Marianne and Juliane (1981)

Collected Works: Film

 
 

Marianne and Juliane

directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Feature film

View a still from the film here

Two sisters face each other, sitting either side of a pane of glass. They both hold a palm up to the transparent wall, their movements forming a mirror image. This is the closest that they can get to touching, now that the younger sibling has been moved to a maximum security prison. Her tired face merges with her visitor’s reflection; physical separation has brought them closer together. Lips move but no sound escapes, as the muting of the intercom marks the end of the visit. Attendants stand to escort the inmate out of sight.

Through flashbacks, we learn of Marianne and Juliane’s upbringing: their patriarchal family, religious traditionalism, and exposure to Nazism through educational film. Both women have forceful reactions to Germany’s political past, but rebel in very different ways. Marianne believes that terrorism is a necessary step to revolutionise humanity and obliterate suffering. Juliane becomes a pro-choice campaigner and decides not to have children, rejecting the nurturing role that Nazis prescribed for women.

Silenced conversation develops into a central theme. At first, the sisters both create deafening noises that trace their divergent politics: Marianne’s bombs, Juliane’s protests. Marianne dismisses her sister as a ‘bourgeois journalist’ whose words are ineffectual. Yet Juliane’s typewriter can be heard, quiet but tellingly insistent, during the entirety of one flashback. Their altercations fade when they are both muffled: one by the prison system, one by the press. Confinement softens, until one loses ‘all sense of time, and ultimately, of self’.

The film is a fictionalisation of the lives of Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin, and seeks to explore their untold stories, placing the complex relationship between the two flawed female characters at its centre. Although the sisters occasionally prove difficult to like, and the motive behind their actions are not always simple, Margarethe von Trotta invites us to empathise with their circumstances. Having been born into structures that act to oppress, these unruly protagonists press against the barrier before them, in the hope that it will smash.

Words by Emma McKinlay


More to discover

You can watch a fanmade trailer here. Most essays about Marianne and Juliane available online are academic, such as this article on the Ensslin sisters by Lisa DiCaprio. Andrea Morgan Davies has written a post on sisterhood in the film for Detangled Prose.


Question of the day

Which films about acts of rebellion would you recommend, and why?
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Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Persepolis has changed my life in many ways. It has taught me about the importance of integrity in art, family, and storytelling. (→)

– Leah Hayes, bestselling graphic novelist and musician (via The Brief →)

Bend It Like Beckham, directed by Gurinder Chadha. A young British-Indian woman defies her parents by pursuing a football career, warming hearts and tackling prejudice en route. (→)

– Hugh Maloney, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)


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