Sheer Madness – Heller Wahn (1983)

Sheer Madness - Heller Wahn (1983)

Olga and Ruth become friends. Olga is independent, separated from her husband, living with an immigrant pianist, and teaching feminist literature. Ruth is withdrawn, a painter, possibly mentally ill. Ruth dreams in black and white, sometimes of her suicide.

Olga lectures on a 19th-century writer, von Günderrode, a suicide after the breakup of her intense friendship with Bettina Brentano. Ruth’s husband Franz encourages the women’s friendship, then, as Olga draws Ruth out and the friendship deepens, he becomes jealous. After the women travel to Egypt, Franz has a tirade. Ruth seems crushed between her husband and her friend, and how she responds is the film’s climax.

Sheer Madness (German: Heller Wahn, and also released as Friends and Husbands) is a 1983 German arthouse drama film directed by Margarethe von Trotta. It was entered into the 33rd Berlin International Film Festival.

Sheer Madness - Heller Wahn (1983)

Review for Sheer Madness

WERE it not for the presence of two extraordinarily compelling actresses, Hanna Schygulla and Angela Winkler, Margarethe von Trotta’s ”Sheer Madness” might seem exactly that. The film, which opens today at Cinema Studio 2, presents a feminist view of friendship that is as peculiar as it is incomplete. The plot concerns the bond that develops between Olga (Miss Schygulla), a professor of women’s literature, and Ruth (Miss Winkler), a gifted and extremely reticent artist who is desperately fearful of the outside world. From their first meeting, they share a warmth and understanding that can be only dimly understood by the film’s other principals, who have the ill fortune to be men.

Everyone in the film, even Ruth’s mother, finds the extreme closeness of the two women threatening. But Miss von Trotta’s attitude toward them is less apparent. Miss Schygulla and Miss Winkler, who are both fascinating here (and who have been photographed subtly and resplendently by the master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus), develop an instant intimacy that is innocently physical, perfectly intuitive and, under the circumstances, almost bizarrely uncomplicated. Whether Miss von Trotta regards this as natural, even commendable, or potentially dangerous is never entirely clear, not even when the film culminates in an act of violence against one of its male principals. This act seems to occur only as a fantasy, though that remains ambiguous, too.

Fortunately, Miss von Trotta, who wrote and directed ”Sheer Madness,” has given it a strong cast and a great deal of interesting detail, so that her film effectively resists oversimplification. Fundamentally unsatisfying, it is nonetheless involving for its smaller moments, as well as for the interaction between Miss Schygulla, who seems radiantly confident here, and Miss Winkler, who is startlingly elusive. The men in the cast, particularly Peter Striebeck as the husband who is overwhelmed by Ruth’s neurotic behavior, and who goes out of his way to encourage the women’s friendship, are also well chosen.

Sheer Madness - Heller Wahn Movie Poster (1983)

Sheer Madness – Heller Wahn (1983)

Directed by: Margarethe von Trotta
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Angela Winkler, Peter Striebeck, Christine Fersen, Wladimir Yordanoff, Agnes Fink, Therese Affolter
Screenplay by: Margarethe von Trotta
Cinematography by: Michael Ballhaus
Film Editing by: Dagmar Hirtz
Costume Design by: Monika Hasse
Set Decoration by: Jürgen Henze, Werner Mink
Music by: Nicolas Economou
Distributed by: R5/S8
Release Date: February 24, 1983