15 October 2007

Hanna Schygulla

In her most famous role, as Fassbinder’s Maria Braun (1979)

This is what Catherine Karnow’s life is like. When she is around, everything becomes possible. You will be going about your business, when suddenly lightning strikes. Coincidence is commonplace. The uncanny becomes ordinary. The mundane becomes magical.

So it happens that yesterday, in the parlor of the Hôtel d’Aubusson on the Left Bank, a photo shoot became an encounter with Hanna Schygulla, the Polish actress and goddess of New German Cinema in the 1970s and ’80s.

Simply to meet a star of her magnitude would have been something, but the meeting was more significant still. Only a week ago, I watched the marathon screening of Berlin Alexanderplatz, in which she plays one of the central characters. Then suddenly — ping — there she is, not on the screen but on a sofa, drinking mineral water and giving interviews to French journalists. Moreover — speak of the devil — Cathy and I had been talking about Schygulla, not only because I’d attended the screening but because I recalled that our friendship really dates back to a Fassbinder retrospective at the Brown Film Society, a quarter-century ago. Cathy and I discovered those movies together, and in the process, we discovered each other. All these years later, we’re still friends — and now Schygulla arrived, to seal the deal and offer her benedictions.

When I arrived at the hotel, Cathy greeted me. A Turkish film director was giving interviews in the parlor where we were to be shooting, so we had to wait for him to finish. There indeed sat Fatih Akin on a couch, speaking German with a woman I guessed to be a reporter. Her back was to me, but I admired her abundant silver hair, and I tried to eavesdrop a little. Meanwhile, Cathy went about setting up the shoot.

Then Akin got up to leave, and the “German journalist” remained seated while a young PR rep introduced a French journalist. The German woman turned her head — and I recognized her. She was no journalist. She was Hanna Schygulla.

It became clear over the ensuing conversation that Schygulla is starring in Akin’s new movie, Auf der anderen Seite (English title: The Edge of Heaven). It also became clear that she speaks French flawlessly. But it was hard to concentrate on what she said, because I was so excited. I knew I would have to introduce myself to her, at the first opportunity. And it’s not every day I get to meet a goddess.

Not just any goddess. When I was in college, no other actress was a greater sex symbol. She was astonishingly beautiful, of course, but her screen roles displayed (in addition to every inch of her naked flesh) all the mysteries and contradictions of sex I could bear to contemplate. She was hot and she was cold, either or both at once: most often, she was a slowly burning glacier. Sometimes elegant and sometimes vulgar, but seldom tender or loving. Sometimes hunter and sometimes prey, but always engaged in the chase. She was an object of fascination. Friends and I talked about her long into the night. Whenever I met someone from Germany, I’d ask about her. (The response was invariably, “Oh, she’s a pretty good actress, but there are better in Germany. And you know she is really Polish.”) Just as well I didn’t meet her 25 years ago: I probably would have climaxed — or combusted — on the spot.

Wie eins: In Fassbinder's Lili Marleen, (1980)

Now, with a frankly matronly figure and that flowing silver mane, she is (or is playing) something like a grande dame. During her interview with the French journalist, she referred to a film she’d seen recently. “Of course I had to tune out parts of it,” she said, “with those scenes of extreme violence.” And I thought, “Where did all this delicacy come from? In Fassbinder’s pictures, people smack you, throw you around the screen, kick you halfway across Germany.” But maybe it’s harder to watch such scenes than to play them.

When the French journalist left, Schygulla turned to Cathy and me. She knew we were waiting. She looked very much as she does in the small picture above, although she was wearing no makeup. She has the courage that other screen goddesses lack these days: she wears her wrinkles proudly. And her smile is as devastating as ever.

Instantly, every word of German flew out of my head (an alarmingly frequent phenomenon these days, but insurmountable in the present circumstances). So Cathy and I announced in English that we were huge admirers. Schygulla promptly switched to French, and we continued to speak in the language that is native to none of us.

We talked of friendship and Fassbinder, and of the screening of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and of the coincidence of meeting her at this moment. She wanted to know more about the screening, whether it was well attended, and what it was like to watch the whole picture in one sitting. Cathy was too polite to ask for a photograph — the camera was right there — and although I know the choice was the right one, I regret it anyway.

At one point, Cathy excused her lack of German: “I only know three words, and it’s because someone said them to you once in a movie: ‘Du bist schön.’”

Schygulla wondered who’d said that to her, and in what movie. (Was there ever a movie in which somebody didn’t tell her she was beautiful?) “But surely you know the song,” she added, and then began to sing “Bei mir bist du schön.”

And then she had to take her leave. She shook my hand and said, “Au revoir.” And I had to lie down on the floor. I may never recover.

But let it be remembered, long after I’m gone: this would never have happened if I hadn’t been with Cathy Karnow.