Margarethe von Trotta's 1981 film comes at the tail end of the so-called "lead years" in 20th century (not exclusively) German history where the chaos of radical terrorism hung heavy over society. What's so remarkable, seen 30 years later, is how it eschews any sense of panic, moral or otherwise, to take place entirely within a carefully composed cocoon, suggesting both a need to withdraw from outside pressures and a stubborn, single-minded necessity to push forward.
This is not accidental: at its heart is the push and pull relationship between pastor's daughters Marianne and Juliane (Barbara Sukowa and Jutta Lampe), and the way that their growing up, under the long shadow of the immense post-WWII guilt, steels them into the adults they are. In the flashbacks to their childhood and adolescence that come up at regular intervals, Marianne is the sage, well-behaved daddy's girl, Juliane the rebel who questions rules and takes life by the horns. The film's "present-day" centre, though, has them effectively trading places: Juliane now is the pragmatist, willing to work within the system to change it, while Marianne has become the idealistic, radical revolutionary who will resort to violence if needs be to change the world.
Ms. von Trotta is presenting here a fairly obvious take on the true story of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the ideologues of the infamous Baader-Meinhof group, but the writer-director all but removes politics from the frame. Even though their weight can be constantly felt, what interests her is seeing how real life has changed the two sisters and how they deal with it, how their relationship to each other and to the world shifts according to what they see in each other - and to how they see themselves in the other. Not for nothing does the elusive, blink-and-you'll-miss-her Marianne exit the film after a remarkable shot in a scene where Juliane visits her in prison, on opposite sides of a glass-paneled wall - both sisters' faces are superimposed on a glass pane, as if they were indivisible, one and the same, before something happens and they became two separate images, as if the glass had shifted or cracked. It's a beautiful, pregnant metaphor that effectively sums up what's going wrong in Marianne and Juliane - people coming to terms with the choices of their own blood.
DIE BLEIERNE ZEIT
West Germany, 1981, 102 minutes
Starring Jutta Lampe, Barbara Sukowa, Rüdiger Vogler
Directed and written by Margarethe von Trotta; cinematographer Franz Rath; music by Nicolas Economidou; art directors Georg von Kieseritzky and Barbara Kloth; costume designers Monika Hasse and Jorge Jara; film editor Dagmar Hirtz; produced by Eberhard Junkersdorf, for Bioskop-Film
Screened October 23rd 2015, Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa 2015