· Vatican City ·

Interview

My Abbess of Bingen

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29 May 2021

Margarethe von Trotta talks about the film Vision


The cinema too has decided to celebrate Hildegard of Bingen. In 2009, Margarethe Von Trotta, a committed director of secular inspiration, directed the film Vision, which aimed to reconstruct with narrative rigour and spiritual tension both the mystical parable and the political impact of the saint, played with intensity by Barbara Sukowa. Von Trotta, propelled by the film Anni di piombo and a leading exponent of the New German Cinema in vogue between the 1960s and 1980s, made Hildegard one of the most incisive figures in her filmography, populated by strong, independent women determined to build their own destiny. Women who shine with their determination, courage and even appear revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg or Hannah Arendt. The common denominator is that they want to emancipate themselves from male-dominated culture and are destined to leave their mark on history.

What made you decide to make a film about Hildegard of Bingen?

After 1968, feminists began to look for women in the past with visibility and spiritual or artistic power. There were not many left in the collective memory because men had always been considered more important in both art and religion. Going back through the centuries, we rediscovered Hildegard, and I immediately became fond of her.

For what reason?

She was not only an important religious figure but also an artist capable of creating images and magnificent Gregorian music.

How did you prepare to bring Hildegard to the screen?

I researched history texts and literature. The first book I studied was Scivias - Wisse die Wege which has beautiful illustrations of Hildegard's visions. Before that, I knew nothing about her, also because I am Protestant by birth, so saints and abbesses are not part of our religious culture.

Was it difficult to obtain financing for the film?

Io avrei voluto girarlo già nei primi anni Ottanta, subito dopo Anni di piombo, ma all’epoca il cinema era ancora fortemente impregnato della politica contemporanea e non avevo speranza di trovare un produttore. Sarebbe arrivato tanti anni dopo e mi avrebbe chiesto di scrivere la sceneggiatura di quel film di cui parlavo da anni…Finalmente nel 2007 ho potuto recarmi all’Abbazia di Ildegarda a Rüdesheim, nel land dell’Assia, a cercare documenti e materiali.

I wanted to make it in the early 1980s, right after Anni di piombo [Marianne and Juliane], but at the time, cinema was still strongly imbued with contemporary politics and I had no hope of finding a producer. He would have come along many years later and asked me to write the screenplay for the film I had been talking about for years. Finally, in 2007, I was able to go to the Hildegard Abbey in Rüdesheim, in Hesse, to look for documents and materials.

What did you find?

First, Sister Philippa, who advised me on the right titles beyond the many low quality, unbearably romantic books about the saint. She almost ordered me not to stop at Hildegard’s virtues as an herbalist, an aspect of her personality so well known that some cereals have her image on their packaging!

Is it fair to consider her a proto-feminist?

As soon as I began to study her, I realised that she was a woman of universal value, endowed with intelligence, energy and an exceptional will for independence. She was convinced that all this came from God. Her decision to leave the monastery to found a convent for women, with her as abbess, though born of her visions, was a modern act of emancipation. Even though Hildegard was convinced that what she was doing was not driven by an unconscious desire for independence but guided by the Light, that is, by the very voice of God.

Who were her greatest enemies?

The monks who at first did not want to let her leave because her fame would take resources away from their monastery. They were not at all in favour of her project, but when the Pope accepted Hildegard as “prophetess”, she felt protected.

Do you think Hildegard enabled the Church to move forward?

I cannot answer because I am not Catholic.

Did you show Vision to nuns and religious?

I showed the film to the nuns and the abbess of Hildegard Abbey who then invited me to discuss it with them. They were enthusiastic. They also appreciated the male character, the protagonist’s “assistant”.

Did Pope Benedict XVI, who proclaimed Hildegard a Doctor of the Church in 2012, see the film?

I think he saw Vision because he invited me to the Sistine Chapel together with other artists. Unfortunately, I could not accept the invitation because I did not have time. I was very sorry I couldn’t. However, the fact that Hildegard had been proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope Ratzinger, after so many years of waiting and dashed hopes, gave immense joy to the nuns of her monastery. I dare say a divine happiness.

What is Hildegard’s message to society and women today?

The importance of freedom, the meaning of choice. Moreover, the saint also teaches us the value of humility.

By Gloria Satta