A film like Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg provides a good example of both the strengths and limitations of Realist biopics of political figures. Ably mounted, intelligent, respectful and performed by Barbara Sukowa in the central role with an incendiary passion that momentarily brings the controversial Marxist theorist to life, the film provides a sympathetic, condensed overview of a woman, a time and a place. Von Trotta also manages the considerable feat of building suspense despite our knowing in advance that Luxemburg’s political ideals are doomed and that she will be murdered for them.
That achievement is part of the problem, for in order to engage the viewer’s sympathy, a good deal of time is spent personalizing Luxemburg at the expense of the politics central to her identity. That centrality is acknowledged within the film when she learns that her lover, Leo Jogliches (Daniel Olbrychski) has been unfaithful, and that she knows he is in love with the other woman because they met each other through work together. That sense of people defined by their work might well be a description of Luxemburg herself, but in being so, the comment points up the limitations of too great a concentration on the personal because the fruits of their work, their political ideas, are never expressed in any depth.
They cannot be, because ideas are not dramatic, although they can produce a certain inflammatory excitement contained by the parentheses of melodrama. Sukowa gives several rousing speeches that never seem repetitive and are always engaging, for example. They are nonetheless no substitute for reading Luxemburg’s writings, for being able to distance oneself from the rhetoric to analyze its substance and come to terms with it, much less to have that most Marxist of responses, a dialectical counter-argument. In fact, any attempt by Luxemburg’s Social Democratic colleagues in the film to contradict her positions is treated as foolishly limited, while the non-Marxist characters are never given a chance to argue; they are at best ignorant or repressed.
This is not the place for a critique of Luxemburg or her ideas. We should, however, recognize how films like Rosa suggest that complex topics like politics (or art, or science, or philosophy) are not particularly well served by traditional drama, that the form of Realist narrative recreation, emotionally satisfying as it may be, is exactly what is wrong with the results politically. Politics is a matter of struggle, power, ideas and argument, sometimes violent. Political art does not have to be strident or abrasive, but a format conceived to lull a viewer for two hours with uncontroversial, unquestioned sympathies will at most provoke mildly, at worst encourage an audience’s complacency about eating its political vegetables. It is almost guaranteed that any conviction aroused by the action will not last beyond the film’s duration, particularly when the events depicted are safely in the past. Truly political art challenges before it pleases. Better, it pleases because it challenges.