Scene from Rosa Luxemburg, 1986 Scene from Rosa Luxemburg, 1986

In this moving biopic, Rosa Luxemburg emerges as a vibrant, sensual, intellectually brilliant, morally and physically courageous woman, whose legacy proves timeless, writes Tom Lock Griffiths

Rosa Luxemburg (1986), directed by German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, (who’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is probably her best known film in the UK), is a biopic of the Polish-Jewish Marxist who worked tirelessly with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), for peace, internationalism and the revolution. The film focuses on the period 1900-1919 the year of her assassination by the proto-fascist Freikorps, who were brutalised far-right ex-servicemen, many of whom would become the founders of The National Socialist Party.

It was to be iconic West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film but he died while working on an early version of the script. The film’s producers then approached Von Trotta to take over the production. In an interview extra on the DVD/Blu Ray, she says she was already aware of the Fassbinder film and at first wasn’t sure she was ready to take on such a weighty subject. The producers persuaded her that not only was it his wish that she do it but also it was only fitting that a woman took the helm. After insisting that she be able to ditch the script that was in development and write her own, the project was given the green light. Von Trotta then was granted a full two years to do her own research.

Rosa Luxemburg would have liked very much what happened next. West German Von Trotta’s application to see the Luxemburg archives in the Marxism-Leninism Institute in East Berlin (then currently part of the Communist GDR), was accepted, something that surprised all those involved as West German academics and journalists were routinely denied access. After doing some background checks GDR officials discovered Von Trotta had been a peace activist which was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Luxemburg herself, whose unwavering commitment to opposing the First World War set her apart from most of her contemporaries and is one of her most enduring legacies. Rosa would also have enjoyed how the head of the archive, an East German woman and Von Trotta became very good friends in the process of researching her life and upon discovering an old wall calendar of Rosa’s they bonded over realising the red X’s marked roughly a month apart were the dates of Rosa’s period.

It’s worth recounting as what emerges in Von Trotta’s powerful film is very much a woman’s story of perhaps the most inspiring woman in the history of the socialist tradition. Her film is one that manages to balance, with impressive elegance the unity of a woman who was a rigorous theoretician, fiery orator, hard-nosed campaigner and a real life, living breathing human being. Luxemburg is a woman who radiates across the 100 years of history since her death as someone who, despite the most brutal of circumstances embodies what Marx called the ‘species-being’; a fully feeling and sensual creative human devoted to changing the world for the better. Von Trotta says that while the pamphlets and speeches were a huge part of the research, and it is one of the film’s greatest merits that it does not shy away from the complex political issues of the moment, she was most excited and inspired by Rosa’s letters, many of which she wrote from prison to friends and comrades.

In them, we find a woman deeply interested in nature, birds, gardening and full of deep affection for her friends. The film starts while Rosa is imprisoned in Germany for her anti-war agitation and there we meet a woman who decorates her cell with pressed flowers and lends books to the prison guards, moving with grace between states of almost euphoric hope and confidence in the revolutionary potential still as yet unleashed in the working classes and loneliness and even depression which she bares without self-pity, emanating a touching stoicism. Weaved into these recurring scenes of prison life the film reaches back and forward into her life on the outside. In these sequences we meet a powerful, ferocious woman, whose small stature and limp doesn’t hold her back from chastising the powerful men around her, often humiliating them in the processes. That she does so with such charm and without being expelled from the party in the pre-war years is testimony to her popularity and wit but also her very great intellectual prowess, which couldn’t help but impress even those who found themselves on the sharp end of it.

Most of the major players in the German SPD are featured in the film including Karl Liebknecht, Karl Kautsky, his wife Luise Kautsky (who Rosa maintained an affectionate friendship with despite her break with Karl over his support for war credits), Clara Zetkin and her son Kostja Zetkin (with whom Rosa had a passionate affair), and August Bebel. In two clever moments Von Trotta articulates the place of women in the male-dominated socialist movement and the different roles feminist and socialist Clara Zetkin and Rosa decided to carve out for themselves. In one dinner table scene Bebel encourages Rosa to focus more on women’s issues to which Clara quips, “and leave the big issues in politics to men right?” and Rosa adds with her cutting humour, both ruthless and witty on one go, “ If they were up to it I wouldn’t object!” In another scene a tracking shot glides through a meeting hall after the speeches are over and the comrades stand around talking. First, we move past Clara surrounded by a group of women talking to them quietly and then on to Rosa surrounded by a group of men whom she is fiercely instilling revolutionary fervour in like no one else in the room.

It is Clara and Rosa who stand arm in arm and watch soldiers leave for the front, after the majority of the men in the SPD have betrayed their anti-war position and succumbed to nationalistic war-lust. It’s a tragic moment, not least because Clara and Rosa both confess they have considered suicide as a result.

It is of course one of the great unnecessary tragedies of human history that the First World War was able to go ahead. Knowing what we do about the carnage and horror in the mud and blood of the trenches but also the twisted off-spring the conflagration would spawn, manifesting itself in many places and in many movements, not least those that would brutally murder Rosa herself. That Rosa stood so firmly against it is just one of her greatest gifts to modern socialists.

The final chapter of the film recounts the pivotal moment, upon the end of the war and the release of Rosa from prison when she broke with the SPD and set up with other anti-war comrades, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin the Spartakusbund (The Spartacus League). They agitate for socialism and play a central role in the attempted German revolution of 1918. Here again, Rosa’s prescience is in evidence and she warns that the masses aren’t yet fully committed. Her friend and collaborator Liebknecht disagrees but of course it’s Rosa who’s once again proved right. The revolution is defeated and both Rosa and Karl are murdered. The Spartakusbund would soon morph into the fledgling German Communist Party, but after the war and failed revolution their numbers were so decimated they were unable to halt the tide of fascism in the coming years. It’s also certain that without the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg the movement was stripped of one it’s most powerful forces.

At the centre of this brilliant portrayal of a complete human is the powerful performance of actress Barbara Sukowa who won the best actress award at Cannes for the role. She says that in preparing for the part she, ‘in a sense fell in love with her’ – that she was so moved by her ideas that a ‘serenity’ came over during the filming which she cannot quite explain. It speaks to the great compassion Rosa had at the core of her thinking and the great courage with which she endured years of prison life. Sukowa says’

I wanted that Rosa Luxemburg was rehabilitated, because she was demonized by us in West Germany, they said, “hysterical materialism” and people thought she was a blood thirsty communist. But in her letters you see that she was a very poetic, tender soul. She was a woman who wanted it all.

Rosa Luxemburg was indeed a woman who wanted it all; she wanted peace, love, and revolution and was willing to pay the ultimate price for it. Studio Canal and Vintage World Cinema’s excellent 4k restoration from the original film print is very welcome and it’s release timely not only because of the anniversary of Rosa’s death but because her work as thinker, writer, theoretician is in fact timeless. When she spoke of herself as a unity with the revolution, she gave us a phrase that will continue to inspire socialists for another 100 years.

I was, I am, I shall be.