December 25, 2008

The Hanna Schygulla 65th Birthday Celebration

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I didn't realize until after I read the credits that it was Hanna Schygulla that I saw in Edge of Heaven. She plays the mother of a young woman, a college student who becomes involved in the life of a Turkish political refugee. At a certain point, the mother, who seems like any conservative older woman, tells the daughter that she had her radical side when she was younger. One can view this scene simply on its surface level of a mother confiding her hidden past to her daughter. As the part is played by Schygulla, one can also interpret the scene as referring to her actual life, or as the characters she played in her earlier films, especially those made with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It is for those overlapping reasons that Fatih Akin cast Schygulla in that role.

A more appropriate tribute would involve re-seeing the films that Schygulla starred in, especially Effie Briest, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, plus Volker Schlondorff's Circle of Deceit. Without knowing the extent of her involvement, I saw one of her earlier performances for Fassbinder, plus the film she did right after Maria Braun cemented her position as the actress most closely associated with Fassbinder.

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Schygulla is seen only in the beginning of Herr R. as a friend of Frau R.'s. With her identifiable curly hair, Schygulla is the free spirit whose existence represents a break from the regimented lives of the R.s. One of the points of discussion is Schygulla's nest of curly hair, as if the straight hair of Kurt Raab and Lilith Ungerer stood as a visual signifier of their lives. It was that mop of hair, barely controlled coils, that made Schygulla recognizable. One almost wished that the film she was in had followed her instead of the repressed, conforming couple of the title.

The Third Generation is more of an ensemble piece initially deemed a failure coming soon after the international success of Maria Braun. Schygulla's role links the other characters. She is introduced as the secretary to businessman Eddie Constantine, and daughter-in-law to a police agent. The agent's son, played by Udo Kier, along with Schygulla, are part of a group of youngish adults who live comfortable, middle class lives, but are part of a "terrorist" cell. The police agent is seen dressed similarly to someone in a classic Fritz Lang film, with trenchcoat and oversized fedora. The Third Generation has generated more interest in part of his line, "I recently had a dream that capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it." Schygulla's hair is shorter, and straight. She was never quite conventionally attractive, yet there is no questioning that men would find her attractive as when Constantine talks about her with Hark Bohm.

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Life and art seem to have intermingled as Schygulla's life has not been too different from the character she played in Herr R.. Except for a very brief turn in Hollywood, Schygulla has managed to work steadily in films that were more artistic than commercial in motivation. I'm probably not the only one who might now be re-thinking that list of twenty favorite actresses. And while there are those who will argue the value of certain films made by Fassbinder, I will be the first to admit that I'd rather see those films with his most frequent onscreen collaborator.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 25, 2008 10:40 AM


Thank you for observing this birthday, Peter, and for celebrating this wonderful and alluring actress. I was shocked to see the notation of her age until I realized how old I am and how much of my life I've lived with her on my radar. Whenever I think of a European actor or actress who hasn't really "made" it in Hollywood, I think of Schygulla in Delta Force and the pain goes away.

Posted by: Arbogast at December 25, 2008 06:26 PM

I've always been in love with Hanna Schygulla, ever since I saw her in the foreign films broadcast on BBC 2 late at night, long ago, before we had satellite TV and personal computers. She could have been somebody! Good to see her living in Paris now. Wouldn't mind sitting with her in a Paris café, nibbling on a croissant and singing a duet...Der Frohliche Wanderer

Posted by: George Cavanagh at February 28, 2009 02:26 PM