The German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta creates a tangible world governed by the alogical love of sisters within Marianne & Juliane. Von Trotta explores the complexity of sisterhood and in so doing: womanhood it’s self. The film is weaved together by means of the sister’s shared memory, in the form of flashbacks ranging from their childhood to the present. The film takes on Juliane’s perspective, the plot is driven forward by her agency: her need to understand her sister Marianne, herself, and their deep emotional connection. Von Trotta does not limit herself to a linear story line. The first scene is clearly placed after Marianne’s death but quickly moves back in time to a second beginning, years before Marianne is even incarcerated, with embedded flashbacks there in. It is at times difficult to tell the chronological sequence of events but the emotional trajectory is easy to follow. The non-linear sequencing mirrors the alogical-emotional quality of love/memory that the sister’s share. Throughout the film von Trotta brilliantly depicts the dual political and personal nature of sisterhood. Through Marianne and Julianne, von Trotta carves out a space in cinema for intelligent emotional women who love and admire each other as much as they differ in their political/personal selves.
Julianne and Marianne are depicted as intellectual equals. They are complex multidimensional developed characters, …actively engaged in a struggle to define their lives, their identities, and their feminist politics… (Kaplan 105). In mainstream Hollywood cinema, woman are not depicted so complexly rather they are depicted as they correlate to men: lover, mother, daughter, sister, or as Claire Johnston puts it Within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man (Johnston “Counter-Cinema” 135). Marianne and Juliane have set themselves outside the mainstream, they reject motherhood and wifehood: Marianne leaves her son and husband to fight as a terrorist in some unnamed cause and Juliane refuses to get married, bare children, and take in her orphaned nephew Jan.
In the beginning of the film Juliane actively rejects becoming a mother as demonstrated when she is asked to take in her nephew by Marianne’s suicidal husband. Juliane reminds him it has been her decision to remain childless and recognizes her long-term partner Wolfgang desires to have children, making her decision all the more politically charged. Later on when Wolfgang confronts Juliane about her neglect of their relationship she verbally confirms her need to find self and understand her sister above their ten plus year relationship. Juliane is punished for this act by being called ‘monster’ and a hard slap in the face from her otherwise gentle Wolfgang.
Von Trotta is rather fair in the scene where Wolfgang strikes Juliane. Before Wolfgang’s blow, Juliane is shown fully immersed in her own world of investigation mostly ignoring Wolfgang. When he finally does have her attention Juliane expresses her desire for a break in their relationship until she’s done with her investigation. It is at this moment that Wolfgang strikes Juliane, but Juliane does not succumb to his wishes. Von Trotta does not depict Wolfgang as one-dimensional; he’s not an abusive man although he does this one overtly abusive act. The audience is sympathetic to Wolfgang but also with Juliane, Wolfgang does not understand Juliane’s need for the investigation and Juliane cannot give Wolfgang the companionship he so desires in Juliane. The decision to take control of one’s body, reproductive rights, and time is for a woman not only personal but by it’s very nature political.
Interestingly enough Marianne also expects Juliane to take on the normal female role in terms of taking in Jan. When Marianne asks Juliane to take in Jan, Juliane retorts that Marianne wants her to take on the life that Marianne had herself rejected. This conversation, as each conversation between the sisters, demonstrates their similarities and their grave differences; every interaction is leaded with meaning. Von Trotta plays with female identity, how her characters are female and how they are individual. A great example of von Trotta’s identity play is the scene in which Marianne is being held in the new high security prison. When Juliane goes to visit Marianne they must have their visit through a thick pain of glass. The scene is shot in such a way that the woman’s faces are overlapping one another: they mold into one.
Von Trotta, through both Juliane’s refusal to take in Jan and her refusal to put her relationship with Wolfgang first demonstrates very clearly how woman must choose between self and family. Though von Trotta’s feminist critique is not limited to the binary oppositions between masculinity and femininity but is also critically concerned with deconstructing women’s different and sometimes contradictory ways of responding to inequality and struggling for their place against opposition (Rueschmann 158). It is clear that the two lead characters Marianne and Juliane have chosen to react very differently within the patriarchy system but end up with much of the same results: punishment. The man she loves physically abuses Juliane and the government kills Marianne, they both are punished for taking control of their womanhood.
As I asserted previously, for women the personal is very closely intertwine with the political. The personal decision of having a child or not, working or not, marrying or not, is made political due to the nature of patriarchy staking claim in the female sexuality-body, …not to adopt the nurturing role of the mother is for both sisters a political choice… (Linville 450). Von Trotta brings the sister’s political rejection of motherhood full circle back to the personal when Jan is severally burned due to neglect by both woman, and to be fair by his father who abandons Jan through suicide. It is as if von Trotta is reminding us that there are consequences outside of self for personal political decisions, consequences suffered by those that we love.
According to Eva Rueschmann Von Trotta’s films have been analyzed and categorized as either political statements or as psychograms of female identity with melodramatic overtones, approaches that have rarely been seen as mutually interdependent (Rueschmann 149) which reinforces the artificiality of separating the two.Von Trotta is part of a film movement already interested in combining the personal and the political, (Kaplan 106) as a female director Von Trotta’s influence rendered that “personal” more intimate, emotional, and less distanced than it has appeared in the films directed by men… (Kaplan 106). Each sister represents a different way in which women react within the patriarchal system.
Due to Von Trotta’s more intimate, emotional, take on the personal/political nature of sisterhood, I personally feel very engaged by Marianne and Julianne in a way that I have never felt by another film. As a woman and as a woman engaged in a complex dually personal/political sisterhood, Marianne and Julianne is welcomingly insightful. The concept of a shared memory amongst sisters is incredibly rich, as von Trotta has demonstrated. My biggest point of connection is with the fierce a-logical quality of the sister’s love. I had never seen a film articulate my sister’s and my bond so clearly. Von Trotta was able to create a world which mirrors my own not because of her biological female sex but because of our shared female social experience in a male-dominant society. There is a certain amount of self-justification that comes from seeing one’s own life experience spelled out on the silver screen.
I would now like to comment upon the non-linear, alogical structure in terms of plot structure by means of flash back. The flashbacks seem random in terms of chronological sequencing at times, but in terms of the emotional trajectory and the conceptualization of memory they fit in perfectly. Susan E. Linville suggests that the randomness of the flashbacks in the film conforms further to the rhythms of memory, its editing indicating, often subtly, at times more obviously the complex connections that run through familial and social, private and public, patriarchal economies (Linville 450). The flashbacks are the armature of the film. Each flashback gives more and more insight into Juliane’s self realization process and to Marianne’s humanity. The flashbacks are strung together brilliantly with scenes such as the brick of the jail yard becoming the brick of the sisters’ childhood play-yard.
The flashbacks also aid in demonstrating how the sisters are the same, how they are different, and how understanding their relationship’s complexities is of the most importance to Juliane, memories are the sisters’ strong connection and competition with each other from childhood through adulthood, their alienation from structures of the dominant culture, and their divergent pursuits of alternative political stances (Linville 448). Through flashback von Trotta is able to comment on the framework of the female struggle: Her works combine dreams, visions, ambiguous flashbacks, and personal obsessions within a “realistic” framework of women struggling to negotiate their place in a patriarchal society (Rueschmann 148). I can’t help but think that a women’s sensibility is ‘a-logical’ only because it is being measured by a man’s ‘logic.’ When the standard is male anything that diverts from this standard is ‘wrong’ or illogical- thus a woman’s logic by it’s very being non-male will be a-logical.
Marianne and Juliane explores a very important component of womanhood: sisterhood. The complexity of this very important female relationship is properly shown through shared memory by means of flashback. The flashbacks are the armature on which the story’s non-linear plot line is constructed. Each memory brings the viewer further and further into Juliane’s emotional trajectory. Along the way the dual political and personal nature of womanhood and sisterhood are explored in terms of their realities both detrimental and self-liberating. Von Trotta is a brilliant filmmaker and I look forward to viewing her many other rich films.
Johnston, Claire. Sexual Stratagems: The World of Woman and Film: Woman’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema. ed. Erens, Patricia. Horizan Press: New York, 1979. Print.
Kaplan, Ann. Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. (Female Politics in the Symbolic Realm: Von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane) (1981) London and New York: Metheun, Inc., 1983. Reprinted 1990. Print.
Linville, Susan E. Retrieving History: Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 3 (May, 1991), pp. 446-458
Rueschmann , Eva. Sisters on Screen: Siblings in Contemporary Cinema (The Politics of Intersubjectivity: The sister Films of Margarethe von Trotta) Philadelphia: Temple U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. Print.