When you think of the great star-director collaborations, you recall Griffith and Gish, Sternberg and Dietrich, Mizoguchi and Tanaka--and, in recent times, R.W. Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla, who were at the very heart of the renaissance of the German cinema.
In one Fassbinder film after another, Schygulla not only revealed an ever-growing talent but also revived on the screen an image of the frankly sensual, bold-featured, blond Teutonic beauty. But by June, 1982, the Wunderkind Fassbinder was dead, burned out at the age of 36.
To hear the talk in Munich and Berlin film circles, you would have thought that Schygulla should have committed suttee. Some, who ought to have known better, said, “Hanna is nothing without Fassbinder.” Among those who do know better, Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s greatest film maker, who directed her in the controversial “A Love in Germany,” has said that “she is the most modern, progressive and exciting actress of our time.”
“Oh, sure,” Schygulla shrugs, when asked if her celebrated association with Fassbinder has worked against her. “There are directors who think they’re getting a horse that’s been ridden by a very strong Tartar. Those I don’t need to work with anyway. But then directors don’t pick me because I fit very well but because they have this thing going for me.”
Coming from most actresses, such a remark would sound boastful; from this one, it’s simple honesty.
Schygulla, 42, who once thought she’d become a schoolteacher, was talking over dinner at a crowded, noisy restaurant at the last Telluride Film Festival, where she was honored with a tribute and a premiere of Margarethe von Trotta’s “Sheer Madness,” now at the Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex. She plays a woman who, in Schygulla’s own apt description, is helping another woman, played by Angela Winkler, give birth to herself.
As the tribute’s clips reminded us, Schygulla developed a far wider range under Fassbinder’s guidance than Marlene Dietrich or possibly even Lillian Gish did under their mentors. There’s her self-enchanted model in “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1973), calmly admitting to a lesbian fashion designer who has fallen in love with her that being kept by her was “less strenuous, darling” than walking the streets. There’s her confident vamping of a textile magnate--and equally blunt dismissal of a black GI--in “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979). But in “Effi Briest” (1974) she’s seen as a disgraced Victorian wife and mother subjected to a heartbreaking meeting with her cold, rejecting little daughter. And in “Lili Marleen” (1981), her final film with Fassbinder, she’s a mediocre cabaret performer, reveling in her unexpected success as the darling of the Nazis.
But the clips weren’t all from Fassbinder films. There were love scenes, notable for Schygulla’s aggressive seductiveness, from Volker Schlondorff’s “Circle of Deceit” (1981), as well as from the Wajda film. And a lovely moment from Ettore Scola’s “La Nuit de Varennes” (1983), in which Schygulla, as a loyal courtier to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, graciously bows to a dummy clothed in the rich robes of her captured king. (This particular role, Schygulla admitted, was about as far from her actual self as she has ever played; it’s hard to imagine this self-assured woman bowing to anybody.)
Earlier in the festival, Schygulla had enlivened one of those inevitable panel discussions on women in film, which was titled “Changing Images of Women Behind and Before the Camera.” “I think two things have changed,” she said. “Women are sometimes allowed to be ugly and to be older now. Sally Field would have been too average before. . . . I don’t think we have so much to complain about. When I was a teen-ager, I imitated Brigitte Bardot. When I started in films, I was called the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the Suburbs'--I was trying to project that. There may be a return to beauty, but maybe a different kind. In India, beauty is an old woman. There is no more need to be a dream woman.
“In Germany after the war, the men really were the losers. The women had to clear away the debris. They had to because so many men had died or were prisoners. They had all kinds of adventures they weren’t used to. Fassbinder thought women had more vitality than men. He would say, ‘It’s great to see a woman think,’ and he always expressed himself through women. Yet there’s more audacity in the male imagination. It has not come out yet in women.”
She admires “Sheer Madness,” but with typical candor adds that she wishes it could have been less realistic and “more like a Hitchcock” in its approach to her character’s friendship with the unstable Winkler and its impact upon Winkler’s marriage. She says that during shooting, the film’s intensity led to real-life parallels between director and actors. “I don’t know why, but there was lots of jealousy. I thought Margarethe was too much on to me and not enough on Angela; Angela seemed jealous of me--stuff like that. But Margarethe likes to have all women as sisters--and also, she’s been an actress.”
Schygulla believes that Von Trotta has been much affected by her discovery of a sister she never knew she had, and Von Trotta indeed seems obsessed with relationships between sisters. According to Schygulla, “Sheer Madness” is actually modeled on Von Trotta’s life--"and I was playing Margarethe.”
In the offing are “Peter the Great,” an NBC miniseries in which Schygulla plays Catherine the Great, whom she views as “a woman who was always adapting to wherever she was, for she had nothing to lose; a woman who had the courage to be herself,” and Marco Ferreri’s “Story of Piera,” about a mother and daughter who in the course of the film exchange roles. The daughter is played as a child by Bettina Gruen and by Isabelle Huppert as an adult. Although Schygulla took top honors at Cannes for her performance, she seems not entirely satisfied with the film as a whole.
“I felt best about the movie when I was doing it,” she said. “I thought I had found in Ferreri the talent of a Fassbinder--that provocative, barbaric force--and also that feeling for love (but not in a sentimental way). The film is about another way of being a mother.”
Schygulla, who believes that Fassbinder’s influence on her work is more unconscious than conscious, says she could see that Fassbinder’s life style was getting out of control. Nevertheless, she was shocked when word of his death reached her in Mexico, where she was visiting. “I hadn’t seen him in two years, but just before he died he called me in Mexico but I wasn’t in. He was just about to participate in a collective film on war, and he wanted me to be in it. There was to be a couple who lie down to make love and finish by killing each other.
“I heard later that he wanted me for his ‘Rosa Luxembourg'--he had the idea first--but I also heard he had been calling Jane Fonda and others. Fassbinder wanted to be as important for film as Freud was for psychiatry and Marx for sociology. He wanted to be on the cover of Time. I always felt he would die young.” Not surprisingly, Schygulla, like most others, has found Fassbinder irreplaceable. "(Werner) Herzog is daring in his way, but he doesn’t have the bite into our times that Fassbinder had--that stirring up of things.”
For the last three years Schygulla has been living in Paris. “It’s because of a man,” she says in a romantic, fatalistic way that seems deliberately, amusingly, to emulate Dietrich. The man is the distinguished French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, whose association with Luis Bunuel is as renowned as Schygulla’s with Fassbinder.
“I was also quite glad to get out of my country. Professionally, I came under a hard time.” (“A Love in Germany,” a true story about the wife of a German officer who has an affair with a young Polish POW, caused a furor, for Wajda was intent on showing that ordinary Germans could be rabid Nazis. Schygulla herself says that “Story of Piera,” which has yet to reach America, was also poorly received.)
For her the most wonderful moments in movies occur when the actors “are not trying to convince you about something but are just being . I would like to have more of these precious moments when you’re not selling--when there’s no vanity. I like style because I like beauty. It’s something that must be as cultivated as much as truth. I’m never really satisfied.”
Currently, the handsome, middle-aged Carriere, who accompanied Schygulla to Telluride, is adapting Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for director Phillip Kaufman. There’s a part, that of Sabina, the mistress of the heroine’s husband, that Schygulla sees as perfect for her--but “I don’t know if they’ll take me.
“Sabina is always reaching out for new horizons. She prefers not to get totally involved. She doesn’t go on too heavily about everything. She sees life as a constant change. She sounds,” Schygulla admitted, “like me!”