Interview with Helke Sander
Open forms

by Marc Silberman

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 59
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005


Helke Sander was born in 1937. She attended acting school and then accompanied her husband to Finland, where she worked in theatre and television. In 1959, she gave birth to a son. She returned to Germany in 1965 and studied film at the German Academy for Film and Television in Berlin (1966-1971). She has been active in the student left and the women's movement, and a founding editor of frauen und film. In 1974-1975 she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg.

1967/68: BRECHT DIE MACHT DER MANIPULATEURE (CRUSH THE POWER OF THE MANIPULATORS) 50 min., l6mm, b/w, no commercial distributor. This documentary film shows the power of the Springer Press conglomerate in formulating and manipulating public opinion”.

1971: EINE PRÄMIE FÜR IRENE (A BONUS FOR IRENE) 50 min., l6mm, b/w, dist: Zentral Film (Hamburg.) Among the first films in Germany to point to the interrelations between the public and the private spheres, this film examines, in the mode of the "Berlin Workers' Films," the difficulties of a young woman worker trying to cope with problems at home and work.

1977: DIE ALLSEITIG REDUZIERTE PERSÖNLICHKEIT: REDUPERS (THE ALL-ROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY: OUTTAKES) 98 min., 35mm, b/w, dist: Basis Film (Berlin) and Unifilm (N.Y.). This essayistically constructed fictional film draws the portrait of a woman who is trying to cope with her roles as mother, photographer, artist, girl friend and member of a women's group. It poses the question — without offering a tidy solution — of what a woman sacrifices if she wants to be true to herself while still being open to change.

1981: DER SUBJECTIVE FAKTOR (THE SUBJECTIVE FACTOR) 138 min., l6mm, color and b/w, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). A film about the student movement in the sixties which reconstructs that history from the woman activist's point of view.

I was always ahead of my time with my films. In 1969 a project of mine about the women's movement was a novelty, and no one was interested. What's more, the funding commissions told me since a known feminist couldn't possible be objective, I couldn't do it. Then they were so disgusted with my film project about menstruation (to be called RED PERIOD), they didn't even want to deal with the topic. It was meant to be neither an educational nor a documentary film, but a film about myths. For it, I was advised to try for ten minutes on the weekly TV health program. The projects I have devoted a lot of work to, the ones I really wanted to make, never succeeded.

I became politically active with the Springer film (BRECHT DIE MACHT DIE MANIPULATEURE, 1957/ 68). I didn't want to adapt some crazy popular idea of art. We filmmakers had discussions then trying to figure out how to still make films, didactic ones that relied on a form that was understandable and accessible to the audience. Yet a completely false conception of filmmaking was developed in this school of Berlin Workers' films. My next film, EINE PRÄMIE FUR IRENE, in the tradition of the Berlin Workers' films, in some ways critiques the tradition. I strove to translate political content directly into film. I only slowly moved away from that position, recognizing that it came to no more than slogans.

I also faced a problem of isolation. If a film took up a political issue, television networks wouldn't make funding available, so we had to produce films for political meetings with little money or material. Many filmmakers felt obliged simply to document something when officially there was no information about it. And political groups were suspicious of "aesthetics." This reductionism was mutually conditioned.

In REDUPERS I took up once again something I had already done, but now with a different consciousness. In the sixties I'd been doing theatre and made some short films, but I was interrupted when the whole political movement began. REDUPERS reflects on what was left behind. I did not intend to show change but rather how minimal changes may come about, how things happen simultaneously. I tried to examine how we think and in what categories we articulate feelings, and what the consequences would be if we were to think like the women in the film. In other words, I ask the viewer to consider a given situation from an alternative perspective, namely a divided Berlin from a woman's perspective. It's a subversive procedure, perhaps even a form of utopia. The viewer must think out the consequences on her/his own.

I vehemently resist any attempt to ghettoize my films as "women's films." Men or women can interpret any situation. The way I see life necessarily has something to do with my experiences, and women's experiences are, of course, different from men’s.

I have had some experience in trying to gain access to institutions. For example, in 1974, founding the film journal frauen und film represented our effort to articulate the problems that women have in this profession. We faced unbelievable criticism, a defamation of the whole attempt. Professional female film critics did not want to participate at first in something so controversial, something that might fail. Women filmmakers doing their own thing were not really looking for publicity. The journal strove to codify women filmmakers' problems in order to remedy them, and it has made a real contribution here. We reviewed the few films by women that existed at the time, which were too often rejected by festivals because we had no lobby and only men in the juries, who didn't understand what the women were doing in their films. In addition, as a result of the women's movement, public consciousness no longer brands everyone as crazy who points to sexism in the media.

I am especially concerned with developing new production methods. When we receive a contract and financial support (from a network, prize money or producers), we have to show results very quickly — for example, a completed script. I would prefer to work more essayistically, filming very slowly, and then maybe finishing up quickly. I don't want a filming schedule which says you film the script in 30 consecutive days, engaging each actor weeks in advance. I want to write while filming and work together with the actors. I don't want to chase them through a scene, each one standing in the "right" corner for the "right" angle.

I imagine pre-conceived situations, with an idea about how they will look in the film. Elements of tension and changes come when I see actual image. That is my point of reference, not some idea about an image. Concrete images come into relation with other concrete images. I can imagine a rather open form somewhere between fiction and documentary — as in REDUPERS — where fictional people enter documentary films. I want to continue working in this direction, but find no money for such a form. We get money based on our scripts, which must be completely written to submit to the various funding commissions. That implies certain compromises if I do not want to accept the repressive nature of the script.