This film hovers between fiction and documentary with the director Helke Sander playing a created part but setting the action in Berlin locations and with actual practitioners as well as actors.
Edda Chiemnyjewski is 34, a divorced mother who works as a press photographer and takes care of her clingy, school-age daughter. [Dorothea – Andrea Malkowsky] – (Retrospective Brochure).
Edda is working in a collective preparing a funded project for posters of the city. We see her with other photographers and with agents of the city. As well she has her work as a press photographer. We see her pitching to a newspaper editor. And we see her in her flat where she has a makeshift lab for processing.
[This] essayistic narrative film is an ironic and clever depiction from a feminist perspective of the universal dilemma of a working woman whose fragmented life leads her to feel like anything but what in East German jargon was called “an all-round developed person”.
The latter point is emphasised as the collective have a particular project set on the wall that ‘protects’ the East from the West of the city.
Sander is excellent as the photographer-cum-mother. The other characters are not that developed but they combine to create a sense of authenticity as does the fine location filming. The minutiae of photographic work and domestic work is one of the ways that the film catches the interest and creates the sense of watching people go about their actual lives.
The narration takes us in and out of Edda’s home life and her work round the city. The latter enjoys frequent tracking shots that both offer a sense of the faces of the city and the perambulations of the photographers. The fine black and white cinematography was by Katia Forbert. Whilst the editing by Esther Dayan and Ursula Höf takes in both the physical context and layout and the important detail of action. The collective projected rendering of the East, whilst unsuccessful, reminds us of the divisions; stark in this period of the early seventies.
The episodic nature of the narration is reinforced quotations in titles. Most frequently these are from the works of Christa Wolf. Wolf was an important East German writer and activist. She was a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The use of her ‘voice’ aligns both with the feminist critique and the presence in the film of the East and ‘the wall’. Some critics have suggested a metaphoric parallel between the divided city and the divided sexes.
Sander studied film at Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie in Berlin (Berlin Film and Television Academy). This title was her first full-length film. She has continued to make films right up to the present. As well as a film-maker Sander is noted as an educator and activist. Helke Sander was present to introduce the film. We were given some of her background. And she explained the significance of the film’s title. She emphasised the import in the film of the divided city, yet ‘neither East nor West’.
We enjoyed the film in a black and white 35mm print. I was completely absorbed by the 98 minutes of the title. There was the sense of the city, of the life of a particular character and situation, and the intriguing detail of her practical work. This was, for me, one of the really impressive productions in the programme.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are significant filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were really well done. The silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniment.
This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women filmmakers to German cinema.
The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women filmmakers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the filmmakers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.
In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors.
The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This though is a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating. (It currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO).
Other well known filmmakers are also featured.
Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker. (Wikipedia)
For me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.
There will be films from four women filmmakers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.
And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,
The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.
Our organisation will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.
Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge. (Details on IMDB).
As well as the features and documentaries there are several short films, including more from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be a great cinematic week.
Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.
This was a programme selected by the Leeds Animation Workshop and screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. The occasion was to mark forty years of Leeds Animation Workshop and their total of forty films. Rona Murray celebrated and praised their contribution to both animation and women’s struggles over the years in a ‘thank you’. Before that we had a fine programme of animated films by women filmmakers from a variety of countries and in a variety of forms with a stimulating range of subjects.
No Offence, Leeds Animation Workshop (1996).
This was part of a series of films the Workshop made using the ‘fairy-tale’ form. In this case the topic was sexual harassment at work. In an original twist a Queen disguises herself as an ordinary female worker to investigate the behaviour of her managers. The tale includes reforms to end the harassment. The narrative is told with the distinctive voice of Alan Bennett.
Otesanek, Czech Republic 2017. Director Linda Retterová. 6 minutes
This film is an updated version of the traditional tale, ‘Little Otik’. There is an earlier version by Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová (2000). This version is less macabre and the ‘Otik’ character is a carved trees stump in the form of a child. But s/he also devours everything in sight. The animation uses felt and embroidery as the materials for stop-motion.
The Black Dog (1987). 18 minutes.
This is a film by Alison De Vere who was a key figure in British animation from the 1950s until the late 1990s. The ‘Black Dog’ of the title is a shaman figure in a dream world which parallels work by surrealist artists. The fantastical settings are finely done and traverse a range of imaginative imagery.
The New Species, Czech Republic, 2014. Director Katerina Karhánková. 6 minutes.
The film follows three children as they attempt to identify a mysterious bone. On the way we also see representation of adult ways with children.
Phototaxis, USA (2017). Director Melissa Ferrari. 7 minutes.
The film uses the ‘Mothman’ myth from West Virginia; dramatised in the feature The Mothman Prophecies (2002). The film draws quite complex parallels between this and an addiction epidemic in the region. The film is fairly experiential in its techniques, including paper with superimposed pastels.
Black Soul, Canada (2000). Director Martine Chartrand. 9 minutes
In this narrative we see an older black woman and her grandson as she proffers examples of their cultural heritage. The film uses paint-on-glass techniques. The colours are luminous whilst the film’s trajectory is versatile.
Three Thousand, Canada (2017). Director Asinnajaq. 14 minutes.
This film combines newsreels [partly from the 1920s], ethnographic film and film of indigenous art work to explore the worlds of the Inuit peoples. It uses both animation techniques and film footage.
Nutag-Homeland, Canada (2016). Director Alisi Telegut. 6 minutes.
The film-maker is of Kalmyk origin. This people were formerly in the North Caucuses but now they are settled by the Caspian Sea. Their history is one of travails and forced migrations. The film presents poetic images of this through hand-painted frames.
The Fruit of Clouds, Czech republic (2017). 10 minutes.
Another film by Katerina Karhánková. In this a small colony of delightfully realised woodland creatures have an unusual diet. One brave individual finds an abundant source of this.
Own Skin, Leeds (2018). 3 minutes.
Geena Gasser and Saskia Tomlinson enjoyed an internship at the Animation Workshop. This hand-painted film examines the pressures of the body image.
They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story, Leeds Animation Workshop (2015). 7 minutes.
This film uses the actual experiences of migrant women works to expose the exploitation and oppression that they frequently suffer. The film relies on hand-painted water colours. It was commissioned by the Pavilion arts project and worked with Justice 4 Domestic Workers.
The whole programme was a rich palette of animation. There were a variety on techniques on show. And the subjects ranged widely as did the form of the films. Most of the titles had not been seen in Leeds before so this was a real treat.
Hopefully we will see more with a celebration at the Leeds International Film Festival of this important anniversary.
This programme at the Hyde Park Picture House is a celebration of the Leeds Animation Workshop on its fortieth birthday. The Workshop was inaugurated in 1978, though the collective had been working together since 1976 on their first film, Who Needs Nurseries. The fact that the Workshop has survived is itself a feat. The majority of the workshops and collectives from the late 1970s and 1980s have now disappeared though their members till contribute to Independent British Cinema. But the Animation Workshop have also been active in production, having produced a total of 40 animated films, one every year. A new work made with their support, Own Skin, screens in this programme. Animation is a slow and painstaking form of film, requiring care and attention to every single frame.
They have also produced a varied and imaginative range of films. Who Needs Nurseries, concerned with the needs of pre-school children, is an example of a campaigning film. Give Us a Smile (1983) is a powerful agitational film addressing issues of sexual harassment and violence. The experiences presented are based on real cases and the examples of reactionary male attitudes are direct quotes. These are interlaced with pictures, drawing, media quotes and songs. Through the Glass Ceiling (1994) dramatises this issue through a modern version of a classic fair-tale. As well as drama the film uses wit and irony. More recently They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story (2015) addresses the situation of migrant worker caught in a form of modern slavery. This was another campaigning film made with ‘Justice 4 Domestic Workers’. It uses beautifully produced water colour drawings as the basis of the animation.
Clearly one factor in the long survival of the Animation Workshop is commitment. But they have also remained adept at negotiating the shifting shoals of financial support for work that falls outside the commercial area of the film industry. Their first work was funded by the Equal Opportunity Commission. Their early years relied on the funding available from the system set up under the ACTT (ow BECTU) Workshop Declaration, which was supported by a range of organisations, including Channel 4. They also secured funding from the British Film Institute in this period. In the 1990s the Workshop tapped into the funds arriving from the European Union. They Call us Maids: … involved the Pavilion Arts Project, Leeds-based organisations and crowd funding.
The programme this coming Tuesday includes They Call Us Maids:… and No Offence (1996), addressing work-based harassment and using another modernised fairy-tale in a witty mode.
The programme also includes films by their colleagues in Britain and farther afield in Canada, the Czech Republic, and the USA. Apart from the pleasures of good animation work the selection will offer a variety of views on a variety of social issues and themes. The film-makers will have a chance to talk about their work. The complete programme is on the Picture House Webpages and the screening is also part of the current Scalarama Festival.
From September 26th until the 29th the Workshop will run a ‘residency’ at 42 New Briggate (alongside the Grand Theatre). This is the new venue of the Pavilion. There will also be an evening screening on the Thursday and a lunch-time talk on the Friday. Details on the Workshop Facebook Pages.
This is a truly ‘global’ film production as the range of funders testifies. I also noted Alan Fountain’s name on the credits. Alan was the leader of ‘alternative’ film programming for Channel 4 in the 1980s and in the 1990s a champion of independent filmmaking globally. I was shocked to discover that he died unexpectedly in 2016. Perhaps he was involved initially in this production? It must take a long time to put these kinds of films together. But if you want something different, Latin American cinema is often the best place to look these days. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film made in Paraguay by a local filmmaker before – mainly I’ve seen international or other Latin American national film industries using the country as a location.
Written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi as a first feature this is an unusual subject for a male filmmaker – a film completely about a world of women with barely a glimpse of a man in the background. Chela and ‘Chiquita’ are two women in their sixties who have lived together for thirty years and are now struggling to survive financially. The daughters of wealthy parents they are now forced to sell off the furniture and objets d’art in Chela’s family mansion in Asunción. But now the financial authorities have caught up with Chiquita’s debts and the promissory notes she has signed. She is convicted of fraud and sent to prison for what may be a few weeks or months. Chiquita is outgoing and lively and the withdrawn and now bewildered (but still cantankerous) Chela is left to contemplate life with only her new maid, Pati for company. One day, however, a neighbour calls and more or less demands that Chela drive her to her bridge game. Chela feels obliged to help and carefully navigates her father’s old Mercedes through the old residential district. Despite her protestations, Chela eventually accepts some money ‘ to pay for fuel’ and over the next few days she becomes the taxi driver for all the elderly bridge players (all women). Then she meets a younger woman at the bridge game (where she waits for her ‘clients’). Angy (Ana Ivanova) is tall and lean and street smart and Chela is smitten. I won’t spoil the narrative further but there are obvious questions. How far will Chela go in exploring her new world (at times she is almost like a teenager)? She has no driving licence and she is pocketing cash, will she end up in prison too? What will happen when Chiquita is released?
When the film began, in the dark and gloomy mansion with the camera peering out of a wardrobe or from behind a door to watch prospective buyers sifting through the family silver and crystal glass, I wondered if watching the film might be a struggle for me. It seemed a waste of the CinemaScope frame, but within a few minutes I was engaged and I found the unfolding story totally gripping as it moved slowly forward. The script is beautifully written with characters carefully observed. Ana Brun as Chela won the Silver Bear at Berlin as Best Actress and I was amazed to discover this was her first feature film (I was convinced I’d seen her before). Angy and Chiquita are similarly key roles with strong performances by Ana Ivanova and Margarita Irun, again with limited experience of feature films. The only aspect of the film that troubled me was the role of the maid. Pati is an ‘indigenous’ or mestizo character. Paraguay is an unusual South American country in which Guarani, a language of several indigenous groups is an official language of a bi-lingual state and the majority of the people can speak it alongside Spanish. It is spoken in the film. Pati has been brought up in a convent where she has learned several skills, including how to massage Chela’s feet. I think on reflection that Martinessi makes quite subtle comments about social class and ethnicity in the film and Chela’s relationship with Pati does change over the film – much as we are required to re-think any assumptions about Pati. I mention these points because the use of maids by European élites is a common feature of the narratives of several of the Latin American films of recent years that have found their way into UK distribution or the international festival circuit.
Music is an important part of the film but Latin American music culture is not my strong point. In her Sight and Sound review (September 2018), Maria Delgado explains what she calls the songs’ ‘wry commentary’ on the narrative events (but beware this reveals spoilers about the narrative). Chela is also an artist (though it is difficult to tell whether she has real talent or if it is just a hobby to pass the time) and she will have a dialogue about painting with Angy. These potentially expressive devices and the rich detail of the mise en scène suggest to me that The Heiresses is a melodrama. The film is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird and the official website includes details of where it is playing in the next few weeks. Don’t miss it if it comes to a cinema near you.