Interview with Ulrike Ottinger
Surreal images

by Marc Silberman

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 56
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005


Ottinger was born in 1942. She studied art in Munich 1960-61 but had no formal training as a filmmaker. She has worked as a photographic, collage and graphic artist in Paris, 1962-1968. She directed a film club and alternative art center in Constance, 1969-1972. Since 1972 she has lived in Berlin.

1977: MADAME X — EINE ABSOLUTE HERRSCHERIN (MADAME X — AN ABSOLUTE RULER) 141 min., l6mm, color, dist: Filmwelt (Munich). Using the pirate film genre as an ironic framework, the film examines role behavior and the difficulties of breaking with traditional models. A group of women sail off on the Chinese junk Orlando, only to find that they reproduce the same behavior among themselves to which they were subjected in a male-dominated society.

1979: BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN — ALLER JAMAIS RETOUR (PORTRAIT OF AN ALCOHOLIC — TICKET OF NO RETURN) 108 min., 35 mm, color, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). Conceived as a melodrama, this portrait undermines the audience's desire for a utopian resolution by showing alcoholics driven to isolation and self-destruction. Two women — one wealthy and intent on inducing alcohol poisoning, the other poor and drinking herself to death — together make a tour of the Berlin "scene."

1981: FREAK ORLANDO: KLEINES WELTTHEATER IN FÜNF EPISODEN (FREAK ORLANDO: SMALL THEATER OF THE WORLD IN FIVE EPISODES) 126 min., 35mm, color, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). Orlando, a symbolic figure who changes sex and lives through centuries, journeys through the human and social labyrinths of Western culture. She encounters freaks and outsiders on her way. Those who control power structures and defend normalcy are males. The film is filtered through the satirical vision of a woman who sees history as that of the patriarchy.

I find myself rather isolated in the German film scene, particularly among my women colleagues, because my films come out of the tradition of fantasy and surrealist filmmaking. Besides that, my experience as an artist, especially in Paris during the sixties, is rather unusual for a filmmaker. My eyes have become extremely sensitized to visual images. My film BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN, for example, on one level offers a sightseeing tour through Berlin. I construct my films with images. I use a syntax of images, whereas most German women filmmakers seem conventionally tied to dialogue. I seek new images for the new content which is proposed by a woman's experience. This may be why spectators often complain about my films' length and dense imagery. They are not accustomed to an associative style, beyond psychological motivation.

I don't think it is adequate to show things "as they are" in a film. I don't think you can do that today. There was a counter-movement ten years ago against formalist films. Even fiction films then presented things "as they were," certainly an unpretentious goal. In my film BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN, quasi-documentary scenes alternate with extremely stylized ones. I introduced this technique because I realized that Berlin filmmakers often made the quasi-documentary with tremendously precise film content, but formally lifeless. The public for these films has already developed a critical consciousness and watches a familiar reality on film — so familiar that the public doesn't see, or doesn't want to see, what goes on around them.

I work self-consciously with fragments of reality in a collage process. For example, in BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN, I have integrated many other noises — both artificial and real — into the original sound track to broaden associative possibilities. Earlier I never had the money to record on-the-spot sound. Here I could afford a sound crew, but still used the old process. Basically, I attach little value to traditional narrative film. I work in a completely different way. In my films I introduce ironic "quotes" of films or images. In other words, I use traditional cinema's clichés for my own purposes.

I had so little money for MADAME X that I was forced to work collectively from the start. I wrote the script and did the camera work. I had the notion of a pirate film. The ship was a metaphor for awakening, basically into the adventure of reality. Then I began to consider which women I could possibly work with, according to the roles. An artist on roller skates justifies her escape to Madame X because of her dissatisfaction with the academic culture industry; she speaks directly into a microphone. A beautiful prostitute with wonderfully developed body language had to find another way to articulate herself, and I just let her move. Nor does the third-world woman speak; she expresses herself by means of gestures and dance. Yvonne Rainer plays the artist (I had intended to play the role myself originally) and obviously could write her own text. I dissolved the shots of her into details — the roller skates, her hands, her mouth. Another woman spoke a curious mixture of several languages. With her, I'd write something and then ask her how she would say it. In this way the film incorporates many expressions typical of the women.

Although the film focuses primarily on the moment of awakening, I try to make clear that the enthusiasm of waking up cannot last because reality itself offers a mixed bag of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Nonetheless, desires for escape and change should remain. All the characters die. All their traditional, socialized patterns of behavior must die or at least be disrupted to create new possibilities. In addition, the film investigates role-playing, the impossibility of rationally determined female or male role-playing.

I consciously formulated the contradiction between Madame X as a master and her promise of freedom. Madame X does not represent a person at all but rather a kind of power machine. She moves mechanically, just like her image, the ship's figurehead. She represents me, power, and traditional hierarchical structures of behavior. I find it remarkable that awakening, which has become a mass gesture in the women's movement, runs its course within the same hierarchical, patriarchal patterns. I wanted to show this contradiction as our reality, one that stuns and disturbs, and to emphasize that we have to take seriously the residue of behavioral structures which have been chiseled into us for centuries.

Amazingly, I find that there is always a figurehead which the women's movement follows — and above all, within these traditional patterns. I find the movement itself very important, but I still need to gently critique it. We have given too little thought to the power of traditional structures. Surely, they must be broken down, but each of us falls back into the old patterns. Therefore, women in the film find a new identity that is only slightly different, not an ideal one. Yet changes only come step by step. I find it unrealistic to make a film in which women revolt and triumph gloriously.