Contradictory reality

by Uta Berg-Ganschow
translated by Ramona Curry

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 63
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

From Frauen und Film No. 20 (May 1979), published by Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin, pp. 40-43.

We are united in our demand that feminist film — if such a thing exists-should "make women's authentic experiences tangible."(1) But that's about as far as unity goes, for some can think of authentic experiences only in terms of positive ones, as women's autonomy realized in an alienated world, as the "inner explosive of a woman who breaks out, whom no one can beat down." Authenticity here is the "primeval and essential feminine gift, which allows itself to be reduced by no one and nothing."(2)

Are triumphs more authentic than defeats?

Others see a more precise portrayal of life primarily in portraying experiences of suffering, humiliation, and defeat. But so far not all women do. Are the "spiritual exhalations of rich bourgeois women" less authentic than those of, for example, a working woman who suffers from physical violence?(3) Is it ultimately a question of class, after all, rather than sex distinctions? Does authentic experience first deserve having that description when from below the lower middle class? If the demand for authentic experience is to be more than an emotional sa1utatio to an otherwise alienated reality, that demand must also incorporate reality's contradictions. Everything else would be a fantasy about autonomy, a pleasant self-image bargained for in exchange for reality.

In REDUPERS Helke Sander shows women's experiences as consisting of the experience of contradictions, oppositions, and limitations. Her film has been praised and criticized for the wrong reasons. While some film journalists quickly attached to it the label "women's film," some women were unable to identity in it their feminist ideals. They missed the strong, optimistic, model woman and wanted the women's film as imagination's head start towards better times. Should "the all-round developed individual" (Marx), to which Helke Sander's film certainly refers,  be presented under the Christmas tree only after communism has been achieved? Or isn't it already possible to present alternatives and gain different perspectives? An alternative sensibility and the personality's full development, which woman's "fellow man" has apparently already reduced — couldn't women begin to achieve these now in the forefront in working with women, in playing with children, in associating with men?(4)

The film offers different perspectives and an alternative sensibility, but not in happily well-developed personality traits found in the heroine or other characters in the film. Instead, the film offers these alternatives as it develops, through sensually rich montage, the main figure's relation to the restrictive reality around her. Because this development does not establish a single version of reality for the viewers, it allows them to experience it for themselves.

Helke Sander shows social and economic reality as a determining factor of individual experience. This is not done in the manner of social-realist workers' films, not by having her characters embody political-economic theses.(5) But her film is also not a hymn of praise to individualism able to defend itself successfully against alienating society. Helke Sander doesn't force the viewer to regard as a matter of fate the relation between social forces and individual opportunities for growth (or the diminishing of these) as is common in narrative cinema. REDUPER's strength, its sensual and intellectual attraction, lies instead in the fact that, repeatedly, new sides, new views of society as well as of the individual, become apparent. It lies in the fact that the film's montage presents familiar experiences from particular contexts in a new way — distanciated, changed. The essential dramaturgical concept of the film, which enables us to identify the many-faceted montage with the many-faceted reconstructions — or rather deconstructions — of reality, rests on the fact that the main character, Edda, is a photographer and her women's group, a group of photographing women.

Helke Sander's film — film photography of photographing women — uses the production of pictures not only on the level of subject matter, photographers' milieu. The photos not only provide material for or the occasion of a story (as, for example, in BLOW UP). The duplication of the medium and the subject also goes beyond being a cineaste's in-joke (as in Wender's KINGS OF THE ROAD). The essential difference lies in the fact that the mediation of reality, the film's subject, recurs on the levels of film montage. Breaks, ironic distanciation, and elements of alienation, which arise from the continually new montage of image and sound, illustrate in a double sense for the viewer new views of reality. The single elements of montage (image-dialogue-sound; image-narration; image-music) are frequently themselves the result of montage. Examples on the visual level include the large photo of the wall placed in front of the wall and the view through the theater curtain of East Berlin. On the level of sound, there are radio broadcasts from East and West brought into confrontation and literary quotations introduced into the ongoing voice-over narration.

One level of montage — the one of subtle self-irony, semi-resignation, and pointed commentary — interprets and corrects the visual meaning but not only by providing additional information. The commentary and image together form rather a third composite, with no attempt made at making this seem naturalistically probable. The commentary thus detracts nothing from that which is shown, not even where it serves to distanciate. Rather, it places that which is shown in alternative contexts. Viewers cannot blindly accept one or another of the texts — sound/image/dialogue/music — as valid in and of itself. The viewer instead has to figure out the meaning of the montage for herself/himself, as, for example, when the camera tracks along the desert along the Berlin Wall to triumphantly swelling music by Beethoven. Rarely in REDUPERS is a montage so complicated that one is totally preoccupied with trying to catch even halfway the single montage elements. However, this is the case in the sequence in which three scenes from different films by women are simultaneously projected onto a newspaper clipping reporting atomic catastrophes, while a voice reads a letter reporting the private catastrophe of "Aunt Katharina." (This sequence is an homage to the makers of the three films and also to the montage methods of Godard's NUMERO 2.) What the film otherwise gradually relates sequence by sequence — the situation of a woman unable to devote herself entirely to any one thing — is turned here in this sequence almost aggressively against the viewers, overwhelming them with information.

Two examples will illustrate how the film portrays reality through demonstrating how reality is produced. A voice over prepares the viewer in an ironic and distanciated manner for "a newsworthy event" — the last steam locomotive travels from Berlin to Hamburg. For the viewers, there are two levels of images: we see three photographers watching for a locomotive which is out of sight.

Voice-over: "A shot with the telephoto lens over the border. It's still the wrong train."(6)

Now and again the different levels of perceptions or appearances coincide within the context of the film. The viewer now looks along with the photographer through the telephoto lens to "the other side"; the film camera lens and the camera lens become identical. Then again there's double perception: viewers see how the photographers continue to watch to no avail for the "event." The result of this montage is this. Viewers can experience for themselves the working situation of three photographers standing around freezing near the Berlin Wall, drinking something to keep warm, waiting to capture a particle of reality which as an event is to be published for thirty-two marks per piece.

A similar process occurs in a more extended sequence in which the women's group is beginning its photo-action. The photographic facsimile of reality — of the Berlin Wall — is juxtaposed against that reality as a billboard-sized photograph. According to the dialogue and the commentary, the women expect from this confrontation to be able to evaluate how well their photos of Berlin capture its reality.

(The photo is placed successively in front of a wall covered with advertisements, in front of the Berlin Wall itself, in front of a wall of a private estate, then of an industrial complex, and finally in front of a military installation.)

This test occurring before the viewer brings out the social realities of those who are concerned with reality. In that which appears to be a disturbance, an annoying interruption of work, a breakdown, emerges the women's special relation to society. A woman who's working on photomontage has to go pick up her child, at which another in the group snarls at her,

"Oh man, couldn't you just once leave your kid all day Sunday with your ex-husband. I think it's a terrible disturbance every time one of you drags her child along!"

Another woman has wet feet; all are disappointed and unsure because the work isn't going right. "Edda has the wrong lens."(7) One is dubious about the outcome of the work.

While they are trying to capture Berlin's reality, they are tripped up by their own social and psychic reality. The film montage overlays these levels and turns their original meaning around. The women's small subjective problems take on objective contours bit by bit, montage element by montage element, as the supposedly official objective reality becomes individually grasped through the process of authentic experience.

But this also means that there can be no compromise in emancipation, no partial reconciliation of individuality, desire for self-fulfillment, and social constraints. Helke Sander's main character can neither attain a feminist conquest nor without damage become integrated into the social power structures. For her there is no happy ending — but there is also no neat, final catastrophe. Helke Sander has organized everyday chaos as a film experience which doesn't allow that chaos to disappear behind the conventions of narrative film.


1. Gertrud Koch, "Ein Reich authentischer Bilder," Medium, no. 12 (1978), p. 41.

2. Alexandra Kluge, "Die alizeitig …," Filmfaust, no. 7 (1978), p. 37.

3. Esther Dayan, "Zu flink einsetzender Beifall," Courage, no. 4 (1979), p. 38.

4. Jula Dech, "Die allzeitig …, Kassandra, no. 1 (1978), p. 8.

5. Compare Ursula Bachor and Helge Heberle's "Berliner Arbeiterfilm" Frauen und Film, no. 6, p. 197.

6. (Translator's note) "… the wrong train"; in German, "Es ist immer noch der falsche Zug." This is a pun on the common German word for train, "Zug," which also means "move" as a noun, as in, "What's your next move?"

7. (Translator's note) "… the wrong lens"; in German, "Edda hat das falsche Objektiv." This is a pun on the German word for lens, "Objektiv,” which, as an adjective in German (but not as a noun), has the same meaning as "objective" as an English adjective, e.g., as in, "Be objective," or in, "The Objective (Subjective) Factor."