One woman's vision

Carla Juri as painter Paula Modersohn-Becker

Christian Schwochow's Paula is the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first female painter to have a museum devoted entirely to her work. However, I must admit that, before I saw the film, most of what I knew about Modersohn-Becker had to do with her relationship with Rainer Maria Rilke.

The poet met her at Germany's 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 correspondence; Eric Torgersen's account of their relationship, published by Northwestern University Press, includes extensive excerpts from their letters.

Schwochow's film focuses on Modersohn-Becker's 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".

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

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.

Strangely enough, this is the second film in a year in which Rilke is portrayed. The first was Cordula Kablitz-Post's Lou Andreas-Salome, which I reviewed for World Literature Today. 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 had its premiere at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and opened in German cinemas in December 2016. It was issued on BluRay/DVD in Europe in May 2017.

Paula Modersohn-Becker and Elisbeth Modersohn in Worpswede, 1903


  1. Thanks for this article about Moderson-Becker and the information about the recent film! Would the film be on any American platforms, or where can I find it?

  2. I wish there were. Right now, the only way to see the film is by buying it on DVD. It's available from Amazon in the UK. However, it's a Region 2 disc, so you'll need to watch it on a multi-region player or reset your laptop to Region 2. There are subtitles, but they're in German (for the hearing-impaired). Hoping some enterprising distributor in North America will make the subtitled version available here. (I was subtitled: I saw it at the Kino Festival in Manhattan last year.) Here's the Amazon link:


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