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Schygulla: A Director's Actress

December 18, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

When you think of the great star-director collaborations, you recall Griffith and Gish, Sternberg and Dietrich, Mizoguchi and Tanaka--and, in recent times, R.W. Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla, who were at the very heart of the renaissance of the German cinema.

In one Fassbinder film after another, Schygulla not only revealed an ever-growing talent but also revived on the screen an image of the frankly sensual, bold-featured, blond Teutonic beauty. But by June, 1982, the Wunderkind Fassbinder was dead, burned out at the age of 36.

To hear the talk in Munich and Berlin film circles, you would have thought that Schygulla should have committed suttee. Some, who ought to have known better, said, "Hanna is nothing without Fassbinder." Among those who do know better, Andrzej Wajda, Poland's greatest film maker, who directed her in the controversial "A Love in Germany," has said that "she is the most modern, progressive and exciting actress of our time."

"Oh, sure," Schygulla shrugs, when asked if her celebrated association with Fassbinder has worked against her. "There are directors who think they're getting a horse that's been ridden by a very strong Tartar. Those I don't need to work with anyway. But then directors don't pick me because I fit very well but because they have this thing going for me."

Coming from most actresses, such a remark would sound boastful; from this one, it's simple honesty.

Schygulla, 42, who once thought she'd become a schoolteacher, was talking over dinner at a crowded, noisy restaurant at the last Telluride Film Festival, where she was honored with a tribute and a premiere of Margarethe von Trotta's "Sheer Madness," now at the Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex. She plays a woman who, in Schygulla's own apt description, is helping another woman, played by Angela Winkler, give birth to herself.

As the tribute's clips reminded us, Schygulla developed a far wider range under Fassbinder's guidance than Marlene Dietrich or possibly even Lillian Gish did under their mentors. There's her self-enchanted model in "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" (1973), calmly admitting to a lesbian fashion designer who has fallen in love with her that being kept by her was "less strenuous, darling" than walking the streets. There's her confident vamping of a textile magnate--and equally blunt dismissal of a black GI--in "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1979). But in "Effi Briest" (1974) she's seen as a disgraced Victorian wife and mother subjected to a heartbreaking meeting with her cold, rejecting little daughter. And in "Lili Marleen" (1981), her final film with Fassbinder, she's a mediocre cabaret performer, reveling in her unexpected success as the darling of the Nazis.

But the clips weren't all from Fassbinder films. There were love scenes, notable for Schygulla's aggressive seductiveness, from Volker Schlondorff's "Circle of Deceit" (1981), as well as from the Wajda film. And a lovely moment from Ettore Scola's "La Nuit de Varennes" (1983), in which Schygulla, as a loyal courtier to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, graciously bows to a dummy clothed in the rich robes of her captured king. (This particular role, Schygulla admitted, was about as far from her actual self as she has ever played; it's hard to imagine this self-assured woman bowing to anybody.)

Earlier in the festival, Schygulla had enlivened one of those inevitable panel discussions on women in film, which was titled "Changing Images of Women Behind and Before the Camera." "I think two things have changed," she said. "Women are sometimes allowed to be ugly and to be older now. Sally Field would have been too average before. . . . I don't think we have so much to complain about. When I was a teen-ager, I imitated Brigitte Bardot. When I started in films, I was called the 'Marilyn Monroe of the Suburbs'--I was trying to project that. There may be a return to beauty, but maybe a different kind. In India, beauty is an old woman. There is no more need to be a dream woman.

"In Germany after the war, the men really were the losers. The women had to clear away the debris. They had to because so many men had died or were prisoners. They had all kinds of adventures they weren't used to. Fassbinder thought women had more vitality than men. He would say, 'It's great to see a woman think,' and he always expressed himself through women. Yet there's more audacity in the male imagination. It has not come out yet in women."

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