Under the Skin (Mit Haur und Haaar, Deutschland 1999)

This was one of the documentaries in the Berlinale Retrospective and one of the outstanding films.

“Six women born between 1907 and 1925 look back at “their” century. The directors use a series of sophisticated questions to draw out the experiences of their subjects. …

The montage of their many voices and memories produces a tightly-woven oral history, in which constants specific to women and individual experiences have equal prominence.”(Retrospective Brochure).

The film is organized partly chronologically and partly thematically. The most frequent sequence is a series of the women talking about a common topic. The film casually cuts from one woman to another, but at time we view a tightly packed and fast montage of clips of comments. These sequences are interspersed between shots of extremely large close-ups of the women’s skin, hair, hands and bodies. Most of the music, here a solo piano, accompanies these latter shots. The texture of the skin and hair is beautifully lit and photographed; a series of human tapestries.

The women are filmed mostly in mid-shot or close-up, either head-on or at a slight angle. Late in the film we see four of the women in a wide shot with brief biographical details. Two of the women are not identified, presumably at their request.

The voices are addressed direct to camera. Occasionally we hear part of the questions. And towards the end there is over-lapping sound which runs into the intervening shots of skin. The war years and the Nazi regime receive particular attention. Most of the film consists of shots of the women or the close-ups of them; however, the Nazi period is illustrated by a series of black and white stills. As the Brochure notes point out:

“World War II represents a decisive point in the lives of these women, one of whom was a member of the Nazi party and another of whom joined the Social Democrats after the war.””

Another worked in ceramics; one was an actress, she is the most bubbly of the characters. One lost a husband during the war.

The directors were Crescentia Dünßer, who has been acting in films since 2002, and Martina Döcker; this was their first feature. The documentary was made for television but shot on 35mm in black and white standard widescreen. The luminous cinematography was by Sophie Maintigneux and the complex editing by Jens Klūber with sound by Daniel de Oliveira. We were fortunate in viewing a fine 35mm print which showed off the effect the luminous images of the women’s bodies.

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