Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

The new film honouring the life of German socialist Rosa Luxemburg

'Those letters, they taught me about the things I didn’t like about the struggle,' says director Ghassan Salhab

‘An Open Rose’ by Ghassan Salhab is a collection of fragments rather than a biopic on Rosa Luxemburg. It features letters written by her and writings about her. Getty
‘An Open Rose’ by Ghassan Salhab is a collection of fragments rather than a biopic on Rosa Luxemburg. It features letters written by her and writings about her. Getty

Revolutionary socialist, philosopher and anti-war activist Rosa Luxemburg died 100 years ago, on January 15, 1919. She was murdered in Berlin at the age of 47, alongside fellow co-founder of the ­anti-war Spartacus League, Karl Liebknecht.

Following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the formation of a government under Friedrich Ebert, Luxemburg took part in an uprising against the state. She was captured, tortured, interrogated and then executed.

The legacy of Luxemburg is fascinating. She remains the world’s most famous female communist, yet she was both celebrated and chastised for her opposition to the Russian Revolution. In Germany, she saw the First World War as a betrayal of socialism and often landed herself in jail because of her opposition. Following the split of Germany after the Second World War, East Germany’s ruling communist party celebrated her as a hero.

Inspiration for the film

Last month, film-essay An Open Rose by Ghassan Salhab, had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. The work is geared around the letters written by Luxemburg when she was put in prison in 1917. The director says its timing, with the 100th anniversary of Luxemburg’s death, is mere coincidence. After all, the film is not a biopic, but is made up of excerpts of Luxemburg’s letters, read out in both Arabic and German, as well as the writings and songs of those inspired by her, such as the great dramatist Bertolt Brecht and 1960s pop sensation Nico.

The collage of contemporary images that accompany these words range from wintry Berlin to two Arab women reading her prose in Beirut. There is also archive material from the First World War and of the fedayeen, the Palestine military resistance. The director explains why he wanted to make An Open Rose as a collection of fragments, rather than with a distinct narrative.

“It is a complexity of layers,” says Salhab. “I’m Lebanese, and I have a lot of layers. I’m 60 years old. I’m coming from the Arab world. I was very much linked to the fedayeen, to the struggle, and what we call Marxism, as well as Luxemburg.”

An Open Rose is the director’s reflections on the 20th century through the ideas and observations made by Luxemburg almost half a century before he was born. “I am a son of the 1960s, even if I was born in 1958,” Salhab explains. “Luxemburg, like [Jean-Luc] Godard, Chris Marker, and many musicians and artists, tell me that something else is possible, in cinema and art and life.”

A film that almost wasn't made

The Sharjah Art Foundation supported the film, continuing an ongoing relationship it has with the director. In 2017, his film-essay Chinese Ink was commissioned as part of Sharjah Biennial 13. Salhab sees An Open Rose as a philosophical continuation of Chinese Ink, which was made up of random fragments he had filmed on his smartphone.

Those letters, they taught me about the things I didn’t like about the struggle. It’s like being at school; you have to be disciplined. When I read those letters, it reminded me how much life could be like a dance.

Ghassan Salhab, director

Yet, the new film came about almost by accident. When ­Salhab first read ­Luxemburg’s letters he admits: “I wasn’t totally into them.” He changed his mind many years later when he walked into a bookshop in Paris and saw that there was a new edition, with new translations, of Luxemburg’s letters written from her time in jail. “At that moment, I was taken by them,” Salhab recalls. “And I read a sentence that struck me: ‘And in the darkness, I smile at life.’

“Those letters, they taught me about the things I didn’t like about the struggle,” says Ghassan, who pinpoints his hatred of the conformity that underpins communism. “It’s like being at school; you have to be disciplined.

“When I read those letters, it reminded me how much life could be like a dance.”

He says he didn’t choose images of modern struggles to put in the film despite the contemporary context of Luxemburg’s philosophies on class and power struggles. He argues: “At that time [the First World War], the struggle was much more clear and there was a goal with what to do and [how to] change our lives.”

Whereas now, he feels that people want to topple leaders with no idea on how to structure and change society after the revolution.

Drawn to essay-films

It is a challenging movie to comprehend. Perhaps no surprise, as the form is very much inspired by the ­film-essay collages of Godard, who Salhab also credits as being the cinematic link between ­Marxism and the fedayeen. “Who doesn’t have an influence from Godard when they do an essay-film?” Salhab says.

The director was born in Senegal, where he spent his early years, before moving to Lebanon. When not making films, Salhab delivers workshops at Alba and IESAV universities in Beirut – “I give workshops because I don’t make money from my films.” He says he is drawn to essay-films. “I don’t like being direct and I don’t like symbols. The problem is, images can very quickly become emblematic and symbolic and I don’t want to go there.”

Ghassan is ecstatic that a publishing house, which heard about his film, is currently translating the prose of the German activist into Arabic.

“I’m so happy that people will be able to read her work in the Arab world, as I have a lot of friends who don’t read ­English, French or German. I had a friend translate the words into Arabic for the film, and I’m so happy that this feature has instigated an official translation of her work, especially her letters.”

Updated: February 17, 2019 03:34 PM

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