Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.
It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem الهادي بن سالم, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018).