Interview with Erika Runge
"One Brick in a Large House"

by Marc Silberman

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 54
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005


Born 1939, Runge studied literature and theatre (Ph.D.). She has no formal training in filmmaking. She was active in the student movement. She pioneered in film and book publishing, using the format of interviewing socially oppressed individuals. Numerous film and book prizes.

Selected publications:

  • Bottroper Protokolle (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1968)
  • Frauen: Versuche zur Emanzipation (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1969)
  • Reise nach Rostock DDR (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1971)
  • Südafrika. Rassendiktatur zwischen Elend und Widerstand (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1974)
  • Kinder in Kreuzberg (Berlin, 1979).

All of Runge's films were produced by television networks and therefore most are not at this time available for general commercial distribution.

1968: WARUM IST FRAU B. GLÜCKLICH? (WHY IS MRS. B. HAPPY?) 45 min., 16mm, b/w, dist: Schonecker (Essen). A miner's wife tells about her personal history as a woman and a worker and about labor history in Germany's most highly industrialized region.

1970: ICH HEISSE ERWIN UND BIN 17 JAHRE (MY NAME IS ERWIN AND I AM 17) 75 min., 16mm, b/w, dist: Bavaria. Describes job opportunities for youth and the conditions under which they are integrated into the labor force.

1975: MICHAEL ODER DIE SCHWERIGKEITEN MIT DEN GLÜCK (MICHAEL, OR PROBLEMS WITH HAPPINESS) 83 min., 16mm, color (no commercial distributor). An unemancipated wife uses her housework as an instrument of terror in the family without realizing that her private needs are also social needs. Her communication problems also affect the children.

1975: OPA SCHULZ (GRANDPA SCHULZ) 86 min., 16m, b/w (no commercial distributor). A fictional portrait of a senior citizen who tries to play a responsible role in his immediate community.

1981: LISA UND TSCHEPO, EINE LIEBESGESCHICHTE (LISA AND CHEPO, A LOVE STORY) 85 min., l6mm, color (no commercial distributor). Runge's first film in which she directs professional actors is about a black South African refugee, living in West Germany, who falls in love with a German secretary. At the end of the film, he returns to South Africa to fight for independence.

Project: ANNA LOUISE, a contemporary film comedy about a 20-year old assembly line worker. She suddenly discovers that the yellow hat she inherits from her grandmother endows her with magical powers. Although she accidentally loses the hat, Anna and her women co-workers have gained an instrument of power which they continue to use for their own needs.

My first film came about as the by-product of a fiction film which I have yet to make. In 1967/68 West Germany experienced its first economic crisis since the wartime recovery, and it was particularly acute in the highly industrialized Ruhr region. I was active in left politics (SDS) and, with the naiveté of the left students at that time, I went to the Ruhr in order to live the revolution, which we expected there, and to make a film. I brought along a tape recorder (I don't know the dialect of the region) and did many interviews so as to develop a script. First I produced a book from the material (Bottroper Protokolle), and then I was commissioned to make a film-the documentary WARUM IST FRAU B. GLÜCKLICH? The film was unusual because it showed a working woman who was interesting and articulate — something new in West German film. That film won six prizes, so the door to TV opened to me. Thus I "fell" into the documentary genre, but it has made reality accessible to me in a unique way.

I wanted to make my next film together with apprentices but found that difficult, not least of all because of the conditions of production for television. But I learned how to work with amateurs who contributed their own experiences to a dramatic idea which had already been established but not yet completely formulated. ICH HEISE ERWIN was thus a quasi-documentary fictional film.

In the meantime, I have had it with the documentary approach. I find I can elicit different stories from one and the same person — love stories or political stories. Although I decide the point of view, I work with someone who, through me, through my work, can transmit something. I must step back completely in order to do justice to this person. Such a documentary technique does not sufficiently stimulate my imagination, and it neglects utopian elements. That is why I have turned away from documentaries. I find other possibilities arise from the play of emotions in fiction. Fiction offers a different kind of appeal to the audience and other possibilities of making contact.

I have only partially been able to actualize such utopian aspects, as with OPA SCHULZ. This commissioned film about a 72-year-old man was about someone I could not really identify with. Again, I did some research — always important for me — by visiting senior citizens up and down the streets of Berlin. It was very depressing. Someone born in 1900 has participated in two world wars and experienced unemployment, fascism and the postwar period — a life of catastrophes. Most of these people are simply worn out, exhausted, but I didn't want to make a film which merely demonstrated what an awful life that was. It's terrible to film someone who works on an assembly line saying, "It's awful to work on an assembly line." No assembly line worker would want to watch that, just like no senior citizen would, either. So whenever I heard in their stories something like "I'm still going strong," or "I still want to have fun," I extracted it. I felt I was pouring their stories through a sieve so as to fashion a character, an active personality with a history. The film was rather popular.

In ICH HEISE ERWIN, I had to face how to make a documentary about young people, who are more likely than senior citizens to make demands or have some ideas which should not be altered by someone else's interpretation. But young people also may not have a clearly delineated sense of self, let alone the ability to articulate that sense coherently. Someone who has gone to school for only 6 or 8 years probably has difficulty trying to express something quickly and precisely, if s/he has not been involved in working for 2 or 3 years. It's hard to put ideas into lucid form, content, and context, as is required in the production of television films. Ultimately, the apprentices weren't even interested in this. In fact, they had an authoritarian fixation.

"Here comes this broad and she's got her own idea about a TV film she wants to make. Why the hell does she always ask us about what she's supposed to do? Let her figure it out herself. In other words, you've got credentials, so why bother us with discussions?"

I have a problem developing my film language and haven't explored various possibilities enough. The kind of documentary films I make deal with contemporary themes which can never be played on sets or in some kind of staged environment. The stage is already set when we enter an apartment where someone lives. For example, my film MICHAEL ODER DIE SCHWERIGKEITEN MIT DEM GLÜCK has a scene in which the mother is supposed to break down in tears because she doesn't know which way to turn. In my opinion, the scene didn't work at all. Although a non-professional can command a variety of feelings or be induced to call up many emotions in certain situations, that person cannot express strong feelings convincingly. That takes professional training. I can't shoot a close up of a face showing horror when my nonprofessionals can't show that. Also, they get worse with repeated takes. Whenever I want to work with professional actors, the producers say: "You know how to work with amateurs so well. You'll never get such lively scenes with professionals."

I've used feminism to find myself. I spent quite a while trying to fit myself into history and understand my position as a woman. Some of my work revolves directly around women's problems. Now I think the decisive struggle is being waged between classes, not between sexes. Nevertheless, I see a tremendous developmental process occurring between men and women and in individual women. I myself partake of this process; but I have already solved for myself many of the problems feminists confront. I see myself primarily as a leftist (with Marxist leanings) and that is how I consider my commitment to women's issues.

You cannot make films for everyone. Changing consciousness becomes a complex problem. We should look at a film as one brick in a large house, or maybe more realistic, as one stone in the facade of a skyscraper! I make each film trying to reach a particular group.