Her Specialty Is Bringing Headstrong Women to Life Onscreen


In the new drama “Two of Us” there is a scene in which an older woman, played by Barbara Sukowa, is so angry, so desperate and determined that she breaks a window after someone ends a conversation by having one Door to her closes make a statement.

“She wouldn’t just let the door close: she’ll do something,” recalled director Filippo Meneghetti.

He adapted the script on set to suit his star’s temperament, and you can see why: 71-year-old Sukowa has played many idiosyncratic women in her 40-year career, starting with an ambitious, socially climbing singer, her breakthrough was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s biting satire “Lola” (1982). Some of the characteristic parts of the German actress contained a kind of trilogy about passionate intellectuals from real life: the socialist activist and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg in the film of the same name, the polymathic nun Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century in “Vision” and the eponymous impressive political Philosopher in “Hannah Arendt” (all by the director Margarethe von Trotta).

In “Two of Us”, which has just been nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign language category and opened in theaters and virtual cinemas on Friday, Sukowa’s Nina has to become active in her long-term relationship with Madeleine (the French stage veteran Martine Chevallier) comfortable as well as matter-of-fact sensual, is disturbed by a sudden event.

Older lesbians who are sick and forced to join their families? The producers were in no hurry to open their checkbooks.

“He could probably have funded his script in two years if he’d brought along some young, beautiful, sexy actresses,” Sukowa said of Zoom. “But he had chosen Martine and me.”

It took Meneghetti five years to raise the money, but he wouldn’t budge at the casting.

“I wanted to make a story about aging characters and I wanted to be honest with it,” said the director. “So it was impossible for me to have actresses who had surgery or whatever. They’re both natural and they’re both beautiful. Every fold is an emotion, tells a story. “

He also grew up with a love for the cinema and Sukowa’s works: “Sooner or later you will see it and it will amaze you.”

Sukowa has the charisma and skills to wear films – and indeed, its surface attractiveness is immediate. She has the traditional traits of an old-fashioned movie star: a penetrating look, high cheekbones, a blonde mane. A close-up of this hair actually opens the Fassbinder film. However, she was not interested in capitalizing on these assets.

“After ‘Lola,’ I was offered many of these roles, but I largely turned them down,” Sukowa said in slightly accented English on video from her Brooklyn home – she moved to the United States in the early 1990s. “I didn’t mean 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 me like that. “

There are a few Femmes Fatales in her résumé, particularly in Lars von Trier’s stylish thriller “Europa” (1992), but Sukowa is most closely associated with von Trotta – they have worked together seven times, going back to “Marianne and Juliane” in 1982.

“She is so intelligent and a hard worker,” wrote von Trotta in an email. “She is preparing for research as much as I am. In ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ I gave a certain speech against the war of 1914. Then she showed me another speech that she liked better, and in fact it was the more powerful one. I would have been an idiot if I hadn’t taken hers. “

Sukowa also has a knack for tackling one of the biggest challenges in acting. “For me she is the only German actress who can show me her moments of thought without words,” said von Trotta.

The trick seems to be not to have one.

“I didn’t think, I just thought,” said Sukowa of her performance as Arendt, known for her unequivocal intellect. “I’ve thought of things she might have thought of – and I’ve read a lot about her.” Her preparations even included hiring a professor at Columbia University as a tutor. The idea is that all of the preliminary work be ingrained enough that instinct takes control during the shoot.

“I always say to young actors,” You don’t have to imitate a lot, “said Sukowa.” It’s almost like a lake with no waves: you can look to the bottom and see the stones or whatever is in it. “

When AO Scott reviewed “Hannah Arendt” for the New York Times, she wrote that she captured the “terrifying brainpower of her subject, as well as her warmth, and most importantly, the essential, uncomfortable curiosity that drives her”.

This juggling act is at the heart of the role that many American viewers know her for: Katarina Jones, the operator of a time travel device in the Syfy series “12 Monkeys”.

Co-creator Terry Matalas recalled seeing hundreds of cast members for the role, none of whom were entirely right. “There had to be not just the learned scientist, there had to be a bit of maternal instinct and everything that had to be under that glaze of cold exterior,” he said on a video call. “I kept describing to our director what I was missing from these auditions and he said, ‘It sounds like you are describing Barbara Sukowa. ‘And I said, “Yeah, but she’ll never read for it.” A week later we got an audition that she did on her iPhone. Within six seconds of watching it, I knew it was her. “

While she’s busy, she recently filmed an episode of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Servant” series and is set to launch the Mary Harron biopic “Dali Land” with Gala, wife of Ben Kingsley’s Salvador Dalí, soon. Sukowa remains somewhat hidden in clear sight. Maybe it’s because she’s never been a great careerist and has often pursued creative tangents.

“Lola”, in which she delivers a fiery cabaret-punk rendition of the German tango “Capri-Fischer”, was the seed for a steady singing career. After she saw the film, the Schönberg Ensemble asked her to play the song cycle “Pierrot Lunaire” with it. She became one of the most important interpreters of this demanding piece and a sought-after narrator of classical pieces. And since 1998 she has been leading the art rock band X-Patsys, which she founded with the artists Robert Longo (her then husband) and Jon Kessler.

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

Next, they rehearsed Patsy Cline songs reduced to the two or three chords that Kessler and Longo could play. “I didn’t know who Patsy Cline was, I didn’t know who Dolly Parton was,” said Sukowa with a laugh.

The X-Patsys repertoire eventually grew to include standards and Blues, played in a very dramatic way between noise rock and German art song, with Sukowa as the commanding siren.

“I have to admit, I made it into a character at X-Patsys,” Sukowa said when asked if it was difficult to forego the protection of a made-up person.

However, she is ready for a new challenge. “I’d really like to be more of myself from there,” she continued. “I think I could do this now.”



Robert Dunfee