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Talking Germany

Blog with Peter Craven

Hanna Schygulla: splendid and mysterious

Out of range of analysis 

It came out in 1979. The Marriage of Maria Braun. Surely the stand-out movie among the three dozen plus made by the brilliant but doomed German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His muse in most of those films was Hanna Schygulla. Now, amazingly, and several decades on, she’s my latest guest on Talking Germany. I can remember precisely where, when and with whom I saw the film. And my rapture at this striding, cruel, unknowable, hurt and hurting woman. She was a diva, a sex symbol — and about a million miles from where I was. 

Which, strangely, is where she still is today. Unnahbar, as the Germans say: remote, unapproachable. As if she’s hiding her true self – the one the movies saw, but never knew – at the heart of a complex web. So when I asked her to sign my DVD copy of Maria Braun, which she did, her signature was precisely that: a complex web; a map, almost, of an unknowable person. 

The meaning cannot be spoken, she appears to be saying. The question cannot be answered, she appears to believe: the point is, that there is no point. Which got me thinking about what you might call Hanna Schygulla’s acting methodology. So, I took out those old DVDs – and the even older videos. And then I started reading what the reviewers of those movies had said at the time. An interesting exercise. 

I find one prominent critic, for instance, talking about Miss Schygulla (that’s what he really called her!) as, “an enchanted actress who, at any one moment in a Fassbinder movie, is the sum of all its parts, plus a little more.” So what is that little bit more? Not sure, concedes the author, but: “Whatever it is, it’s splendid and mysterious.” A fellow critic put it like this: Hanna Schygulla has “an uncanny ability to float just out of range of analysis.” Which is precisely how I found her to be: the diva who refuses to be a diva. The diva who refuses to be defined.


April 8, 2012