Ulrike Ottinger's picaresque universe
Ulrike Ottinger quickly adopted the picaresque style. Even her early films have no psychologically sketched characters. Their structure is episodic and lacks an overall theme. Instead there is plenty of detail that temporarily binds the arranged figures into a composition until this is replaced by a new ambience, new shades, new circumstances. She also soon began incoporating satirical elements as well as a love of heterogeneity, the grotesque, the baroque.
The picaresque style is basically a form of baroque. It arose in 16th-Century Spain, not least as an ideological counterpoint to the noble aspirations and characters of the knight epic. The picaro is the hero of the lower classes, a rogue who survives by his wits and knows exactly how to profit from every situation, be it financially or amorously. He wanders through the contemporary world with a satirical eye, making and losing friends, straying from the path, having to flee and squeezing himself back into situations that are none of his business. He is clearly related to the sly trickster and the fool, who is at once both naive and clever. The picaro does not develop personally. The episodic nature of the picaresque style of storytelling alone prevents psychologising. It is open to addition and abbreviation, and its baroque richness often contains far more events than any individual could possibly experience.
Ulrike Ottinger's TWELVE CHAIRS is based on a novel that itself has picaresque traits. It transports its protagonists through the after-shocks of the Russian revolution, and we are amazed at how inventive they prove. Their country has more than its fair share of crass contrasts, chaos and asynchrony. The persona of the picaro is fanned out into a dispossessed upper-class man and a crafty crook, an unevenly matched pair united by greed and flanked by a third figure; a hapless priest. This trio attracts a bizarre group of supporting characters who react in very different (current) ways to the new social order. Ottinger has managed to transfer this material to the screen with humour and storytelling skill, keen attention to detail and an inexhaustible imagination. This is where she can apply her apsychological, eagle-eyed narrative style, create elaborate vignettes, mix poetry with action, the stylised with the absurd. Heterogeneous elements from Shakespeare, the Commedia dell'arte, "Stationendrama," tragicomedy, Gogol, Eisenstein, spaghetti Westerns, documentary filmmaking, the avant-garde and even romantic landscape painting are all woven together.
Consequently, she pulls out all the stops, and her Ukrainian cast keep up. Ottinger gives the actors ample room for spontaneity, but masters the narration in expert style. Each vignette is a surprising, accurately-applied tableau, every shot an opulent painting. The narrative rhythm is generated by a static composition that invites the eye to linger and a lively performance that could almost burst out of its structure. Overall, this corresponds to the twin movement of com-pleting a numerical task (that of searching for the twelve chairs, piece-by-piece and beyond) and unfolding within the autonomy of the individual episodes. Such structures take a lot of composing. Ulrike Ottinger's film should not have been shorter, for the picaresque spirit unfolds only in volume - and time.
Christine N. Brinckmann, Excerpt from the catalogue of the 34th International Forum of New Cinem