905, her older brother visits her in prison. Luxemburg is behind two sets of bars, the bars of a cell used for visits from family and relatives, and the bars of a large cage her jailers have placed inside the same cell. The intense gaze of Sukowa’s blue eyes do more than twenty pages of dialogue to express just how much Luxemburg hated being behind bars confined. Later, however, after she learns that August Bebel and the German Social Democrats sent the Russian government bribes in exchange for her release, she explodes in anger. She does not want to trade in a Russian prison for a sense of obligation to the party bureaucracy. Being in an iron cage is bad enough. Being in an intellectual cage is a hundred times worse.

All through the movie, I wondered if the historical Rosa Luxemburg would have enjoyed von Trotta’s dramatization of her life. It’s certainly flattering for an intellectual to see herself portrayed by a beautiful, charismatic actress, but would a communist have wanted her own personal story to overshadow the movement and the working class as a whole? Von Trotta made Rosa Luxemburg in the mid-1980s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a decade after the failure of the new left. Large stretches of the movie are preoccupied with the question of whether she wanted to lead the German revolution or settle down in a happy marriage with one of her lovers, all of whom seem like weaklings and intellectual nonentities. Her friendship with Louise Kautsky – who died at Auschwitz in 1944 – is a centerpiece of the narrative, but it never quite gets beyond purely physical expressions of affection. Rosa Luxemburg has many long, soulful gazes, hand clasps, and warm embraces between women, but at no time do they feel like much more than a ritualistic, pantomime between members of the educated bourgeoisie during the late Victorian Age. When Luxemburg remarks to Kautsky about how “boisterous” they’re being, an American in 2016 can only think “well no. You’re not being that boisterous.” Nothing in Rosa Luxemburg quite equals the fights between Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds, an almost contemporary film made by refugees of the failed, 1960s new left which, like Rosa Luxemburg, projects the conflict between revolutionary idealism and a longing for bourgeois domesticity back into the heady days of the Russian Revolution. Sukowa is a much better actor than Beatty or Keaton, but she really doesn’t have much chemistry with anybody else in the film’s cast, which is odd considering that she’s actually had children with the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, who plays Rosa Luxemburg’s long-time lover Leo Jogiches.

Final Note: I suspect that Rosa Luxemburg will appeal to women more than men. Many of my reservations about this excellent film probably still come from the fact that I’m an American male who was brought up on Hollywood movies and MTV music videos. Rosa Luxemburg is a very feminine treatment of the very masculine subjects of war and revolution.

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6 comments

  1. Very interesting review. I think I’ll try to find this one for a viewing. In terms of the narrative focusing on the personal story rather than the overarching politics, I think that is a legitimate limitation of the whole medium. I’m not a filmmaker, so I could be mistaken, but the absence of a personalizing story seems to defeat the mechanism that makes film more than just a disjointed series of moving pictures set to audio.

    1. I just watched von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. It’s almost the mirror image of Rosa Luxemburg. It totally focuses on her ideas, not her personal life.

      1. Interesting. I think I misunderstood your meaning, here. In my comprehension of film, there’s no film that can truly focus on a real issue without extreme bias. There’s always a narrative injected that is meant to appeal personally, in some way. This is a result of the limitations of the medium, including time restraints. For instance, one can learn much more from a single Ted Gioia book than the entire 19 hour running time of Ken Burns Jazz series.

        Anyways, sorry. I tend to err on the technical and pedantic side of things. Just out of curiosity, would you recommend Hannah Arendt?

        1. I’m going to post my review tomorrow of Hannah Arendt.

          You are correct. Rosa Luxemburg isn’t objective. The message is that she was the communist leader that might have saved Germany from Nazism, had she not been murdered.

  2. Objectivity is the word I was looking for. Looking forward to that next review!

  3. […] is created. Arendt, who’s played by Barbara Sukowa almost 30 years after her performance in von Trotta’s earlier film Rosa Luxemburg, lives in Manhattan with her husband, the poet Heinrich Blücher. A popular teacher of philosophy […]

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