In 1982, Maragrethe von Trotta's film Marianne and Julianne explored the unusual and fascinating relationship between two sisters. Now, she has written and directed a masterful work about female friendship that provokes thought about sexual politics, dependency, and the isolation of self-assured individuals.
Olga (Hanna Schygulla), a bright, successful university professor who teaches women's literature, meets Ruth (Angela Winkler) at a get-together of mutual friends. The two are immediately drawn to each other, even before exchanging conversation. Ruth, who's been traumatized by the suicide of her brother many years ago, has left her teaching job and paints black and white copies of the masters. In the course of the evening, Olga discovers Ruth in the cellar, attempting to take her own life. From this moment, the women are bound together in a symbiotic relationship.
The men in Olga's life also cling to her inner strength. They are Dieter (Franz Buchrieser), her former husband, who is a theatre director; Alexej (Wladimir Yordanoff), her lover and a musician; and Chrisof (Felix Moeller), her lonely son.
The friendship between Ruth and Olga is mutually rewarding, although Ruth is the major beneficiary as her life begins to open up a bit. Unfortunately, Ruth's husband Franz (Peter Striebeck), a political activist and television egghead, cancels an exhibit of her paintings arranged by Olga. Although a caring man, he wants to be the one responsible for ushering his wife into a new life.
After another suicide attempt, Franz sends Ruth and Olga on a trip to Egypt. It proves to be very helpful for Ruth, who finds enough self-confidence to return to teaching. However, Franz once again feels shut out. He attacks Olga and drives her out of Ruth's life. Thanks to the support she receives from Olga, Ruth comes to see that any moves towards independence must exclude Franz, who cannot handle a "different" healthy wife.
Olga's lover has left her, and having expended all of her energy to save Ruth, she now finds there is no one to give her comfort. Through Olga's plight, Margarethe von Trotta helps us realize the extreme loneliness of individuals who give all they have to others but are in the last analysis isolated because of their strength.
Sheer Madness is a nuanced film which presents the unique values of friendship between women. The performances by Hanna Schygulla and Angela Winkler are both breathtaking in their intensity and clout.