Free Woman, A / Summer Lightning (1972)

Free Woman, A / Summer Lightning (1972)

“I’ve been married and now want to begin something new.”

A woman (Margarethe von Trotta) eager to divorce her husband (Friedhelm Ptok) and find personal fulfillment discovers that life as a single woman is incredibly challenging — from securing a sustainable job to regaining custody of her son to fending off advances from both well-meaning and womanizing men.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Divorce
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • German Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary posits that this early major film “to come out of the women’s liberation movement” — about a woman “who divorces her husband but discovers that being unmarried in a male-dominated world does not mean she is ‘free'” — “never really breaks loose”. He argues that because writer-director Volker Schlondorff and von Trotta (his wife and co-screenwriter) have given von Trotta’s character Elisabeth “modest goals”, “her failures don’t seem consequential enough”. I disagree. In “a world where sexist men not only define women, but pass judgment on them”, Elisabeth’s situation as she tries to regain custody rights to her son (who she initially left behind to avoid sending her husband over the edge) is clearly an impossible one: to imply anything other than “that single mothers needn’t all be so defeatist”, as Peary argues, would belie the film’s point, which I believe is to highlight the irony of the film’s (Americanized) title.

Like faulting former slaves for not immediately turning their lives around and becoming successful and happy after years of disenfranchisement, blaming Elisabeth for the challenges she faces as she tries to carve a new life for herself is both insulting and patronizing. Having married early and given up her job to be a housewife and mother, she never had an opportunity to explore her interests, let alone pursue a meaningful career. She certainly has potential and talent (some of the most touching and authentic scenes take place as she ventures forth into singing and dancing lessons), but her downfall lies both in the inherently womanizing society she lives in (her smug, obese, married boss comes on to her matter-of-factly while on a business trip, nearly raping her before he passes out) and in the wrath she invokes by divorcing her husband for no apparent reason: he is vengefully determined to prevent her from gaining custody of their son, and blames her for giving up his dreams of novel-writing to become an editor. Perhaps the famously empowered ending to Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) was a deliberate “response” to this earlier, more cynically realistic film.

Note: I looked up the meaning of the film’s original German title, and learned that summer lightning refers to “distant sheet lightning without audible thunder, typically occurring on a summer night”. I’m still puzzling through what this implies about the movie’s premise…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margarethe von Trotta as Elisabeth
  • Sven Nykvist’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended if you can find a copy.


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