by Marc Silberman
Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 41-42
Introduction to special section:
Diverse as the films may be which we reckon among the New German Cinema, they do have one thematic characteristic in common: they focus on the outsider or on peripheral social groups. Consequently, as outsiders, women and their lives become of interest to young German directors. Indeed we find a number of films by the “new wave” star directors structured around a female protagonist (e.g., Alexander Kluge’s PART TIME WORK OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE, Fassbinder’s EFFI BRIEST and THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, Völker Schlöndorff’s THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM, to name just a few). Typical for a male-dominated culture industry, these films by men view women as objects. In fact, most fans of new wave German film, even in Germany, would be hard pressed to name a woman film director — perhaps with the exception of two filmmakers who have had some popular success, Margarethe von Trotte (THE SECOND AWAKENING OF CHRISTA KLAGES) and Helma Sanders-Brahms (GERMANY PALE MOTHER).
Do, then, no women produce films in Germany? If so, why haven't they become better known following the critical acclaim accorded to German cinema for the past several years? And what kind of women do they present in their films?
The number of women filmmakers, scriptwriters, producers and technicians grows in West Germany. Contrary to their better-known male colleagues’ preoccupation with the exotic and the allegorical, these women directors tend to make films in fictional modes. In such films, the self is clearly inserted, or they address women's immediate oppression in contemporary West German society. To some extent these films can be called women's films or feminist films. Yet such a practice quickly reveals the poverty of such labeling. On the one hand, such a label may include any film by a woman. On the other, it may limit the aesthetic question to one of pure content. Either way, the dominant male film culture and criticism have used such inadequate labels to co-opt and/or disarm the films' critical tactics. Nonetheless, here the term “feminist filmmaking” does function to point to a filmmaking practice defining itself outside the masculine mirror.
German feminism is one of the most active women's movements in Europe. It has gained access to television; engendered a spectrum of journals, a publishing house and a summer women's university in Berlin; inspired a whole group of filmmakers; and generally pushed itself into public view by means of media interventions. The conscious work of women as women has visibly increased in the area of film production. This increase results from a more broadly based feminist cultural environment, constituted as a response to general disinterest in or even hostility toward denouncing sexism.
In this context, women have invested much energy in organizing alternative means to bring films by women to the public and to encourage critical discussion about feminism and film. West Berlin, in particular, has emerged as a center for feminist film production and cinema studies. There in November 1973 the first German women's film festival and workshop was held. Although women have not organized another festival on that scale, non-commercial cinemas and film societies have become increasingly willing to show features by women, and some have even showcased individual filmmakers or organized thematic groups of films around women's issues. Arsenal, the West Berlin cinematheque, has led this kind of programming and archival work.
An important link in distributing alternative feminist films has been the popular, autonomous "women's cinemas" in cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Munich and Saarbrücken. Berlin's Frauenkino was the first — the model — until it closed recently. In 1977 a women's collective began renting a movie theatre one night a week to show films by women to women. The undertaking responded to the ways traditional movie houses excluded women by programming policies that were oriented primarily around men's entertainment and informational needs. In addition, the women's collective wanted to develop a situation not only to show films but also to discuss them, so that frequently filmmakers and technicians participated. The collective received criticism from some feminists and leftists for sexism and a separatist mentality because it excluded men from the weekly film showings and did not show films by men about women. In response, the Frauenkino called its programming an offensive strategy, since traditional cinemas showed an overabundance of other films, and the group said that its exclusionary policy in fact heightened men's interest in films by women.(1)
The feminist film journal frauen und film (published by Rotbuch Verlag, West Berlin) represents another crucial step in establishing a milieu for feminist film culture. Founded by Helke Sander in 1974, the original goals of the journal corresponded in many ways to those of Women and Film, which began publication in 1972 in California, Namely, both journals sought to investigate the impact of patriarchal culture in the film medium and to critique cinematic sexism. Two other German feminist monthlies (Emma and Courage) carry on this tradition of criticism as they publish film reviews identifying the sexism in stereotypical images and demystifying explicit sexist ideology in film. Frauen und film, in the meantime, sees itself as a forum for women professionally involved in film production. In its seven years of publication, it has consistently probed into all areas concerning feminism and film. This is despite criticism from male traditionalists that it makes sexism into an excuse for poor quality when reviewing films by women. And it is also despite criticism from feminists that the journal is too professionally oriented and that it comes from a publishing house run by a collective composed of both men and women (see excerpts from frauen und film editorials). As an organ devoted to films by and for women, frauen und film uniquely struggles to legitimize women's subjectivity in the cultural sphere, while also trying to deal positively with the real absence of women as autonomous agents in film production.
In December, 1979, an association of women filmworkers was established in West Berlin (Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen). The organization distributed a manifesto at the Hamburg Film Festival (1979) demanding that 50% of all film subsidies go to women filmworkers and special money go toward distributing and exhibiting films by women. The association meets once a month in Berlin to formulate plans for common projects. It sponsored its first supra-regional meeting at the Berlin Film Festival in February, 1980, and has since incorporated, nationwide.
In many ways, German feminist filmmakers have more privileges than their U.S. sisters. West Germany has a well-developed system of federal and local granting agencies and prizes for independent filmmakers, as well as ten national and local public television studios with their own monies to commission shorts, documentaries and features. In the early seventies, television in particular generously funded women filmmakers. In fact, TV film production is where most feminist directors first gained recognition.
Most recently women filmmakers' situation has become more precarious. As the general interest in feminism has subsided for political and economic reasons, so has the flow of money from television sources. Consequently, talented filmmakers like Helke Sander and Ula Stöckl were not able to make films for three or four years. Moreover, films financed by TV networks are always produced under ideological constraints, even in a society like that of West Germany, which likes to pride itself on its postwar liberal cultural tolerance. Films that deal with real social processes have always been harder to get accepted.
In this respect, it should be kept in mind that West German feminist filmmaking can be distinguished both in form and content from other European production because of the close relationship of the women's movement to the student Left in its initial phase.(2) In other words, many feminist filmmakers come out of the Left. As a result of divergent influences, from both television and from the Left, it is possible to trace a consistent interest on the women's part in socially critical themes with a definite political tendency, and second, a dominant interest in utilizing documentary techniques.
As far as access to money from federal subsidies and prizes is concerned, women — as do all independent filmmakers — face the well-known problem of the big money going to the big names. Consequently, what is referred to here as "women's films" are for the most part low-budget productions, forcing women to adapt their style to the format of TV shorts or non-commercial features. This has hindered their developing new forms of production and escaping the circuit of television and industrial filmmaking. Furthermore, in order to stay within a limited budget, these filmmakers will often rely on professional teams recruited from friends and volunteers, thus further denying women film technicians and actors the kind of recognition and remuneration they could expect.
The seven filmmakers interviewed for JUMP CUT, and whose interviews will appear in this and the following issue, discuss the difficulties inherent in developing their own film language under these conditions of production: How can women struggle against social and sexual violence? How can they find a system of values based on equality?
Many of the directors make films that in one way or another are both documentary and fictional. This may not be a free decision on their part but rather come from the need to produce a low budget film. Thus, both out of necessity and an unwillingness to use traditional documentary and fictional techniques, these women are developing their own methods for bringing together individual experience and social insight in filmic images. Many of the "early" films by these feminists portray a strikingly morbid reality. Daily life often seems reduced to a few social relations, and the protagonists to victims. More recently their films have begun to explore other contradictions in everyday living, imagination’s role in dealing with such contradictions, women's desire to intervene in their own lives, and hence, the films restructuring or recovery of women's history.
These interviews are intended to present information and to expose issues: they do not pretend to be either analytical or theoretical. Although some of the filmmakers express hesitancy about identifying with the goals or methods of the women's movement, they all emphasize their debt to the questions posed by feminists' oppositional cultural perspective. Whether their films are categorically feminist or not is a discussion that will have to be left to another different sort of presentation. For my part, as a male spectator, I found all the films I saw sometimes exciting, sometimes irritating contributions to a process of change — changes in myself and changes in the way I view films.
The interviews were conducted informally and without pre-arranged questions in June, 1979. I asked about the following things — biographical background; thematic questions about how to go beyond showing just women's oppression; aesthetic issues such as the relation between female image and female viewer or the relation between constructing alternate images and deconstructing established images of women; the filmmaker's concern with woman as spectator; and finally, the filmmaker's connection to the Left and the women's movement. Transcriptions of the discussions were edited and rearranged for publication (five of the interviews, edited by Jutta Phillips, appeared in shortened form in Äesthetic und Kommunikation, 37, October 1979). The filmographies which accompany the interviews are selective.(3)
1. One offshoot of the Frauenkino in Berlin was a short-lived distributor for women's films, Chaos Film, which was forced to dissolve after only one year of business.
2. For a more detailed introduction to the women's movement in West Germany, see New German Critique, 13, Special Feminist Issue (Winter, 1978).
3. For a more complete overview of women filmmakers in West Germany, see my annotated catalog in Camera Obscura, 6 (Fall, 1980) pp. 123-152; and "Cine-Feminists in West Berlin," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5:2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 217-232.