By coincidence, the latest films of Volker Schlondorff and his wife, Margarethe von Trotta, have opened in the United States at about the same time. Not by coincidence, they illustrate the differences in approach between the two directors, who have moved in their own artistic directions after years as a moviemaking team. Schlondorff's new picture, ''Circle of Deceit,'' deals with personal problems in a complicated, politicized, somewhat exotic setting. Miss von Trotta's new film -- Sisters, or, the Balance of Happiness -- deals with socially relevant questions in terms that are deeply individual as well as intimately human.
In a recent New York conversation, Miss von Trotta told me that she enjoyed working with her husband on such films as ''A Free Woman'' and ''The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum,'' but that her own vision is more inward than his: He likes epic filmmaking, while she leans toward more muted drama. Yet the story of her new picture -- about a couple of grown sisters with a mutual dependency problem -- is not the kind of ''wholly interior'' story her husband might scorn. In fact , Miss von Trotta considers it to have strong social and political ramifications , as each character reflects not only her own personality, but the class structure of her culture and heritage.In purely cinematic terms, ''Sisters'' is immaculately filmed, with splendidly controlled performances inside a rigorously delineated visual scheme. It should help boost Miss von Trotta's reputation to a level closer to that of her well-known husband.