Von Trotta’s Classification of Human Males in Western Societies and Her Search for Joint-gender Perspective

The unconscious and the subconscious behavior of the characters are more important to me than what they do.
Margarethe von Trotta

Half of my pictures have been psychoanalytical examinations of personal relationships.

Interview with M. von Trotta, May 31st, 2005

I’m particularly interested in exploring how and why people could accept rules and regulations that they could not or would not normally follow. Interview with M. von Trotta, May 31st, 2005

Female aesthetics in film lies for me in the choice of themes, in the attentiveness, the respect, the sensitivity, the care, with which we approach the people we’re representing as well as the actors we choose… The most essential thing is that we make no distinction between reason and emotion, large and small events, for we still have retained to a degree the anti-hierarchical beliefs of matriarchy. Under matriarchy all people were equal because they were all children of mothers. The love of mothers is granted without conditions or limits, one does not have to earn it through some effort or accomplishment. Patriarchy introduced the notion of the favorite son, he had to earn the love of his father through his accomplishments and his obedience. That marks the beginning of hierarchical thinking. Hierarchy brought the splitting of various realms and gradually led to the opposition between public and private.
Margarethe von Trotta, “Female Film Aesthetics” (1982), “West German Filmmakers on Film: Vision and Voices” (Ed. By Eric Rentschler), HM, 1988

The world of Von Trotta’s “Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness” is one of the women who can no longer be contained within the confines of the world as we know it, women who escape definition.
Janet Todd, “Women and Film”, Holmes, 1988, p. 240

In a world increasingly dominated by technology, freedom becomes the capacity to adapt to a “cause” always outside the “self”, and which is less and less a moral cause, and more and more an economic one… Freedom becomes the freedom to adapt to the logic of cause and effect, Hannah Arendt would say “to the calculus of consequences,” i.e. the logic of production of science, and of the economy… Freedom functions within this logic of “instrumentalization”… There is also another version of freedom that… is in Being, and, moreover, in the Being of Language… and that occurs in the encounter between the Self and the other… This freedom is inscribed in the very essence of philosophy as eternal questioning.
Julia Kristeva, “Hatred and Forgiveness”, Columbia Un. Pr, 2010, p. 15 – 16

It is not the best economic and technical performance which is most important from the point of view of human liberation… From this perspective what matters is the particular, the art of living, taste, leisure, the so called “idle” pleasures, grace, playfulness, our “darker side” even, or, to put it in a nutshell, freedom as the essence of “Being-in-the-World” prior to any “Cause”. These are the elements that characterize European culture, and, one may hope, offer an alternative to the globalized world in which we live.

Julia Kristeva, Ibid, p. 17

The protection and optimization of psychic life, insofar as it is an infinite quest for meaning.
Julia Kristeva, Ibid, p. 43

I was born in Germany before the war ended and saw its terrible effects, with whole areas devastated and tremendous poverty, so I’m totally antiwar and was opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Sixty years ago, many German people regarded the American military as liberators. Few people see it that way anymore. Many think of them as the opposite. It’s true, there is a correspondence. Today there are many war crimes being committed, efforts to cover them up, and, no doubt, attempts to forget these crimes.
Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta in 2013
Margarethe von Trotta in 2013

Von Trotta and Jutta Lumpe discuss Maria's predicaments
Von Trotta and Jutta Lampe on the set of “Sisters…” discuss the peculiarities of Maria’s feelings for Maurice (her boyfriend).

Anna (to the left), Maria, and Miriam (to the right) whom Maria “adopted” as a friend and tried to care about after Anna’s terrifying death

Maria and Anna as girls playing with mirrors
The peculiar composition of this shot showing Maria and Anna as girls playing adults makes it not easy to differentiate between the two. We see that their identities are as if, mixed that’s often the case with sisters. It took for Maria almost her whole life to overcome this sisters’ proclivity to dissolve the psychological borders, and then to learn how to nurture human dissimilarity – to love the uniqueness of each human being.

Anna has become emotionally too dependent on Maria
Anna who becomes disappointed with her profession and with technical science in general (because of its indifference to destructive consequences of its discoveries for human species), felt isolated from society (where people are oriented, mainly, on careers and success) that disproportionally emphasizes the importance of (dogmatically understood) “pragmatic” side of life and neglecting the condition of human soul and the question of the meaning of human life. Feeling marginalized, Anna became fixated on her elder sister, Maria (signifying in the film more typical orientation which rewards people with social and material success) and started to feel frustrated with Maria’s conformism and being always too busy.

Maria and Maurice in bed
Maria’s affair with the son of her boss couldn’t continue in spite of his promising future and genuine attachment to her. Maurice is emotionally too light-weighted – he cared about her only in an obvious and sentimental way and wasn’t psychologically strong enough to understand Maria’s emotional burdens.

Maria and Anna with their alienated mother
Maria’s and Anna’s mother for years cannot recover from the death of her husband, her daughters’ father. She can emotionally help neither Anna, nor Maria. All the burdens concerning Anna’s problems are left to Maria. For the mother her “love story” was much more important than her motherhood, and she is helpless in front of her daughters’ aspirations and views about human life and society. While their lives are moving ahead, her life is in the past.

Fritz is trying to explain to Maria her unintended role in her sister’s suicide
After Anna’s suicide, Maria is full of tormenting guilt without understanding the reasons for Anna’s despair. For her, for whom life is in her work and its success, Anna’s “problems” are a personal “luxury”, a kind of irresponsibility.

Maria took Miriam under her wing
Maria befriended Miriam without being able to perceive her otherness, her psychological needs, so different from her own and from Anna’s. Miriam is a prisoner of mass culture, as most young people are in today’s society, and Maria, for the sake of Miriam’s success in life, is not empathic to her innocent emotional vulgarities. The composition of this shot is a version of the still above showing Maria and Anna as girls. Here, identities of Maria and Miriam are strictly separated (with mutual alienation as the price for this). Not looking at the mirror, in the semantic context of the film, becomes a signifier for a lack of self-awareness in both protagonists. Maria doesn’t understand that Miriam’s resistance to Maria’s dry rationality repeats Anna’s torments.

Von Trotta acting in Fassbinder’s film
Von Trotta acting in R.W. Fassbinder’s “Gods of Plague” (1970)


In von Trotta’s film we have a deal with socio-psychological difference between two female characters, the sisters, Maria and Anna, with dissimilarity in their approach to the world, which goes much farther than being “extrovert” (Maria) and “introvert” (Anna). Maria is well-adjusted and other-directed person. She “fits the culture as though she was made for it. There is, characterologically speaking, an effortless quality about her adjustment… the adjusted are those who reflect their society with the least distortion.” (David Riesman, “The Lonely Crowd”, 1950, p. 278) Anna, on the other hand, is extremely inner-directed, on the margin of being “anomic” or “autonomous”. “The ‘autonomous’ are those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society – a capacity the ‘anomics’ usually lack – but are free to choose to conform or not.” (David Riesman, Ibid, p. 278) Anna creates the impression of anomic person – she can be overwhelmed with emotions, with moods which can disturb her psychological balance, and she becomes more and more emotionally dependent on her elder sister. Still, she was making successful preparations for a scientific career until she came to certain conclusions about human life in society which put her in a very critical position towards adaptation to status quo. Maria’s “…outward orientation implies that the self is realized in terms of objective and conventional truth criteria. It also implies a degree of negation of inner, subjective parameters…when individual moves away from the earlier hierarchical model and establish a way of thinking in which the two poles of mental orientation, objective and subjective, self and other, self and society, and mind and body are no longer in dualistic opposition. Such an individual understands that each mutually affects the other, mutually defining and deepening each other.” (Gisela Labouvie-Vief, “Psyche and Eros [Mind and Gender in the Life Course]”, Cambridge Univ. Pr, 1994, p. 206 – 207)

Von Trotta’s comparative analysis of how Maria and Anna perceive the world quickly becomes a research in the inadequacy of culture which doesn’t have an interest in nurturing people’s internal world (as something different than “mechanical” internalization of society’s values). Maria is not only a very good, we can say, an exemplary employee, she is a very nice person who is ready to help anybody who needs it and does much more for the people she works with, than it is expected from her. But everything she does is immediately in agreement with the system’s expectations, and everything she thinks and imagines is typical and common. Maria is a perfect detail of the efficient mechanism of a well functioning business and social life, while Anna is a personification of human interiority. She has her own (not in any way borrowed) perspective on life. She is the carrier of otherness, the difference from the conventional norms. She is perceived by people as somebody who reminds them about strangeness, mysteriousness and a poetic touch of the human soul.

The problem is that while the system is naturally supporting people like Maria (through material rewards as much as psychological encouragement and reward), a person like Anna is in danger of becoming more and more alienated and marginalized and often simply superfluous for the main-street people and system in generally. For people like Maria a job (she is a highly respected personal secretary of a successful company’s CEO) is highly rewarding place, while people oriented on their internal world, people of humanistic creativity in a society of business calculation and money-success suffer from under-investment. They find themselves in psychological conflict with society’s ways and can stop to grow inside their own frame of reference. What is feeding and nurturing their interiority – serious art, philosophy and humanistic science, is not enough to provide them with the existential context. Formally democratic societies are interested only in a kind of a common denominator of the soul, in a practical minimum of a soul necessary for maintaining a civil society. Until the democracies will not find a way to create for people like Anna a nurturing existential environment (of the kind that exists for people like Maria), the morbid “disbalance of happiness” will continue to create the disruptive strains in psychological and social life and farther debilitation of the spiritual dimension of culture.

More, the carriers of the internal worlds are vitally important for the political health of society. Without them the critical perspective of human culture will disappear, and with it the very category of political future, of historical progress, the very concept of social and political development. The democratic society must learn how to help the carriers of interiority to develop psychological and creative potential, as it helps in the development of carriers of exterior orientation. In the case of Anna, the absence of social structures and of objective interest towards human mental interiority which could help her to satisfy her emotional and spiritual needs, invests in her frustration and, finally, in her despair. She feels abandoned and gave herself to emotional dependence on her sister, and started to psychologically regress inside this dependency. The film is dedicated to the problem of disproportion between utilitarian functioning of a democratic system and the role of human internal world in a societal life and culture. A society with a lack of psychological interiority in people, with deficit of disinterested human soul, when individual human being is identical with passive adaptation and material achievements is one-dimensional and totalitarianism-oriented. Von Trotta’s film is not a story about a private relationship between two sisters, but a film about the totalitarian dangers in formal democracies.

Maria not only pays for her younger sister’s studies, provides Anna a place to live and saves her from any material worries, but nurtures her physically when she has bouts of depressive moods (like Anna, the character in Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” [1972] nurtures one of the three sisters – Agness who is dying from terminal illness). Because in Bergman’s film Anna’s dedication to Agness is shown as the highest spiritual achievement (while Agness’ sisters are unable to have compassion as a result of their unconscious fear of death), von Trotta’s description of Maria’s dedication to her sister is very meaningful. It is not enough to nurture a desperate person physically (for example, care for the needy) and feel compassion for other people’s obvious suffering, von Trotta seems to be suggesting, but to be able to nurture another person’s soul, to care about her/his psychological needs. And this task is beyond Maria’s sensitivity and modern societies in general. “The civilization of technology feeds the passion for calculation, increasingly disconnected from primary affects (twenty-first-century globalization hopes passions will be reduced under the twofold effect of Nasdag’s economic well-being and Prozac’s biological well-being)”. Julia Kristeva, Ibid, p. 92

Von Trotta’s introduction of Miriam as Maria’s young friend after Anna’s death is important for emphasizing that director is not talking about personal relations with amorous connotation but about a feminine type of a community as an alternative to model of relationships that men are prone to create with women. “Philosophical” conflict between Maria and Miriam echoes her difficulties with Anna. Maria eventually starts to understand that in her worldview she hasn’t been paying enough attention to the human need to “dream”, to imagine alternative to the life that objectively exists, and that she is unable to criticize the reality from a moral perspective of an imagined alternative. But during the times of “…the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien and transcendent elements in the high culture by virtue of which it constitutes another dimension of the reality, when sorrows and joys of the individual…” (Herbert Marcuse, “One-dimensional Man [Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society]”, Beacon Press, 1972, p. 57) …are not being paid attention to by a society occupied with making wealth for its elite and building more technological tools to advance its power and control, Maria’s lack of not only interest but a sensitivity towards Anna’s critical ideas is a typical reaction. Only at the end of the film Maria fully grasps her own fatal (for her younger sister) mistake – Anna’s suicide made her transformed – she understood the sacredness of an autonomous internal life. She became much more pluralistically oriented person.

By depicting the character named Edelschneider (“noble tailor”), who quits his lucrative corporate job to become a pop-singer, von Trotta makes a critical point about mass culture’s claim that there is the possibility to escape the dry rationality of everyday functioning. According to von Trotta mass culture is not a real way out. “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship. Exchange value, not truth value counts. Who has the time to think, contemplate, feel, and narrate to form elaborate personal opinion about life in general, has to suffer his/her dedication to subjective truth, sometimes to the point of suicide. But who can sell his opinions can continue to live inside the fallen reality with pleasant feeling of self-realization.” (Herbert Marcuse, “Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud”, Beacon, 1974, p. 171) That’s why, it seems, von Trotta characterizes the love-relations between Edelschneider and Miriam through the metonymical image of changing his clothes in her presence right before his musical performance. Mass culture transforms the impulse to be liberated into a recreational activity inside the over-powerful status quo.

Anna’s suicide is her desperate protest against “…the reification of the unique individual, who is held captive in the straightjacket of what ‘they’ expect her/him to be…it is one of the functions of a given culture to restrict an enormous variety of a person’s potential forms of being to a number of social roles… We encapsulate people in a job, in their vocational role and in prescribed and expected role behavior… The individual who refuses to be pinned down in one of the roles, refuses to conform to stereotype…lays himself open to suspicion and hostility.” (Jan Foundraine, “Not Made of Wood (A Psychiatrist Discovers His Profession)”, McMillan, 1974, p. 373 – 375) The last sentence exactly characterizes von Trotta’s Anna. Suicide is a symptom of what cannot be symbolized because of the absence of an existentially and culturally nurturing context for such symbolization. “The neurotic symptom is an attempt to give expression to something that cannot be openly avowed, to bring it to utterance… Human beings are not only the authors of symbols, but also the spectators of symptoms. It is as though the symptom is a sub-symbol, a chance return of what could not be symbolized. Does Lacan not say that what cannot be symbolized reappears in the realm of the Real?” (Eugene Webb, “The Self Between (From Freud to the New Social Psychology of France)”, Univ. of Washington Pr, 1993, p. 54)

Anna’s suicide is not only a tragedy for Maria, but for modern culture. “Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant. Violence arises out of powerlessness… As Hannah Arendt said, violence is the expression of impotence.” (Rollo May, “Power and Innocence (A Search for the Sources of Violence)”, W. W. Norton, 1972, p. 21) Maria’s final understanding that she has to be herself and her sister is a model for human culture that should find a way to genuine – spiritual democratic pluralism encouraging people to be themselves and simultaneously their horizontal (social) others, to try to understand other people’s problems as their own. According to “Sisters…” pluralism doesn’t contradict solidarity and unity.

The film is full of witty visual symbols, for example, when Maria sharpens pencils in the automatic per-sharpener, she inserts each pencil in a special way that serves as a parody on macho men’s sexual penetration of women during intercourse, or when Anna is compared with pet lizard “trapped” in the terrarium, and many visual symbolic characterizations of the personages’ psychological situations, like when Anna not too long before her suicide makes numerous photos of herself, as if, she is unconsciously concentrated on the idea of reincarnation, or endless visually metaphoric jokes about the CEO Munzinger (the son of coin).

Three outstanding figures from the history of German culture can help us to grasp the difference between the main male characters of the film from a historico-cultural perspective. Goethe (1749 – 1832) – a great intellect and rational thinker in his analysis of human phenomenon is compared with and by this reduced in today’s life to the buzzing businessman Munzinger, Schiller (1759 – 1805) – a romantic heart and ecstatic emotionality through aesthetic means is compared with (reduced to) Edelschnider – a pop-singer, and Boehme (1575 – 1624) – master of mystical concentration – to Maria’s friend Fritz – a writer of his night dreams. Von Trotta sees not only a devastating cultural degradation of today’s Western world and feels disappointed in the male authorities and role models (her disappointment is prophetic – the 21st century provides even more reasons to feel it). Towards the end of the film we understand that Maria senses that it is, mainly, women who may be able to find a solution of today’s democracy’s dead ends.

It is meaningful that all the three main male characters have “shadow person” at their disposal who in order to support them psychologically, transform him/herself into a kind of non-beings. For Munzinger it is his son Maurice (Maria’s short-term lover), for Edelschnider – it is Miriam, projecting to him her own dream of becoming a pop-singer and unconditionally admiring his success, and for Fritz it’s his sister who has transformed herself into his voiceless housekeeper. It is, as if, Western male cannot do without the human shadow of colonized people. And even Maria, with all her help to Anna and later to Miriam, was instinctively trying to make them in her own image. At the end of the film we feel that it is through women, awakened to the truth of the necessity to care about life and next generations before everything else, the world can save itself.

Posted ON Sep 3, 2014 –   “Sisters or the Balance of Happiness” (1979) By Margarethe von Trotta  by Acting-Out Politics