Ruth (Angela Winkler), a black-haired woman with a lunatic gaze (she looks like a Comanche on a scalping expedition), spends most of Margarethe von Trotta's "Sheer Madness" on the edge of suicide -- her brother, it seems, hanged himself, and it haunts her. Well, as Arthur Miller might have said, Achtung must be paid to such a woman. Her husband, Franz (Peter Striebeck), wants to help because it makes him feel good. Her friend, Olga (Hanna Schygulla), a professor of women's studies, wants to help simply out of friendship.
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem at the heart of "Sheer Madness." The men are variously cads, heels, frauds and egoists, pathologically dependent on keeping their women down, down, down and down; the women are enlightened spiritual beings who communicate with meaningful glances (and garrulous glancers they are). After one of Ruth's suicide attempts, Franz whines, "Why did she do that to me?"
Ooooooooh, what a jerk!
The milieu is the German intellectual bourgeoisie: Franz and Olga are professors, Ruth an artist; Olga's ex-husband Dieter is a theater director; her lover is a pianist manque'. They vacation in the French wine country and in Egypt. Franz appears on television (where an interviewer asks, "Does humanity want peace?"); the central action involves a gallery's offer to give Ruth a one-woman show, and Franz's machinations against it.
They're the kind of people, in other words, who always seem to be manufacturing problems that don't exist. And outside of the man-bashing, von Trotta never has a clear point of view on whether the problems are real; the movie wobbles in and out of satire. What's left is just annoying.
Early on, Dieter visits Olga and taunts the noose-obsessed Ruth with "Where's your clothesline?" He and Olga move to the kitchen, and when Dieter notices that Ruth has fixed him with her Comanche gaze from the dining room, he closes the door on her.
Sheer Madness, at the Key, is unrated; it contains some profanity and violence.