This is an unconventional story film that incudes autobiographical experiences. The writer-director was a refugee at the end of World War II. Her family were ethnic Germans who had to leave Sudetenland which became part of Czechoslovakia. In the film Marianne, five years of age in 1945 (as was the writer) arrives in the village of Straubing in Lower Bavaria; about 80 miles north-east of Munich.
In the film the father, an ex-soldier, gets a job as a teacher. One of the key characters is the village priest whose sermons and sermonising have a strong effect on Marianne and her young friends. The effect is counter-productive because it fuels an interest by the young girls in sex as well as religion. The counterpoint to this is a US G.I. who is part of the local occupation forces. ‘Nicknamed ‘Mr Freedom’, (an ironic comment on US values) the G.I. has a relationship with a local girl and the children become aware of their sexual activity.
The priest’s moralising includes holding forth on the evils of the Soviet Union and what he calls the ‘Ivans’. This feeds into Marianne’s traumas of war memories. The solace provided by the actions and friendly behaviour of ‘Mr Freedom’ ends when he receives a posting to Korea; involving both US ‘freedom’ and Soviet ‘Ivans’.
The film effectively catches the attitudes and behaviour of girls at a particular point when aspects of adult behaviour impinge on their consciousness. The film, in often bizarre combinations of imagery, counterpoints the various values encountered by the children. There is kitsch air about some of these sequences.
The film uses unconventional imagery and sound, with the scenes that are mainly realist in black and white whilst what seem dream-like sequences are in colour. The camerawork is often idiosyncratic, emphasising the constructed nature even of the realism. And the editing sometimes produces clashes of disparate images.
The Retrospective e Brochure comments:
Made in 1983, during the era of rearmament debates, Marianne Rosenbaum’s alternative take on history in this Heimatfilm, with its Bavarian and star cast, can be considered a political statement.
The last phrase seems a little odd. I found the film’s political treatment somewhat contradictory. The critique of war is clear. And the ironic treatment of tropes from more conventional Heimatfilms (‘homeland’) is plain. The Heimatfilms tended to be set in areas like Bavaria, to use extensive exterior rural settings, and had relatively simplistic moral values, typically those associated in the countryside as the antitheses of the city. Whilst the realist sequences seem similar to other Heimatfilme, the dream sequences subvert this through parody and even surreal happenings.
I was less sure about the treatment of the US/Soviet conflict. There is no equivalent to ‘Mr Freedom’ from the East and casting a minor star like Peter Fonda is obviously meant to give him a certain charisma.
There are telling actions as when the portrait of Hitler has to be removed by the parents. A trope that is repeated in the recent British The Aftermath (2019). The ambiguity of all these conflicting values and characters is there at the end as the film offers a mid-shop of the young Marianne. ‘Mr Freedom’ is gone as indeed is her childish innocence.
The film was screened from a good 35mm print and ran for 108 minutes. Marianne Rosenbaum has only made one other feature and a television drama and series. She clearly has talent and an interesting take on drama, I wonder if her unconventional approach has limited her opportunities.
The actual full title is Encounters between 1st of May and 1st July of 1990 / Begegnungen Zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990. This documentary offers a portrait of one area in that hiatus between the capitulation of the DDR and the formal reunification of Germany.
bracketed chronologically by International Workers Day and the monetary and economic unification of the two Germanys. Retrospective Brochure).
The district of Prenzlauer Berg is close to the centre of Berlin and dates from the 1920s. Its population is now about 160,000. In 1990 part of the district ran right up against the dividing wall.
We meet a rock band playing on abandoned east German border territory, Antifascist demonstrators from both sides of the Berlin Wall, and squatters trying to turn an occupied building into a cultural centre.
This is what the Brochure calls the ‘short summer of anarchy’.
In between these actions we see an hear from local residents. Seniors at a dancing session; bohemians involved in squatting along with transvestites; women workers at what was a state run textile factory; and owners/managers of a clothing store and snack bar. In the early stages of the film the sense of anarchy is powerful. Institutions appear to have stop operating. Some people carry on as before, like the dancing pensioners,; others strike a radical new note as with the squatters.
But in the latter stages as unification approaches the economic dominates. The Osmark (East German currency) is replaced by the West German mark. On July 1st suddenly people must change over their currencies, bearing in mind the exchange value. For ordinary citizens the rate was at par; but large holdings were at lower rates. The liveliness in the film is replaced by emptier streets. It is early in the day but it seems like a metaphor of the uncertainty for people.
The director Petra Tschörtner worked with cinematographer Michael Lösche and then editor Angelika Arnold to produce this tapestry of activities and people. We saw the film in its original format of of 35mm. The director commented
I wanted to document the special attitude towards life in this neighbourhood. The people of Prenzlauer Berg always tolerated greater freedom of action than others.
The local people appear to have enjoyed the licence and freedom associated with Carnival. The area itself is changing, not necessarily for the better. The final shot is of a demolished building disappearing in clouds of dust. An ambiguous symbol of the changes.
In 1990, worker’s tore down the border post between East and West Germany at Wartha [near Eisenach in Thuringia State], built not too long before. It was here in 1985 that director Sibylle Schönemann crossed to the West under a system known as “Amnesty”, by which the West bought the freedom of convicted east German criminals. (Retrospective Brochure).
‘Criminal’ has a special sense in relation to East Germany. Sibylle, and her husband, were imprisoned after applying for exit visas and thus ‘interfering with State activities. Sibylle and her husband were imprisoned separately and released under this scheme after a year in prison. Following the breakdown of the East German state and the wall Sibylle went back and made a documentary; visiting some of the sites in which she suffered and interviewing people who were in some way involved in the process.
She starts at the border and then moves onto the prison where she was incarcerated. Later she visits the court rooms where she was tried and the DEFA studio where her behaviour ‘created’ problems that led to the sentence and prison.
She talks to people at all these sites. Some are forthcoming, many are tight lipped and do not want to speak on the issues and events. One interesting person is a young women with whom she shared a cell for a time. They conversed in one of the actual cells in the prison. One got a sense of the pressures and privations which were part of the imprisonment.
One of the key people was the head of the DEFA studio at that time, Hans Dieter Mäde. He attempts to palm responsibility off onto state officials. Then Sibylle tracks down the head of State Security. He now lives in a house in a rural setting. The local people are uncomplimentary about him. This Party secretary, after a few platitudes, is unwilling to talk. It is clear that he has survived relatively well from the collapse of the DDR.
In disquieting encounters , her subjects accept no responsibility for the injustices they imposed, and the director is faced with the painful processing of the past.
A person who is more forthcoming is Wolfgang Vogel, a lawyer involved in the process of ‘amnesty’. However, in a sign of the new Germany he declines some questions because he is planning a book on the subject.
The film is shot in black and white and the construction ,marrying location film with interviews is very effective, down to the director and the editor Gudrun Steinbrück. Both the cinematography by Thomas Plenert and sound by Ronald Gohike is good. And there is judicious use of music by Tamás Kahane. We were fortunate to watch the film in an original 35mm print in good condition. Alongside the films actually produced in the DDR before 1990 this was a revealing but also questioning documentary.
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.
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.
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.
So we come to the end of 2018. A good year for new releases though there are worrying trends in distribution and exhibition. Getting to see rare films can involve extensive travel on public transport. Apart from the Netflix problem there were other films that I failed to catch this year. And there were parallel problems in production; really good titles with the longest list of supporting territories that I can remember.
Of the new releases the ones that stood out for me were;
Dogman, Italy / France
Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, (Hungary / Germany / France, 2017)
Leave No Trace, (USA)
Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku (Japan)
Sweet Country, (Australia, 2017)
The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, (Turkey/ Republic of Macedonia/ France / Germany / Bosnia and Herzegovina/ Bulgaria/Sweden)
The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx (France / Belgium / Germany, 2017)
Zama, (Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon, 2017)
Two fine documentaries:
The Rape of Recy Taylor, (USA, 2017)
Faces Places / Visages villages (France, 2017)
Among the classics I was fortunate to see on 35mm were;
Brüder Brothers, Germany 1929 [Berlinale with accompaniment by Stephen Horne].
Man of Aran, Britain 1934 [on nitrate as well, George Eastman Museum].
Imitation of Life, USA 1934 (John Stahl retrospective at Cinema Ritrovato].
La cousine Bette, France 1928, [A Balzac programme at Giornate del Cinema Muto with accompaniment by Günter Buchwald).
Turksib, USSR 1929. [The Kennington Bioscope 4th Silent Weekend with accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis].