[Film Review] Marianne & Juliane (1981)

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English Title: Marianne & Juliane
Original Title: Die bleierne Zeit
Year: 1981
Country: West Germany
Language: German
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Margarethe von Trotta
Music: Nicolas Economou
Cinematography: Franz Rath
Editor: Dagmar Hirtz
Jutta Lampe
Barbara Sukowa
Rüdiger Vogler
Doris Schade
Vérénice Rudolph
Franz Rudnick
Luc Bondy
Julia Biedermann
Ina Robinski
Felix Moeller
Rating: 8.0/10

Marianne and Juliane 1981.jpg

Two sisters, Juliane (Robinski) and Marianne (Biedermann), are brought up by strict Christian upbringing in the post WWII West Germany, the elder Juliane stands out with her recalcitrant attitude whether facing their priest father or retorting her straitlaced schoolmarm, which pales the younger, blond-haired Marianne almost into a meek lamb.

But when they grow up, mysteriously their respective personalities take a drastic about-face, Juliane (Lampe) is a feminist journalist employed in a woman magazine crusading for women’s civil rights movement, earning a stable life and having sustained a ten-year relationship with her boyfriend Wolfgang (Vogler); whereas, Marianne (Sukowa), after a failed relationship with Wiener (Bondy), she leaves him and disowns their young son, pursues an extremely radical way to fight and becomes a remember of the Baader–Meinhof Group – in fact, director Margarethe von Trotta bases her character on the group’s real-life intellectual head Gudrun Ensslin (1940-1977).

In von Trotta’s Golden Lion winner MARIANNE & JULIANE, which establishes her as a vanguard in the New German Cinema movement, the vicissitude of life plumes with a tangy whiff through the events alternating between present and past, between the adult sisters and their younger selves. Irrevocably and outwardly divided by their disparate political views, what remains indissoluble inside is their consanguineous sororal bond, especially when Marianne is interned during the German Autumn, it is through Juliane’s many visits to her in the prison, their ideological discrepancy slowly gives way to a more viscerally stirring blood-is-thicker-than-water communion.

By playing out the story exclusively through Juliane’s point-of-view, von Trotta consciously evades a key question, what have Marianne done? All we are led to understand is that she is a bomb-throwing terrorist, but what is the damage? One must possess enough knowledge about that particularly turbulent epoch in Germany, to have a sober assessment of Marianne/Gudrun’s action, without that requisite, a fathomless feeling of ambiguity cannot be dissipated. That, might exactly be von Trotta’s intention, to elucidate the formative forces that in the last resort, alter one’s perspective and even personality, and she has no bone about laying out the macabre truth, the sisters watching Alain Resnais’ NIGHT AND FOG (1956) is a defining moment, so is during the visitation, what we last see of Marianne is and its connotation, more or less, on the same heinous quotient.

von Trotta maps out a distinguished complexity in the aftermath, Julianne’s relationship with Wolfgang is dissolved inevitably (Vogler, taking on the unsupportive boyfriend role with profuse outpourings of frustration and self-interest), no justice is on the horizon even when Juliane has evidence to controvert the official statement of Marianne’s ostensible suicide, and bringing back her only bloodline in the final act brilliantly shows up von Trotta’s crystal-clear discernment and what a fine fabulist she is, the damage passes on to her progeny no matter what, can any child survive from such a harrowing history? Fat chance!

Both actresses playing the titular characters are phenomenal, Lampe composedly conveys Juliane’s frame of mind in trickles of her oscillating emotional struggle between an ideology she cannot espouse and a sister to whom she holds dearest. Sukowa, in her second feature film, plays down her striking beauty and breathes out every single line with a steely determination and precision, simultaneously mythologizing and personifying Marianne, who can drink the Kool-Aid to her cause, but deep down, her mortal fear and desperation are fervidly expressed through Sukowa’s fiery if appositely equivocal impersonation.

In a nutshell, von Trotta’s film is a steadfast, rigorous feminist disquisition on the troubled mentality of a historic time in Germany and rings true in every aspect of the emotional spectrum, a fearless legacy in German cinema left to be appreciated and reappraised from time to time.

referential entries: Margarethe von Trotta ’s THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (1975, 7.1/10); István Szabó’s MEPHISTO (1981, 7.7/10).

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