November 29, 2020

‘When I travelled, I hid my passport’: Fassbinder muse Barbara Sukowa on Hitler’s legacy and hidden love

The actor and singer on growing up in Bremen after the second world war, becoming Germany’s Meryl Streep – and her new octogenarian lesbian romance

Surely, I suggest to Barbara Sukowa – as she strolls around her garden in Brooklyn and I watch from 3,500 miles away on WhatsApp – it’s time lesbians were shown differently in cinema. Out and proud, not leading furtive double lives. Maybe it’s because they are so often set in the past: The Favourite, Lizzie, Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But Two of Us, Sukowa’s new film, about two octogenarian women in a provincial French town, is set in the present day.

That’s not the key difference, she says. “Portrait was about young attractive women. It has a titillating quality for men.” Two of Us is notable for its lack of sensual moments.

In the film, the Italian director Filippo Meneghetti’s debut, Madeleine and Nina live in adjoining apartments. To the world in general, they are just neighbours. Madeline’s daughter, Anne, cannot bear the truth about her mother’s sexuality. One night, while Madeleine is recuperating from a stroke, Nina creeps into her apartment and cuddles her in bed – their first touch since the love of her life went into hospital. The next morning, Anne comes in, throws back the covers and, scandalised, screams at Nina to leave.

“We see our parents differently,” says Sukowa. “If Anne found her friend in bed with another woman that wouldn’t upset her. But her mother? That’s very hard for Anne to accept.”

Meneghetti had long wanted to make a movie about gay lovers thwarted by their families, inspired by a friend, “a very liberal young man with regards to sexuality, but when he found out that his father was gay, he totally freaked out”.

Madeleine’s children, Anne and Fred, cling to the childhood delusion that their parents had a happy marriage. “The son identifies with the father and to learn that his father was basically cuckolded and betrayed is very difficult.”

It is Madeline’s appreciation of this fact that means the couple’s plan to return to Rome, city of their youthful romance where they could live freely, is perpetually deferred.

“She wasn’t able to smash that ideal picture her kids had of their parents’ marriage,” says Sukowa. “It would reveal that a lot of her life was maybe a lie.” For Sukowa, this crisis precipitates Madeleine’s disastrous stroke: the psychic pressure of living with secrets.

Sukowa was born in Bremen in 1950, in a scarred and shamed West Germany. Her grandfather had one arm and she recalls a teacher whose fiance had died during the war. No one spoke of the Third Reich. “There was a lot of noise from reconstruction. People were very busy, but at the same time there was this silence. You were very suspicious about everybody, your parents, your teachers. You thought of every adult: what did you do? There was a lot of shame. We were the perpetrators. When I travelled, I hid my passport.”

She still can’t quite fathom how Hitler came to power or what ordinary people were really thinking. “I have become very doubtful about historic reports. I’ve read so many books and scripts about that time and I still have a hard time coming to a real picture.”

Acting offered the chance to break that silence. “I was involved with directors who were the first to ask the questions about what had happened, people like Fassbinder and Schlöndorff. They were older, but I shared their desire. We were very angry, those of us born after the war. I remember 1968, when we went on the streets to get judges from the Nazi time out of power.

“There was a lot of anger. We had this saying: ‘Don’t trust anybody over 30.’ I’m 70 now but I can understand that feeling.”

Sukowa moved to New York, hoping for an artistic rebirth. “I had this weird idea that there would be this great underground progressive theatre and I wanted to test myself with that. It was incredibly disappointing because theatre there was very conventional. In Germany it was much more experimental.”

Instead, she stepped back from acting to raise three children. Sukowa already had a second career, touring the world’s concert halls delivering the spoken, or Sprechstimme, sections of, for example, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. When she married the artist Robert Longo, she sang in his band the X-Patsys, doing Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash cover versions.

When she did appear in American movies (John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes, in 2005, for instance) she was often singing. Small-screen roles have not been in short supply: she had a long-running role in 12 Monkeys, the spin-off from Terry Gilliam’s film, and has just finished the second season of M Night Shyamalan’s series Servant. But meaty roles – such as the lead in Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt – have required a return to her homeland, where she is referred to as Germany’s Meryl Streep.

She smiles at the similarity. “There are actors who stay with their own persona. Nobody wants to see Humphrey Bogart as an uncool loser. Those are what we call film stars, who live off their charisma. And then there are actors who try to take on different personas. I’m one of those. Meryl Streep is, too.”

Two of Us is released in cinemas and digitally on 13 November