Last month, the Berlin International Film Festival presented its Berlinale Camera, a sort of cross between a lifetime achievement award and a sign of appreciation for contributions to the festival, to Ulrike Ottinger. The festival also hosted the world premiere of Paris Calligrammes, the latest feature from the filmmaker and photographer who was a vital, albeit all too often overlooked, figure in the New German Cinema of the 1970s. Now the Pacific Film Archive is presenting a retrospective in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs opening at the Berkeley Art Museum on March 25. In New York, a series of Ottinger’s films will run at the Metrograph from Sunday through March 21. “Ottinger’s films are so dogged in their refusal to fit easy categories—even within cinematic subgenres that thrive on excess—that they’re unlikely to fully satisfy anyone looking for easy political directives,” writes Michael Koresky in his latest column for Film Comment.
Having grown up as an aspiring painter in Konstanz, a modest yet cosmopolitan city in southern Germany on the border with Switzerland, Ottinger was naturally drawn to Paris, and in 1962, when she was around twenty, she made the move. Once there, she began frequenting the Cinémathèque française, taking in lectures by the likes of Jean Rouch and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and hanging out at the Librairie Calligrammes, a bookstore that, though it took its name from the 1918 volume of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire, was devoted to German literature. Paris Calligrammes is “an extraordinary sort of aesthetico-political nonfiction bildungsroman” and “a profound act of intellectual montage,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Yet her rhapsodic tribute to the teeming artistic apprenticeship that Paris soon offered her isn’t solely a vision of beauty: she also observed, and unsparingly recalls, the political and social ugliness with which she was confronted during her time there.”
At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab recommends Paris Calligrammes as “a great introduction to her work,” even though this “audiovisual memoir is a far cry from the abrasive works that have made Ottinger so worthy of the Berlinale honor.” After the upheaval of May ’68, Ottinger returned to Konstanz, where she founded a film club and arts center. One of the artists whose work she exhibited was Wolf Vostell, who invited her to Berlin to film one of his happenings in 1973. She ended up staying for four weeks before tying up loose ends in Konstanz and returning to Berlin for good. “If Paris had made Ottinger a cinephile, it was Berlin that made her a filmmaker,” writes frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock in an excellent overview of Ottinger’s life and work.
In 1978, Ottinger released her first feature, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, which starred her lover at the time, Tabea Blumenschein, who also designed the outlandish costumes. Blumenschein, who just passed away on March 2 at the age of sixty-seven, was an artist and model who became a trendsetting fixture of Berlin’s nightlife in the 1980s, collaborating with performance artists and musicians Die Tödliche Doris and eventually making her own film, Zagarbata, in 1985. Madame X, the story of a pirate who lures women from their domestic ennui with the promise of adventure on the high seas, “shocked both the general public for its depiction of lesbian eroticism and feminists for its iconoclastic message that women are as aggressive, venal, and self-destructive as men,” writes Sherlock. “It’s also tongue-in-cheek and—for all of the millpond languor of Ottinger’s imagistic, highly stylized cinematography—funny.”
Ottinger’s next feature, Ticket of No Return (1979), starred not only Blumenschein but also Magdalena Montezuma, who also worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, and Rosa von Praunheim. The story of a woman (Blumenschein) determined to drink herself to oblivion also features guest appearances from Vostell, Nina Hagen, Kurt Raab, Eddie Constantine, and Martin Kippenberger. Ticket of No Return, the first film in what many refer to as Ottinger’s Berlin Trilogy, was followed by Freak Orlando (1981) and Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984), both of which featured Delphine Seyrig, whose final film before she died of lung cancer at the age of fifty-eight was Ottinger’s Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989).
Seyrig plays Lady Windermere, one of seven European women traveling on a transcontinental railway when they’re taken hostage by a Mongolian princess. “Virtually plotless, this movie replaces violent conflict with something much more akin to lived experience, as women of two cultures encounter one another and find that they can get along splendidly,” wrote Chris Walters in the Austin Chronicle in 1992. As Sherlock explains, Joan of Arc of Mongolia is “not quite documentary, but nor is it entirely fictional; we slip, deliciously, between the registers of Noël Coward and National Geographic . . . The message is clear: all culture involves a level of artifice. We perform both individually and collectively; we self-exoticize and are mutually exotic.”
Filmmaker and Another Gaze associate editor J. Makary suggests that, of all of Ottinger’s films, Still Moving (2009) “may be the most compelling and succinct embodiment of a worldview that impels her wide-ranging body of work.” Incorporating the sculptures and masks that her father brought back to Germany from his many trips to Africa, Ottinger “unapologetically insists that no one owns culture,” writes Makary. “This is obviously controversial . . . These objects might be critical elements in her nostalgic personal narrativizing, but this doesn’t mean that the problems surrounding their use disappear.”