The Cosmos According to Ulrike Ottinger
Berlin-based filmmaker and visual artist Ulrike Ottinger recently turned eighty. Leading up to the occasion, she’s had her share of honors, including the prestigious Berlinale Camera in 2020 and an exhibit in Baden-Baden entitled Cosmos Ottinger. The grandiose title pays homage to the artist’s prodigious imagination; she excels at on-screen pomp and circumstance and intricate, ethnographic detail. Ottinger’s work comprises a series of legendary, baroque queer pageants from the 1970s and ’80s—her breakthrough, Ticket of No Return (1979), is a fashion-forward drinking tour of a then-divided Berlin—and a corpus of beautifully shot, immersive travelogues. In Taiga (1992), for example, we accompany a band of Mongolian nomads over a year’s migration and an eight-hour-plus running time. Ottinger’s long career, and her long movies, have attracted fervent devotees across decades, continents, and genres. But, in part due to the challenges of assessing Ottinger’s unique contribution to film history—starting with the challenge of accessing the work itself—this current recognition is distinctly overdue.
Assemblages of often densely referential tableaux, rituals, and performances shot on location in places layered with disjunctive cultural histories, of considerable length and ambiguous point of view, Ottinger’s films defy the narrative payoff and audience turnover requirements of theatrical exhibition. Her work has never been easy to see outside festivals, museums, and universities (Women Make Movies is a longtime U.S. distributor). It is, however, easy to look at; unlike many other feminist filmmakers of the 1970s who, following Laura Mulvey’s analysis, were suspicious of visual pleasure in film, Ottinger has always embraced, even prioritized, its seductions. As we learn in Ottinger’s most recent film, the autobiographical documentary Paris Calligrammes (2019), the artist started out as a painter, specializing in a colorful cousin of pop art in Paris in the ’60s. Exquisite color and careful composition unite the elaborate set pieces of fiction films like Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984) and the magnificent vistas of nonfiction works like Chamisso’s Shadow (2016), which retraces a nineteenth-century arctic voyage of discovery. Ottinger has always been her own cinematographer; the photographs she takes on location of each of her productions are exhibited in museums and galleries and published in works like Ulrike Ottinger: Image Archive, and her films’ deliberate pace showcases each shot composition and mise-en-scène as if it were a still image.
However, it would be disingenuous to imply that the two strains of Ottinger’s work are equivalent in the kinds of cinematic visual pleasure on offer. Her imaginary worlds make a spectacle of bodies, while her documentaries put bodies in spectacular contexts. As Mulvey so memorably argued, classical narrative cinema’s pleasures depended upon the fetishistic display of the female form. Ottinger’s bold experiment was to reject classical narrative form and explore the possibilities of female visual pleasure—centered around the fetishistic display of Tabea Blumenschein, at the time Ulrike’s partner and collaborator.
Blumenschein died in 2020 and is remembered as an influencer in Berlin’s underground culture and Ottinger’s lifelong friend. But she was an artist in her own right—actor, costume designer, makeup artist. The two women codirected the rarely screened 16 mm black-and-white Laocoon & Sons (1975), in which Blumenschein stars as the shape-shifting Esmerelda del Rio, practicing what the voice-over calls “blonde magic” in a mythical country of women (including transwomen). As the lady drinker (“trinkerin”) in Ticket of No Return and designer of the film’s almost architectural costumes, Blumenschein brought her own ideas about archetypal femininity to the screen. Her extraordinary performance, which involves pantomime and a transgender alter ego, makes Ticket of No Return one of Ottinger’s best-known and most rewarding films. Picking up a homeless alcoholic (Lutze), the nameless “She” leads the way through Berlin’s premier drinking establishments; when the two women are thrown out of a bourgeois café room, they end up at a bohemian hangout with Nina Hagen. All the while they are followed by a trio of moralizing women in houndstooth suits. For while Blumenschein is the avatar of Woman, of to-be-looked-at-ness, in Ottinger’s films there are always multiple women, multiple ways of doing gender.