Portrait of Ulrike Ottinger - Stations Of The Crossing
Starting her visual arts career in Munich and Paris (painting, works on paper, photography, performance), Ulrike Ottinger's commitment to film took off with her move to Berlin, that archaeological site of political and psychic projections which served her through the 80s as a major source of inspiration for her exploration of the cinematic medium. The deconstructive momentum of Berlin is reflected in the difference Ottinger's films make. In her films difference does not stop short between units or unities (those of cultural, national, or sexual identity, for example). In the encounter with the other, which these films explore, self finds itself, beside itself, crossed with and crossing through the other. And that's the difference that sets Ottinger's cinema apart. Her film credits are: Laokoon und Söhne (short, 1972/73), Berlin Fieber - Wolf Vostell (short, 1973), Die Betörung der blauen Matrosen (short, 1975), Madame X - Eine absolute Herrscherin (1977), Bildnis einer Trinkerin - Aller jamais retour (1979), Freak Orlando (1981), Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (1984), China. Die Künste - Der Alltag (1985), Superbia - Der Stolz (short, 1986), Usinimage (short, 1987), Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia (1988), Countdown (1990), Taiga (1992), Exil Shanghai (1997).
Ottinger's films explore a world of difference defined by the tension and transfer between settled and nomadic cultures. Ottinger's sense of this cultural transfer informs her documentary and her feature films. It is what marks the stations of her encounter with the other, whether re-cognizably exotic or simply but subtly unpredictable. Nomadic cultures - archaic or modern - occupy a margin where reality, the future, or the other uncontrollably begins. Metamorphosis and allegory are, accordingly, hallmarks of Ottinger's visual language.
From her prehistory as visual artist Ottinger brought to her take on film the principle of collage and an eye trained for composition. But what in turn drew her to film is that it is constitutively a medium of juxtaposition which can thus best convey the present tensions, for example, between parameters of the historical and of the modern, between stationary and moving perspectives, between global panoramas and the miniature. Reflecting the status of the medium as the high or late point of developments beginning with the printing press, Ottinger makes her movies at the stations of the crossing of the legible with the irreducibly visual, of narrative with tableau.
Her first feature, Madame X - Eine absolute Herrscherin, prefigures all her subsequent movies. It made Ottinger a sensational figure of controversy. This ostensible ‹lesbian-feminist pirate film" in turn challenged certain assumptions of feminist politics by keeping its focus fixed on the troubling doubling of gender. Her next feature, Bildnis einer Trinkerin, which Jonathan Rosen-baum judged in 1983 to be "an uncategorizable masterpiece so sui generis that influences seem hardly relevant at all to the synthesis achieved", established her reputation as one of the leading European art cinema directors.
Bildnis einer Trinkerin is the first part of Ottinger's 1980s trilogy, which continued with Freak Orlando and concluded with Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse. The Berlin setting holds these films together. In Ottinger's allegorical reading or rendering, Berlin's ready-made status as most ancient or primal city of our more recent past and most traumatic history becomes visible in the architectural settings of the city's latent history as a narrative of episodes cutting through time and space. Inherent in this allegorical procedure is the meta- morphosis required to make manifest the artist's reading of urban relics. This forms the documentary subject of Usinimage, which shows the Before and After pictures of Ottinger`s cinematographic modifications of the Berlin locations. In Countdown the filmmaker expands her approach to yet another kind of documentary perspective: With a sort of "caméra stylo" she registers for ten days leading up to the unification of German currencies the political changes after 1989 in the every day life of Berlin, in the margins at the center of the epoch-making ending of the Cold War.
If we consider Ottinger's regular collaboration with actress Delphine Seyrig as a point of cohesion, then Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia (which, to add not only my own judgement as an update to Rosenbaum's 1983 call, is truly one of the masterpieces of world cinema) could be seen to overlap with the trilogy. To mark this station of the journey, the film juxtaposes the fictional film medium with that of documentary film-making.
But the seeming split down the middle of the film between the film artifact contained in the train crossing Siberia and the on- location account of the sojourn of the abducted train passengers in the wide open spaces of the Mongolian tribe's domain does not subsume all the differences Ottinger has set into play. Just as the title of the film speaks in three tongues, so the European train of association barely contains itself, but already bursts out into celebration of radically diverse and overlapping cultures well before the train has been stopped in its tracks and the ‰documentary` section has opend up in its place. Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia serves as reminder that it is impossible or pointless to separate Ottinger's fiction films from her documentaries (which now seem to comprise, as though Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia served as a model, the second half of her "uvre).
Ottinger's next two projects, however, will return to the fiction film genre. The Bloodcountess (Die Blutgräfin, cf. page 22) Ottinger's ironic foray into the vampire film, will be set on such precursors as Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers and Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness. Diamond Dance, Ottinger's largest project to date, juxtaposes the Shoah and the AIDS crisis within a melting plot featuring the international diamond business, the underworld of Mickey Marx, and a musical mix of klezmer and jazz.
Ottinger's cinema, which breaks for one station before moving on to the next one, and in this move crosses the one with the other, is the kind of journey that can only keep on beginning, again and again.
Laurence A. Rickels is the author of a study of Ulrike Ottinger's films entitled "The Autobiography of Cinema".
© Laurence A. Rickels, in: Kino, Export-Union des Deutschen Films (Hg.), 2/2000.