Siren stays in picture

'Fassbinder actress' still beguiling

It has been a long time coming, but Hanna Schygulla is back.

After a decade of near obscurity, the German acting legend — muse to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, winner of best actress honors in Cannes and Berlin — has been rediscovered by a new generation of German filmmakers.

Schygulla appears in two of the most talked-about German art house films of the past year — Fatih Akin's Cannes Competition entry "The Edge of Heaven" and Hans Steinbichler's Bavarian melodrama "Winter's Journey."

In both films, Schygulla discards her diva image — forged in Fassbinder classics like "Effi Briest" (1974), "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1979), "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980) and "Lilli Marleen" (1981) — to play decidedly unglamorous supporting roles.

In Akin's "The Edge of Heaven," Schygulla portrays Susanne, a stodgy, middle-class and slightly xenophobic German Hausfrau. In "Winter's Journey," she is the dowdy, limping wife of a manic depressive (furiously played by German theater star Josef Bierbichler).

They are hardly roles one would associate with a performer crowned "Europe's most exciting actress" by Time magazine in 1985.

But Schygulla says she welcomes the chance to work with young directors who aren't intimidated by her image as "the Fassbinder actress."

"These young directors, they aren't under the shadow of Fassbinder as much as those who came right after," Schygulla said in a recent interview. "They see Fassbinder as a good reference point again."

"I wrote the character of Susanne (in 'Edge of Heaven') with Hanna Schygulla in mind," Akin says. "I met her in Belgrade a few years earlier and she really bewitched me. I wanted to work with her."

In picking directors Akin and Steinbichler to make her comeback, Schygulla is keeping up her reputation for maintaining high standards.

The two thirtysomething directors could hardly be more different. With his features "Hierankl" (2003), "Winter Journey" (2006) and his latest, "Autistic Disco," Steinbichler has dedicated himself to reinventing the Alpine melodrama genre of the Heimatfilm.

Akin is even more ambitious. Shifting cultures, languages and film styles in such features as "In July" (2000), "Head On" (2004) and "The Edge of Heaven," Akin, a German-born ethnic Turk, strives to build cinematic bridges between the culture and politics of Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey.

"I first saw Fatih Akin when he won the Berlin Golden Bear for 'Head On,' and the way he was jumping around, full of energy, he reminded me of Fassbinder," Schygulla recalls. "I thought it was an amazing thing. Him winning the Golden Bear brought all of Germany — the German and Turkish parts — together for a moment."

Schygulla's comeback — her performance in "The Edge of Heaven" in particular — has won near universal praise from critics and festival audiences.

The only problem, for fans outside of Europe, is getting to see her new films. Neither "The Edge of Heaven" nor "Winter's Journey" has yet found a U.S. distributor.

Thankfully, Criterion is bridging the Schygulla gap with its release of the newly restored DVD box version of Fassbinder's epic "Berlin Alexanderplatz."