In 1970, German auteur Volker Schlöndorff (Young Törless, The Tin Drum) directed would-be-actress Margarethe von Trotta in his masterful Baal adaptation starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a year later he would marry her, thus ultimately cuckolding himself as both a man and a filmmaker. Indeed, after the auteur directed his made-for-TV spaghetti western inspired anti-Heimat film The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (1970), virtually all of his films from then on until the mid-1970s revolved around his wife, with their last major work together being the pro-bolshevik period piece Coup de Grâce (1976). By giving von Trotta the opportunity to co-direct The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), which was the first big mainstream hit for both the directors and German New Cinema in general, Schlöndorff enabled his wife to establish herself as a filmmaker, thus she, as a proud feminist, no longer needed her hubby to further her career. Out of all the films the two collaborated on together, none better epitomizes Schlöndorff’s innate emasculation and artistic cuckoldry than A Free Woman (1972) aka Strohfeuer aka Summer Lightning, which is quite ironic considering it is one of the director’s most unconventional and least literary oriented works. Co-written by and starring von Trotta in a semi-autobiographical work loosely based on the ugly aftermath of her first failed marriage, A Free Woman is a hopelessly bourgeois feminist flick that might as well have been directed by the star herself as it resembles her early mundane melodramas. Luckily, due to her reasonably good looks and seemingly authentic portrayal of a disgruntled dame, A Free Woman does not reach the intolerable level of ‘broad power’ banality that plagues most of the actress-turned-director’s works. Of course, the film also seems less phony and ethno-masochistic because, unlike films like Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Rosenstrasse (2003), and Hannah Arendt (2012) where the director preposterously attempted to put herself in the Hebraic shoes of Jewesses, A Free Woman is a discernibly honest expression of von Trotta’s vulnerability and not a dubious piece of heavy-handed humanistic posturing. Undoubtedly, the film will seem rather ridiculous to many modern viewers, as the prospect of a woman ending up on the losing side of divorce nowadays seems about as likely as the Congo turning into a world power or Ireland colonizing Europe. Shot in a naturalistic and sometimes even documentary-like style typical of early works by kraut feminist filmmakers like Helma Sanders-Brahms and Helke Sander, albeit minus most of the agitprop elements, A Free Woman is undoubtedly one of the most softcore feminist films ever made, thus making it an all-around less repugnant work that seems like it was created by semi-reasonable people. Indeed, if one were to compare all the problems von Trotta’s character in the film faces to the reality of how the legal system favors women today; one would think the feminist dream has been fully realized. After all, how else could one explain how a director as consistently banal and vapid has gone on to become one of the most famous directors in Germany, as well as one of the most revered female auteur filmmakers in the entire world, yet one of the major themes of A Free Woman is how artistic institutions are purportedly male-dominated.
As demonstrated by the fact that she peddles to divorce court on a bicycle while wearing high heels and ultimately arrives late as a result, Elisabeth Junker (Margarethe von Trotta) does not exactly make the most sensible of decisions. As she admits herself, Elisabeth’s first mistake was marrying when she was far too young. While testifying in court, she confesses that her divorce from her husband Hans-Helmut (Friedhelm Ptok) was solely of her of own free will and has nothing to do with abuse or anything of that sort. In fact, while pregnant with her son Niki, Elisabeth temporarily left her husband and began sleeping and living with a swarthy hippie musician named Wolfgang, thus demonstrating Hans-Helmut's humiliating longstanding cuckoldry. Despite everything, Hans-Helmut is still in love with Elisabeth and even after they have officially divorced, he still tries in vain to get her back. Educated as a foreign language correspondence clerk, Elisabeth has not worked since she has been married and basically has to start from scratch in terms of a career. Immediately after her divorce trial, she buys a red wig as a sort of symbolic act of her ‘new life’ as an ostensibly free woman and begins dating a fairly nice, handsome, and charming red-haired chap named Oskar (Martin Lüttge) who looks like an Aryan lumberjack and makes a reasonably decent living as a civil engineer, yet she suffers from nausea and random barf attacks due to various anxieties, namely relating to the custody of her young son. Elisabeth also suffers the wraith of her mother, who is mad that her daughter made the decision to get a divorce for seemingly no reason. Not exactly the most puritanical of mothers, Elisabeth has no problem talking about sex arguing with her ex-husband, who blames her for ruining his writing career (indeed, before marrying her, he aspired to be a great novelist, but now he is a mere editor), in front of her preschooler son. Due to her lack of experience and dubious work history, Elisabeth first attempts to be a tourist guide for Japanese businessmen but she is not cutout for it and does not like taking photos with strange Jap dudes, so she is forced to take a lowly job as an entry level sales associate at a fancy fur shop run by an annoying queen of a fellow (played by gay Bavarian character actor Walter Sedlmayr, who was violently murdered by two half-brothers in 1990) where she befriends a young homo who writes pornographic stories (a sample of his writing reads as follows: “Now the vagina raped through the gates of hell and primly spread its handle-ends”) and has a nasty fur fetish, hence his choice of employment. Meanwhile, Elisabeth takes singing and dancing lessons, as she dreams of starring in a Hollywood musical. In a bizarre black-and-white dream-sequence that is quite unbecoming for a Schlöndorff film that resembles the Swinging Sixties aesthetic meets an Italian Giallo flick (minus the murder, of course), Elisabeth sings the following childish lyrics while a literally colorful troupe of multicultural female shoppers dances around her: “Man is man. But woman is not woman. Woman is vamp. Or she is a house wife. Woman is bed bunny. Or she is a rascal. If she’s elegant, then she’s called lady. […] A woman is never a woman. Only man is man. I don’t want to be a vamp. And certainly no Cinderella. Neither a bed bunny nor a rascal. And a lady I don’t want to be either. I just want to be a woman such as a man can be a man. I just want to be woman.”
While she does not seem to have that great of a relationship with her son, Elisabeth stresses a lot over the fact that Niki lives with her ex-husband. When she discovers a loophole in the law that prevents a man from taking custody of a child that is not biologically his, Elisabeth attempts to talk her ex-boyfriend into lying by making a declaration upon oath that Niki is his son, thus demonstrating her complete and utter lack of morality, as if she is a psychopathic child who will go to any unsavory extreme to get whatever she wants. Meanwhile, Elisabeth and her overweight friend begin frequenting Alte Pinakothek art museum in Munich where they receive free lessons from a rather rotund Leninist feminist art historian (played by real-life Marxist art historian Konrad Farner, who once defended kraut commie playwright Bertolt Brecht due to his support of Stalin) about the historically misogynistic character of western art. For example, Farner uses a late Gothic masterpiece by Masolini of baby Jesus and Mother Mary to prove that “woman is basically a nothing” and that “she has to always remain in the house,” as well as a work by Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden of a woman breastfeeding to prove the ‘passivity in extension’ that women have supposedly suffered under European Christendom. Additionally, Farner shows the women an eponymous 1752 painting by François Boucher of Louis XV of France’s young mistress/baby-momma Marie-Louise O'Murphy and when Elisabeth remarks the subject of the painting, who is totally unclad with her derriere being the most prominent aspect of the painting, has a “dull-witted face,” the art historian replies, “Yes, one could say her face doesn’t really look intelligent, but her bottom was famous. They envied Ludwig XV for this bottom. And all of Paris admired it in the parlor,” thus highlighting the singular semi-cryptic power that women, even of the proletarian pussy-peddling sort, have always wielded over men. Somewhat hilariously, Farner trashes a print created by degenerate French feminist modern artist Niki de Saint Phalle (who once co-directed the film Daddy (1973) with Peter Whitehead where she demonstrated her hateful, if not insanely incestuous, feelings for her father) by describing it as a parody of female emancipation. With the help of her ex-husband, Elisabeth manages to get a new job that she actually somewhat enjoys working as a translator at an art gallery. When she goes on a trip with an overweight art dealer named Schmollinger (Austrian-born actor/director Georg Marischka) who, being brainwashed by the whacked writings of Jewish psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, believes he has the god-given right screw any and every woman he wants to despite being married, Elisabeth faces unwanted sexual advances from the foul fat fellow. On top of her career looking brighter, Elisabeth is also treated to a romantic vacation to Italy from her boyfriend Oskar, whose undying love for her is unquestionable. Ultimately, Elisabeth’s ex-husband uses the fact that she is constantly away on trips for work (not to mention the fact she confessed to the law that she was living and sleeping with another man when she was pregnant) as a means to take custody of Niki. To further add salt to Elisabeth’s internal wounds, Hans-Helmut is also getting remarried to a kindergarten teacher who the social workers in charge of their case see as an ideal stepmother. In the end, Elisabeth gets married to Oskar, though whether or not the marriage is successful is dubious at best. After all, Schlöndorff and von Trotta's marriage did not last.
Ironically, while auteur Volker Schlöndorff was such an empathetic (aka cuckolded) husband that he directed an entire film dedicated to his wife’s pain and struggles during divorce, Margarethe von Trotta would also divorce him a little less than two decades after A Free Woman was released. Keeping that in mind, one can only assume that it is probably a film the filmmaker regrets directing, though, I for one, would not mind seeing a sequel, as it would give Schlöndorff the opportunity to direct an artistically authentic work that does not seem like another mere phony literary adaptation like most of his films, especially the more recent ones. The virtual kraut Brechtian feminist equivalent to Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), albeit vaguely more tolerable since von Trotta was more aesthetically pleasing than Meryl Streep was at the time, A Free Woman is also, quite strangely, Schlöndorff’s closest attempt at directing a Bergman-esque work, which largely has to do with the fact that the film was shot by Swedish master cinematographer Sven Nykvist. It should also be noted that not all the feminists were satisfied with the film, with Hebraic journalist/film critic Marjorie Rosen (author of Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, & the American Dream) complaining regarding protagonist Elisabeth's decision to get married again at the end of the film: “by marrying again she makes a peculiar trade—surrendering her independence, her most precious freedom, out of disproportionate concern for friends’ momentary discomfort. This suggests that her passivity is simply due to ambivalence, or that at bottom she never wanted the burden of freedom in the first place,” as if marriage does not afford many women a rare form of freedom totally unknown to most men where they do not have to waste their greatest years slaving away at a soul-sucking job, among countless other benefits. As for von Trotta’s consistent failure with marriage, it probably has to do with the fact that her painter father Alfred Roloff never married her mother (whose aristocratic surname she adopted), thus giving her an ‘uncoventional’ perspective on male-female companionship and marriage. Indeed, as Hans Bernhard Moeller and George L. Lellis wrote in their book Volker Schlondorff's Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and the "Movie-Appropriate" (2002) regarding the lessons commie feminist art historian Konrad Farner gives Elisabeth in A Free Woman: “The art historian suggests, perhaps, von Trotta’s own father, who was a painter. Indeed, at one point Elisabeth affectionately tells him that she would love to have had a father like him (a statement that takes on added resonance if one is aware that von Trotta’s father never married her mother).” In my mind, von Trotta’s adoption of feminism as a lifelong Weltanschauung and her propensity for getting involved with failed marriages with weak men seems to mostly have to do with the fact that she had a negligent father and not because of some sort of all-powerful institutional patriarchy. In other words, it is not powerful men that made the filmmaker resent men, but feeble fellows who failed to live up to their responsibilities as both husbands and fathers. Indeed, aside from some lady lemmings who go to college and get brainwashed by some dyke professor with a bone to pick with men, how many women who are satisfied with their boyfriends/husbands actually end up becoming frigid feminists?! Indeed, as Otto Weininger theorized well over a century ago, feminism and so-called female emancipation has more to do with societal decadence, male emasculation, and the feminization of the workforce (i.e. office work) than any sort of phantom patriarchy. After all, the naughty Nazi government, which put a premium on having a collective father figure known as the Führer rule over the Fatherland, did not prevent Leni Riefenstahl from becoming the greatest female filmmaker who has ever lived, as a woman whose literal artistic adventures make the von Trottas and Valie Exports of the world seem like bitter bourgeois housewives by comparison.