One woman's vision

Carla Juri as painter Paula Modersohn-Becker

It's hard to believe, but Rainer Maria Rilke will be portrayed in a second feature film this year. The first was Cordula Kablitz-Post's Lou Andreas-Salome, which I reviewed for World Literature Today. (There's a behind-the-scenes look at the production in an earlier post.)

Now comes Christian Schwochow's Paula: the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, first female painter to have a museum devoted solely to her work. Rilke met her at the Worpswede artist colony in 1900 and quickly fell in love. Becker, however, was engaged to Otto Modersohn, and Rilke became attached to Paula's friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff. Both couples soon married, but Modersohn-Becker and Rilke remained confidantes until her death in 1907. (The two conducted an extensive correspondenceedited by Eric Torgersen.)

The accounts of Rilke in the two films dovetail nicely: Kablitz-Post's focuses on Rilke in Munich and Berlin from 1897 until 1900; Schwochow's picks up his relationship with Modersohn-Becker about that time. (Julius Feldmeier plays Rilke in the first film; Joel Basman portrays the poet in the second.)


Paula Modersohn-Becker's portrait of Lee Hoetger, 1906


But, of course, the center of Schwochow's film is Modersohn-Becker and her struggle to paint in a world dominated by male painters, critics and art dealers. After mastering classical drawing and painting techniques, she forged a uniquely modernist style. Many of her canvases are portraits of subjects who suggest they have secrets, without disclosing them. One frequent subject was herself: Modersohn-Becker was the first female artist to create a nude self-portrait. The New Yorker has called her "modern painting's missing piece".

Swiss actress Carla Juri has the film's leading role. She won the Swiss Film Prize for Best Actress for her role in Eine wen iig (Someone like me) in 2012 and appeared in the 2013 Wetlands. She also performed in Peter Greenaway's Walking to Paris, to be released next year.

Paula was a labor of love that screenwriters Stefan Kolditz and Stephen Suschke worked on together for nearly three decades. Kolditz was one of the writers for the acclaimed German miniseries, Our Mothers, Our FathersSuschke is a noted theater director. Director Christian Schwochow is best known for his 2013 film, West, a Cold War drama that The Guardian found "intriguing", comparing it with The Lives of Others.

The film had its premiere at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and opened in German cinemas last December. It will be released on BluRay/DVD in Europe on May 26.


Paula Modersohn-Becker and Elsbeth Modersohn in Worpswede, 1903

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