44: Sheer Madness (1983)
Sheer Madness, written and directed by German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, forms a kind of triptych with The Lady from Shanghai (#40) and A Question of Silence (#42): cocktails of guilt and insanity where the criminal justice system, the superego of society and the most visible enforcer of state authority, tries but fails to assert order over the chaos of violence and the impermeable depths of human psychology. This film traces the growth of a friendship between Olga (Hanna Schygulla), a university professor, and Ruth (Angela Winkler), a suicidal painter. The friendship seems to be an island of stability for Ruth, a deeply troubled woman who seems continuously poised to follow in the footsteps of her brother, who took his own life when she was younger. The film is peppered with visions in black-and-white of suicidal ideation, a blurring between subjectivity and reality that proves crucial to the film’s resolution.
Yet the strength of Olga and Ruth’s friendship seems troubling and even deviant to their friends and family. Ruth’s mother (Agnes Fink) takes an instant dislike to Olga, while Franz (Peter Striebeck), Ruth’s husband, descends into paranoia as the friendship he once championed (when he thought he could control it) threatens to supersede his own relationship with Ruth. This triangle is nuanced enough to avoid being a simple “Men Are Assholes” diatribe; that angle is better left to Olga’s boyfriend Alexej (Wladimir Yordanoff), a musician who depends on Olga for emotional support but thinks that acceptable breakup etiquette includes absconding into the night and sticking your girlfriend with the bill for moving your grand piano.
Like The Lady from Shanghai, Sheer Madness tentatively invokes the specter of colonialism: the characters, constrained by the oppressive weight of their “modern” society, escape to an exotic space where the hierarchy of gender is superseded by the hierarchy of race and culture. (It’s precisely this lack of an outlet that leaves A Question of Silence the most claustrophobic and oppressive of the three films.) Ruth and Olga are at their happiest when they’re overseas teaching young Egyptian women about German poetry, but this respite is a mirage. It’s a temporary escape from the weight of the world that they’ve left back home. This notion is reinforced when Alexej chooses this very moment to abandon Olga; I understand that logistically it’s easier to get all your stuff out of your girlfriend’s apartment when she’s out of the country — but talk about dick moves…
(The Film School Thesis Statement Generator says: “Sheer Madness reduces the canonical status of the disavowal of the female lack through its expressionistic play between sound and history.” If you ever have to write a paper about this film, you might as well go ahead and use that…)