An Interview with Ulrike Ottinge
Janet A. Kaplan
June 13, 2001
Art Journal, Vol. 61, No. 3, Fall 2002
When I first saw Ulrike Ottinger's film Johanne d'Arc of Mongolia, at a film festival in 1990, I was totally captivated by its hilarious plot and sumptuous visual impact. It is an epic tale of East meets West as a group of European women traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad are kidnapped by a band of Mongolian tribeswomen led by an imperious and beautiful Princess. Combining linear with non-linear narrative structures, Ottinger intermingles erotic with exotic encounters, set against the extraordinary vast beauty of the Mongolian landscape. As the film's title, which combines three languages, suggests, Ottinger celebrates, yet problematizes, the complexities of cultural encounter as each group is repeatedly re-positioned in relationship to its Other. In a film that invokes references to Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies, kidnap adventures, and National Geographic-style documentaries, the question of who is exotic, and to whom, becomes deliciously complex.
Increasingly obsessed with memories of this film over the intervening years, I finally sought out Ottinger for this interview eleven years later.
Janet Kaplan: I want to focus our conversation on your film Johanne d'Arc of
Mongolia. Could you summarize the plot?
Ulrike Ottinger: This is a film about different kinds of narration. In my films, there is never a singular plot. Nevertheless there is a story. The first part of the film is a trip through history on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, a grand old train on which people traveled from East to West and West to East for over a hundred years. I was fascinated by the story of this train. I found it a wonderful place to bring together people of all types. I focused here on four very different female characters who represent stories from different epochs. There is the elegant Lady Windermere who is an amateur ethnologist from late nineteenth century. She is what was called a "private scientist," a rich person devoted to a singular obsession of study, as in old English novels. Lady Windermere was inspired by the Victorian trends of this time and highly influenced by all the experiences in the colonies of the British Empire, to study the culture of Mongolian nomads. She is seen traveling in a salon wagon, her own sumptuous private train car. This signifies that she is from the time when the diplomatic corps, princes, and kings traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad as in a luxurious hotel. Then there is a beautiful young girl, Giovanni (later called Johanna), who is from our contemporary times today. She is an adventurer, traveling with a knapsack and a Walkman. At first she is in the third class carriage with soldiers and peasants who travel with their animals. Then she is invited to join Lady Windmere at her dinner table and in her private car. There is a German professor, Frau Muller-Vohwinkel, who travels with a Baedeker, the famous travel guide that she reads carefully, so that everything she sees has already been interpreted. And there is Fanny Ziegfield, a musical star from the nineteen thirties or forties of the great music halls. They are all on the train traveling in a linear path from West to East. Most of the travelers plan to go through Mongolia on the way to other destinations. Only Lady Windemere intends to remain in Mongolia, to continue her enthnographic studies. In addition to these characters, there is also a three woman entertainment troupe, the Kalinka Sisters. They are like a traveling Yiddish version of the Andrew Sisters. There is also a male character, Mickey Katz, who is a Yiddish tenor enroute to Harbin, China to meet up with its large Jewish community. While on the train he joins the other singers in presenting wonderful songs from music halls of the thirties and forties like those from New York's old Second Avenue.
The film is divided into three sections. In the first and last parts of the film, the action is on the train. These scenes were all shot in meticulously constructed sets made in the studio, even the glimpses of the passing outside landscape, as seen through the windows. I wanted the audience to truly see the artificiality of that construction. So, you catch a glimpse of a rip in the back wall of Lady Windemere's private car. But the rip is really a trompe l'oeil painting made by theatrical set painters. It signals this as an intentionally highly artificial presentation of the Western world.
In contrast, the central section of the film, when the train reaches Mongolia, was all shot on site, in the natural landscape. Here the train is stopped and the women travelers are kidnapped by a band of Mongolian tribeswomen, led by Princess Ulun Iga, who take them from the train to their seasonal encampment. Everything changes. In this nomadic landscape there is no linear path to follow. This goes also for the dramaturgy. The slow epic time of the Mongolians begins, with fairy tales, rhapsodic narration, and wonderful epopees--the old traditional songs in which they tell their whole history. It is an old dramaturgy as in Shakespeare--very simple, a skeleton that you fill with anything you wish. Like an epic, this is a space for the actualities, daily life, religious rituals, and so on of this largely female nomadic Mongol community. As relationships develop, we see various cultural confrontations between nomadic and settled cultures, between fiction and documentary, between the period costumes of the Europeans and the lavish traditional dress of the Princess and her retinue.
When I begin a new film, the inspiration, content, and style of the film comes from the place in which I start. Here it is Mongolia. I always like to change the point of view, to go around a theme looking at it from various perspectives and different points of view. This makes things more complex and a bit more difficult in a world where cinema is expected to be simply entertainment. Of course, I am not interested in this. Johanne d' Arc is an amusing film. But it is amusing on another level. It is a film about cultural misunderstandings, which can be quite funny. I have traveled a lot in other countries and learned a great deal about misunderstandings that I found highly interesting. It is important for me to talk about that.
KAPLAN: Critics write about your work in relationship to all sorts of theory--deconstruction, displacement theory, feminist theory, queer theory. Does any of that resonate for you?
OTTINGER: I was born and grew up in a time in Germany when you had modern things in the old tradition of the twenties and early thirties. When I was very young I was fascinated by the literature of the classical moderns. This is the starting point of what I know. So I worked with these older theories. When I went to Paris structuralism was very important. I was there for eight years. I was fascinated by ethnography for which structuralism is so important. But I prefer to read literature and not much theory. It is not that I am not interested. Of course, I know Barthes very well. But I just don't have the time to always be on the newest level of theory. When I have a choice, I prefer to read literature itself rather than theory about it. I also go to museums. Seeing things is an important inspiration for me.
KAPLAN: With which artists and filmmakers do you feel a sympathy in terms of your approach to your work? Who is working with ideas related to yours?
OTTINGER: I feel a connection with many completely different kinds of work. From earlier times I like silent films and Erich von Stroheim films. I like their atmosphere and gestures. I am not interested in the total commercialism of American films. But, I do see a lot of films. I know independent American cinema quite well. But a lot of the American films that are so famous and important at the box office are not my cup of tea.
KAPLAN: Do you see yourself as part of a circle of filmmakers.
OTTINGER: No. When I started, I was in Paris. (I came back to Germany later.) I knew Rainer Fassbinder very well, also Rosa von Prauheim, and Werner Scholter. [CORRECT NAMES?] We felt we had something together. Now there is great isolation. More of my friends are philosophers. We do have very interesting filmmakers in Germany, but the system has become more or less involved with Hollywood and they go in the wrong direction unfortunately. They put a lot of money into terrible films. (Laughter). I hope this may change. Of course I know everyone in the alternative film world and I am still very friendly with some filmmakers. We see each other from time to time. Though I like von Prauheim's provocative voice, I am not so fascinated by the form of her films. But we need these kinds of people here.
KAPLAN: How do you relate to being put into the feminist category?
OTTINGER: You know people ask me this all the time. I felt I was always a feminist. At the time when everybody was a feminist, they said I was not a feminist because I made films like Madame X. And now it is the contrary. Now nobody is a feminist in Germany and they always refer to me as a famous feminist. (Laughter) My understanding of feminism is for women to have alternatives, to have possibilities and the freedom to do wonderful things. So, as I understand feminism, I am a feminist. There was a time when we had different kinds of feminist groups here. There was a good film magazine Frauen und Film. (Women and Film) It was strongly feminist and had clear political direction. But they brought terrible charges against me. It was such a fight. When the magazine became more more intellectual, of course they liked my work. But they had been so focused on a certain direction.
KAPLAN: What had they they found wrong with your work?
OTTINGER: In Madame X they didn't see then that you could make a kind of comedy. [CAN YOU EXPLAIN A BIT MORE WHY THEY SAW THIS AS ANTI-FEMINIST.] They did not have much of a sense of humor. Then they changed. Everyone changed.
KAPLAN: What about the association with queer theory? Several critics have called you a "lesbian Lawrence of Arabia."
OTTINGER: Ah ha. You get all kinds of titles. Susan Sontag wrote a book about camp culture, especially in film, which I found interesting. I know some texts of queer theory. I have some of the books but I never have the time to read them.
KAPLAN: What about the references to Jewish culture?
OTTINGER: I have been interested in this for a long time. My mother is Jewish. I know a lot about Jews in China and about exile literature. I knew Jews when I was in Beijing.
Kaplan: What attracted you to Mongolia?
Ottinger: I have been attracted since childhood. For a long time I wasn't sure if I should become an artist or a scientist. I was really interested in ethnology, anthropology, and comparative religion. I'm still truly fascinated by these. I was absolutely fascinated by Mongolia and always wanted to go there. Based on this rather naive wish, I did a lot of research and finally got there.
Johanne d'Arc was my first movie in Mongolia. But it was not my first in China. With my earlier documentary film China:The Arts, The People (1985) I already tried to go to Mongolia. But it was so extremely cold and there was so much snow. At least this was the reason the Chinese authorities stated for refusing to let me go. So I went to Yenan [CORRECT NAME?] and very far into the Himalayan mountains. I met some Mongolian people there who were nomads. When I did get to Mongolia, it was quite difficult. I'm sure Hollywood wouldn't have been able to work there because people would have refused to live under those conditions. They would have had to build streets and hotels in the middle of the desert. (Laughter) There are no roads, not even any paths, so you are free to go and find you're way. I went to all kinds of places, traveling around for many months. I went there four times to prepare the shooting. I was always required to go with the Chinese. But the Chinese and the Mongolians don't like each other very much, so it was always a bit of a diplomatic challenge. I met with a lot of Mongolian people and I told them how important it was to show the best of their culture, the wonderful rhapsodic epic singers and so on and and to show the different kind of landscapes like the Gobi Desert.
KAPLAN: Were the people friendly?
OTTINGER: Sure. It always depends on how you talk with people. You also have to bring something. So I made photos of all the family members and brought them with me when I went back. I also brought other presents. It is complicated for them to get things; I knew what they needed and brought them things. In turn, I found a terrific old woman who helped me with the rituals. They make wonderful clothes from which I was able to choose the most fabulous costumes. I knew a lot about it, but it was great to have her helping me. She brought me a beautiful old headdress that the best museum would be proud to have. They had put it away because in communist and socialist times it was difficult to have things like this. People were taught not to be different. Those kinds of regime never liked nomads. They always tried to make them stay in one place. They brought them presents too. But the nomads took the presents and then moved on. (Laughter)
KAPLAN: You brought the actors from Berlin?
OTTINGER: Yes. I brought the four actors and the three Kalinka sisters from Berlin.
KAPLAN: Were the sisters an actual performing troop?
OTTINGER: No, I put them together. Everyone thinks they had been singing and playing together for twenty years. But, in fact, they did not even know each other. One was a rock and jazz singer. She had done completely different things, but she could also sing classical songs. The tall one was a Yiddish singer from Argentina. I saw her once in Paris and asked her to join us. And I saw the third one at a piano competition with 30 pianists. She had a slightly old-fashioned look and gestures that I liked. She seemed perfect for me. When I explained the project to her she said with surprise "How do you know?" Amazingly, it turns out that she was American, but from a Tartar family.
So I brought them all together. I knew what everybody could do. I also chose all the music. I like older Eastern music. But I did not orchestrate the Mongolian performances. They all like to perform and they are great at it. They do not have much entertainment so they have to entertain themselves. They have sing-outs where people all sing together. When the Kalinka sisters would sing one of their songs, the Mongolians would pick it up immediately. I had translations of the old Mongolian rhapsodies and epopees in English, French, Italian, German. Then I wrote in the style of the Mongolian music. None of the Mongolians were actors except the Princess character which was played by an actress. She, too, is Mongolian but she went to school in China. The others were tundra nomad people from the countryside who wanted to be in the film. So I was invited to weddings and all kinds of events. I had been there three times before so they already knew me. We always had a nice time.
The story I wrote was based on a historical fact. The pilgrimage of the women did take place. But I invented a lot of things around that. I know a lot about the country. I wrote it in German, but in the Mongolian style. And then I went to Mongolia with this text and they made it again in the rhythm of their rhapsodic songs. Then they sang it. And it has now entered the repertoire of the Mongolians.
KAPLAN: Did they ever see the film?
OTTINGER: Never. The Chinese did not allow me to show it. But now there is a young curator who wants to work in China with Chinese and Mongolian artists and also with artists from the the U.S. and Europe who have done something in Mongolia. He wants to show my work. So I think it will change with time. I would love to show them the film. I did invite the Princess for the Berlin film festival. Of course she was a sensation. And she was so surprised by everything. It was wonderful.
KAPLAN: How did they respond to the focus on women in the film?
OTTINGER: Oh this is not exceptional for them because women in Mongolia are quite strong. It is a completely different society from China. There is a lot of freedom. They all travel with the herds. The men go away to hunt. And a lot of them are in Buddhist or Lamaist monasteries. So, the women are often alone together. Before the winter they go to a place where there is a special kind of salt and minerals for their animals. Mostly women travel there together.
There are different groups that are not only family members. Sometimes a rich family goes together with a poor one. But the poor do not go as servants. They travel and work together and make a temporary group for one or two years. The poor family, which may have lost a lot of their herd during the previous year because of a strong winter, participate and help the others who have a lot. It is a wise society. It is hard, because nature there is extremely hard; but it is free. And they are so open-minded. It is an interesting culture which is quite liberal. Holding on to their nomadism has become increasingly difficult, but a lot of these people still live as nomads. When you go to Ulan Baator [CORRECT NAME?] for example and you look around the city you see six or eight thousand yurts, the houses made of felt designed for travel. They live in these even here. In the city they seem a bit lost. Many are alcoholic. Outside they like to drink too, but they have to work so hard that it is soon over. Nature outside is so hard that they have to be very nice to each other; they need each other.
KAPLAN: The fantastic elaborate costumes of the travelers and the comparably elaborate clothing of the Mongolians make a wonderful comparison
OTTINGER: Yes. On many levels in my film you have dialogue--many kinds beyond the spoken dialogue. This is what interests me. And this is why I say there is never just one plot. It is a film about narration. All kinds of cultural relations, similarities and contrasts, misunderstandings that can be productive.
KAPLAN: Thinking about misunderstanding and translation, how did you all communicate across the language differences while making the film?
OTTINGER: We had at least twelve different languages. Sometimes you had the impression that everybody had understood and then you realized you had forgotten two languages.
KAPLAN: Did you have a whole bank of translators?
OTTINGER: I worked with a Mongolian woman from Switzerland who spoke Chinese. And I had a translator with me who had a Chinese father and a German mother. He grew up in Yenan, China and speaks both languages on a high level. He also was well connected culturally. His father had been an officer in Chiang Kai Shek's army. Otherwise, nobody spoke any other languages. And the Mongolians did not like to communicate with the Chinese. So I learned Mongolian.
KAPLAN: Do you speak it?
OTTINGER: Never well. But by the time I made my later documentary film Taiga, I was able to talk. I traveled in the Taiga region in the north with only two people, one assistant and one sound person. I ran the camera myself. I did not need so many people for this kind of travel. But with Johanne d'Arc which was a fiction I needed many people. Then so many Chinese were there. An enormous amount of people. Also the Mongolians of course.
KAPLAN: The characters in our film traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to get to Mongolia and then went by camel to the nomad's encampment. How did and that large group travel?
OTTINGER: Yes, the train travel in the film was all created in the studio. But in Mongolia we traveled in three big four-wheel drive trucks. We always had trouble finding gas. The gas stations were secret because the military was worried about sabotage. That was one of many challenges. One example of many: we had to wait a week at one point to cross a river because it was raining. The water was too high at the crossing place so someone with a horse would check every day to see if we could go.
KAPLAN: How did your actors respond?
OTTINGER: In the beginning, the American singer was very worried. But in time she found out that people were very nice and she wasn't in danger. At first, however, someone had to fix her bed and wait with her until she fell asleep every night.
KAPLAN: How long was the shooting in Mongolia?
OTTINGER: With the travel and everything, I think we spent two and a half months in Mongolia. I was there for four weeks before to make all the preparations. And before that we had all the shooting in the studio in Germany.
KAPLAN: And you had to feed people and house all these people?
OTTINGER: Sure. I organized it all. The Mongolians are used to having large events--they have weddings with hundreds of guests, so the women are used to this. I brought flour and rice with me and they knew how to work with it for our big group. They are so wonderful. But the Chinese thought they needed military people to organize it. I would have preferred to work only with the Mongolians. Of course they have to take care of their herds. So they brought their herds with them to the shooting.
KAPLAN: You needed someone else to make a movie of the making of the movie. Did anyone do that?
OTTINGER: Unfortunately not. It was quite a production. Everything finally went well. We had to check the production lines with the Chinese and then with the Mongolians. And at the beginning we had a lot of trouble diplomatically. We had to make the contracts with the Mongolians because it was their land. And we had to drink a lot to make each contract. I was not used to this. I only drink a little schnapps. (Laughter).
KAPLAN: There is a certain wild energy in the film. This explains it.
OTTINGER: Yes, it was unbelievable. Everybody who was with me there still talks about it.
KAPLAN: Have you gone back?
OTTINGER: I have been back to Mongolia several times. When I made Taiga I went back. I worked with people from different parts of Mongolia where they have different clothes and customs. One was a family who live with raindeer in the north. I wanted to go there. But I got an official answer that I had to stay in one settlement, that I could not move around, and that I would always have to go with an entourage. I told them that is not how I work. If I work with nomads I cannot be in an entourage, and I cannot stay in a settlement. I have to move with them. That became impossible. So, I had to go to Outer Mongolia, to the Republic of Mongolia, which is separate from China. I did Taiga there. I knew people because there had been an exhibition of my photographs there. So they invited me to do the film in their country. They took all my money and then I was free to do whatever I wanted.
KAPLAN: Did making the fictional Johanne d'Arc prompt you to want to make the much more enthnographic film Taiga?
OTTINGER: Yes, but even Taiga looks like a fairy tale. I will show it at Documenta XI in 2002 in Kassel, Germany. And now I am working on a film called Southeast Passage.
KAPLAN: Can you describe Southeast Passage?
OTTINGER: Everyone talks about Europe. But they forget completely about east, middle and southeastern Europe. Things are becoming unknown that are really nearby. This is a new phenomenon. Nobody goes there so nobody knows how it is in the Ukraine or Romania or Bulgaria. Maybe they go to one place. But there is almost no tourism. Large parts of these countries are almost deserted. The young people are leaving the countryside and the old are left there to stay alone. I traveled through the roads of the old Europe that connected Breslau to Berlin, Breslau to Chernowitz. Using a digital camera for the first time, I went from village to village with four friends. I shot lots of footage and made many notes about these places. I am now editing this into Southeast Passage. They will show this film at Documenta XI, as well, along with some of my still photos about the context.
KAPLAN: For readers who might not have seen Johanne d'Arc, what is an especially important thing for them to know about that film?
OTTINGER: The important thing for me is to find for each scene, for each film, a specific form and time. A film can be five minutes or eight hours. For me each film has a certain form that has to do with colors, with time, with dramaturgy, with a way to put the images. So for each film I work to find a suitable form.