Romy, Life Lived and Fiction

Curated by Volker Schlöndorff
In collaboration with Cinémathèque française

An indelible image: Romy in the wings of Théâtre Moderne in Paris, about to step on stage in a dual role, as Nina in The Seagull, and also as Romy before the French public. I see her leaning against a panel of the set, pale as she braves her stage fright, murmuring her lines in a pure voice. Louis Malle once called her “a little soldier”. With good reason. I was assistant to Sacha Pitoeff, and we had seen her take her first steps in the theatre in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore with Alain Delon. In Visconti’s sumptuous production, she made an impression with her fragile youthfulness, her emotion and almost dilettante simplicity. It was in the theatre that we first met. She and I, two young German expats in Paris, made a connection, and often met up after film events in Paris. I think that we both regretted not having worked together, however, we did come close. Some 20 years later, Bruno Ganz wanted her to play opposite him in Circle of Deceit, and she would certainly have accepted, had I asked her. But when we were location scouting in Lebanon, Régis Wargnier, who was still my assistant at the time, had just worked with her on a film in Paris and warned me off in no uncertain terms. Could we really expose Romy to such touring conditions, and to the everpresent danger of the heavily armed factions we’d face day and night? For her last film, she’d had an entourage of about a dozen people, make-up artist, dresser, chauffeur, personal secretary, masseur, hairdresser, nurse, etc. Given the civil war in Beirut, we could never take such a troupe of people, with their vehicles and air-conditioned caravans, not to mention the cost and insurance.
Subsequently, I’ve often pondered on how that city in ruins would have reminded her, as it did me, of German towns after the war, and also of the frenzy people felt to live life even more intensely. In the 1950s, in the family of her stepfather, a ‘captain of industry type’, she lived through the madness of the nouveau-riche, who drowned their mean-spirited sorrows in alcohol and food, in their luxury chalets and their shiny Mercedes. They were ‘kaputt’ bourgeois in every way, pushing back against all responsibility, individual or collective, for a war that had ravaged the whole of Europe and which they had miraculously come out of alive. Though barely alive, since in the postwar period the country was devastated, the people were full of self-pity, crushed and maudlin, champions of repression and false ideals. Their human relationships were empty, their personalities pure facades; it was a world built on appearances, whose hypocritical falseness and vulgarity cannot have escaped the teenage Romy. Turning their backs on current affairs, their appetite for feudalism was the true reason for the success of the Sissi films, they suited the Zeitgeist of the economic miracle years. Being the idol of those people must have been unbearable for a sensitive soul. I can bear witness to this, having left the country at the age of 16. When I arrived in France, I felt ashamed to be represented by that vintage empress, so successful all around the world.
Subsequently, Romy was always ready to return to this subject: a third of her adult films are about the Nazi period. It isn’t that she lived through this period, she was only a child, but like us all, she felt the weight of belonging to a civilisation capable of such crimes. Hence her willingness to assimilate as completely as possible in France, going so far as to erase her origins. An endeavour doomed to failure, certainly, and not because of the language, which she spoke perfectly. This is remarkable, as she never studied and fretted on account of not having taken her Baccalaureate. It isn’t that she had a complex about it, but nor was it a source of pride, and she tagged that onto the stain of her German heritage. She was a woman, yet she had to learn to be a proud woman, and it is to Visconti’s credit that she accomplished this. She bravely supported all causes, from the legalisation of abortion, to feminism in general, sometimes going further in her sermons – and her confessions – than was needed. Somewhat theatrical she might have been, and unashamedly so, as the theatre was for her the finest thing. The film La Voleuse is proof of this. It is practically forgotten, wrongly, and yet it’s the one that reveals Romy in all her complexity. It was something she had to go through before finding the delicate radiance that her public and producers loved. The film is also a treasure, as it brings together Michel Piccoli and Romy for the first time, and already all the intensity of their future relationship can be felt. The films we have selected demonstrate that these roles were marked as much by her life as by the plots. Fiction informs life, and vice versa, to complete the portrait of a woman who didn’t shy away from the heartbreak that nature and history inflicted on her, even if that meant a lifetime of pain for body and soul. This made the selection of films even more difficult, and both Gian Luca Farinelli and I regret being unable to include Le Combat dans l’Ile, Alain Cavalier’s magnificent debut film in which Jean-Louis Trintignant is as youthful as Romy. We must also mention her last film, Dino Risi’s Fantasma d’amore, with a screenplay by Bernardino Zapponi and featuring Marcello Mastroianni. In this film Romy has a radiance that seems almost unreal, but is also chilling to see how her character declines into old age, presaging her own later years. With equal courage, just prior to this, she had played an enigmatic character in Claude Miller’s Garde á vue, alongside a powerful Lino Ventura. There was also courage and willingness to go to the limit and beyond in L’important c’est d’aimer by Andrzej Żuławski. Even the conventional melodramas, such as Monpti, one of her earliest films, Une femme à sa fenêtre by Pierre Granier-Deferre or the harrowing Passante du Sans-Souci by Jacques Rouffio, are films to see because of Romy’s presence and the vibrant humanity that she brings to all her characters.
With no restraint, Romy shared intimate secrets in conversa-ion with Hans-Jürgen Syberberg early in her career, and years later, with the same ruthless energy, she opened up to feminist Alice Schwarzer. These two documentaries complete the fiction-based portrait of her, and very often, a film of fiction is also a documentary about its actors. In Romy’s case, without question, life and fiction are one and the same.

Volker Schlöndorff