Margarethe von Trotta's German Sisters
With neuroscientists increasingly proving that brain knows no gender difference, discussing a female mind or gaze is becoming passé. But this doesn’t mean our brains aren’t constantly being shaped; on the contrary, the more social structures deprive us of rich experiences, scientists say, the more likely this deprivation has a lasting impact. Such sense of daily deprivation powered the "Self-Determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers" program at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival. The retrospective included films from 1968 to 1999. Considering the program’s thematic and stylistic breadth, I puzzled at first over its paradoxical billing: The retrospective presented pioneers of German cinema; famous, and yet, vastly unknown.
Margarethe von Trotta, whose brilliant Die Bleierne Zeit (1981, lit. The Leaden Time, known in English as German Sisters) showed in the retrospective, is no stranger to American viewers. But von Trotta confessed to not knowing some of her peers’ works. Finally, the head of the retrospective and Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, Rainer Rother, and the retrospective's curator, Connie Betz, explained: Those who like von Trotta started out in the 1970s, especially in West Germany, had broad industry support. “The women filmmakers could do pretty much what they wanted,” Rother said. Thanks to public funding for independent cinema, their films traveled to international festivals and gained wider recognition. Things changed, however, and in the 1980s directors found themselves relegated to an artistic niche. “Many made one film or two, and then, in a way, vanished. And some films vanished too after their original screening, so that we had a hard time finding a copy in good shape.” Betz added that to this day it is not uncommon to find films stored in a filmmaker’s cellar. Rother and Betz then made a curatorial decision, not to frame the program as “Frauenfilme,” which suggested a niche, but rather to present a broad creative spectrum, from films that echo socialist realism to underground, auteur, queer, animated, and experimental works.
Self-definition is the program’s overarching theme, and as such, revolves around questions of identity. “Identity,” as we will see, can point to a budding sense of one’s own desires, and even reveal competing impulses. Nevertheless, a good number of films showed women fed up with playing nice. Iris Gusner’s The Dove on the Roof (1973/2010, GDR) was one of the films I saw first: A fearless exacting project manager, Linda (Heide-Marie Wenzel), is caught between a carefree idealistic young man, Daniel, and a more seasoned brigade leader, Böwe. Some of Linda’s concerns—her final choice to stick it out with her burly worker-hero—comes across as a bit quaint today, but on the other hand, her brazen outspokenness, against the canvas of alcoholism and general discontent, makes it clear why censors were not keen on Gusner’s critique. The film was banned in East Germany.
Confusion and anger also fuel Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle (1982, GDR), in which a hippy single-mom, Susanne (Heidermarie Schneider), cannot fit into the drudgery of factory work. Susanne never seems to do anything right, calling our attention to the ridiculousness of media-imposed ideals for young mothers. In contrast, Schmidt stages a dramedy of disgrace: Susan has a strange way of improving her life. When she needs money she commits fraud, and then, childlike, ignores signs of trouble. This brings on friction with her new boyfriend, who, as a factory manager, fears any hint of misconduct. Schmidt goes against mainstream feminism in presenting her heroine as a willful child. Yet there is a counter-culture edge to this context: Susanne lives her life against everything and everyone who seeks to normalize her as a good housewife or citizen. The film’s finale poignantly highlights the contrast between the boyfriend’s captivity within social norms, as opposed to Susanne’s willful fecklessness.
Helma Sanders-Brahms's Under the Pavement Lies the Strand
In Helma Sanders-Brahms’s stunning, heartbreaking Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975), two young actors, Grischa (Grischa Huber) and Heinrich (Heinrich Griskes), start a romance against the background of political unrest and disappointment after 1968. Grischa and Heinrich make such a charismatic artist-activist couple—along with Godard’s young politicized heroes of the French New Wave—that one immediately feels poorer for not having met them earlier. Sanders-Brahms co-wrote the script with Grischa and Griskes, and the final result is rich and layered, a mix of humor and bitterness, with a pseudo-documentary, improvisational feel. Despite their powerful affinity as two unsettled souls, as Grischa evolves Heinrich feels left out. His passion gains a brutal edge, and ripens into resentment. Similarly to Agnès Varda, Sanders-Brahms creates an indelible portrait of a young woman who channels her personal anger to alleviate the desperation of other women—not redemption through collectivism, but rather constant friction that stems from true commitment.
Friction couldn’t be greater than in von Trotta’s Die Bleierne Zeit, based on the stories told personally to von Trotta by the sister of Gudrun Elssin, the member of Red Army Faction (RAF), the German terrorist group responsible for a series of bombings and armed actions in the 1970s. In von Trotta’s masterful handling, the film’s political context is filtered through the entanglements of two women who, despite their overwhelming physical connection that goes beyond blood ties, cannot communicate. Wavering between love and resentment, the relationship undergoes trials, as the rebellious sister gives up her child, moves to training camps in the Middle East, popping out from the shadows to challenge her more adjusted sibling. Von Trotta is a master of creating doubles onscreen, and her greatest achievement lies in showing how these two are nevertheless two sides of the same dissatisfaction, always reacting out of protest. In this sense, identity is also a mirror image of another—here another woman’s—against which one’s own expectations and failures are constantly reassessed.
Identity can also result from communal effort. In Helke Sander’s wonderfully sarcastic The All-Around Reduced Personality (1978), a young single mom, Edda, played by Sander, struggles to make ends meet. Sander brilliantly draws on the economic role of women, from Edda’s adding up her earnings and her expenses in the voiceover, to the scenes in which she must negotiate her rates. Like a refrain, Edda’s life is made of numbers, punctuated by their brutal logic that goes against any belief that East Germany offered women a leg up, or a glimpse of what communist jargon called, “all-round developed person.” Indeed, Edda is versatile, eloquent, a fighter. Yet she is also taking on crappy assignments and remains woefully underpaid. Sander includes many pointed scenes that, like those of Sanders-Brahms, strike an improvisational tone. Some of these dwell on the in-and-outs of a women’s collective, of which Edda is part. Wanting to mount street installations, yet fearing censorship, the women deliberate with experts and friends. Funny yet serious, Sander’s film is a manifesto, worthy of being shown in the same league as Varda’s feminist films.
The retrospective also provided looser frictions and unexpected delights. Take two unclassifiable movies: Ulrike Ottinger’s operatic B-movie sci-fi, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984), and Hermine Huntergeburth’s darkly hilarious, sensual crime spoof, The Terrible Threesome (Im Kreise der Lieben, 1991). Ottinger’s spicy romance between naïve aristocrat Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff) and a calculating street girl—both in the clutches of a sensation-hungry media magnate, Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig)— takes place in a kitschy futurist city. From sets to costumes to arias staged at length, Ottinger’s maximalist cinema channels Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter, yet feels utterly unique. Meanwhile in Im Kreise der Lieben, three generations—steely-nerved Grandma (Ruth Hellberg), histrionic hypochondriac Ma (Karin Baal), and troublemaker Daughter (Barbara Auer)—live, quarrel and scheme under the same roof. Huntergeburth weaves the daughter’s sex-escapades with more banal domestic disputes. In the end, both directors boldly play with taboos, satirizing the Freudian cliché of a castrating female.
Equally playful is the work of pioneering queer filmmaker Monika Treut, whose four-part documentary film, Female Misbehavior (1992), played in the retrospective. In part one, filmed in New York, Carol, a bondage aficionado and activist on the city’s lesbian scene, recounts what turns her on, and why she thinks bondage is the most generous and compassionate act. Shown mostly in mid-shot, Carol demonstrates her leather straps. Elfi Mikesch’s camera stays close, while the grainy greenish footage testifies to what Treut laughingly called her “crappy equipment,” which nevertheless allowed her to roam freely. The direct result of this roaming is part two, in which performer Annie Sprinkle does her brash, spunky vagina acts in dingy New York bars. Treut has Sprinkle reenact her monologue, which promises to transform anyone from meek viewer into frisky performer. Another highly performative short is a portrait of controversial academic Camille Paglia, who challenges feminist rhetoric. In this sense, Treut’s work is a wonderful coda to the entire program, reminding us that identity as a construct cannot help but be in constant shift. Never stable, never pinned down. To this end, Treut told me in our brief interview that she was thinking of filming again her transsexual friends in California, to complicate some of the currently accepted truths about gender and identity. Treut’s final short is perhaps most intimate: An interview with Max Valerio, formerly Anita, who narrates his sex transformation, and walks us through a hormonal rollercoaster ride. “Women’s feelings are more Technicolor,” Max tells us. Let’s then leave it at that.