Category: Womens Film

I Often Think of Hawaii (Ich denke oft an Hawaii, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1978)

This was an experimental documentary that plays with style, representation and recreation. The subject is a young woman, Carmen who lives with her mother Ruth and brother Tito in a high-rise housing estate.

Her father, a Puerto Rican soldier, abandoned the family. All that is left to remind them of him is a handful of exotic postcards and his record collection of Caribbean and Hawaiian music.

The film is a documentary and includes observational film: for example Ruth leaving the tower block in the morning to go to work. We also see her and Carmen carrying out the cleaning duties involved. Then there are interviews, with Carmen, Ruth and Tito, talking direct to camera.

But these are intercut with far more oddball sequences. In these Carmen dresses up in flamboyant clothes and enacts fantasies for the camera;

I dream of a great love.

In other sequences the title is made sense as the collection of post-cards and records are presented. In the case of the records Carmen [for most] translates the lyrics, variously in English, Spanish and Portuguese, into German. The English sub-titles translate the German dialogue not the original sound tracks. Something similar happens when Carmen quotes poetry, here by Paul Éluard and another French poet.

The film mainly uses colour but some of the fantasies by Carmen are in black and white. The emphasis is on mid-shots and close-ups which generates a strongly subjective feel. The film runs for eighty-five minutes and nearly half of the film must be non-realist sequences. The film also lacks an obvious chronology which gives it a Brechtian feel. The film does have an opening and closing sequence, in both cases we see Carmen on the Berlin S-Bahn. It is as if the bulk of the film is a dream sequence.

The director Elfi Mikesch was there to introduce the film. She owns that the film was

“Inspired by the camp aesthetics of American (USA) underground films …”

This was her first film and she continued in a career that predominately worked on documentaries.

Some of the fantasy sequences have a definite kitsch sense. But there is also a sense of montage techniques in the manner of the Soviet avant-garde. Visually we have discontinuities and disruptions and aurally we have asymmetrical sound. This is really a melange of stylistic tropes.

In fact we were fortunate to see the film. It was shot of 16mm reversal stock and when the technicians at Deutsche Kinemathek came to attempt the restoration they found much of the print had decayed. But they were able to rescue the film and produced a digital restoration which we watched on a DCP.

I noted that this is very much Carmen’s world. Ruth, the mother, is mainly presented in terms of her work. The brother Tito appears several times talking to camera but I did not feel we learnt about his world. He did seem to be unsympathetic to Carmen’s point-of-view.

The setting of the film is important. The family lived in one of the towers in Berlin’s Gropiusstadt. This was a housing project designed by the modernist architect Walter Gropius. He was the founder of the famous Bauhaus School. This was a post-war housing complex designed along the lines and values of the Bauhaus. However other factors intervened. The erection of the Berlin Wall restricted the space for building which resulted in tall tower blocks. Apparently by the 1970s the complex was dominated by poor families with the resultant economic and social problems. As a background to this portrait the sense of that area was important.

I did notice one oddity in the Brochure, which suggested that Carmen’s ‘tropical world’ provided a counter-point to the ‘barren projects’;

. . . it suddenly seemed as if the conditions in these petty bourgeois living rooms could, in fact, be changed.

Everything about Ruth, her work, and her children, as indeed about the projects, suggested a working class environment. I suspect the reference to ‘petty bourgeois’ refers to the content of Carmen’s dreams of escape.

The film was also the object of a particular discussion in a seminar organised by Deutsche Kinemathek. ‘The Translation of Films’. This engaged with the

the translation of films into other languages . . .

including both the silent and sound eras. So,

director Elfi Mikesch. film restorer Julia Wallmüller, and translator Rebekah Smith will discuss the subtitles created for the 2018 digitally restored version [of this title] . . . A comparison of the new subtitles and the ones from the film’s release year demonstrate how standards and available methods have changed over the years . . . (Retrospective Brochure)

It was clear that the new subtitles offered a more accurate rendering of the German and also that they fitted into the editing of the film more effectively. Unfortunately there is no surviving material about the process of translation in 1978. But comparing clips demonstrated that the titling did not give complete rendering of the German. Rebekah and Julia made the point that modern digital methods enabled a higher degree of pinpoint accuracy in inserting these titles.

Elfi Mikesch made an interesting comment that she had felt that the 1978 subtitles made the film seem slower and longer. Unfortunately there was not an opportunity to explore this issue further. I had to leave for another screening but a friend advised me that the discussion only considered the issues around subtitles. So it seems there was no discussion of the translation from several languages into German; in that case German viewers heard not the original but a translator version; and English language viewers would be twice removed from the original lyrics of the songs and the words of the poetry.

So this is a complex issues that only in the last decade has become the subject of detailed research. The film was interesting in its own right as an example of avant-garde cinema and with its portrait of a subjective take on a particular place and people in 1970s Germany. But as a ‘text’ it offered an object for exploring the medium of cinema.

Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1981)

This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;

Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will

Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit

(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).

The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.

Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.

The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism. (Retrospective Brochure).

But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.

Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.

It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.

This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.

The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years. And now I can see it again at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Sunday. It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.

The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (featuring Barbara Sukowa], shown earlier at the Picture House.

Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman (Wer fürchtet sich vorm Schwarzen Mann, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1989)


This DDR film is full of unintentional irony, offering a portrayal of the East German state only a short time before its collapse. Whilst this documentary does not address the social and political contradictions in East Germany the portrait it offers clearly presents a state that is mired in the out-of-date technologies and social administration: the writing is on the wall.

The ‘bogeyman’ of the title is the coal delivery man. A literal translation would be ‘Who fears in front of Black Man’. We visit a private coal company which is run by a woman but whose workforce is entirely male. One sign of outmoded technologies is how many of the homes, including apartments in tower blocks, rely on coal as a heating fuel. Besides running on long after the use in advanced western economies the coal delivery business in Berlin has other distinctive features. The coal can come in sacks but also pre-packed in what look like small suitcases. And the wood for fires comes in neatly bound bundles. When we see customers calling in to place order we hear them asking for hundredweights of fuel. This is a different world from Britain, even when the working class kept their coal ‘in the bath’.

The seven man team faces heavy physical labour and dirty work. By the end of a day they are covered in grit and grime. Whilst there are showers at the depot they are fairly primitive. This applies to all the machinery. The deliveries are made in a motorised truck with some sort of petrol engine but with very low horse power. In the course of the film what seems to be an axle needs repair. The repair work is completely heath-Robertson. It seems to take a couple of days, with hammers. sledgehammers, acetylene torches and sundry other tools. Finally and triumphantly the axle is removed, but how the truck is then made roadworthy stretches beyond the length of this film.

The owner of the business is a resolute and extremely competent woman. She is assisted by her daughter who would take over thee businesses one day. Whilst the machinery might seem primitive the organisation is efficient. The owner is also articulate and talks of her firm and of it social context with fluidity. There is something similar when we hear the workforce answering questions.

The discussion subjects range from the building of the Berlin Wall and possible escape, [one tried], to child abuse and suicide as well as prison and alcoholism.” (Retrospective Brochure)

All are extremely good natured. The view of this segment of society suggests a working class with solidarity and satisfaction. There is no hint of impending doom. As one historian remarked the film has an air of whimsicality but its characters and their situation are completely engaging. The less than sixty minutes of the film offers us in their lives and their work with both sympathy and affection.


The director, Helke Misselwitz, was there to introduce the film. She remarked that when the topic was broached she was determined to find a firm with a woman at the helm. She successfully found one and also one that offered a fascinating set of portraits. The film was also visually satisfying, down to the cinematography of Thomas Pienert which captures the place and the people with unassuming grace. Pienert also worked on the screenplay with Helke Misselwitz. It does seem that this narrative emerged from their working study at the depot.

We also had as short film from the DDR, Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze / Aktofotografie , Z. B. Gundula Schulze, directed by Helke Misselwitz in 1983. It seems that Gundula Schulze, a young graduate at the time, has become a famous photographer. Then she wrote a thesis on ‘nude photography in East Germany’. At the start we are shown some fairly stereotypical nude portraits, not any different from those that circulate in capitalist societies. Then the film introduces two strands. Nude photographs taken by Schulze of women aiming to present them as ‘whole women’. At times this colour footage is intercut with black and white 16mm footage of working women, here as cashiers at a line of tills in a supermarket. The contrasting images make the point well. And Schulze’s portraits are fine examples of women presented with their own character.

This film ran 11 minutes and had been copied onto a DCP. The feature documentary was screened from a good 35mm print. Both films had English sub-titles.

Do Right and Fear No One (Tue recht und scheue niemand, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1975)


The catalogue described the film thus:

A portrait of a woman’s life between 1915 and 1975, in Jutta Brücker’s documentary, her mother looks back at the 60 years of her life . . .

In fact, I felt that this was only part of the film and most notable in the early stage. This in part due to the style and content that is used,

An ingenious collage of picture and sound accompanies the mother’s narrative, a tapestry of proverbs [as in the title], pop songs, marching music , and the noise of war.

Jutta’s mother provides much of the narration, some of it personal some of it commentary on the incidents displayed. The picture that emerges if a complex interaction between one life and the broader social canvas.

This is less a criticism that noting how the film works. The key element are family photographs together with 100s of photographs taken by August Sander between 1901 and the 1940s; and more recent photographs by other artists. This is effectively a montage as is the soundtrack. Black and white photographs, when handled effe3ctively, are powerfully resonant of their subjects.

The film does generate a sense of the mother’s milieu, lower-middle class, but at the same time takes in other classes and situations, both of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat. As the Brochure adds,

references that transcend the personal.

The photographs are well chosen, Sander has become a famous artist in more recent years. The sixty years of the film, [presented in 62 minutes], contain some of the most dramatic and tragic events in modern German history. And the series develops a real sense of the times and the people involved.


Jutta Brückner was there to introduce her film. Her project was decided before she was able to develop an effective form. There were only limited photographs from her family. The discovery of Sander’s photographs enabled her to broaden the narrative into the social and historical area. She remarked that when she made the film Sander was not well known. This meant that she was able to acquire access to the photographs at a low rate. She reckoned now that he has an international reputation the photographs would be beyond any likely budget.

The film was shot on 16mm and in black and white academy. So there is little reframing of the photographs. We watched a digital version restored by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2016. Like most of the digital versions at the Festival it looked fine. Note, IMDB has another German film with the same title from 1976, but with little detail.

The main feature was preceded by a 16mm black and white short documentary, The Father (Der Fater, 1986). [The change in formats was something that the projection team handled with aplomb]. This was a compilation of films shot by the director’s father who was doctor based in Shanghai in the 1930s. The home movies also included Egypt and India. The film was intercut by colour film shot by the director, Christine Noll Brinkmann. I did not find these particularly revealing though the aim was,

to make the father’s footage speak, so it would reveal its meaning to the daughter


But the footage of Europeans benefiting from a colonial situation was interesting.

The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1982)

This East German film offers what seems to be a frank and fairly realistic portrait of a working class woman. The protagonist is Susanne (Hiedemarie Schneider) divorced and caring for a young son. When we meet her she is working as a punch press operator; repetitious work in a dingy factory. Outside of work she cares for her son. Her main leisure activity appears to be drinking in a bar with her friend and dancing in its disco. Susanne and her friends are all marginalised people. They are in part outsiders in this society and far from the ‘all-round developed person’ which is the officially approved stereotype.

The film opens as Susanne leaves her apartment to take her son to the nursery on the titular red bicycle. The son’s bright yellow jackets stands out in the grey rush hour traffic. But when the rain starts they are splashed and then drenched by other traffic.

A the nursery Susanne is overdue with the money for her son’s lunches. It is clear that Susanne’s lives on the edge of penury, just about balancing her income and expenditure. Something of a ‘free spirit’, when she packs in her boring job her finances come apart. A friend explains how she can make some ‘illegitimate’ money; an escapade that comes back to haunt her later.

There is an interesting sequence when Susanna enters a factory celebration. The main hall is full of smartly dressed people and Susanne in her everyday wear stands out. This partly explains how she catches the eye of Thomas (Roman Kominski) a rising young engineer; endlessly congratulated at the social on being promoted to management. Susanne continues to her usual haunt, a bar beneath the hall, with lurid lighting and far less sedate music. It is like ‘hell’ beneath the official ‘socialist ‘heaven’ above. Thomas follows her. Thus starts a hesitant relationship which will finally lead to their becoming partners for a period.

The film catches the different aspects of working class life really well. Susanne’s apartment lies alongside an older woman, ‘granny’. Neither is especially integrated into the society of these buildings and they help and support each other. Susanne and her son have a strong relationship as well. Susanne’s regular bar is a marginal site, lacking all the prized virtues ascribed to the working class in a supposedly workers’ state.

Thomas’s work as a manager, including dealing with the ordinary workers, is closer to this. However, he is frustrated by the out-of-date techniques and management. This is a recurring sense in all the East German films; they are decades behind the western style seen in West Berlin; in factories, in streets, in homes and in social centres.

Susanne’s relationship leads to her obtaining a job in the factory managed by Thomas. But her scam now threatens both the relationship and her job. This segment of the film is interesting in terms of East German employment practice. Susanne works with a female group who are split in their sympathies when they learn of her earlier action. However, factory rules include ‘conflict resolution committees’ where Susanna’s fellow workers have an input. It seems that this mechanism will save her from the law.

The relationship with Thomas however does not survive this episode. And it is Susanne, ‘self-determining’, who makes the break. At the end she seems more confident in herself and her economic situation has improved. Her relationship with her son, finely represented in key scenes, remains positive and rewarding.

The film was shot in colour and widescreen by Roland Dressel and was scripted by Ernst Wenig. The film’s style is conventional but the use of locations offers a real sense of the environment. The editing takes us forward in a mainly linear fashion. There are two dream sequences when we get a sense of Susanne’s emotional state; she does become desperate at one point. The cast is convincing and Schneider, dominating the narrative, is excellent. She is at times refreshingly forthright but also capable of generating a sense of strong emotion.

The East German film system, like the western mainstream, preferred conventional characters.

Dismissed by critics and the studio heads as “confusing” and “flawed . . . ” (Retrospective Brochure).

The director Evelyn Schmidt was there to introduce the film. Because of the disfavour the film was refused invitations to International Festivals. [It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a retrospective in 2005]. In East Germany itself it was only screened for a few days. The problems included

showing the working class divided

In other words an accurate depiction of the disguised class structure in the state. It also affected Schmidt’s career. She made only seven features, three of them scripted by herself, including The Bicycle. And for much of the time she was reduced to working as an assistant director. She also gave us an enigmatic comment,

watch for when the colour red is taken out.

I did not actually spot this exactly but I think it was during the deterioration of the relationship between Susanne and Thomas. However, I was aware of red as a sign. The colour is prominent in the lower bar when Susanne and her friends relax. Whereas the staid social, like the factory spaces, has only an occasional red. There are a lot of exterior sequences which have a lively colour palette. As with ‘red’ the colour contrast contributes to the film’s representation. The bright yellow jacket and red bicycle are followed later by the drab, grey factory interior. When Susanne gets a new job later she works with a group of women in a workshop full of light from large windows. At another point we see Susanne in a cramped grey telephone box talking to her brusque ex-husband. But later, in a park with her son, the image is all sunshine with bright blues and greens. The grey alienation of East Germany was presumably registered by her censors. Unlikely to be easily available but definitely a film to see.

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.