Movie Review: The German Sisters

By Moira Sullivan
Movie Magazine International
The German Sisters was shown with Margarethe von Trotta in attendance at the recent Créteil Films de Femmes Festival that ended March 24th as part of the 30th anniversary. The film won the public and jury prize in 1982. The German Sisters is a dramatization of the Ensslin sisters. Jutta Lampe plays Juliane, who is a feminist journalist and Barbara Sukowa plays Marianne, who in real life was Gudrun Ensllin, the founder of the Marxist revolutionary Baader-Meinhof Gang. The sisters grow up in a god fearing home. Juliane is clearly the rebel growing up, wearing black jeans to school and smoking on the premises. At a school dance when she is not asked to dance she solos on the dance floor. Marianne is the more sensitive of the two girls and is the father’s pet. When growing up their roles are reversed and when Marianne joins a terrorist group it is clear that she has is still fear ridden. She has a young son that she abandons that is sent to a home. After the supposed suicide by hanging in prison, Juliane investigates the death of her sister. She comes to the conclusion that there was no way that Marianne could have hung herself as described by the prison authorities. In real life it is understood that all three founders of the Baader-Meinhoff gang were extrajudicially executed.

Von Trotta has been called a representative of New German cinema, that is to say cinema emerging after WWII. The director skillfully shows the close relationship between the sisters with flashbacks to their upbringing and education. In one scene historical footage of the mass graves of the Jews is shown to the students and both girls flee the auditorium and become sick. The oppressive images of Christian mythology are also shown and shots of their father giving his hellfire and damnation sermons from the pulpit of his parish. The film poses a perplexing question about children born during the Second World War and how they coped with the aftermath of rebuilding Germany. The success of the film lies in von Trotta’s ability to sympathize with both characters showing that each in her own way were trying to come to terms with how to effect change in their society. The film is a hard one, which also shows the men that the two sisters align with. For Juliane a seemingly sympathetic successful architect who later strikes her and calls her a monster for refusing to accept that her sister took her own life. Juliane defies him and strikes off in her own direction, later caring for her sister’s son. The emotionally shut down co-leader of the terrorist group nervously smokes and stares into space on a short visit Marianne makes to Juliane’s apartment for coffee in the middle of the night. This compelling scene shows how desperate Marianne has become in the path she has chosen and how she defined her life through powerful men. She leaves evidence of cries for help before the terrorist action that lands her in prison. The narrative form of the film is unconventional especially the final meetings of the two sisters in prison while prison guards take copious notes and observe everything, preventing any privacy. This is a somber and hard film, and yet a powerful statement on the influence of national and family politics on the tender, lives of two young girls, and their evolution as young politically motivated women after WWII in Germany.

For Movie Magazine This is Moira Sullivan, Paris France
More Information:
The German Sisters
West Germany - 1981