In this 1985 film, Barbara Sukowa excels ROSA LUXEMBURG – Polish-born Marxist philosopher and theorist, as well as revolutionary socialist and anti-war activist who became a naturalized German citizen in 1899 and was executed in Berlin twenty years later. Sukowas’ portrayal rightly earned her Cannes Film Festival ‘Best Actress’ Awars and also the German Film Award (same category).

Synonymous with the German November Revolution, Luxemburg was one half of the political duo Luxemburg/Liebknecht who both joined the communist splinter group ‘The Spartacus League’ (after having departed from the German Social Democrats). This swap of political camps made her the co-founder of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). That said, ROSA LUXEMBURG is not a film about Luxemburg the political legend, nor the political martyr. Au contraire it is an emotional and honest portrait of a complex woman (nicknamed ‘Red Rosa’) whose fierce persona and radical political views contributed to the change of Germany’s monarchist Wilhelmine period during the November Revolution – marking the start of the Weimar Republic.

The film begins in 1916 with Rosa’s mock-execution in Breslau Prison, only to rewind to 1906 Warsaw with its political upheaval and Rosa is in the midst of it all. Already a member of the Polish left-wing Proletariat Party and a campaigner for socialist reforms she later realised that an independent Poland could only exist through socialist revolutions in Germany. Enter her marriage to Gustav Lübeck (whom she married in Berlin in order to gain natural German citizenship) and soon she makes a name for herself as an explosive speaker at political rallies. But it’s not just politics as she falls in love with Lithuanian born Marxist revolutionary Leo Jogiche (Daniel Olbrychski) – a volatile relationship personally and politically. Her jealous tantrums when she finds out that her lover had been unfaithful is proof that underneath all the political turmoil Rosa is a human being not yet distanced from the pitfalls of relationship. Her quarrels with her social-democratic comrades take its toll, as does her passionate affair with the considerably younger Kostja Zetkin (Hannes Jaenicke) – son of her friend and political ally Clara Zetkin (Doris Schade). But the personal turmoil is nothing compared to her exhausting political trials and after her release - her efforts to co-found the anti-war orientated ‘Spartacus League’ with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht (Otto Sander) who, just like Luxemburg, was executed on 15th January 1919 in Berlin by the Freikorps. The film ends with Rosa’s lifeless body thrown into the Landwehr Canal. Following the execution a new wave of violence broke out throughout Germany during which hundreds and hundreds of Communist revolutionaries were killed. Director von Trotta deliberately decided not to depict the consequences of Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s execution although various b/w archive footage is can be seen throughout the film.

But it’s not all political gloom and doom in this fascinating portrait of a woman so multi-faceted and so complex it would never have been possible to do her life justice in a 123 min film. There are also sentimental and poignant moments, for example when a lonely Rosa exchanges gifts with her beloved cat Mimi under the Christmas tree… as if to say: “A loyal feline companion cannot hurt me”. Other scenes capture the skill of cinematographer Franz Rath, most notably a scene by the seaside where Rosa and friend Luise Kautsky (Adelheid Arndt) enjoy a glass of wine and a giggle, and a walk through a Van Gogh-like heather field with Leo Jogiches.
Based on over 2,000 of Luxemburg’s personal letters to friends and comrades the film manages an intimate picture of Rosa Luxemburg (born Rozalia Luksenburgh in Poland) but fails to depict the widespread political consequences of her actions then and now – indeed before the fall of the Berlin Wall the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was a political party reserved for East Germany and most certainly not for the capitalist West. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Luxemburg and Liebknecht were almost idolised by future East German students whereas the West by and large distanced itself from ‘celebrating’ her Marxist ideas.

Marking the 100th Anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s assassination, Studiocanal offers the restored film for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray. In German with English subtitles.