Following Ulrike Ottinger to the End of the World
After a storied career documenting faraway places and ‘outsiders’ closer to home, the German experimental filmmaker turns the lens on her own life in her new feature, Paris Calligrammes
After a storied career documenting faraway places and ‘outsiders’ closer to home, the German experimental filmmaker turns the lens on her own life in her new feature, Paris Calligrammes
When the filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger was a child, growing up in the southern German city of Konstanz, on the Swiss border, she travelled with her mother on a ship from the Italian port of Genoa to the Spanish city of Alicante. It was a mixed liner, as still existed in the 1950s, with a small number of passengers travelling amidst the cargo. The group ate together each night with the Italian captain. There was a piano; Ottinger remembers her mother playing while the captain sang along. An English physicist and his historian wife would take Ottinger to sites of archaeological interest while the ship was docked.
Sometimes, the shapes of things from childhood stay with us all our lives. You don’t have to be a Freudian to see a blueprint in that journey from Genoa to Alicante for the films Ottinger has been making since the mid-1970s. These range from the surreal, early The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors (1975), with its cabaret-star sirens, to her more recent experimental documentaries. The latest of these, Chamisso’s Shadow (2016), which traces the Bering Sea journeys of the 18th-century German poet and botanist Adelbert von Chamisso and the 17th-century British explorer James Cook, clocks in at an epic 12 hours. Ottinger has made 25 films in total, ranging in length from ten minutes (Usinimage, 1987) to 720 (Chamisso’s Shadow), with a 26th – a semi-autobiographical reminiscence on the artist’s time in Paris during the late 1960s – due to be released in March. Her cinema is restless, Odyssean: full of stories of exile and adventure, encounters with unknown places and other cultures. But home is as strange as anywhere in her work and the monsters, when they appear, are ourselves.
Ottinger was born in 1942, during World War II, in a moment of hastened deportations and gas chambers, to a Jewish mother and a gentile father. Her mother, along with thousands of others, had fled to the southern German border with the aim of passing into neutral Switzerland. By 1942, the border was closed; Ottinger and her mother survived because they were sheltered by her paternal grandmother. (Nazi anti-miscegenation laws prevented Ottinger’s parents from marrying. Her father, who had unsuccessfully attempted to avoid conscription by entering Switzerland, fought in the German army and returned to the family after the war.)
For thousands who had fled the Nazis, Konstanz had been their last stop on German soil; after the collapse of the Reich, it was also where they began their journeys back to what remained of their lives. Small and ringed by mountains, Konstanz had avoided the worst of the Allied bombing; it was a cosmopolitan city, vivid with the scarred energy of survival. People passed through the Ottingers’ apartment: intellectuals, artists, theatre directors; sometimes, people the family had helped escape. Part of the French occupied zone until 1955, Konstanz was filled with troops from the French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and Indochina. At the officers’ casino, Ottinger’s parents took her to matinee screenings of French films.
Ottinger’s father was a painter. During the 1920s, he had travelled around Africa as a sailor on the German East Africa line. He painted there, too: the ship’s decks and balustrades, a mural in the passenger dining room. This past October, I sat with Ottinger for several hours in the book-lined study of the Kreuzberg apartment where she has lived since the end of the 1970s. The room is filled with the large collection of African masks and fetishes that her father brought back from his travels. Ottinger grew up with these objects and the collection has been supplemented over the years by items – Central Asian textiles, Eastern European folk toys – brought back from her own extensive journeys. I confess (though not to her) to finding the masks and fetishes unsettling, partly due to their powerful presence but also because it’s difficult to disassociate such things, today, from conversations around repatriation, decolonization, Africa’s missing cultural heritage. Not that I suspect any of Ottinger’s objects to be ill-gotten. They are the product of a lifetime’s curiosity about, and engagement with, other cultures.
Ottinger has never backed away from difficult images; in fact, she seeks them out. Her films are like a dazzling hall of mirrors, distorting reality in a way that amplifies both its beauty and its imperfections. Her first feature, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977), is the story of a pirate junk captained by the titular, leather-clad dominatrix, who lures other women to sea, away from their ‘everyday existence of unbearable boredom’, with the promise of ‘gold, love and adventure’. A band of overblown Hollywood stereotypes – including an American housewife disillusioned by her domestic mod-cons, a Polynesian beauty fascinated by Coca-Cola and a philosophizing artist (played by Yvonne Rainer, who was working in Berlin at the time) – heed the call. The promised escape, however, ends in disaster as the women fall into familiar patterns of seduction, violence and jealousy that lead to mass murder and ritual suicide.
Madame X is played by the striking Tabea Blumenschein, an artist and model who was Ottinger’s lover at the time and is the star of many of her early films. Blumenschein also designed the film’s extravagant costumes. When it was released, Madame X shocked both the general public for its depiction of lesbian eroticism and feminists for its iconoclastic message that women are as aggressive, venal and self-destructive as men. It’s also tongue-in-cheek and – for all of the millpond languor of Ottinger’s imagistic, highly stylized cinematography – funny. (In a sequence of flashbacks, we learn that Orlando was drowned by a giant octopus. In the battle to save her, Madame X lost an arm, the absence of which she now conceals with a fetishistic, elbow-length, studded-leather glove.) Madame X is high camp – good because it’s bad (wicked, even).
Ottinger discovered cinema in Paris, where she moved as a young painter in 1962. In Paris, there was the Cinémathèque as well as lectures by the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, whose attentive, improvised cinéma vérité was a profound influence on her own. (‘I didn’t meet him at the time, but much later we had a fun night at Paris Bar in Berlin.’) Ottinger’s new film is titled after Calligrammes, the bookstore run by German expat Fritz Picard. Named after Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 poetry collection, the shop was a compass point for her Paris years. Combining footage from hundreds of films from the 1960s with personal reminiscences narrated by Ottinger herself, it is an homage to the intellectual and artistic life of the city at that time.
Conflicted by the hardening of ideological lines in 1968 and suffering her own artistic crisis, Ottinger left Paris in January 1969. Back in Konstanz, she founded Visuell – a film club and cultural centre that screened independent and artist films, and hosted exhibitions by artists including David Hockney and Wolf Vostell. It was during this time that she met Tabea Blumenschein, then a 17-year-old art student. Vostell invited Ottinger to Berlin in 1973, to film a happening. She stayed for four weeks in the Vostells’ apartment in Charlottenburg, decided to find a place of her own, went back to Konstanz, packed her things and moved to Berlin for good. Blumenschein joined her later.
If Paris had made Ottinger a cinephile, it was Berlin that made her a filmmaker. In the early 1970s, there were still bomb-damaged buildings, craters in the road, buildings blackened by smoke. The food was terrible. ‘I couldn’t believe that such a city could exist in Germany,’ Ottinger told me. ‘When you are making films, you are looking for images that tell you something. [In Berlin] I walked day and night through the streets and it was fascinating. I took thousands of photographs […] I thought: here you see and feel German history.’
The films that came next – Ticket of No Return (1979), Freak Orlando (1981) and Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984) – are commonly referred to as Ottinger’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’. In the first – whose German title, Bildnis einer Trinkerin, literally translates as ‘portrait of a lady drinker’ – a glamourous woman (Blumenschein, who again designed the costumes) arrives at the city’s Tegel airport on a one-way ticket, intent on drinking herself to jubilant destruction. She manages to do so, ending the film crumpled in her silver dress, like the discarded foil of a cigarette packet, at the top of a grey U-Bahn stairwell. In Dorian Gray, a cabal of media executives schemes to create, corrupt and destroy the perfect celebrity – the aristocratic and elegant Gray, played to androgyne perfection by the model (and countess) Veruschka von Lehndorff. Freak Orlando follows the titular pilgrim (played by Magdalena Montezuma, muse to Ottinger’s fellow new German cinema directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter) through five seemingly unconnected episodes. It is the film of Ottinger’s that I find hardest to watch: not only for its complex, impenetrable plot, but because it is a procession – literal, in certain passages – of dwarfs, hermaphrodites, transvestites and people with bodily deformities (and implied mental ‘perversions’), which apes what would once have been a circus sideshow. Does Ottinger repeat the spectacularization of those bodies, inviting a cruel voyeurism? Or does she make them beautiful? The film has been read both ways. It’s an itchy, uncomfortable work, forcing us to confront difference, otherness – in the hope not of reinforcing stereotypes but, paradoxically, exaggerating them into invisibility.
Berlin is the silent star of these films, just as small-town West Germany is of the roughly contemporaneous ‘BRD Trilogy’ (1979–82) by Fassbinder – a director to whom Ottinger is often compared for her overt depiction of homosexual desire and for the streak of darkly melodramatic nihilism that runs through her protagonists. (Fassbinder was full of praise for Ticket of No Return; Ottinger invited him to be a part of Freak Orlando, but it never happened.) When we spoke, Ottinger often referred to how ‘run down’ Germany was – struggling to salvage its culture from beneath the whitewash of National Socialism, to define what ‘new German-ness’ might look like – in the decades immediately following World War II. As the ‘freaks’ in the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ move from recently constructed department stores, cool with the space-age glow of escalators, to bombed-out squares, industrial buildings, corner cafes, U-Bahn stations, Tegel airport and the 1936 Summer Olympics stadium, we get a sense of the parallel worlds made possible by this city-in-progress.
The first film I saw by Ottinger was Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989, the year the wall came down. I watched it as a student in the mid-2000s, on the advice of an enlightened French professor who taught Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983) and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (Good Work, 1999). Johanna D’Arc can’t have been on the official curriculum, even though the film opens with the French-language musings of its star, the superlative Delphine Seyrig, who had also appeared in the last two episodes of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. (Sadly, it was to be Seyrig’s final film; she died of lung cancer in 1990 at the age of 58.) The drama unfolds in a polyglot admixture of French, English and German, interspersed, at points, with Russian, Chinese and, of course, Mongolian. (Ottinger’s mother was a translator and I have often wondered whether this casual interplay of languages was intended as a tribute to her.)
Seyrig plays Lady Windermere, a wealthy, fantastically elegant ethnographer and raconteur, who is travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway, a grand steam train in the mode of the Orient Express. Her eclectic band of companions includes a kitschy klezmer trio, The Kalinka Sisters (‘a travelling Yiddish version of the Andrews Sisters’, as Ottinger has called them), an uptight German school teacher, a Broadway star and a young, impossibly beautiful backpacker – the titular Johanna. When the train is stopped in the middle of the Mongolian desert by a group of female warriors (whose approach is observed from the carriages in wide-eyed wonderment until Lady Windermere points out that the theatrics are, in fact, an attack), the women are gently captured and taken by the group’s princess-leader to their encampment. From there, the narrative thins and the film becomes an observation of the rituals – both mundane and spiritual – of Mongolian life, with Lady Windermere’s running commentary serving to instruct both her travelling companions and the audience.
It’s not quite documentary, but nor is it entirely fictional; we slip, deliciously, between the registers of Noël Coward and National Geographic. With the exception of the princess, the Mongolians are not actors, though there is a highly performed quality to what we see (hunting games, animal sacrifice and numerous rituals of hospitality). At the end of the film, as the train returns west, Lady Windermere shares the luxurious carriage of a wealthy Mongolian, smartly attired in a sharp skirt suit, who is headed to Paris. When Lady Windermere waxes lyrical about the Mongolian way of life, her companion remarks that most Mongolians only live in yurts during the summer ‘to preserve, in some measure, the illusion of the nomadic life’. The message is clear: all culture involves a level of artifice. We perform both individually and collectively; we self-exoticize and are mutually exotic.
It’s often said that Ottinger is the first woman to have filmed in Mongolia. I don’t know if that’s true, but she was certainly there long before the package tours and the backpacking hordes crowded Hohhot’s temples. Johanna D’Arc was filmed in Inner Mongolia, a nominally autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China that, unlike other such areas – including Xinjiang, in the far west of the country, and Tibet to the south – is considered by the Chinese Communist Party to have been successfully ‘brought in’ through decades of heavy-handed assimilationist policies (including a particularly brutal purge during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution). Ottinger visited three times before returning for three and a half months to film. She took what she calls her workbooks – part storyboards, part mood boards, dense with newspaper cuttings, sketches and research notes – to show to the Mongolian people to explain the film she wanted to make with them. ‘This was so unusual for them because they were forbidden to speak Mongolian. Yet, there was I, coming from outside, saying: “I’m interested in your culture and not in Chinese culture.” I never asked inquisitorial questions; I just showed them my big workbooks and, immediately, we’d have a discussion: “Oh, my mother had this. We still have this, but now we are doing it differently.”’ The headdress that the princess wears in Johanna D’Arc was lent by an old woman who wanted to adopt Ottinger as her 100th great-grandchild. (Such items are rare: every evening, after filming, Ottinger would return the headdress to the old woman, who would guard it overnight.)
It’s not just the East-meets-West encounter that gives Johanna D’Arc its particular and peculiar magic. It’s the vividness of Ottinger’s images, the extravagance of her imagination. Take the Kalinka Sisters, in co-ordinating nightclub costumes, waving goodbye from the window of the green train. Or the princess on horseback, in her dazzling headdress, bold against the endless, arid expanse of the plain. Then there’s the high camp of the aristocratic, epicurean Mickey Katz – a corpulent, rouged Yiddish theatre star, resplendent and wearing a fur-lined yarmulke – who amazes (and amuses) with the poetic enormity of his dinner order. (Blossoming waterlilies in a sea of aspic! A whole roasted swan in full plumage!) Katz, the film’s only significant male character, is destined for the opera houses of Harbin; he parts with the group at Ulan-Ude so, when the train is halted and the women are led away by the princess’s gang, we enter into an entirely female realm. However, unlike the doomed swashbucklers of Madame X, the Mongolian matriarchal group and their foreign guests co-exist more or less peacefully, despite the fact that the film simmers with a love triangle dynamic similar to the one which proves fatal in the earlier film. The quick-learning, beautiful Johanna becomes the close companion of the princess, to the perceptible disappointment of her mentor, Lady Windermere, whose affections, while never overtly erotic, nonetheless tremble with queer desire. (‘I guess your pedagogical eros is more pronounced than mine,’ quips the German school teacher to Lady W. at one point.)
The freaks in Orlando found their natural successors in Matthew Barney’s hyperbolically weird ‘Cremaster Cycle’ (1994–2002) and its many imitations. But, when I watched Johanna D’Arc again recently, in addition to being struck anew by just how very good it is, I couldn’t get past the thought that it would be almost impossible to produce today. And that’s not just because the world has, in many profound respects, shrunk since 1989, but because the question of who gets to represent whom and how is – rightly – far more vexed. (To say nothing of ‘pedagogical eros’ in the #MeToo era.) Nobody should be reduced to a spectacle, no culture to a backdrop. Or, we all should. Which is, of course, what Ottinger has understood all along.
Ulrike Ottinger is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. Her films have been screened extensively at film festivals and in exhibitions across the world, including recent solo shows at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Bridget Donahue, New York, USA (both 2019), and the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, UK (2018). Her latest film, the four-part Chamisso’s Shadow (2016), was awarded Best Documentary 2016 by the German Film Critics Association. Her new film, Paris Calligrammes, will be in German cinemas on 5 March.
Main image: Ulrike Ottinger in her study, Berlin, October 2019. Photograph: Jelka von Langen, commissioned by frieze