by Lisa Katzman
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 60-62
In writing about male-dominated narrative film, feminist film critic Claire Johnston makes this point:
In recent years a genre of women's cinema has emerged that challenges, subverts, and transcends not only the images which male-dominated cinema associates with women but the fetishistic symbolic value which Johnston characterizes male-dominated cinema as attributing to women — a value which bankrupts female characters of a complex subjectivity of their own or at best reduces it to a formal stratagem of male psychology: an aspect of plot or dramatic action. In short, in much male-dominated cinema, women function to create psychological conflict, to further the plot by providing a motive for action or being the vehicle of it. Rarely are the women characters' own lives, visions, and subjectivity regarded as adequate to comprise the central concern of and reason for making a film. In the past ten years, however, women filmmakers as diverse as Sara Gomez, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, Michele Citron, Chantal Akerman, and Helke Sander have succeeded in making films that put women at the center. Although these filmmakers take up radically different formal, conceptual, thematic, political, and aesthetic considerations, they share an active desire to represent woman as woman, not as spectacle.
Helke Sander, in her film THE ALL-AROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY,(2) uses the structure of the traditional narrative to reveal the strength of the main character, Edda. The story Sander tells reveals a commitment not to betray the actual economic and political exigencies intrinsic to any real life story In particular, Sander shows the ways they cut with a special double edge into Edda's life as a single parent and an artist. As the film does this, it exposes the limitations of traditional male-dominated narrative practices, which generally only touch upon such exigencies' outer perimeters. Previous narrative practice has dealt more with economic and political factors only as they confront female characters rather than getting to these factors' sexually oppressive construction.
THE ALL-AROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY opens with a long tracking shot of the Berlin Wall. Filmed at eye level, the camera emphasizes the wall's ubiquity and its presence as a seemingly natural part of the landscape. We are disarmed — not by the wall's physical monumentality — but on the contrary, by the variation and discontinuity in its size and texture. In places the wall is made of barbed wire; in other places, of mortar and bricks grown over with ivy, like a cemetery wall. An unassuming viewer would probably have trouble identifying the Berlin Wall here from almost any single frozen shot. But Berlin is the film's location and largely what its subject shall be. If the sheer continuity of the wall that emerges in this long tracking shot does not confirm one's suspicions as to its identity, the handwriting on the wall will. We see the wall covered with graffiti: hammer and sickle, political messages, and the recurrent initials KPO/ML. From the start Helke Sanders posits the wall as the film's central visual metaphor, thereby establishing both the psychological and geographical locus of THE ALL-AROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY.
While these opening shots' foreground our sense of place, the next sequence comments ironically on the dubiousness and ambiguity of Berlin as a place or a city. A postman delivers a letter to the film's protagonist — Edda Chiemnyjewski, played by Helke Sander herself — asking her to read the (presumably) English writing on the envelope. The note is to the postman and says that Berlin has a special international status, neither in West or East Germany, so he (the postman) should ask President Carter where it is. This scene juxtaposes the hard physical reality of the wall as boundary, established in the opening scene, to the ambiguity of Berlin's "international status," how the world sees it but isn't sure to what country it belongs. The line, "Ask President Carter where it (Berlin] is" hints at a pervasive cynicism, which one of Edda's friends expresses more blatantly later:
As the central visual metaphor of the film, the wall represents Berlin's paradoxical nature. The wall both defines the city and makes Berlin have a "special status" in relation to the world, a status at once problematic and ambiguous.
A photographer and divorced mother, Edda is divided between the demands of motherhood and her art. As a free-lance photographer she supports herself and her daughter largely through the photographs she sells to the daily paper. After her encounter with the postman, we see her on her way to shoot the last run of the Berlin-Hamburg steam train. As she is leaving, she lifts her young daughter up, kisses the girl, and hands the child over to her roommate to hold. Her daughter clings to her long scarf. Edda cannot pry the girl's fingers loose, and so she disentangles the scarf from her neck, leaving it to dangle from her daughter's hand as Edda dashes out the door.
The film cuts to Edda waiting with three male photographers on a foggy embankment standing around a tripod. At this point for the first time a narrator's voice cuts in.
Sander uses the voice over — a documentary convention — as a way of distancing the viewer from the characters, as epic theater does. The narrator's intermittent interjections signal various conceptual contexts. These are the contexts within which Sander feels the viewer should consider the ongoing narrative at that particular point. Here, the narrator indicates this is strictly business, an assignment rather than a chosen subject to photograph. We see Edda impatient, anxious to get it over with, tapping her foot. "Payment," the narrator tells us, "thirty deutsche marks." A telescopic shot through the barbed wire mesh of the Berlin Wall shows a train, framed by the circular edge of Edda's zoom lens. "Still the wrong train," the narrator comments, as we, the viewers, marvel for the time at the closeness, the direct proximity of that "other side" to where Edda stands in West Berlin. Following this scene comes a montage sequence of shots of Edda's working on other assignments, always accompanied by the narrator's voice informing us of how much was paid for each job.
From these shots of Edda's working and the narrator's ironic commentary, we learn that Edda's energy and interest in her subject mater exceeds the nature of the hack work the press employs her to do. We see Edda spot toning her pictures by hand, her roommate calling to her to get her negatives out of the bathtub, her work continuously in process. In her darkroom she commiserates with a photographer friend about Agfa's raising the price of paper. We see the paper as it changes from silver to plastic — it's a form of modernization that places an enormous financial burden on the freelance photographer, the person least equipped economically to handle it.
Clearly Edna's efforts are overspent in relation to what the press pays her, and the over-investiture of her time cuts into time she needs to spend with her daughter and to work on her own photographic projects. Working for the paper compromises her artistic ambitions, and motherhood constrains them. The economic exigencies of her life (as reported by the narrator) make her attention to her work — that attentiveness and genuine concern with which she approaches the subjects of her photo assignments — difficult and untenable to support. In relation to her job, we see Edda in what appears to be a no-win situation. It is in her relations with a collective of women photographers that she manifests that part of herself that her job neither supports nor fulfills.
This group of women photographers has received funding for documentary projects about the city. The narrator gives a detailed account of how the women were awarded the grant after applying for it two years earlier. We also learn about the arts council's ulterior motives. With an election coming up, the council members calculated they needed to demonstrate publicly their support of feminism. And the council, both its male and female members, knew they could fund a women's group less than they would have to fund a group of men or a mixed group. But the women of Edda's group are only too delighted to get funded at all.
But when the women assemble to look at each other's photographs, they see that clearly the documentation they have produced is not what, as they correctly assume, the arts council expects. Rather than coming up with Sunday-supplement style, humanistic shots of working women in Berlin, they have — independently of each other yet unanimously — all chosen to focus on how Berlin's sociopolitical situation is reflected in the city's architecture, particularly in the wall.
In presenting her photographs to her group, Edda says differences between East and West Berlin are always being emphasized, but in her photographs she seeks to explore similarities. These similarities include cars and subways, as well as graffiti; Edda adds, "In the East, graffiti is official; in the West, unofficial." The second thing she says commands her attention and photographic interest are the wall's holes: "These are the holes," she says, "where the information leaks through, the love stories and the mutual energy supply" — all of which defy physics.
In their photographic work, the women give an expanded, new political context to the wall. Thus the wall gains a conceptual frame within the film. Even the title reflects the theme of East-West differences and similarities, which are symbolized by the wall. To say "All-Around Reduced Personality" is to provide a Western twist on the "all-around realized socialist personality" promoted by the East Berlin radio station that Edda listens to.
The photographs that Edda and her friends have taken of the wall lead to the women's artistic and political strategy. They choose to expose to public view the hypocrisy which exists between the image West Berlin likes to maintain of itself, as a "free" city and part of the "free world," and the kind of repression or blocking out of mind and sight that such a convention depends upon. The photographs also provide the occasion for two concepts of feminism to collide: the photography group's and the art council's.
From the standpoint of the arts council that has commissioned the women in order to deck out its own feminist sympathies, the council does not want to focus on the wall because it has a fixed and parochial view of women's issues. In effect, it needs more to project a public image of itself as a liberal feminist sympathizer than to see the connection of "women's issues" to West Germany's "broader" social issues. The arts council's attitude is reductive. It brackets feminism as a sociological curiosity rather than as the organization of critical insights and judgments.
The arts council cannot see that feminism is a perspective that has as much legitimacy when it penetrates the ideological and political ramifications of the Berlin Wall as when it deals with "women's problems" of rape and abortion. While the arts council considers only certain subjects germane to feminism, Edda and her friends understand how the dynamics of sexism, like capitalism, permeate every aspect life. Furthermore, the arts council's circumscribing of certain social problems (day care, rape, and abortion) to women's issues becomes a form of social domestication, a way of naturalizing these problems and thereby diverting attention from them.
As Edda and her friends continue to discuss the project, they realistically expect the arts council to withdraw funds if they insist on showing their photographs of the wall. That assessment consolidates and radicalizes their commitment to the project. As one of the women says,
She's not referring to the sort of hackwork Edda must do to support herself but to the women's careers as artists and perhaps as political activists. In rejecting the art council's liberal, pseudo-progressive definition of feminism and exercising their artistic autonomy, the women begin to realize a deeper, more complex vision of feminism.
The women want people to look at the wall so as to impel people to think about everyone’s complicity in legitimizing the subtle and insidious forms of social repression that have increasingly come to dominate West German life. They and the whole film posit an implicit connection between this concern and feminism. From what Sander presents of the characters, she implies that the women must raise political consciousness about repression in West Berlin. The populace will never learn how sexism is naturalized if they don't see how much more generalized forms of social repression permeate their lives. This argument's logic may seem grim from an idealized feminist point of view. But the women of the photography collective are well enough seasoned politically to understand that indirection often provides the best and most expeditious way to effect political change.
When the arts council rejects the pictures, it also provides focus, an object lesson in the social construction of meaning. Because it does not share the photography collective's critique of culture, which would enable it to see how sexism and social repression are linked, it misses the photographs' metaphorical meaning.
Like the characters in the photography collective, Sander herself refrains from polemicizing political persuasions. She relies on the quality of the characters' interactions with one another to convey the women's artistic intentions and political convictions. Sander has a particular deftness for capturing the nuances of their political and aesthetic orientation in the inflections of their style, their behavior and conversation, their judgment and gestures.
The stark, flattened black-and-white tones of much of the film's images come off as a minimalist, stylized version of the photojournalism that the film depicts. The cinematic style borders on aridity. Yet in the scene in which the women show their photographs and decide to do the project without the funding of the arts council, the film's grainy surface combined with the spatial composition of the women and the suffusion of late afternoon light contributes a painterly quality.
Here we see a distinct departure from the framing style and tonal qualities that mark the rest of the film. Here Sander presents the women working together with an absorbed and quiet intensity. They sift through photographs, critique each other's work, and deliberate and debate about what they want to do in contrast to the art council's expectations. What Sander captures in this scene is a vision of collective work that is idyllic and lyrical without being idealistic or fantastical.
Here is an image of women working together, through their own volition, out of a common artistic and political vision rather' than under the aegis of patriarchal capitalism. Such images are rare and rather unprecedented in Western Europe and U.S. culture. By affording us such a view, Sander compels us to imagine a form of social organization in which work does not remain identified with competition and exploiting workers.
Just as Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA established a radical and joyous vision of work in post-revolutionary Soviet society, celebrating work as the socialist appropriation of modern technology and industrialization, so Sander depicts work as a non-alienating activity. Moreover, Sander's portrait of the women's collective photographic enterprise challenges the modern, Western, patriarchal image of the artist as a singular, striving, solipsistic individual. While the almost dizzying staccato rhythm of Vertov's cross-cutting reflects the exuberant utopianism of his vision of industrial power in a Marxist society, the stylistics of Sander's tableaux are equally reflective of her vision of collective artistic work. The type of work presented in each of these films differs. What the films share is a vision of work that does not polarize work and pleasure. To this end, both films go far in engendering images of a new form of social community.
During their meeting in the sequence I just described, the women choose one of Edda's photos to blow up and mount on a public billboard. Once they have done so and all stand back to check it out, they come to a startling understanding that an unsuspecting viewer could mistake their great blown-up photo for an advertisement since it appears right next to one. The possibility that their picture might become eclipsed in the public eye by the plethora of commercial billboards registers with bleak irony. Implied in their reaction is this sad lesson. If society has neither eyes nor ears for the images and voices of social and political resistance, if it cannot recognize such resistance, then it is probably further down the road to totalitarianism or fascism than any of the characters had imagined. In that case, the women's efforts would be rendered futile anyway. But the women continue to mount their photos about the city, carrying one with a flourish of bravado into the very real-life situation it reproduces. This shot has a particular extra-diegetic significance for the viewer. It offers Sander's wry wink at the audience, her way of spelling out how she identifies her filmmaking process with the photography enterprise her film represents.
A bit later in the film we see the women hanging a curtain around one of the many "observation" towers in West Berlin from which East Berlin can be seen. A crowd of tourists gather to see the view. We hear Beethoven's "Song of Joy" playing triumphantly on the sound track. The crowd mounts the stairs to the tower. When the curtain is pulled back they see an utterly commonplace and ordinary vision of the "other side." The crowd's anticipation gives way to quiet disappointment and letdown, and they depart immediately.
In her review of THE ALL-AROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY, B. Ruby Rich has commented on this scene:
By diminishing the monumentality of East Berlin, the curtain emphasizes the wall's monumentality. That is, the ordinariness of the view of East Berlin, its very likeness to West Berlin, disconcerts tourists, who come to West Berlin looking for a peep show into the East. But if East Berlin does not appear to be the sinister, dark shadow of West Berlin it is touted as, the photography collective's tactic should force tourists to view the wall and its monumentality as all the more imposing. Edda and her friends hoped that visually apprehending the similarities between the East and West would have helped tourists focus on the painful absurdity of the political situation which the wall is a monument to. But the tourists don't come to this conclusion. The deliberate absurdity of the women's conceptual art-joke becomes lost on the tourists — presumably because they lack the social or political sensitivity and sympathy to follow the conceptual thread of the women's intention. After the tourists leave, Edda and her friends feel deflated and downcast. Such a mood betrays the naiveté of their original optimism and seems to contradict their own political sophistication. Yet the scene touches us with its quiet black humor.
After one particularly vexing day, we watch Edda climb into bed. The narrator quotes from the East German novelist Christa Woolf:
As we wonder how much consolation these words really offer, in the next frame we learn it's only enough to get asleep on. Edda is awakened by her roommate at the behest of a city paper that needs her to cover one of the city's nightly tragedies. But the next day we discover that this paper or some other has been publishing her pictures without credit or payment. In light of this incident, Christa Woolf's words about constant effort resonate with cynicism. In the context of the film the words function as a double entendre. If constant effort gives meaning to the units of time in which we live, what gives meaning to constant effort? A respite from constant effort, pleasure, self-reflection? Edda has virtually no time for these. She is not only beset by financial anxieties and artistic and parental responsibilities but by employers who cheat her. On another level, the viewer is prompted by the Christa Woolf citation to ask similar questions about the film. By having Edda question her existence in such a way, Sander is holding up a mirror to the audience, inviting us to ask similar questions about the film. For example, is it our constant effort that gives meaning to Sander's tableaux?
When the women in Edda's group decide to give up on the arts council, Edda goes to speak to the head of a private advertising agency in order to get the kind of promotion her group needs. She tells the director hw it took two years for her group to be recognized by the arts council. She explains how finally, after receiving funding, the women have reason to believe that their financial support is being withdrawn from them because their photos do not show derelict German women. As they put it, they want to show the
The director only responds,
The women who work for the arts council had exploited them by promoting the socially sanctioned inequity of paying women less than men for the same job. Now this man, who represents the male world of free capitalistic enterprise — like the arts council — can't make the required leap of imagination to realize or invent a connection between feminist issues and what he would consider "larger" political ones. He would like to pigeonhole Edda's photo project into the very slot she and her friends had resisted being forced into by the arts council.
As a last resort, the women of the photography collective decide that making contacts in the art world might help their cause. So a few of them go one night to a gallery opening to get some feedback on their billboard campaign. We see one of Edda's companions being drawn into conversation by two bearded men, assuring her,
Another friend meets up with a woman who belongs to the arts council that has cut off their funding. This woman tells Edda's friend that her organization expected the women's photography group to show
These remarks register as tacitly accepted social views. The cocktail party ambiance of the gallery in which they are uttered reinforces their resonance as empty phrases of bourgeois respectability. By this point in the film we have become so familiar with Sander's use of wry irony to parody liberalism and to expose its hypocrisies that we hear in even the most plausible-sounding statements the hollow clink of liberal slogans. And as the woman states a disapproval of the "negative impressions" that the photos present, we hear more sinister overtones — overtones of a desire for amnesia, a regressing of the reality of history.
In the film's final episode, Sander's subtle but effective attack on liberalism culminates. Edda has attracted the attention of a middle-aged photographer. He is familiar with her work and takes it upon himself to advise her from the vantage point of one who has "made it." At first he is courtly. His appearance is that of a once-striking, roguish yet dignified man who has grown softly flaccid and resigned over the years. He tells Edda he knows a lawyer who can advise her on the legal aspects of continuing the billboard project, and he motions her to come with him. Following the conventions of a pickup, Sander cuts to a shot of this man and Edda sitting together at a restaurant table. The male photographer is drinking, Edda not. He tells Edda how he'd had a successful first exhibition but that the critics panned his second one as too provocative politically and aesthetically. He said he missed the recognition he'd begun to receive. So he began to tailor his work to suit critics' tastes, but he soon found "a kind of pluralism had begun to creep into his work." Even though he has compromised his artistic integrity, he tells Edda that he admires her courage to do what she is doing and that she should continue it. This man's account of himself, delivered in a dry, slightly craven tone of voice, admits to defeat and a sense of failure for having compromised. But it also reveals his arrogance and egotism for the public success and acceptance awarded him. The flat tone of his candor suggests that he does not experience or he has suppressed the moral conflict produced by the contradictions he's chosen to live with.
When he nonchalantly moves his hand to cover Edda's, the look of a cornered animal comes over her face. By the time they reach her doorstep, he seems overtaken by desperation to sexually possess Edda. He forces himself on her, and they wrangle with each other briefly until she manages to break free. The standard Hollywood shot following this struggle at the door would be of Edda and the photographer waking up in bed the next morning. Instead of this, the camera shows us Edda’s vomiting in the gutter. Her big, black coat flaps about her and cars whiz past in the night. That incident has provided just the kind of gritty catharsis she needs, as much as the drink she goes to get at her neighborhood bar, an image which adds a final note of bravado to the episode.
To see Edda’s vomiting in the street provides one of the most memorable and important moments in the film. The intensity of Edda's reaction signals a repulsion that exceeds a woman's anger as object of unwanted sexual advances. Though the male photographer claims that he respects Edda for not compromising herself artistically, his sexual aggression suggests an underlying hostility about the fact that she hasn't compromised and he has. It's as if by getting her sexually, he could even the score. Edda's reaction is to that hostility, to the male photographer's desire to compromise her integrity and identity as an artist by compromising her sexually.
Moreover, the image of Edda’s vomiting in the street violates the taboo against women performing or being seen doing things which are unsightly or unattractive. This taboo exists to conceal the negative effects produced by women's socialization. To violate it exposes the cultural oppression which makes women both psychically and physically sick. And the shock of such an image reveals how our culture would ordinarily repress the symptoms of women's malaise as well as the causes.
Finally, it is this shot of Edda vomiting in the gutter that makes explicit the conceptual connection between the photography collective's interest in the wall and feminism.
As we have seen, the wall's very ubiquity and "naturalness" make it a metaphor for the way repression is rendered invisible by the consensual acceptance of it. The image of Edda’s vomiting crystallizes our identifying this metaphorical meaning of the wall with the way sexism is rendered invisible, as societies accept as "natural" the social oppression of women. The image of Edda’s vomiting ruptures the taboo that maintains this naturalization. So, too, the women's pictures of the wall stand as an effort to deconstruct the naturalization of social repression.
It is a remarkable achievement that Sander does not conflate her analysis of the culture (developed through an examination of Edda's life) with Edda's own relation to the events of her life and the culture she inherits. This shot of Edda’s vomiting and the pictures the women have taken of the wall are, in a sense, metaphorically homologous — leading the viewer, by the end of the film, to interpret the wall as a symbol for the photography collective’s struggle, and therefore, by extension, the women's struggle. However, it is to Sander’s credit that the wall is never directly appropriated by Edda and her friends as a symbol of women's struggle. Such a move would be self-aggrandizing and melodramatic, an artificial rounding off of the complexities and contradictions that women's lives are entangled by. Moreover, such a move on the part of the characters would probably limit and interface with the political perspective and understanding that Sander so carefully constructs through her cultural critique.
It is impressive that Sander does not conflate her analysis of West German culture with Edda's relation to it, especially considering Sander's double role as director and as Edda. Avoiding this conflation, Sander lets us know that it is the viewer's and not Edda's interpretation that establishes the wall both as the central metaphor of the film and a symbol of Edda's group's struggle. The distance which Sander maintains between her character's perspective and her own as director emphasizes that it is Sander's cultural critique that makes such a symbolic interpretation possible. Yet, for Sander, it would seem, it is the perceptions generated by this critique rather than the symbolism supported by it that in the final analysis are decisive.
1. Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter Cinema," In Notes on Women's Cinema, ed. C. Johnston, Screen Pamphlet 2 (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973), reprinted in Patricia Erens, ed., Sexual Stratagems (New York: Horizon, 1979).
2. The film had a subtitle REDUPERS, which in English means "outtakes," or the footage that was shot but not included in the final film. Sometimes the film is referred to, in both German and English criticism, solely as REDUPERS, perhaps because it's conveniently short. Also, REDUPERS is an abbreviation of Reduzierte Persönlichkeit (Reduced Personality).
3. B. Ruby Rich, "Up Against the Walls," Chicago Reader, 11 April 1980.