The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible': On the work of Ulrike Ottinger
At the end of Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, 1984), Dorian Gray walks through the underground sewer landscape of Berlin and into the headquarters of the media group. Slowly he unties a packet and takes out a knife, leaps onto the conference table and stabs Frau Dr. Mabuse, the director of the media group, in front of the assembled media representatives who were in the process of reporting their current circulation figures. In the next scene we are in a cemetery where a camel is leading the funeral procession. Frau Dr. Mabuse bows before the grave: 'Dorian, for me you're still alive.' Next scene: Dorian Gray reads the headline 'Dorian Gray dead' in the Daily Mirror and says to his servant, Hollywood, 'Stop everything - I want to dictate the end of the story.' In the credit sequence Dr. Mabuse speaks again and asks the question: 'Why did I always have to kill my most talented pupils?'
Ottinger's films, like all her artistic works, resist linear readings: it is not possible to tell the story of what happens in them because they do not follow a linear plot. Instead every frame of the film is carefully composed down to the tiniest detail as they interweave multiple layers of meaning. The films are full of references to literature, mythology, films, music ethnology and history; they are full of discontinuities and contradictions. Collage and montage, transformation and metamorphosis are amongst Ottinger's most favourite artistic methods and devices; the boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred, as are the boundaries between the sexes. Ottinger works with a visual (and audible) language which constantly shifts and adjusts in the attempt to do justice to the complexity of the world we live in, displaying, ordering and presenting it as if in a cabinet of curiosities. She is a brilliant narrator, telling stories about people and the world they live in. 'Cinema,' she says, 'is realised fiction, bringing together the imagination of the filmmaker, the power of the image and sequences of images, and the imagination of the viewer.'2
Ulrike Ottinger not only directs her films but also acts as cinematographer and producer. She started out as a painter in Paris in the 1960s, and is also a photographer, having developed a vast archive of images over the years.3 She also worked as a performer in the 1970s, and as a theatre director, staging plays by Elfriede Jelinek and Johann Nestroy, amongst others. Ottinger made her first film, Laokoon & Söhne (Laocoon & Sons), in 1973, and from the 1970s onwards she has staged exhibitions alongside her film production. Her screenplays are elaborate collections of photographs, images, texts, quotations and sketches, clearly displaying the artist's associative mode of working and her rigorous method of research.
Ottinger's exhibition 'Stills' took place at David Zwirner Gallery in New York in 2000 and 'Sessions' at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin in 2001. In 2002 she took part in documenta 11 in Kassel with the 363-minute documentary video Südostpassage, eine Reise zu den neuen weißen Flecken auf der Landkarte Europas (Southeast Passage, A Journey to the New Blank Spots on the European Map). By this point Ulrike Ottinger had finally achieved her breakthrough on the international art scene - a breakthrough she had achieved as a filmmaker in 1977 with her first long feature film, Madame X: Eine absolute Herrscherin (Madame X - An Absolute Ruler). Following Manifesta in Ljubljana in 2000, documenta 11 was one of the most prominent examples of the invasion of exhibition space by documentary and semi-documentary videos. The art world's belated 'discovery' of Ulrike Ottinger in this context was both timely and appropriate. Works by other filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Harun Farocki were also receiving increased exposure in the artistic world at the same time. On the one hand this was connected with a trend towards conformity in the production of cinema and television films - a trend these filmmakers were (and are) resisting. On the other hand, artistic practices referring to the history of film and documentary practice already had become established in the art world in the previous few years - the work of Stan Douglas or Diana Thater, for example. This created a receptive environment for the work of Ottinger and others, and prepared galleries and their visitors for this exacting style of filmmaking. In the exhibition 'Hautnah' (Up Close) at Goetz Collection at Munich's Villa Stuck, Ottinger's photographs Im Kontext von Freak Orlando (In the context of Freak Orlando, 2002) were shown alongside works by Chantal Akerman, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Jürgen Klauke, Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman and others, framing them within the context of the art world.4
Ulrike Ottinger has made twelve long films in all, six of which could be described as documentaries. Here I will be focusing on four early feature films - Madame X - An Absolute Ruler (1977) and the Berlin trilogy comprising Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of No Return, 1979), Freak Orlando (1981) and Dorian Gray - along with the recently released documentary, Prater. If we subscribe to the thesis that history must constantly be rewritten from the perspective of the present, then today rewriting the history of 'the modern' and modernism is a matter of particular urgency: the history familiar in the West was written in the spirit of the Cold War, and has very particular political, geographic and gender-specific points of emphasis.5 If we also take seriously documenta 12's attempt to begin this rewriting, focussing in particular on areas such as the 1970s and the production of art by women artists in different regions of the world, then within this discourse Ulrike Ottinger's early feature films seem to me both interesting and illuminating.
Madame X - An Absolute Ruler was produced in the spirit of second-wave feminism. Ottinger tells a pirate story; it is a story of personal and social emancipation, but also of power, domination and imprisonment within an enclosed space. Eroticism and sexuality play a pre-eminent role in the narrative. Seven women from different geographic regions and different social spheres follow the call of the 'harsh, pitiless beauty' Madame X, who promises them discovery, gold, love and adventure on the sea. They are 'willing to exchange their comfortable and secure but unbearably dull lives for a world of danger and uncertainty, but full of love and adventure'.6 And so they board the pirate ship Orlando (named after Madame X's late lover) on the China Sea. The ship's figurehead is an exact reproduction of Madame X, a robotic figure who represents the apparatus of power. Because the female seafarers gather here they accept this system. They experience many adventures and become entangled in countless erotic intrigues among themselves. In the battle for supremacy - which is primarily sexual in nature - Madame X kills nearly all the women. They return to the boat in various forms and put out to sea once more. 'At the end of the film all the figures are transformed, they undergo various deaths in the spirit of the pirate genre, they are stabbed, strangled, whatever. The deaths are transitional stages. Something has to die so that something else can come into being…. The film begins and ends with a departure. But the circumstances have changed.'7 This film was initially received with some scepticism by the women's movement: although it did express the mood for heading in a new direction and for casting off the traditional, repressive structures under which women suffered, at the same time it showed the women stumbling into new structures of a similar kind. Nonetheless, it quickly became a cult film, especially in the USA, with countless pirate copies in existence.8
The Berlin trilogy starts with Ticket of No Return. This film, too, begins with a departure - this time by a lone woman, another exceptional beauty like Madame X. She leaves the Villa Rotonda and travels to Berlin with a ticket aller jamais retour (a no-return ticket). 'She wanted to forget her past, or rather to abandon it like a condemned house.'9 Now she wanders through Berlin, drinking. Colour plays a central role in the drama of the film, which concentrates mainly on the primary range. The clothes of the protagonist, who is called 'She' (played by Tabea Blumenschein), change from red to yellow to blue. In the final scene, the death scene, she walks down a mirrored corridor in a silver dress and the mirror floor shatters beneath her white stilettos. 'This is an image for the transitional situation between life and death,' says Ulrike Ottinger.10 In this film she very consciously works with claustrophobic fantasies: glass doors that do not open, liquids on glass and reflections in mirrors play all a major role. As she says, 'I was trying to find images for the reflective, the flowing, the dissolving.'11
Freak Orlando, Kleines Welttheater in fünf Episoden (Freak Orlando, a small 'theatre of the world' in five episodes) is 'a history of the world from its beginnings to our day, taking the example of freaks, including the errors, the incompetence, the thirst for power, the fear, the madness, the cruelty and the commonplace, as a small "theatre of the world" in five episodes.'12 From the mythology festival in the department store at the beginning and through to the 'ugly person of the year' competition in Italy via a religious festival, the main figure Orlando develops through various stages - from Orlando the pilgrim to Frau Orlando the entertainer (played by Magdalena Montezuma) - accompanied throughout by Helena Müller as Tree of Life Goddess, the department-store announcer, Siamese-twins Lena and Bunny Helena (Delphine Seyrig) and Herbert Zeus as the department-store manager, priest, chief psychiatrist and psycho-pharmaceuticals salesman (Albert Heins), who finally wins the 'ugly person of the year' competition as the only 'normal person'. The story takes place in Berlin, the Freak City, and is set frequently in the city's industrial areas with the Wall visible as a symbol of separation and imprisonment. This journey through history is marked by constantly repeating cycles. As Ottinger says, 'Inquisition, fascism, repressive psychiatry. The various methods of repression available change according to the time. But the structures in fact remain frighteningly similar.'13
Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press is the third film of the Berlin trilogy. It tells the story of a wealthy dandy, Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff) - a bored young man who falls into the clutches of Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig), the head of a media group who builds him up into a celebrity and then destroys him. The story is inter-cut with an opera which relates the conquest of the Canary Islands by the Spanish Infant Don Luis de la Cerda (also played by Veruschka von Lehndorff alias Dorian Gray); it tells the tale of his encounter with the beautiful local ruler Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein) and how she is murdered by the Grand Inquisitor (also played by Delphine Seyrig alias Dr. Mabuse). Dorian Gray falls in love with the actress who plays Andamana, and the intrigues of this love story are followed by the tabloid press, which is presented as the modern-day Inquisition. The end of the film has already been discussed. Like the three ladies who accompany the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute (1791), Dr. Mabuse has three companions - Susy, Golem and Passat, the names referring to computer programmes for monitoring circulation figures across the globe. Hollywood, Dorian Gray's servant, is - as he says - both mother and father to him. The press headquarters, where the latest circulation figures are displayed on many monitors connected to kiosks all over the globe, is a very impressive setting - as is the room where the press ball takes place, its surface made entirely of newspaper and decorated with huge mounds of scrunched-up newsprint. Here again we encounter a woman as absolute ruler, representing the power of the media groups. '[T]he tabloid newspapers exert not so much a direct force as a temptation. The temptation is to make use of these media - media which suppress important information. "Politics is our taboo, X = U, X = U" (quotation from a song at the press ball in the film). Here a number of factors come together in a very dangerous way: people with intelligence making use of psychology solely to achieve higher circulation figures. This is currently replacing a whole philosophy today - the drive to achieve dominance of the international market, and in a very skilful way.'14 The Berlin Trilogy shows three very different stories: the story of one woman who is trapped within herself; the history of the repression of particular groups; and finally the analysis of a contemporary system of power.
To conclude I will take a look at Ottinger's most recent film, Prater, which premiered in February this year. As an example of a documentary, this film provides a connection with Ulrike Ottinger's current production - although I am aware that I am missing out some important intervening works.15 After Ottinger's epic documentaries - China. Die Künste der Alltag (China. The Arts - The People, 1985), Taiga (1992) and Southeast Passage - which are huge landscape and cultural panoramas lasting as much as eight hours, Prater is a small-scale piece of just 104 minutes, a fast-moving sequence of images, finely worked in all its details. The course of one day, from midday through to night, in today's Prater Park in Vienna, which is threatened with closure, is interwoven with its history, its music, its appearances in literature, film and photography. The Wurstelprater funfair within the Prater is the world's oldest amusement park, founded by Nikolai Kobelkoff, a Russian without arms or legs who fell in love with a Viennese woman. Brief excerpts from Freak Orlando, including the dwarves and the lady without arms and legs - almost like a sister-figure for the park's founder - connect these characters with the kind of place where they have always been at home. Several journeys through the Ghost Train and a ride on the Ejection Seat, interviews with Prater families about the history of their family businesses, special appearances from Elfriede Gerstl, Elfriede Jelinek and others, are combined in a panorama of the park's 100-year-plus history. For decades the Prater was a place where young people were taken to celebrate after their confirmation. In 1905 a merry-go-round owner opened Vienna's first silent movie theatre here, which later became the first talking movie theatre. 'The attractions here are called "illusion businesses" and that's true of cinema as well. It, too, works with the strategy of enticement, to which the viewer must add his own imagination to make it work. With this film in particular I thought anew about the themes of illusion and imagination, imitation and simulation, or techniques of simulation. Early cinema was a cinema of attractions, and it was born in the travelling carnival.'16 In the film, undercutting the documentary process, Barbarella (Veruschka) appears as an evil Barbie doll, shoots a small monkey with her bow and arrow and throws herself into the arms of a black monster, which is followed by a scene showing a King Kong puppet show. In Ulrike Ottinger's words: 'The fiction comes frighteningly close to reality, and reality is a construction, sometimes an illusion.'17
The same is true of Ottinger's entire oeuvre, and especially of the relationship between her documentaries and fictional films. In genre terms there is a clear division between the two categories: on the one hand the landscape, the towns and the people are the protagonists; on the other the people and landscapes are created by the artist's imagination. Yet Ulrike Ottinger insists that these are not fantasies but very real observations: 'My imagination intervenes by connecting the different things with each other.'18 Ottinger's documentary method is characterised by attentiveness and respect for others: the films often exhibit a slowness which gives nature and people the time they need to unfold.
Many of Ottinger's films, including the fictional ones, are stories of journeys, narrating a departure for new and entirely unfamiliar shores. These shores are dangerous - places where power, violence and cruelty lie in wait. The stories tell of love and sexuality - not hetero-normality but the normality of other gender definitions and sexual practices. They tell of beauty and the beauty of what is often labelled as ugly, the physically or socially marginalised, the forgotten, the dwarves, the entertainers and transvestites. Ottinger tells of the breadth of the landscape, the chaos of the cities, the beauty and diversity of markets, of music and literature. She creates a repertoire of figures, many of whom we meet again in different films: the drinking woman with the shopping trolley, the three women (who may appear as conference delegates, Dr. Mabuse's assistants, or as three naked men, the dying virtues of the free press), people with bird heads, birds with human heads, the twins Right and Left, the Siamese twins, the two-headed woman, the woman without arms and legs, the Tree of Life (a naked woman who grows out of the ground with branches sprouting from her arms), the narcissist looking into a mirror, the two old men in black robes who stroke each other's beards, or the naked dwarf leading a huge mastiff on a leash, both of them spotted like Dalmatians. Ulrike Ottinger's films are themselves like journeys: you have to enter into them and enjoy them, knowing that you will never be able to understand and decode them entirely. They are like operas or theatre plays, because they always show the frame, the viewpoint, the presence of the author behind the camera and her questions, the artificial and the constructed. They are a huge sensual pleasure; they tell not only of beauty, seduction and sexuality but also of power games, violence and torture, of proximity and distance, of the present and its history. They attempt to find images for the complexity and increasing invisibility of the world's hidden structures.
Translated by Susan Mackervoy
1 Oscar Wilde, quoted by Ulrike Ottinger in the screenplay for Madame X - An Absolute Ruler. Ulrike Ottinger, Drehbuch zu Madame X - eine absolute Herrscherin, Basel and Frankfurt a.M.: Stroemfeld and Roter Stern, n.d.
2 Ulrike Ottinger, 'Der Zwang zum Genrekino', Kinemathek 86, Berlin: Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, February 2001, p.40.
3 See Ursula Blickle, Matt Gerald and Catherine David (eds.), Ulrike Ottinger: Image Archive, Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2006.
4 See also Laurence A. Rickels, 'My last interview with Ulrike Ottinger', in Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour (eds.), On the Foreignness of Film, Cambridge and London: MIT Press: 2004, pp.422-36.
5 An argument proposed, for example, by Viktor Misiano at the Lunch Lecture at documenta 12 in Kassel on 10 July 2007.
6 U. Ottinger, Drehbuch zu Madame X - eine absolute Herrscherin, op. cit., n.p.
7 'Ein Werkstattgespräch. Die Collage ist die Form, in der man heute denkt, Ulrike Ottinger im Gespräch mit Peter Kremski' (Workshop conversation: Collage is the form we think in today. Ulrike Ottinger in conversation with Peter Kremski), Kinemathek 86, op. cit., p.289.
8 Ibid., p.288.
9 See www.ulrikeottinger.com (last accessed 1 August 2007).
10 'Ein Werkstattgespräch', op. cit., p.281.
13 'Ein Werkstattgespräch', op. cit., p.285.
14 Ibid., p.165.
15 Such as Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, which Homay King discusses in this issue.
16 Ulrike Ottinger, interview with Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, 2007, www.ulrikeottinger.com.
18 Ulrike Ottinger interviewed by Jochen Brunow, Kinemathek 86, op. cit., p.107.
Originally printed in Afterall Issue 16, Autumn/Winter 2007, pp.29-36
© Hildegund Amanshauser