Sheer Madness

The film presents the inherent dysfunction of the home environment and the chains of marital responsibility within a patriarchal society; it illustrates a common bond among women, revealing female friendship to be the only means of survival in a world dominated by men. Sheer Madness, a German film directed by Margarethe Von Trotta is a complex portrayal of an intense friendship between two women who find common identity in their shared need to escape dependency on men. The main conflict of the narrative unfolds as Ruth, a psychologically fragile woman replaces her husband, Franz, with Olga, a feminist college professor, as her main confidant and support system. However, Ruth and Olga’s relationship is non-sexual but charged with repeated glances of longing gazes. Von Trotta’s goal was not to depict lesbianism as a last resort to women trapped within a patriarchal society but rather to completely remove sexuality from the film and focus instead on need and understanding – both of which are lacking in each of the two women’s life.

Historically, Trotta emphasizes the effect that German society had on the lives of her two main female characters; Ruth represents Germany’s repressive past while Olga represents the promise of modern Germany. Her use of “open endings challenges her audience and stimulates the viewers to accept the film’s discourse as absolute truth.” Von Trotta largely plays upon the common trend of marriage within German society where women are meant to put their husbands before themselves (Renate); Von Trotta’s critique of marriage and the underlying patriarchy of dominant German culture is symbolized mainly through her characterization of Franz and Ruth.

Initially, Franz seems to be a loving, caring husband who persuades Olga to befriend his wife in hopes of taking her of her own mind. However, his caring appearance quickly fades as jealousy over Ruth’s bond with Olga increases and his true impulses, domination and control, surface. The genius of Von Trotta’s script is its depiction of marital inequity and need. As Ruth grows stronger in her sense of self through her friendship with Olga, Franz grows weaker in their marriage; thus, within German society, the strength of one partner in the marriage is dependent upon the weakness of the other. As the bond of marriage between Ruth and Franz grows weaker, it becomes more and more apparent to both Ruth and the audience that the life which she has clung to is nothing but a lie.

Trotta’s, ending, however, remains questionable. Ruth’s murder of her husband is illustrated through a distorted perception of black and white scenes which given their purpose of showing Ruth’s internal vision, forces one to wonder if the conclusion actually took place. The film ends ambiguously with her final comments to the court. Ruth’s confession that Olga helped her kill her oppressive husband seem to direct both gratitude and blame at Olga, who introduced Ruth to self-determination, which, it turns out, has played out disastrously for Ruth in a society where so much is determined by male domination. Like Meshes in the Afternoon, Sheer Madness portrays another failure of a woman’s attempt to escape patriarchy; Ruth, like Deren’s unnamed character, is but another martyr.

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