Margarethe Von Trotta’s Sheer Madness, which opens this June in Boston, was greeted with sheer malice by the West German press when it premiered at the 1983 Berlin Film Festival. The almost all-male critical coterie took exception, in their intemperately harsh reviews, to Von Trotta’s ungainly gallery of men. Why must they all be such wimps, cowards, misogynists, malcontents in Von Trotta’s women’s consciousness tract?

West Germany’s only female film critic with a readership of consequence also turned against Von Trotta over Sheer Madness. “I am not a feminist,” the Frankfurt-based journalist told me when we talked at the 1984 Berlin Festival.

Von Trotta was shaken, understandably, by Sheer Madness‘s hostile reception in West Germany, her home country. (She lives in Munich with her husband Volker Schlondorff, director of The Tin Drum and Swann in Love.) She had paid her dues, building patiently toward a major breakthrough film after a series of increasingly polished art-house works, from The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum (with Schlondorff as codirector in 1977) to the acclaimed Marianne and Juliane in 1982.

Von Trotta believed she was working at the peak of her talents making Sheer Madness. Her cinematographer was the brilliant Michael Ballhaus, whom John Sayles brought to America for Baby, It’s You. Her leads were the most charismatic, capable actresses in West Germany: Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder’s siren-in-residence for The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen, and raven-haired Angela Winkler, who starred recently in Andrzej Wajda’s Danton. And Von Trotta’s story was an enticing one: Entre Nous sidetracked in a Grimm forest, the tale of a dark, mysterious, alluring friendship between a feminist university professor, Olga (Schygulla), and a depressed, introverted, painter-housewife, Ruth (Winkler). As the amity builds, the males around the women are threatened silly and driven crazy. They pout, they plot, they seek revenge. . . .

I caught up with Margarethe Von Trotta at the August 1983 Montreal World Film Festival, six months after the Berlin debacle. She was still upset and, prior to the first Montreal screening of Sheer Madness, fearful of the reception it might get. Would the bad times at Berlin be repeated in North America?

At the Parisien Theatre on St. Catherine St., I waited in the lobby while Von Trotta ventured inside to introduce the first American showing of Sheer Madness. A few minutes later, she exited, smiling and immensely relieved. She had been applauded and applauded when she stood before the predominantly French-Canadian crowd. (As it turned out, the audience adored the film. Sheer Madness was the emotional hit of the Montreal Festival and, in November, of the Chicago Film Festival also.)

While Sheer Madness unreeled, Von Trotta and I adjourned to a neighboring upscale tavern, filling up quickly for the late afternoon. Among the swinging doctors and lawyers of a Quebecois Happy Hour, we started out  talking about the unseemly men who populate Sheer Madness. Does Von Trotta agree with the film’s detractors, that she is “unfair” to men? “Well, a lot of women have written to rue and said that the men in their lives are like that,” Von Trotta said, beginning to chain-smoke cigarettes. (As with most well-traveled West German directors, her English between exhalations is near-perfect.) “But you could say it’s a cliché. I feel that I’m describing men from the outside because I can’t feel their soul. I can’t say that I’m really hating men, but things come out unconsciously.”

Even sympathetic audiences have been disturbed by Von Trotta’s portrayal of the husband of the depressive woman, Ruth. At first, he encourages outside friendship for his lonely wife, trying to bring her out of her sadness. Later on he gets terribly jealous and makes sure that Ruth’s first art exhibition is cancelled. At one point, he tries to strangle Olga, Ruth’s only friend.

“I don’t think he’s a bad man,” said Von Trotta, defending the husband. “Women’s friendship is new. Men aren’t used to this kind of behavior. He reacted in a very helpless way. Anyway, I know lots of husbands who act in this way.” To prove her point, Von Trotta told me (not for publication) the very personal inspiration for the story, and for the near-strangulation. (Her husband, Volker Schlondorff, was not involved in the macabre incident.)

After we talked for a time, Von Trotta admitted that some of her unfocused anger toward male figures began in childhood, in a strained relationship with her father. As with Ruth’s in Sheer Madness, her problems centered on painting. “My father was a painter who died when I was ten years old,” Von Trotta recalled. “He tried to make me paint when I was five or six, but I couldn’t really design anything at that age. He loved me a lot, but he told my mother, ‘She has no talent.’

“When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had a lot of interest in painting. I tried to paint, but I couldn’t. So I started studying art history instead, until I found it wasn’t creative.

“My father wanted it so much, so I had to show him I was talented. Perhaps my father is the reason I have trouble with male characters.

“But my mother was always a friend to me, and she sacrificed so much for my development. Even if I’d said I want to be an astronaut, she would have supported me. And maybe that’s why I trust women so much, and I don’t trust men.”

Margarethe Von Trotta met Volker Schlondorff in the early 1960s, in the era when she was an actress in very early Fassbinder movies, Beware the Holy Whore and The American Soldier. “Fassbinder was so insulted when I married Volker that he didn’t want to do any picture with me. He was so possessive. But when I directed my own pictures, he went around saying I was talented. We had a strange relationship.”

The three of them collaborated on an obscure screen adaptation of Baal, from Bertolt Brecht’s first play, written in a Buchner-influenced expressionist vein. Schlondorff directed, Von Trotta played Sophie, and Fassbinder starred as Brecht’s nihilist, bohemian hero. “He was brilliant in it,” Von Trotta said of Fassbinder, but the film was poorly distributed because of the disapproval of Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel, lording over the Brecht estate from East Berlin. “She was very much against the film. I’m sure Brecht would have been much more open-minded.”

Von Trotta coauthored the scripts of many Schlondorff films, and she starred in several of his best-directed works, including A Free Woman (an autobiographical picture about the disintegration of Von Trotta’s first marriage) and Coup de Grace. “But I became an actress with the idea to become a director. When I began, I had no chance to become a director. I waited for my chance.”

In West Germany, where in the 1980s probably more women make feature films than in any other country, there were no role models at all in directing when Von Trotta started. Women produced some documentaries in the mid-1970s, but that was all. Instead, Von Trotta saw the American independent feature, Wanda, made by the late Barbara Loden. “She was married to Elia Kazan, a famous director, and that gave me courage. The fact that she was a woman got me going.” In 1977, Von Trotta began directing pictures alone, making The Second Awakening of Christa Klages. Three more films followed.

Interestingly, Von Trotta’s favorite directors, even today, are men: Ingmar Bergman, Carlos Saura, Robert Bresson. “If I speak of influence, then they influence me. I like Saura’s mixture of dreams and fantasy. He is always stirring up realities, and going back to the past, and to childhood, what I do in Marianne and Juliane. Bresson is less visible in my work. He has a religious seriousness in his films. He speaks about morality but not on a moralistic level. He’s a Jansenist, like Pascal. And with my Protestant background, Bresson is more ascetic than I am. But I believe in suffering-a Protestant, Nordic feeling. Life without suffering is nothing.”

Any discussion of Von Trotta’s oeuvre inevitably leads to Ingmar Bergman, whose Jungian dream states and split-consciousness women are so like her own. Is there a more quintessentially Von Trotta picture than Bergman’s Persona? Curiously, questions about Bergman’s influence were the only ones that made Von Trotta slightly edgy. She’s always asked about Bergman. Always.

“Surely when I was eighteen in Paris and seeing three films a day at the Cinematheque, they influenced me a lot. I say ‘influence’ because I feel near to. his creations, but certainly I don’t imitate him.” If anything, playwright August Strindberg seems the ultimate inspiration behind both Bergman and Von Trotta, not only A Dream Play, obviously, but his one-act drama, The Stronger. Therein, the woman who never talks proves the powerful one, not the seemingly cocky woman across the table who never shuts up.

In Sheer Madness, the passive, depressive Ruth, played by Angela Winkler, turnsout to have the most indomitable will in the movie. She can sit in the dark in her apartment for weeks, thinking, thinking. Finally, the outside world, including “strong” feminist Olga, played by Hanna Schygulla, must come to her and pay court, as if she were the queen.

“It’s like a blood transfusion,” Von Trotta explained, echoing the vampiric view of symbiotic human relationships espoused by Strindberg. “The stronger, Hanna, becomes weaker at the end. She’s finally alone. But the ‘weaker’ Angela becomes stronger and stronger by the friendship. Also, Hanna is a kind of vampire too, without knowing it.

“I feel myself split into these two persons, pulled in two directions.

“As with Hanna, there’s the rational part: getting money, convincing people I’m powerful enough to do films. I started so old: I was thirty-five. Volker did his first film at twenty-five. I have a sense of urgency. I have a feeling I have so many things ahead of me, such as a film biography of Rosa Luxembourg, the first murder victim of the German predators.

“But I have much more sympathy with losers than winners. I always fear that I’ll lose my dreamy, introverted side—attracted to death and suicide—because I must be so sufficient.”

Von Trotta recalled her film Sisters, in which one sister slaves all day as an executive secretary at the office, and the other, unemployed, retreats from the world, dreams weird dreams, and one day kills herself. The two sides of forty-two-year-old Margarethe Von Trotta. Even as she strives to become a world-renowned film director, she empathizes with the frail suicide as much—more?—as the woman workaholic.

“In my film, Sisters, someone quotes a little sentence from Erich Fromm: ‘Not to want success can be a sign of life, not a sign of death.'”