Rosa Luxemburg (Barbara Sukowa) has been imprisoned, supposedly in protective custody, as it is 1916 and the Great War is raging across Europe. Being an adopted German, having moved there believing her socialist beliefs could take root among the workers, she is not looked on with great affection by the authorities who have locked her up so she cannot spread her philosophy to the people who may listen to her ardent anti-war stance. As she is in her cell, she writes letters and reflects on her life and what has brought her to this low point, but remains optimistic that she can be released and carry on spreading her message of peace and equality. It's a nice idea, but...
You may or may not have heard of Rosa, the historical figure, but in Europe her profile was raised decades after her death by this film, which originally was set to be a project from the prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who sadly died before he could bring it to fruition. However, it was still a viable production and Margarethe von Trotta, then one of the New German Cinema's most prominent female talents, was recruited to take the helm. She had in fact been planning her own Rosa biopic and Fassbinder has asked her if she was fine with him tackling the same subject, but she assured him her efforts were to be made some years in the future, once she had more experience.
It was a major subject, after all, as Luxemburg was a complex personality and packed a lot into an abbreviated life, but on agreeing to take over from the deceased director, von Trotta immersed herself in the life and world of the woman, crafting a piece that enjoyed meticulous attention to detail, as if she was seeking to please the scholars rather than the mainstream audience. If you did not know much, or anything, about the activist then you would come away from this have felt as if you had attended a lecture, and for that reason Rosa Luxemburg, the film, could appear a daunting prospect for anyone wanting to take it on; this was serious cinema about a serious person.
Yet there was a drive to offer a well-rounded portrait, and that meant we got to see the ups and downs of Luxemburg's domestic life as well, from the love of her life who turned out to be politically vital, but romantically unfaithful, which underlined the overall theme that no matter how well your ideals can serve you, and never let you down as long as you have faith that you can improve the world, the pity of it is that putting these tenets into action depend on people. And people are flawed - they really will let you down, so that while Rosa tries her utmost to secure a democratic government for Germany, even when the general mood is that she may have achieved that goal, she still has her criticisms of the new authorities, basically because they are thugs who have replaced one poorly run state with another.
As Rosa increasingly fears the effects of nationalism, we have the privileged position of being well aware those fears were wholly justified, for all that led to was another world war, this time even bloodier and more destructive than the previous one, a concept that would have been unimaginable for most come the end of 1918. But not to Luxemburg, who we can assume would shake her head sadly and note she had predicted such a movement always leads to oppression, division and misery. That she was not around to speak up for the alternative path is a tragedy the film dwells on without spelling it out; nevertheless, her ultimate fate is so brutal that von Trotta did not need to be explicit, we see the ending largely from a distance, yet it is so harrowing for a person we have come to understand as a positive, compassionate thinker that we witness enough as we needed to. No, this was not light viewing, despite lighter moments for texture, but you would emerge from it having learned something, if not something cheering, and Sukowa was magnetic. Music by Nicolas Economou.
[Rosa Luxemburg is comes to Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on 4th February.
Studio Canal's Blu-ray has been restored to impeccable quality, and the extras are an interview each with the director and the star and a trailer.]