Interpreting History on the Screen

An Evening with Barbara Sukowa

September 17, 2013, 6:30pm
Discussion and film-screening at the Goethe-Institut, GoetheForum
812 7th st. NW, Washington, DC 20001

Historical films have an important impact on the majority of the population's understanding of history. This is quite disturbing for professional historians who often argue that films are inaccurate, that they falsify historical events, romanticize historical people, and often trivialize historical movements and ideas. The many advocates of film, however, accentuate that visual media can provide vivid images of the past, helpful and challenging interpretations, as well as add emotions and feelings to our understanding of the past.

Barbara Sukowa, one of Germany's most popular and renowned actresses, is well known for her portrayal of important and often charismatic historical women. Her characterizations of terrorist Gudrun Ensslin (Marianne and Juliane, 1981), theorist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg, 1986), mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen (Visions, 2009) and, most recently, philosopher Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt, 2012) set standards for the public perception of these historical figures.

Interpreting History on the Screen: An Evening with Barbara Sukowa will discuss core questions of the work of the actress: How is it possible to understand people from very different historical times? What are the main problems in portraying historical figures? What role do emotions play? How does an actress prepare for such a role? What can an actress add to the narratives of historians? What responsibilities do actresses have in educating/entertaining people?

Barbara Sukowa will discuss these and more questions with Hartmut Berghoff (GHI) and Wilfried Eckstein (Goethe-Institut Washington).

Register online; e-mail; tel: (202) 289-1200

  • Picture Gallery
    Left to right: Wilfried Eckstein (Goethe-Institut), Robert Longo, Barbara Sukowa, and Hartmut Berghoff (GHI)
    Left to right: Wilfried Eckstein (Goethe-Institut), Robert Longo, Barbara Sukowa, and Hartmut Berghoff (GHI)
    Hartmut Berghoff (GHI), Barbara Sukowa, and Wilfried Eckstein (Goethe-Institut) during the discussion
    Hartmut Berghoff (GHI), Barbara Sukowa, and Wilfried Eckstein (Goethe-Institut) during the discussion
  • Event Report

    "I am there; at the end, it is me": Impressions from "Interpreting History on the Screen: An Evening with Barbara Sukowa" (September 17, 2013)

    More than hundred people crowded the Goethe-Institut's cinema to join an event, quite atypical and surely experimental for the German Historical Institute: German actress Barbara Sukowa came from her hometown, New York City, to the U.S. capital to discuss her profession's contribution to public history and to share her experiences in giving life to important figures of German and American history.

    The result was an intellectual highlight for the audience and the programs of both the Goethe-Institut and the German Historical Institute. Goethe-Institut director Wilfried Eckstein and GHI director Hartmut Berghoff moderated the program and questioned and challenged Barbara Sukowa, who gave a fabulous performance—simply in presenting her ideas and herself. The discussion revolved around four characters and four films Sukowa made together with German director Margarethe von Trotta:

    (1981, playing Marianne, who was based on terrorist Gudrun Ensslin), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Visions (2009, playing 11th century nun Hildegard von Bingen), and Hannah Arendt (2012).

    What is truth in a movie, how does it interact with the truth of historiography? Sukowa described herself as somewhat of a detective. Historical research, indeed, is important; but for an actress, it is as important to come close to a character or an historical figure. In contrast to professional historians, she has only three or four months for preparation, normally a period spent "feverishly" reading. In a historical movie, the character is always shaped by the individual experiences of the actress: "I am there; at the end, it is me." This ambivalence allows the audience to ponder whether not only the actors but also they themselves are close or distant to a historical figure and historical events. For Sukowa, this is one of the privileges of her profession: actresses can try out different roles.

    How to deal with stereotypes and common ideas of history was another question broadly discussed. For Sukowa, historical stereotypes are a challenge, counteracting them a motivation for her work; but one should not forget that the director is the dominant figure in movie-making. Today, her cooperation with Margarethe von Trotta allows her some freedom and gives her some influence; but this was quite different in her early work on Marianne and Juliane and in her work with other directors, for instance Lars von Trier. Performing is not only about challenging stereotypes. An actress must always answer the question: "How can you make yourself free from what you know?" This was very difficult in the case of Hildegard von Bingen because she had to forget all the standards and technologies of modern life. One must also forget about the wisdom of the future generations. Arendt knew a lot about Eichmann, but she did not know the sources historians have made accessible. Finally, the length of a movie pushes decision-making. Not all stories can be shown, not all aspects can be mentioned; and not only the characters are important for a movie: "A time needs time."

    The moderators were also interested in Sukowa's particular interest in historical figures. For her, perhaps in slight contrast to Trotta, it was not so important to play "strong" or exceptional women. For her, choosing these roles was always part of her effort to understand history. Most people today are living in their comfort zones, while these historical figures acted differently. The question of why national-socialism and the Holocaust could occur, was always important, namely because it tackles the question of responsibility. Are people affected by revolutions, war, annihilation, and terrorism—or do they continue to live their lives? Sukowa added interesting insights into some odd challenges of being an actress: Wearing historical costumes can make a real difference for understanding the past. Hildegard von Bingen's nun robe offered some freedom for her, while the corset of Rosa Luxemburg marked her like "rolled and tied pork" afterwards. This is a dimension of history historians often neglect.

    Her most recent movie Hannah Arendt, originally titled The Controversy, elicited particular interest from the moderators. Arendt's interpretation of the banality of evil, of the role of the Jewish councils in Holocaust, and her position to Israel and the Jewish community were all discussed in detail. Sukowa was familiar with all of these debates. For her, however, Arendt offered some options to think about more general topics of human condition. "Would you risk that?"—what Arendt did for telling her truth? What about the fear of becoming isolated, losing friends, or loyalty? How to balance this with integrity, moral commitment, the search for an even hurtful truth, and basic interest in a controversial public debate? Sukowa could understand Arendt's often sarcastic style, especially in judging the absurd performance of Eichmann in court. But it was much more difficult for her to come close to the private Hannah Arendt-especially in contrast to a quite open personality like Rosa Luxemburg.

    At the end, the moderators opened the talk to the audience-and a more private Barbara Sukowa was seen: The challenge of Arendt's German accent and her own problems with being emotional in foreign languages. Her dreams before the shooting of Hannah Arendt, in which she tried to walk around in shoes that were much too big. And her plans for future roles: "Perhaps a comedy," the star answered.

    Uwe Spiekermann