BARBARA SUKOWA, the legendary German actress whose film work spans more than 60 productions in nearly five decades, is in the midst of a somewhat unexpected career resurgence. This latest round of acclaim is largely due to her turn in the 2019 French film “Two of Us” (or “Deux” in French), by first-time director Filippo Meneghetti. In it, Sukowa plays Nina Dorn, a retired tour guide who shares a life — if not exactly an apartment — with her partner, a closeted widow and mother named Madeleine (Martine Chevallier). When Madeleine suffers a stroke that renders her unable to care for herself, Sukowa’s character faces an escalating battle with her partner’s children for the right to remain with the woman she loves. Sukowa gives an astonishing performance, nervy and fraught, walking a highwire between wronged and on the verge of wronging, victim and transgressor (at one point she throws a rock through the window of the daughter’s dining room in vengeance).
The heated desperation Sukowa brings to the role is so palpable that the film stands as one of the few cinematic romances that also succeeds as a psychological thriller. “Two of Us” won the César for Best Feature Film in France and was shortlisted for Best International Feature Film for the 2021 Academy Awards. Sukowa was drawn to the project by its exceptional sensitivity. “You don’t usually find films about two old lesbian ladies,” she says. “Filippo took a risk because he could have gotten financial backing much easier with two young, beautiful leads. But he had so much care for these older characters. And I’ve been happy to see how much young audience members have responded to the film.”
In these films, Sukowa brings daring, controversial, not-always-beloved intellectual lions to life with all of their faults and doubts.
“Two of Us” succeeds in part because of Sukowa’s ability to tap into the more complicated, nuanced, and not always likable qualities of her characters. When she plays a historical figure, she tends to delve deeply into research to find the human underneath the mythology. In approaching fictional roles like Nina, however, Sukowa explains that “you have to work more psychologically, using your experiences, observing people, talking to them. I believe we are all complex creatures, even the people who might seem simple and straightforward on the outside, you have to dig a little to find their vulnerabilities. That’s what I try to find in my parts.”
This spring, while filming on location in Liverpool, the actress spent most of her off-set hours confined to her hotel room. The U.K. was in the midst of a strict COVID-19 lockdown, preventing the 71-year-old screen icon from visiting museums, taking trips to the countryside, or satisfying her innately curious demeanor. Fortunately, Sukowa had her hands full with her latest role, playing the eccentric, outspoken wife, muse, and artistic collaborator, Gala Dalí, opposite Ben Kingsley as the radical Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí in director Mary Harron’s upcoming biopic. For the role, Sukowa dons a black wig, speaks with a Russian accent, and channels one of the art world’s most contentious bohemian figures. Gala Dalí wasn’t simply the wife of a great artist; she was in many ways an equal partner in her husband’s revolutionary surrealist spectacles, which earned her as much public wrath as admiration in her day. In other words, Gala Dalí is the perfect part for Sukowa, an actress who has defied convention and made a career out of playing brave, transgressive women who disrupt the usual power dynamics and, as a result, make as many enemies as friends. “Gala is a very fierce, very strong character. She didn’t care about anyone’s opinion. There’s a lot of bravado about her. And some people considered her a real bitch!” Sukowa admits with a laugh. “She’s certainly a challenge to play.”
Sukowa was born in post-war West Germany. It was only when she attended school for theater that she became exposed to mid-century European filmmakers. After an early accomplished career on stage, Sukowa was cast in 1980 in the 14-part television miniseries “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by the upstart master of New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But for all of his radical edge, Fassbinder seemed technically old-fashioned to Sukowa compared to German avant-garde theater, blocking out scenes and carefully choreographing movement. Sukowa went on to star in Fassbinder’s 1981 film “Lola,” playing the eponymous brothel singer. From there she was catapulted into German stardom, and as a favorite of feminist director Margarethe von Trotta, she has portrayed some of the most intense and profound characters in contemporary film — from revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg (1986) to Jewish-German political philosopher Hannah Arendt (2012). In these films, Sukowa brings daring, controversial, not-always-beloved intellectual lions to life with all of their faults and doubts. These characters changed the world, but they also lived in it.
In 1992, Sukowa moved to New York City, where she currently resides, partly out of interest in its underground theater scene, partly for love. Working in the United States posed a challenge: “I have an accent and I realized my chances were limited. There weren’t roles for accents back then. And I myself didn’t feel that comfortable with the language.” Sukowa also prioritized raising her three sons over a Hollywood career, taking roles — an average of one per year — when a project seemed especially appealing. “I’ll work wherever there’s a very good director or script,” she says. Over the years, the good — or lucky — directors include David Cronenberg, Lars von Trier, Volker Schlöndorff, Serge Gainsbourg, Cindy Sherman, Michael Cimino, Tim Robbins, and Rashid Johnson. “My only real regret is that Ingmar Bergman offered me a part that I turned down,” she confesses. “I am the only actor in the world so stupid to do that.”
Now that her children are grown, Sukowa is once again focused on acting. “I still want to take risks,” she says of future roles, which include a European series that begins filming later in the year, COVID-19 vaccines willing. “I miss going to the movies,” she says. “It used to be, when a new film came out, everybody would talk about it. It was an event and the center of the conversation, much the way books used to once be. The cinema helped to define you.”
With more than 60 film credits to her name, Barbara Sukowa commands an impressive body of work and a catalogue of headstrong characters. Here are some of Sukowa’s standout roles and where to stream them now.
In this breakthrough performance, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Sukowa plays an ambitious cabaret singer and prostitute who has set her sights on a better life by any means necessary. Stream it now via Criterion Collection.
Two of Us
In her latest film directed by Filippo Meneghetti, Sukowa plays Nina Dorn, one half of an elderly lesbian couple’s love story that’s equal parts romantic tale and psychological thriller. Stream it now via Amazon Prime Video.
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Sukowa plays the title character in this biopic of the gifted German-American political theorist. Stream it now via Amazon Prime Video.
This 14-part television series, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was an early career highlight for Sukowa in the 1980s. Stream it now via Criterion Collection.
In Lars von Trier’s moody thriller set in post-WWII Germany, Sukowa plays Katharina Hartmann, a femme fatale who ensnares an unwitting American in this political drama. Stream it now via Criterion Collection.
Hair: Miguel Lledo
Christopher Bollen Writer
Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is the author of four novels, including his latest, “A Beautiful Crime,” a literary thriller set in Venice, Italy. He is currently the editor at large of Interview magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.