A nice surprise in the line-up of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was a mini-retrospective of German director Ulrike Ottinger’s extensive body of work. The three features and one documentary that were screened offered a brief insight into the fantastic, colourful and stylised universe she creates. One of the most important women filmmakers to emerge from the experimental fringe of New German Cinema in the late 1970s, Ottinger initially worked as a painter and photographer in Paris in the 60s before turning to film. In 1977, she made Madame X – An Absolute Ruler (Madame X – Eine absolute Herrscherin), a ferocious exploration of traditional role models that is often referred to as a ‘lesbian feminist pirate movie’. Ottinger used the pirate genre as an ironic framework for her distinctive visual style. The film stars underground icon Tabea Blumenschein as a spike-fisted, leather-clad dominatrix and caused a stir when it was first shown on German television.
Most of Ottinger’s subsequent narrative films also focus on exceptional female characters: from Orlando, a symbolic figure who changes sex and lives over several centuries (Freak Orlando, 1981) to Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia (1989) and Dorian Gray, played by the actress and model Veruschka von Lehndorff in Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse, 1984). However, the term ‘feminist film’ doesn’t suffice to describe the unique narrative blend of her futuristic fairy tales and sumptuous cinematic voyages. Vigorously independent, Ottinger acts as writer, director and producer of all her films, including documentaries in which she has explored her fascination with both the traditional and unusual aspects of contemporary culture, following the minorities and outcasts of Berlin as they crossed the newly fallen wall between East and West in Countdown (1990) or migrating with Mongolian nomads across the Taiga forest (Taiga, 1992). Pamela Jahn spoke to Ulrike Ottinger during the LLGFF in April 2009.
Pamela Jahn: Your films come out of a tradition of fantasy and surrealist filmmaking. What sparked your interest in the unreal?
Ulrike Ottinger: It is true that my films are often set in futuristic landscapes and create a surreal imagery, but my inspirations often come from reality, from observing the world, the people, their different cultures and traditional role patterns. In film, however, you can’t show things just ‘as they are’, you have to do something with it, you have to condense reality. When I first started making films, I soon became very fascinated with the idea of using fragments of reality in a collage process, including my personal experiences, often related to my travels, but also references to literature, art and art history. The viewer then has to add his or her own imagination to make it all work. I’m interested in so many things and I like to show this in my films. I’m playing with genres and with citations but what is most important in the end is how these things come together. So in a way, fiction and fantasy are always frighteningly close to reality in my films, and vice versa.
PJ: How did your experience as an artist, especially in Paris in the 1960s, influence your work as a filmmaker?
UO: Of course, this was the time of the Structuralists in France. So I saw a lot of films, not only the nouvelle vague, but the older German Expressionist cinema, which I liked a lot, and also some early American independent cinema. It was all a bit like ‘learning by seeing’, and I don’t think I would have developed this strong desire to make films if I had only been able to see the so-called ‘commercial cinema’. On the other hand, through my work as an artist, I have become extremely sensitised to visual images. I construct my films with images. Before I started shooting Freak Orlando, for example, I took hundreds of photographs with the actress Magdalena Montezuma, who I’ve done several films with. She’s also worked with Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter. I always make a lot of photographic studies to work around a certain theme and to find interesting images.
PJ: Another connection between your films seems to be a fascination for excessive female characters, as in Madame X in particular, where the crew on the pirate ship is composed of a very bizarre collection of extreme women. Did you have a set concept in mind before you started making the film or did it ultimately develop out of the collaboration with the female cast?
UO: When I started working on the film, I actually wanted to use completely different women. But then Yvonne Rainer, who plays Josephine de College in the film, happened to have a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship in Berlin at the time and when I met her, I thought she was perfect to play the part of the artist. Then there was this very famous prostitute from Zurich, Irene von Lichtenstein, who had worked with many artists before. I got to know her through Schroeter, and so I used her as the photo model character ‘Blow Up’. Lutze is another artist, who was living in the Lower East Side in New York at the time, and she was just wonderful in her role as the American housewife; there was also the woman who looked like she was from Tahiti – she wasn’t actually from there, but it was great to have her in the film as the ‘native’ character. So we got together all these different kinds of women, but there was an enormous amount of stylisation. It was an unbelievable coming together and it was perfect in its character composition.
PJ: It was bound to create controversy.
UO: Oh, yes, I think people today can no longer understand the kind of shock this film was for the public. I never again had such an extreme reaction from the audience to a film.
PJ: Did you expect that kind of reaction? Did you intend to provoke people with your films at the time?
UO: Absolutely not, I was completely shocked myself, you know, because for me it was a very playful film with a lot of sympathy but also a lot of humour in it. Although I was confronting something that was not talked about openly until then, it was the form more than the theme that was so shocking, and that made people have such strong feelings about it. The film was first shown at prime time on German television and I received thousands of letters afterwards. And people from all over the country turned up in front of my house in a tiny street in Berlin to speak with me because they went crazy after seeing the film. I was absolutely amazed by this, it was a huge surprise for me.
PJ: What is so striking in Madame X is the contradiction of the role itself, Madame X as a master but also as a promise of freedom.
UO: When I returned from Paris in 1969 it was the height of the student movement and the women’s movement, and my theory about feminism was to find alternatives, and not to be caught again in a cage. However, I found some of the new figureheads or leaders of the movement just built new cages by setting new rules and limits, like Madame X in a way. This is why some women said that the film was against the feminists’ movement, but, of course, it wasn’t, quite the contrary. But although I find the movement itself very important, I think we need to be aware of the power of traditional patterns, and this is what Madame X is about too. It took a while for people to understand that there was an artistic freedom in my films. In the beginning, some of the women in the movement only wanted a film that would clearly and ideologically fit into their line like a political slogan, but this is not the way I make films.
PJ: Your latest documentary, The Korean Wedding Chest, just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, but I believe you’re already in the middle of shooting your next film called The Blood Countess, a vampire story.
UO: Yes, I’m very excited about this film. I wrote it a long time ago, but never had enough money to make it and so I made other things in between. As often in my films, it is very inspired by location, by the history of these locations, which, in this case, is already so crazy that it makes for a great film. And, yes, it’s a vampire film set in Vienna, which depicts a dark part of the history of the royal Habsburg family. It will also include some documentary elements, but of course it’s a fantasy fiction story.
Interview by Pamela Jahn