Women's cinema in Germany

by Claudia Lennsen

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 49-50
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

German film women
— the editors

This is the second group of articles on German women and film we are pleased to present in JUMP CUT. In JUMP CUT No. 27, a special section on women and film in Germany, generated by Marc Silberman, had articles on the following topics: an overview of German women's cinema, a comparison of the German and U.S. feminist movements, interviews with Helga Reidemeister, Jutta Brückner, and Christina Perincioli, articles from the German feminist film periodical frauen und film in translation by filmmakers Helke Sander and Helga Reidemeister, and a theoretical essay by Gertrud Koch on why women go to the movies.

We continue in this issue with a further overview of German women's cinema and interviews with filmmakers. Since these women's films are just beginning to be introduced into the United States, we have here in-depth reviews of two of the films in U.S. distribution: THE ALL-AROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY and MARIANNE AND JULIANE. Hopefully more will be available to be seen soon. We would welcome more articles on individual films and on women's film culture in Germany. This section, like the one in issue No. 27, was generated by Marc Silberman.

Women's cinema in Germany
— Claudia Lennsen

In the summer of 1980 a U.S. woman journalist asked people with a knowledge of the subject: "Is it true that German film production is monopolized by women filmmakers? A fanciful rumor: The women present — filmmakers, critics, producers and distribution people — merely replied with an ironical sigh, "How wonderful it would be."

The films described here represent a small extract from film production by women around 1980. It nevertheless provides an outline of the material and forms of expression with which they are currently concerned in this country. ETWAS TUT WEH (SOMETHING HURTS) by Recha Jungmann, HUNGERJAHRE (YEARS OF HUNGER) by Jutta Brückner and VON WEGEN "SCHICKSAL" (THIS IS "DESTINY"?) by Helga Reidemeister, for example, despite their differences of form and content as impresssionistic essay-film, feature and documentary film, all portray the "private realm as something political" and thus take up a theme of particular interest to the feminist movement. (See interview with Reidemeister in JUMP CUT, 27).

Both HUNGERJAHRE and VON WEGEN "SCHICKSAL" deal, in quite different ways, with mother-daughter conflicts and thus offer film commentaries upon a public discussion. (See interview with Brückner in this issue.) These two films, together with ETWAS TUT WEH, in addition use a subjective or autobiographical access to the objects of their attention. WAS SOLL'N WIR DENN MACHEN OHNE DEN TOD (WHAT SHALL WE DO WITHOUT DEATH?) by Elfi Mikesch describes the world of elderly women using an experimental hybrid form that rejects the conventional division between documentary film and fiction, in order to give special expression to a particular fantasy world.

LETZTE LIEBE (LAST LOVE) by Ingemo Engstrom finally is one of the most interesting feature films of recent times, on account of the way it differentiates itself from conventional narrative film through its consistent stylization and adherence to interweaving several thematic layers about the relationship between love and death. One of these themes is the search for trails and traces of the past, an emotional debate with one's own history in the context of contemporary (Germany) history.

This interest in women's life histories as part of an overall history of the time (with the intention of portraying the story of women hitherto dismissed from the pages of history as traditionally handed down to us) crops up in a number of new films by German women filmmakers. In 1980, for example, Helma Sanders-Brahms presented her autobiographical film, DEUTSCHLAND, BLEICHE MUTTER (GERMANY, PALE MOTHER), which deals with the relationship of the authoress and her mother during the Second World War. Claudia Alemann has released a film about the early French woman socialist and feminist, FLORA TRISTAN, who lived in the 19th century. Angela Summereder has reconstructed an authentic trial that took place in Austria in 1949, in which a woman is sentenced to death for poisoning her husband; she is reprieved, only to lead the life of an outsider. Angela Summereder draws a picture of Fascism after Fascism. Helke Sander, in her new film, DER SUBJECTIVE FAKTOR (THE SUBJECTIVE FACTOR) returns to the period when the New Feminist Movement in Germany originated. She tells the story of a politically dedicated woman at the time of the student revolt in Berlin in 1968. (See interview with Sander in this issue.) Two other films. 1 + 1 = 3 by Heide Genée and MENSCHENFRAUEN (WOMEN-PEOPLE) by Valie Export, link the classical fable of emancipation (woman leaves man with whom she has been living — a situation that has increasingly interested male filmmakers) with a story about the ostensibly happy alternative; i.e., bearing a child and bringing it up alone or together with other women. These films met with a great deal of criticism from the feminist movement on account of their one-sidedness and all too harmonious argumentation. On the other hand, 1 + 1 = 3, laid out in the form of a comedy, was one of the most successful films of the New German Cinema in 1980.

A film that is also set in the present and is concerned with the psychological relationship between two sisters is a film by Margarethe von Trotta, SCHWESTERN (SISTERS). It deals with the relationship between dependence and repression.

Most of the new films by women are however more interested in reconciling the "inner world" of women with external reality. This applies, for example, to Edna Politi's WIE DAS MEER UND SEINE WOGEN (LIKE THE SEA AND ITS WAVES), which shows how the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians moulds the friendship between two women of different nationalities; or Jutta Brückner's new film, LAUFENLERNEN (LEARNING TO WALK) which is concerned with the psychological effects of television on a woman.

There is a whole series of socially committed realistic films about the situation of young people, e.g. by Marianne Lüdcke, Ilse Hoffmann and Petra Haffter — and, at the opposite end of the spectrum of artistic ambition, the almost surrealistically stylized art film, such as Ulrike Ottinger's BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN (PORTRAIT OF A DRINKER), which is concerned with pictures of Berlin and a staging of persistent female alcoholism. (See interview with Ottinger in this issue.) Ulrike Ottinger's next project has to do with the freaks of European art and cultural history and will be called FREAK ORLANDO. Helga Reidemeister is planning to film a portrait of a photographic model, MIT STARREM BLICK AUF'S GELD (WITH GAZE FIXED ON MONEY), and Elfi Mikesch is working on a film about a group of mysterious people in a mysterious hotel in Vienna.

Although women's needs and the topics that the feminist movement has brought into the open in the past few years have increased female filmmakers' awareness, it is difficult to make out a direct causal relationship. They work individually and fight for their own artistic independence within a complicated production structure. At a practical level, however, the women filmmakers have recently come to work together in a joint representation of mutual interests.

Many of them joined together in a Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen (Association of Women Filmmakers) in 1979 and demanded

"50% of all monies put up for films, production units and documentary projects; 50% of all jobs and training opportunities; 50% representation on all committees, and more support for screening facilities and the distribution of films by women."

These demands for parity, for equal representation on all commissions that provide financial support for film production and distribution appeared so extravagant that they elicited smug, self-satisfied remarks in many cultural-political commentaries.

The women's situation is confused, but not hopeless. Their own self-confidence has grown, as has that of German filmmakers in general, since the interest of the public for their cinema began to grow again and German films begin to gain recognition abroad. This development, of course, also results from various film promotion systems in Germany, which over the last few years have been expanded to form a network: (1) Tax revenue is distributed at a regional and national level. (2) Monies are put aside by the television authorities out of license fees. (3) Sums derived from a statutory levy of DM 0,15 on each cinema ticket sold are allocated for film projects. Within this complicated system, quite disparate intentions are at work, sometimes in harmony with each other and sometimes in opposition. The commissions appointed by state authorities act as patrons of the arts. The largest film producers and distributors provide a permanent demand and a market that is never congested.

This system, which is unique in comparison to those in other countries with a similar film tradition and an ailing film industry, is attributable to the political strategies and commitment of filmmakers over the past 15 years. But whenever male German filmmakers discuss their work, they speak in terms of the filmmakers, i.e. of themselves. Only when the women have registered their protest, do they condescendingly admit to having meant women as well.

Seven years ago, in the first issue of the magazine Frauen und Film, Helke Sander (who founded the publication as a forum for feminist film work) was able to maintain polemically that the comprehensive discrimination against women filmmakers amounted to a prohibition on the exercise of their profession (Berufsverbot). As recently as four years ago, male representatives of various film promotional commissions asserted in a series of interviews in Frauen und Film that projects by women could not be supported, because to all intents and purposes none existed.

However, women film critics and historians had already begun long before, in close collaboration with women filmmakers at home and abroad, to collect projects that had initially not been accepted by television authorities or film promotion boards. They wrote about the "little" films by women, the cheap, inconspicuous feature, documentary and experimental films that were tucked away in late night programs on television. And they investigated as a problem, the extent to which the "impoverished aesthetic" and lack of circulation was a conscious sub-cultural phenomenon, and the extent to which it merely resulted from official discrimination.

Training problems, poorer opportunities to get a start, and producers' lack of confidence in women directors, camerawomen, etc. — these were some of the reasons for women's being kept out of a film career, not a deliberate renunciation of such a career. These women filmmakers were born around the year 1940 and were for a ridiculously long time labeled "the up and coming generation."

Over the last five years, a number of things has happened. National film festivals have successfully shown women's films. Their innovations in aesthetics and content have been discussed by the media. New magazines founded by women have expanded the spectrum of public discussion. Establishment male film criticism was no longer able to ignore women's work, at least not with quite so much self-assuredness and complacency. This interest shown by male critics, however, has a reverse face. They are incredibly quick to define something as feminist, whereas women filmmakers would prefer to do without such rigid attributions.

An editorial in frauen und film discussed this contradiction.

"Two or three years ago we wrote against an establishment of film critics that hardly took any notice of films by women or that made malicious comments about them. Today, these same critics sometimes benevolently take films under their wing as 'feminist films' that bore us to death or annoy us. What has happened?"

Over the past five years the number of films produced in the Federal Republic of Germany and Berlin rose, and with it rose the proportion of films made by women. For two years now there has been a noticeable intake of female students into the film schools (at the German Academy for Film and Television in Berlin there are more than 50%). Thus, over the next few years even more projects by women are to be expected. But the work conditions for women filmmakers have not changed to any great extent.

Collective, non-hierarchical forms of production are still best suited to small projects. The logical conclusion drawn from this however should not be that "women's films" are "low budget films." For women who learn to say "I," to gain acceptance of their own artistic ideas, they will struggle to obtain the necessary means of realizing them. It is still as revolutionary as it has always been in a large-scale film production, whose organization is based on the division of labor, for a woman to find acceptance and respect for her own individual creativity and to have her instructions carried out.

Most women filmmakers work as their own authors and directors (i.e., they are responsible for the screenplay and direction and attempt to articulate a maximum of personal expression in a film). That also means, however, that they have to convince people with their personal prestige in order to find backers. Like their male counterparts' work, their films are mostly produced within the framework of a cooperation between various national and regional support boards and a television authority.

Just at the moment when women are on the point of achieving a place for themselves within this production system, more and more criticism is being directed at the system — and frequently the stories of rejected, failed projects by women provide the most convincing material. Manfred Delling, for example, wrote in the Frankfurter Rundschau (July 1980):

"Those were the days, when producers decided whether a film would be produced or not. Nowadays they are little more than the organizational executors of commissions set up by the state, or the various federal states, the Institute for Film Production (Filmforderungs-anstalt) and/or the television authorities, who decide what they may produce … Thus the state of German cinema, in particular the New German Cinema, has for many years now not been shaped purely by the ideas of those who write, produce and direct films (as the state of literature is dependent solely on the spirit of its authors and publishers). No, it is controlled by the middlemen who sit on the money. Since, however, the most striking characteristic of commissions has always been timidity rather than courage, the entire support system is at the same time a preventive system."

Projects by women that do not conform to the established public opinion of what are "women's subjects" face difficulties. On the other hand, women's projects that attempt "yet again" to deal with a subject that has already come up in a similar form also have little chance. Under these circumstances it is impossible to extract from the women's films a catalogue of norms relating to a specific female aesthetic. The social contradictions specific to sex are, however, reflected in these films in film-aesthetic forms. A woman distributor justified this productive chaos by remarking that there was not merely one sort of women's film and that women did not want anything in particular. In truth they have wanted everything, and therefore, quite different things.


This is a reprint of the introduction to a program booklet accompanying a package of German women's films touring the United States. It was published by the Goethe Institute, Munich, 1980.

frauen und film
translated by Marc Silberman

The German feminist film journal frauen und film has been of singular importance in establishing a women's film culture in Germany. It not only has published criticism; it has been the meeting place for women who would become future directors and the locus of organizing for a women's film union and for women's distribution and exhibition.

Following are excerpts from frauen und film editorials which give an indication of the journal's direction and concerns.

From the Introduction to the reprint
of frauen und film, 1-5, 1975:

We want to address women as spectators constantly confronted with filmic images and themes. The dominant culture may not have produced these images and themes, but it reproduces and reinforces them. frauen und film should give women the courage to withdraw from this brainwashing and to acknowledge their own experiences. This is also true for women who work directly in the media.

From the Editorial, frauen und film, 6 (Fall 1975):

The forms of protest appearing within the women's movement develop spontaneously in every women's group and constitute one of its essential strengths. These forms of protest establish a non-verbal, aesthetic and emotional bond between otherwise unacquainted groups. When such groups do not consider themselves responsible to a male organization, they do not have to assimilate male patterns of interaction … The women's methods include ridiculing traditional rituals and rejecting them as a norm, so as to reveal those rituals' limited validity and oppressiveness. The women's community solidarity confronts the male phalanx … How do these various forms f protest express themselves on film? In content and in form? Which stands to gain public acceptance; i.e., get supported with public monies from television and film commissions? … How can the filmmaker acknowledge and represent the process of cultural revolution? … How can such protest succeed in a medium where men read and accept scripts and evaluate films? How can we succeed against the reasoning of friendly reactionary people who want to make the women's movement look foolish ….?

From the Editorial, frauen und film, 7 (May 1976). [frauen und film responded to feminist criticism as the magazine was published with the left company Rotbuch, which has men on its editorial board.]:

We want to assist women's interests in an area in which we understand something. We will accomplish this task together with others also seeking to analyze social conflicts, people unafraid of publicizing and tolerating all our problems and inconsistencies. The Rotbuch Collective has indicated this by accepting us into their publishing program.

We still are vehement apostles of the thesis that women alone in women's groups should formulate their experiences and develop their strategies. But to accomplish our strategies we cannot gloss over or retreat from reality. If we women know what we want, we must convince as many as possible to want the same.

Since this journal intends to deal with issues of the public sphere, it cannot pull a veil over the contradictions within the feminist sphere so that the non-feminist public won't notice them. To emancipate ourselves we must develop alternate organizational structures — not keep secrets but rather must unmask all questions, problems, aggressions, and even complacency.

From the Editorial, frauen und film, 21 (September 1979):

Four years ago frauen und film waged a critical offensive against sexism, coupled with a struggle for an independent, oppositional feminist culture.

This program seemingly nourished hope for better films and a feminist film culture. But we have tripped over a big stone lying in the way of this illusion — the absence of women's autonomous film production. All our issues constantly examine and describe this absence.

We've looked for a denied women's culture within film history, but it's proved to be more than a permanent search — even if we can acknowledge and describe the works of Dulac, Deren, Arzner, Lupino, Leontine Sagan, etc. as coherent elements. For those few women's films within film history correspond to male dominated culture. Film women do not inhabit a realm of oppositional culture produced by competing, rather women's film culture has been corrupted and robbed of its potentially radical otherness.