1980s >> 1987 >> no-993-may-1987

Film Review: ‘Rosa Luxemburg’

Film Review: ‘Rosa Luxemburg’

For someone like myself who rates Rosa Luxemburg among the great socialist theorists, to go and see a film about her life was to take a risk. The risk was that the director would attempt to present a glossy, Hollywood version of the “life of a great woman”, devoid of political content – the fate of Reds, the film version of the book, Ten Days That Shook The World, about an American’s experiences during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

But Margarethe von Trotta’s film, Rosa Luxemburg, is a sensitive portrayal that succeeds in bringing together the personal and the political, giving some insight into Luxemburg’s politics as well as the woman herself. Most importantly the film doesn’t trivialise her politics; they are at all times centre-stage even when we witness the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) New Year celebrations at the turn of the century and are presented with Karl Kautsky wearing a false nose. The optimism of the socialists at that party, that the 20th century would see the dawning of a new socialist era, was short-lived. It was crushed by the insanity of the first world war and the defeat within the international socialist movement of the ideas of democratic socialism by reformists on the one hand and vanguardists on the other. In many ways we are, today, still trying to overcome the legacy of that defeat.

Those unfamiliar with the debate that took place within the SPD, between revolutionary socialists like Luxemburg and the revisionists, led by Bernstein, who were willing to compromise socialism for short-term political power achieved on the basis of a reformist programme, are unlikely to have learnt very much from the film. The theoretical issues are sketched in with broad brush-strokes and very little detail. Instead it focuses on the effects of the first world war which led to those who called themselves socialists urging (in Luxemburg’s words) “workers of the world to unite in peace and slit each other’s throats in war”. While many SPD members supported Germany’s war effort, Luxemburg continued to speak out against nationalism and a war fought to protect the interests of the capitalist class which entailed the futile massacre of workers by workers. She endured one of nine terms as a political prisoner for her pains.

After the war Luxemburg continued to speak out against senseless violence when she opposed attempts to get socialism through insurrection. She recognised that just as it is impossible to have socialism in one city, in this case Berlin, it is also impossible for there to be socialism without there being a majority of socialists to make it work. So for sincere and committed socialists to engage in bloody street-fighting in the name of socialist revolution was not only futile but likely to produce a reaction. In Rosa Luxemburg’s case the reaction came in the form of a knock on the head by a soldier’s butt, a bullet at close range and the unceremonious dumping of her body off a bridge into a river.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this is the fact that it portrays Luxemburg not as a superwoman or heroine but as a woman who, despite her sharp intellect and skills as a political writer and speaker, is also only too human. Often beset with doubts and fears, she had also to come to terms with the contradictions and sacrifices that her political commitment entailed for her personal and emotional life. She was a woman who was devoted to the cause of socialism and yet could still be loving and jealous by turns; a loyal friend to other women in the socialist movement like Clara Zetkin and Luise Kautsky; a woman who, despite her ability to hold the attention of the crowds who attended the meetings she addressed, confessed to feeling happier communing with nature than making political speeches; a woman, who despite everything chose politics when her lover. Leo Jogiches, told her that she had to choose between being a mother and a revolutionary.

Although this film doesn’t try to make Rosa Luxemburg into a heroine, it nevertheless shows her to have been an extraordinary woman. My fears about going to see it were totally ill-founded. It is a film both moving and inspiring.

Janie Percy-Smith