Interview with Barbara Sukowa

Barbara Sukowa plays the lead role in Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. She has starred in several movies, including Marianne and Juliane (1981), Johny Mnemonic (1995) and the Cradle will Rock (1998).

Hildegard von Bingen was a great visionary for her time; does she still have something to teach us?

There are efforts and endeavors everywhere to approach religion and spirituality from a scientific perspective. It is in the context of this movement that interest in Hildegard von Bingen has sprung forth and grown.

How did you get a sense of Hildegard von Bingen on a personal level?

Hildegard von Bingen was a woman who took something for herself that society at the time denied her. Her social power as a nun and abbess in a convent was actually very limited. She transcended these limits through her visions, and managed to have the institution of the Church acknowledge them. She carved out an independent space for herself. This has a lot to do with the fact that she was always sickly as a child. Here I sense a point of contact with Rosa Luxemburg, which I also worked on with Margarethe von Trotta. Rosa Luxemburg was also sick as a child. Many people who spend a lot of time in bed as kids, and are unable to experience the outside world, develop a very strong inner life and sense of fantasy. This was the case with Hildegard von Bingen, who was very intellectually vital, determined, persistent, and powerful despite her physical weakness. She was a fighter who knew how to achieve her goals, and who often made herself appear small in the male-dominated world of the Church in order to be heard. She was able to insinuate herself very delicately, and in my opinion she also knew how to manipulate very well.

What was the greatest challenge for you in performing this role?

To embody a woman who stood very firmly within a 12th-century framework of beliefs — in which people believed in Heaven and Hell, in condemnation and in resurrection. The difficulty is that this woman lived 1000 years ago, and obviously it’s not possible to enter the mind of someone who thinks like that. So, you look for material that is resonant today, and pull something out of a persona that relates to you personally. I cannot claim to represent this woman, or anyone else, from that age.

What was your involvement with the music in the film? You have been a successful singer yourself for many years.

I love this music. It’s beautiful, and a little unusual for the time; there is something very serene and spiritual about it. In her compositions, Hildegard von Bingen did not follow the rules of the time; whether she did so consciously, or simply didn’t know the rules, we can’t exactly tell. Anyhow, it was a pleasure for me to sing these parts.

Do you approach historical material any differently from something contemporary? Is one easier or harder than the other?

Actually, hard or easy doesn’t have so much to do with material being historical or contemporary. Hard or easy has everything to do with how close you feel to the character, or how much you may have to change things in order to understand the character — this change may be something you have to break through within yourself. In a historical film, you try to familiarize yourself with the history, as well as peoples’ limits. In preparing for this role, I looked at old paintings, and made notes of how people folded their hands, what kind of clothing they wore, and what poses they affected. To that extent, yes, there is a difference between playing a Hildegard von Bingen and a woman of today.

You have often worked with Margarethe von Trotta. What is your connection across the decades?

Certainly a friendship. It is always a special treat for me to work with Margarethe von Trotta, because she used to be an actress herself; she truly understands actors, and so she understands both positions. She is helpful and listens very carefully. I also find her very exciting as a person. On the one hand she is very intelligent and intellectually minded, and on the other, very warm and open to anything, even the irrational. When she began to make films, women still had to fight hard within the male-dominated world of cinema. So, sometimes she came across as harder than she is, because of how much she had to assert herself. Her other, more humorous side has come through even more so over the years.

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