The enduring appeal of Barbara Sukowa: Tracing the actress' success, and the creative process that drove it

Barbara Sukowa has played a lot of headstrong women in her 40-year career, and some of the German actress’ signature parts have included passionate real-life intellectuals such as Rosa Luxemberg and Hannah Arendt.

The New York Times February 16, 2021 18:40:21 IST
The enduring appeal of Barbara Sukowa: Tracing the actress' success, and the creative process that drove it

Barbara Sukowa. Wikimedia Commons

There is a scene in the new drama Two of Us in which an older woman played by Barbara Sukowa is so angry, so desperate — and so determined — that after someone terminates a conversation by closing a door on her, she breaks a window to make a statement.

“She wouldn’t just let the door be shut: She’s going to do something,” director Filippo Meneghetti recalled.

He tweaked the script on set to suit his star’s temperament, and you can see why: Sukowa, 71, has played a lot of headstrong women in her 40-year career, starting with an ambitious, social-climbing singer-slash-tart in her breakthrough, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s biting satire Lola (1982). Some of the German actress’ signature parts have included a trilogy of sorts about passionate real-life intellectuals: the socialist activist and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg in the movie of the same name, the polymathic 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen in Vision, and the titular formidable political philosopher in Hannah Arendt (all from director Margarethe von Trotta).

In Two of Us — which has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign language category and opened 5 February in theaters and on virtual cinemas — Sukowa’s Nina must jump into action when her longtime relationship with Madeleine (French stage veteran Martine Chevallier), as comfortable as it is matter-of-factly sensual, is upended by a sudden event.

Older lesbians facing illness, and having to come out to family under duress? Producers did not rush to open their checkbooks.

“He could have had financing for his script in two years, probably, if he had taken some young, beautiful, sexy actresses,” Sukowa said over Zoom. “But he had made up his mind about Martine and me.”

Meneghetti needed five years to rustle up the money but he would not budge on the casting.

“I wanted to shoot a story about aging characters and I wanted to be honest with that,” the director said. “That’s why it was impossible for me to have actresses that have had surgery or whatever. They are natural, both of them, and they are beautiful, both of them. Every wrinkle is an emotion, tells a story.”

Besides, he grew up loving cinema and Sukowa’s work: “Sooner or later, you will see her and she will astound you.”

Sukowa has the charisma and skills to carry movies — and indeed her surface appeal is immediate. She possesses the traditional attributes of an old-fashioned movie star: a piercing stare, high cheekbones, a blond mane. A close-up of that hair, in fact, opens the Fassbinder film. Yet she was not interested in capitalising on those assets.

“After Lola I was offered a lot of these roles, but I turned them down mostly,” Sukowa said in lightly accented English by video from her Brooklyn home — she moved to the United States in the early 1990s. “I didn’t want to get into the beauty and, you know, sexy. Today I think maybe I should have done something, it would have been fun to see myself like that.”

Her résumé does include a couple of femmes fatales, most notably in Lars von Trier’s stylish thriller Europa (1992), but Sukowa is most closely associated with von Trotta — they have collaborated seven times, going back to Marianne and Juliane in 1982.

“She is so intelligent, and a hard worker,” von Trotta wrote in an email. “She is preparing as much as I do with the research. In Rosa Luxemburg I had taken a certain speech against the war of 1914. Then she showed me another speech she liked better, and indeed it was the more powerful one. I would have been an idiot not to take hers.”

Sukowa also has a knack for handling one of acting’s toughest challenges. “For me she is the only German actress able to show me her moments of thinking without words,” von Trotta said.

The trick, it seems, is to not have one.

“I didn’t act thinking, I just thought,” Sukowa said of her performance as Arendt, known for her redoubtable intellect. “I was thinking of things that she might have thought — and I read a lot about her.” Her preparation even included hiring a professor at Columbia University as a tutor. The idea is that all the advance work will become so ingrained that instinct takes over during the shoot.

“I always say to young actors, ‘You don’t have to make a lot of mimics,’” Sukowa said. “It’s almost like a lake that has no waves on it: You can look at the bottom and see the stones or whatever is in there.”

Reviewing Hannah Arendt for The New York Times, AO Scott wrote that she captured her subject’s “fearsome cerebral power, as well as her warmth and, above all, the essential, unappeasable curiosity that drove her.”

This juggling act is at the heart of the role for which many American viewers may know her: Katarina Jones, the operator of a time-traveling device on the Syfy series 12 Monkeys.

Co-creator Terry Matalas recalled seeing hundreds of performers for the part, none of them quite right. “There needed to be not just the erudite scientist but also a little bit of a maternal instinct, and all that had to be under this glaze of a cold exterior,” he said in a video call. “I kept describing what I was missing from these auditions to our director and he was like, ‘It sounds like you’re describing Barbara Sukowa.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but she’s never going to read for this.’ One week later, we got an audition that she did on her iPhone. Within six seconds of watching, I knew it was her.”

Still, while busy — she recently shot an episode of the M Night Shyamalan series Servant and is scheduled to soon start the Mary Harron biopic Dali Land, playing Gala, the wife of Ben Kingsley’s Salvador Dalí — Sukowa remains somewhat hidden in plain sight. Maybe it’s because she has never been much of a careerist and has often gone on creative tangents.

The enduring appeal of Barbara Sukowa Tracing the actress success and the creative process that drove it

Barbara Sukowa in Two of Us. Facebook/TwoOfUsFilm

Lola, in which she delivers a fiery cabaret-punk rendition of the German tango 'Capri-Fischer', sowed the seeds of a steady singing career. After seeing the movie, the Schoenberg Ensemble asked her to perform the song cycle 'Pierrot Lunaire' with it; she became one of that exacting piece’s foremost interpreters, and an in-demand narrator classical pieces. And since 1998, she has been fronting the art-rock band the X-Patsys, which she created with artists Robert Longo (her husband at the time) and Jon Kessler.

“I had a dream that Barbara had cowboy boots and a kind of western outfit and her hair, in that beautiful Barbara way, had lights behind her, and she was singing country music,” Kessler said in a video chat. “I told Barbara and Robert about it at the next dinner that we had. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’”

Next thing they knew, they were rehearsing Patsy Cline songs pared down to the two or three chords Kessler and Longo knew how to play. “I didn’t know who Patsy Cline was, I didn’t know who Dolly Parton was,” Sukowa said, laughing.

The X-Patsys’ repertoire eventually grew to encompass standards and blues, performed in a highly dramatic manner halfway between noise rock and German art song, with Sukowa as a commanding siren.

“I have to admit I made it a bit of a character in the X-Patsys,” Sukowa said when asked if it was hard to forgo the protection of a made-up persona.

She is ready for a new challenge, though. “I would really like to go from there to being even more myself,” she continued. “I think I could do that now.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli c.2021 The New York Times Company

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