Berlinale 2019 Retrospective

This year’s programme, organised by the Deutsche Kinemathek, offered,

“Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” with the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’.

There were 26 feature length titles and 21 short titles; all produced and released between 1968 and 1999. The majority of titles came from the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [West Germany before 1990] but four features and six shorts were produced in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik [East Germany – DDR]. The Retrospective Brochure commented:

“In the decades between those films [from 1968 and 1999], women film-makers left their formative stamp on German cinema, and at the same time, the idea that a female director was an ‘exception’ gradually receded.”

The point is made that prior to 1968 and the advent of a recognised women’s movement there were only ”isolated film directed by women …” in West Germany; The commentary notes though that this was not same in the DDR;

“The state film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg was founded in 1954. A handful of women were among its first graduates ..”

but one speaker claimed that they primarily worked on children’s films and animation.

I was able to see 22 of the features and sixteen of the shorts. A variety of themes did indeed emerge in the span covered by the programme. There were features and documentaries. There were film that were relatively conventional with recognisable narratives and a style familiar to viewers of mainstream films. Other titles were definitely avant-garde and provided a range of experimentation. I intend to post on the individual films but the following selection gives some sense of the programme.

1968 was represented by Go For It, Baby / Zur Sache, Schätzchen, directed in West Germany by Mary Spils. She also directed the accompanying short film Manöver (Manoeuvres). I preferred the short film but both were typical of the late 1960s independent films, with both the vices and virtues of the period. The feature did have good freewheeling camera style. However, it seem to lack any sense of a feminist perspective. But it was successful and apparently seen by six million people over two years in West Germany. I was more taken with the earliest DDR title, Do You Know Urban? (Kennen sie urban?, Ingrid Reschke, 1971). Much of the story takes place on a construction site relying on effective location shooting. The film develops a relationship between a construction worker and ex-offender with a student trainee. The characters were believable and the environment at the site and later in Berlin convincing.

A West German film of 1978, The All-round Reduced Personality – Redupers / Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers offered a stand-out feature. Falling between a fictional drama and a documentary director Helke Sander played the protagonist Edda. She is divorced, a single mother and working photographer. We watch her working as a freelance, as part of a collective and processing her films in the home made lab she has constructed. Sander and her fellow players are excellent; the use of locations offers a real sense of the city; and the working life of a photographer-cum-mother is portrayed with subtle comment.

Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers -Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1977; Regie: Helke Sander

Helke Sander was among a number of directors who were there to introduce their films. So I also saw and heard Margarethe von Trotta introducing The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), a film that retained its power for me, seeing it again after a gap of many years.

The East German films were particular interest for me. Another very effective title was The Bicycle / Das Fahrrad (1982). This offered a portrait of another single mother. This time Susanne was a factory worker. Her life style represented the alienation that was the lot of workers in a state supposedly superior to capitalism. Her independent spirit and the apparently realistic depiction of working class situation did not endear the film to either critics or film bosses.

One of the short East German films was Nude Portraits – Gundula Schilze / Aktfotografie, Z. B. Gundula Schulze (1983), directed by Helke Misselwitz. Gundula was a young photographer who researched stereotypical nude shots of women in the DDR. Her own practice aimed to present women in their own right as ‘whole women’. The contrast was highlighted by regular cuts to 16mm footage of working women. An instructive study.

From the same year in West Germany a group of women filmmakers, touring with a programme of titles, recorded their journey on hand-held Bolex camera; Umweg / Detour. The style was experimental in black and white. The changing views, of wintry landscapes, of the train and its passengers, and of their own filming was graceful and almost hypnotic.

Dorian Gray in The Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevaerdpresse) was an example of an even more radical and experimental approach. The director Ulrike Ottinger developed her [episodic] narrative by combining ideas from Lang’s Dr Mabuse and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. This was a fairly epic film running 150 minutes in Eastmancolor. The film combined a subversive mix satire, camp musical sequences, avant-garde design, video techniques and [intervening in the narration] an island-set opera that mirrored the main narrative.

‘Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press’

The 1991 documentary Locked Up Time / Verriegelte Zeit followed the point when the wall and the division of the Germany ended. The director, Sibylie Schönemann, together with her husband, was imprisoned as a ‘political prisoner’ under the DDR. They were the only DEFA film-makers to suffer this fate. So, in the early months after the collapse of the East German state, she went back to visit the prison and other places in her incarceration. She also tracked down officials and challenged their role in the process. Like other explorations of authoritarian regimes this was a chilling story extremely well done.

The most recent film was a documentary made for television in 1999. Two film-makers, Crescentia Dünßer and Martina Döcker, interviewed six women born in the first two decades of the C20th. Their questions explored the personal lives of the women and also how the larger social and political discourse affected these. The women were fascinating. And the film-makers structured the sequences of dialogue with extremely large close-ups of the women’s bodies, skin and hair. These shots were lit with luminous skill.

‘Under My Skin’

This was one of the films screened on 35mm, we also had some 16mm screenings. About half the programme was on film and half on digital. The latter were mainly well transferred and looked and sounded fine. The projection teams worked skilfully and coped well with the changes in formats.

Most of the screenings had introductions; in many cases the women who had directed, and often scripted, these titles. And the Kinemathek had organised translators so that their comments and memories were available in German and English.

I could see the point of 1968 as a nodal point; less so 1999. So I wonder what interesting themes would have emerged if the programme ran from 1958 to 1990 when the reunification took place. Ingrid Reschke, one of whose films was in the programme, started directing in 1963. An earlier film might well be interesting. This was a rewarding experience but at the end I still retained a reservation about the scope of the programme. And I have reservations about the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’. This was true in some cases but also true of may was how the political sphere determined the personal: a point I made regarding the films of Margarethe von Trotta.

It was a fairly demanding week. Even with the efficient Berlin transport system I often was having to move smartly from venue to venue. The saving grace is the excellent selection of coffee shots, especially around the Potsdam Platz. The Berliner’s take their film-going seriously. So the queue for a screenings can start oven half-hour before entry; just to ad to the demands of the Festival. But worth all the effort. I doubt that there will be many opportunities to see many of these films in Britain. There are videos and collections; including of East German films. And there are increasing number of books. Unfortunately the Deutsche Kinemathek accompanying book is only available in German.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.