German film director Margarethe von Trotta accepted the Leo Baeck Medal on November 28, 2012 at the Leo Baeck Institutes annual gala award dinner in New York City. The full text of her acceptance speech follows below:
Margarethe von Trotta:
I am honored, and deeply moved that the Leo Baeck Institute has chosen to award me this medal – and in front of such a distinguished audience.
Carol Kahn-Straus has asked me to say something about my films tonight. I will gladly try my best… though our Ambassador has already done an excellent job of introducing me, for which I would like to thank him.
I should begin by saying that I began my career as an actress, and only realized my long-held dream of becoming a director when I was already of a certain age. No doubt that was in part due to the fact that I’m a woman. After all, it is only in recent history that women have come to be considered capable of independent thought and action.
Of course, there have always been exceptional women who challenged this notion. And indeed, these are the women my films are about. I will only talk about three of my films tonight – three films that are not only about precisely such women, but which also deal with German and German-Jewish history.
The first of these is Rosa Luxemburg, which I shot in 1985.
“The history of humanity is in the throes of labor. New social forms are pushing toward the light.” Rosa Luxemburg wrote this in 1905. Later, in 1917, while being held in protective custody to prevent her from campaigning against the war, she wrote: “History always knows best, even when it seems to have lost its way hopelessly in a dead end.” Or, as she put it in 1918, in another letter from prison: “History alone will find the solution for its own problems and has blown up many dungheaps that have stood in its way. It will succeed this time too.”
HISTORY. Rosa Luxemburg believed in history as though it were a person – but with a vision and power wiser than that of people. She looked to the future full of confidence and hope, convinced that the 20th century would lead people toward a better, more just world.
“We will live and we will experience great things yet.”
In November 1918, with the war over, she was released from prison, but was soon arrested again in Berlin the following January, murdered and thrown into the Landwehr Canal. While still at the Hotel Eden, which is where the henchmen first brought her, she asked them “which prison will you take me to?” Meanwhile, her killers were already waiting for her outside the hotel.
This utopian dream of hers, this extraordinary faith in the world, is something I tried to contradict with the images in my film. For example, when, at the turn-of the-century New Year’s Eve Party, August Bebel talks about how the 19th century was the century of hope and the 20th will now be one of fulfillment, a huge sign is raised behind him with the number 1900 on it, white carnations against a background of red. Bebel speaks about fulfillment as the red of the carnations spreads behind him like a bloodstain. And, when Rosa Luxemburg is led to her death at the end, she descends the hotel stairs along a flowing red carpet that cascades into the depths, like a stream of blood – a sign of what is yet to come during this century of “fulfillment.” In this sense, to my mind, Rosa Luxemburg was the first victim: a Jewish woman murdered by Freikorps soldiers who would later become members of Hitler’s Brownshirts.
The second film is Rosenstrasse, from 2002. The story is set in February 1943, in the midst of the “dark times,” as Hannah Arendt would later call these years. Non-Jewish women have gathered on the Rosenstrasse in Berlin to save their Jewish husbands from deportation to Auschwitz. An uprising that is neither organized nor instigated by any group. Each woman is there for her own husband, out of love for her husband alone. Yet, with each passing day, as more and more women show up, their individual determination turns into a powerful collective protest through which they ultimately succeed in saving their husbands. A true story. These women had no faith left in the future; they knew all too well about the frustration, hardship and dangers that the century brought them, they lived in a horrifying present untempered by any Utopian dream. But they were every bit as fierce and courageous as Rosa Luxemburg.
Two films that feature Berlin. I was born in Berlin, and I was already alive at the time of these brave women’s protest, yet I only learned about it much, much later, after the fall of the Wall. As a little girl, I walked through the bombed-out city, which bore witness to the destruction and misery wrought by the Nazis, though my generation only learned about the true extent of the moral breakdown many years later – and we had to wait even longer for an admission of guilt.
And now, a few words about my new film: Hannah Arendt. In contrast to Rosa Luxemburg, who looked forward to a future filled with hope, Arendt is the one who looks back – back to the “dark times.” In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she vividly analyzes in great detail what happens to people in a totalitarian system. She writes about “the superfluity of men as men” and about the “total moral collapse” that occurred in the very century August Bebel had welcomed as the century of fulfillment.
Hannah Arendt left her native Germany in 1933 – not by choice, but in anticipation of what she saw coming. She would have become a victim of the Nazis had she not managed to flee in time from the French internment camp of Gurs to immigrate to the United States. Our film only deals with the four years from 1960 to 1964. Eichmann is kidnapped in Argentina and put on trial in Jerusalem. Hannah Arendt reports on the trial for The New Yorker and what she writes sets off a controversy that lasts for years. In Eichmann, she sees not a monster but a mediocre, career-minded bureaucrat – not stupid, but incapable of thinking for himself.
Arendt the thinker and Eichmann the unthinking. Yet perhaps even Hannah Arendt had a Utopian dream – not that of Rosa Luxemburg, who had more faith in history than in people, but a philosopher’s: she believed that thinking can protect us from evil, from criminal acts. Perhaps she ascribed the same positive power to thinking that Rosa saw in history, making it unbearable for her to imagine that – as the contemporary German philosopher and Arendt-expert Bettina Stangneth put it – an evil philosophy might be possible.
Arendt’s motto – as she never tired of repeating – was: “I want to understand.” That’s also my aim in making films. And just like her, I continue to hold on to the hope that she affirms in her final speech in the film: “It is the ability to think that gives us the strength to avoid catastrophes in the rare moments when the chips are down.”
And now I would like to play a little bit the Oscar-game: I want to thank those of my film family who are here with me: Oliver Mahrdt from German Films; Sabine Schenk, a producer who worked on the New York sections of both Rosenstrasseand Hannah Arendt; Martin Weibel, who helped me to produce all three films, and who inspired me to make a film about Hannah Arendt. He inspired me together with Pam Katz, my brilliant, dedicated co-author. We started writing together and we had to wait a long time until the realization. And my very special thanks to Barbara Sukowa, with whom I did 6 films, we just had our 31st birthday of collaboration. Without her genius and her confidence, her critical mind and her never failing friendship, I would not be standing here so happily on this wonderful evening.
Thank you all, and thank you, Carol.