‘Ulrike Ottinger is, to use a somewhat outmoded term, a cinematic artist in the literal sense. Her exceedingly artificial visual worlds contain a cornucopia of allusions to art history and literature, from the ancient statue of Laocoon with his sons and the legend of Joan of Arc to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. She uses these works as raw material for fantastical stories told with a visual opulence that reflects her predilection for costumes, masquerades and transformations of all sorts.
‘Ottinger’s very first film, Laocoon & Sons (Laokoon & Söhne, 1973), set the course she was to pursue in her subsequent work. It’s about the metamorphic quest of Esmeralda del Rio, who as a widow by the name of Olimpia Vincitor goes off in search of her past, shortly thereafter turns into ice-skater Linda MacNamara, and ends up taking on the male identity of a gigolo called Jimmy Junod. The continual metamorphoses catapult the viewer into a whirl of confusion in which nothing is final or permanent, nothing definite.
‘“Things are constantly occurring here that run counter to the strictures of theatre,” summarizes the narrator at a certain point in the film. This observation may also serve to characterize a leitmotif in all of Ottinger’s subsequent work, in which carnivalesque and commedia dell’arte scenes seasoned with a pinch of Baroque morbidity are interwoven with borrowings from science fiction movies to form a unique narrative blend – a blend that defies all conventional pigeonholing of style or genre.
‘From the outset, the filmmaker worked with an almost exclusively female crew. Tabea Blumenschein created the wonderful costumes and masks for many of Ottinger’s pictures, and actresses like Delphine Seyrig, Magdalena Montezuma, or Irm Hermann, who gained fame in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, make multiple appearances in her works. In spite of all that, Ottinger’s art cannot be reduced to a “model for an alternative female art world”, as persistently claimed by feminist critics. On the contrary, taken as a whole her oeuvre is more about exploding socially sanctioned gender categories of male and female. This bent is illustrated, among other things, by all the satyr-like figures, bearded ladies and other hermaphrodites and freaks that populate Ottinger’s visual universe.
‘In addition to her feature films, Ottinger has made a series of films about her travels that rank among the best that the contemporary documentary genre has to offer. They tell of foreign parts from the perspective of the familiar. Here again the dominant theme is transformation: the deliberately subjective perspective makes the foreign appear familiar and instead places our own culture and customs in a strange light. A penchant for oriental and Asian culture is unmistakable in her choice of subjects.’ — Goethe House
Ulrike Ottinger Website
‘Undiscovered Countries: The Films of Ulrike Ottinger’
Ulrike Ottinger @ imdB
Ulrike Ottinger @ Women Make Movies
Ulrike Ottinger Filmproduktion @ Facebook
Official ‘Prater’ Website
Book: ‘Ulrike Ottinger: The Autobiography of Art Cinema’
‘Ulrike Ottinger’s Chronicle of Time’
Ulrike Ottinger’s ‘Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press’
Ulrike Ottinger interviewed
Video: ‘Ulrike Ottinger: An Interview’ @ Video Data Base
Ulrike Ottinger @ mubi
‘Decadent Fetishism in Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia‘
‘Encore! Nonconformist German director Ulrike Ottinger
Jonathan Rosenbaum on Ulrike Ottinger
‘Ulrike Ottinger: What’s Left to be Seen’
‘Notes on the Cinema Stylographer: Ulrike Ottinger’
ULRIKE OTTINGER: NOMAD FROM THE LAKE
ULRIKE OTTINGER on PLACES
Ulrike Ottinger. The Sociology of Film and Cinema. 2007
Filmgespräch Ulrike Ottinger
You’re a German filmmaker. What are we to take away from this: “German”.
Ulrike Ottinger: I find myself rather isolated in the German film scene, particularly among my women colleagues, because my films come out of the tradition of fantasy and surrealist filmmaking. Besides that, my experience as an artist, especially in Paris during the sixties, is rather unusual for a filmmaker. My eyes have become extremely sensitized to visual images. My film BILDNIS EINER TRINKERIN, for example, on one level offers a sightseeing tour through Berlin. I construct my films with images. I use a syntax of images, whereas most German women filmmakers seem conventionally tied to dialogue. I seek new images for the new content which is proposed by a woman’s experience. This may be why spectators often complain about my films’ length and dense imagery. They are not accustomed to an associative style, beyond psychological motivation.
One can see parallels in your development at the level of representation: in your early films both elements – on the one hand the artificiality of the figures, of their charcteristics, of the decor, and on the other the semidocumentary, “unstudied” camera work – seem to clash in every image, only to merge at the end. Ticket of no return comes closest to a definite separation: the emphasis throughout is on the playful and the contrived. Now we have the clear juxtaposition of two aesthetic stances: fiction and documentation.
UO: There have always been clear confrontations in my films. In Ticket of no return, fiction and reality carry on a dialogue which is commented upon by the ladies “Social Question”, “Exact Statistics” and “Common Sense”. All the while the urgent appeal for “Reality” sounds from the airport loudspeakers. Freak Orlando is the attempt to present the totality of culture, power and politics as an historical tableau, in which “reality” appears as a bewildering trompe l’æil. In Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, the carriers of Western culture riding on the Trans-Siberian are confronted first with their own culture, travelling as they are in their own museum, which is then unexpectedly held up by a foreign culture.
In your films you construct worlds out of “everyday myths”, out of “epistemes” and social roles in order to tade your characters (whether they are this way by choice or force of circumstances) to the margins of normality and beyound. The political aspect of your films is the dream or utopia of freedom which can arise in the viewer’s mind – the freedom to be different.
UO: It was not my intention to create exotic images. The film is concerned, rather, with the transport of culture. If exoticisms arise in the process. they are never identified with “the foreign” per se but rather with the unsuccessful encounter with the foreign. I don’t mean that only negatively, because the results are sometimes interesting. My film is devoted not to exoticism bur rather to nomads. These can be Mongols, but also job-seekers, Jewish intellectuals and artists, refugees, those travelling for edification or adventure. I see the route of the Trans-Siberian and also the Silk Road as a sort of guest-book of cultures, in which the most various influences leave their mark. The theme of the film is the infectiousness of nomadic ideas.
You have worked with the same actresses time and time again, in particular Delphine Seyrig, and always seem to be striving for a mixture of “professionals” and “amateurs.” These amateurs, however, are often people who give the impression of having already tried to gain control of their everyday reality by playing themselves. On what principles do you choose your actresses so that they can take your characters beyond their function as representations of abstract types, and make them into living subjects?
UO: “Amateur” and “professional” are two different performance techniques which, once again, carry on the dialogue between documentary and fiction on another level. For me, it is not a matter of living or dead subjects, as long as they fully realize their performance technique.
In talking about your films, one can emphasize the aspect of the (cultural) journey, of movement through particular situations, which also always remain journeys through time – something reminiscent of the great era of the silents, with its episodic films. But one can also focus on your predilection for puzzles, for the playful jumbling of established patterns, and thus for artistic self-reflection. And thirdly, there is the particular tension in all your films between documentation and fiction – a relationship which today’s cinema as a whole is perhaps in a position to carry the furthest. In what context would you place your work?
UO: I play with many contexts and various narrative forms. The classic introduction of the four western protagonists, who, as it were, sing their arias on the stage, observes the unities of place, time and action. The well-organized interior makes of nature an artificial exterior. But whilst the tundra rolls past the windows in painted tableaux, the people inside hear its siren call. Unaccustomed stories penetrate the familiar surroundings, which in the end are invaded by an exterior oblivious to all this domestication. In the grasslands, under the open sky, epic singers introduce Mongolian time.
Godard once said, “Technique is the sister of Art.” Would you agree with his attribution of gender?
UO: Art has many Siamese twins.
9 of Ulrike Ottinger’s 18 films & installations
Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977)
‘Madame X, the cruelest and most successful pirate of the Far Eastern seas, puts out a call to all women seeking a world full of gold, love, and adventure to join her crew and become marauders on the high seas. But even after their first pitiless attack on a yacht carrying hilarious caricatures of bourgeois male hegemony leaves them awash in plunder, the increasing assertion of the new pirates’ identities and desires leads an already chaotic journey into absolute bedlam. On the women’s ship Orlando the flags of attack, leather, weapons, lesbian love and death are raised with a beauty which dispenses with a total domination of the viewer’s gaze. The aesthetic is strictly stylized, exhibiting itself without overwhelming us.’ — ulrikeottinger.com
Ticket of No Return (1979)
‘A portrait of two unusual but also extremely different women. One rich, eccentric, hiding her feelings behind a rigid mask, consciously drinks herself to death. The other is a known drinker in town. In the course of the story they try to get to know each other, but they cannot come together. The background is Berlin, thrown open to a grotesque kind of sightseeing (drinkers’ geography) and complemented by authentic contributions from people who live here or are visiting, rock singers, writers, artist, taxi drivers. With Tabea Blumenschein, Magdalena Montezuma, Nina Hagen and Eddie Constantine.’ — Women Make Movies
Freak Orlando (1981)
‘This, apparently her most monumental film project, is nothing if not ambitious—inspired by Virginia Wolfe’s time-tripping feminist tract ORLANDO, the film (according to a synopsis published on Ottinger’s website) means to present “a history of the world from its beginnings to our day, including the errors, the incompetence, the thirst for power, the fear, the madness, the cruelty and the commonplace, in a story of five episodes.” What that quote doesn’t reveal is that this politically incorrect film’s world is populated entirely by freaks. In other words, Ottinger’s aims are similar to those of Todd Browning’s FREAKS and Werner Herzog’s EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL: a vision of our world as a giant freak show, a concept FREAK ORLANDO takes farther than Browning or Herzog ever did.’ — fright.com
Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984)
‘Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press is Ulrike Ottinger’s epic media studies fever dream. Plotting to boost circulation of her multinational media empire, Frau Dr. Mabuse (art film icon Delphine Seyrig) molds dapper aristocrat, Dorian Gray (60s supermodel Veruschka von Lehndorff), into a tabloid celebrity of her own designs. Introducing Dorian to a world of power and intrigue, Mabuse pairs him off with opera star Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein). But as readers tire of the new couple’s amorous exploits, Mabuse dispatches her maniacal henchmen (Fassbinder regular, Irm Hermann, Magdalena Montezuma, Barbara Valentin and writer, Gary Indiana) to kill off Dorian’s paramour. And so begins his plummet into the seedy, criminal underbelly of 1980s Berlin. Dorian would be Ottinger’s last entirely fictional feature of the 1980s as well as the final film in Ottinger’s Berlin trilogy, in which a “stylized composition provides a sightseeing trip through Berlin,” that is, at once, fictional and phantasmagorical, yet also wholly documentary in its depiction of the city’s architecture and underground milieu.’ — Dirty Looks NYC
the entire film
Seven Women, Seven Sins (1986)
‘Seven Women Seven Sins represents a quintessential moment in film history. Seven women filmmakers invited to direct for the seven sins were amongst the world’s most renown: Helke Sander (Gluttony), Bette Gordan (Greed), Maxi Cohen (Anger), Chantal Akerman (Sloth), Valie Export (Lust), Laurence Gavron (Envy), and Ulrike Ottinger (Pride). Each filmmaker had the liberty of choosing a sin to interpret as they wished. The final film reflected this diversity, including traditional narrative fiction, experimental video, a musical, a radical documentary, and was delivered in multiple formats from 16, super 16, video and 35mm. After the initial television airing Maxi Cohen went on to prepare it for a theatrical release, unifying the formats into 16mm. The theater release of Seven Women Seven Sins caused quite a stir. People lined up around the block to see this compelling anthology of the seven deadly sins.’ — NYWIFT
‘The fabled Viennese amusement park, Prater, is the centerpiece for Ottinger’s meditation on vanished pre-war Europe and its fascination with machines and entertainment. Ottinger skillfully pieces together the park’s history, interweaving remarkable archival footage, interviews with members of the carnival worker families who are the park’s lifeblood and new fictional footage starring Veruschka as a latter-day Alice gliding through the Prater’s Wonderland. An intellectual thrill ride, Ottinger’s film makes delightfully unexpected turns with its harnessing of diverse writings by the likes Josef von Sternberg, Elias Canetti and Elfriede Jellinek.’ — collaged
Under Snow (2011)
‘In the Echigo region of northwestern Japan, where heavy snow blankets entire landscapes and villages for more than half the year, a distinctive way of life has evolved. Time follows a different, slower rhythm, and everyday routines, along with religious rituals, wedding traditions, festivals, foods, songs, and games, are adapted to Echigo’s austere living conditions and natural beauty. Ulrike Ottinger’s latest film leads us into this mythical country, turning her lens on daily and communal life under the snowy mountains. Narrated in English by American literary and media theorist Lawrence A. Rickels, this stunning documentary sequences merge with the tale of students Takeo and Marko, played by Kabuki performers. Their journey through the past and repeated encounters with the present find them wondrously transformed with help from a beautiful vixen fox. Under Snow is clear evidence that Ottinger, whose career spans more than four decades, remains one of world cinema’s most original artists.’ — Women Make Movies
Floating Food (2011)
‘Ulrike Ottinger’s Floating Food is an installation exploring eating as a cultural and religious ritual, and the cultural connotations of water. The installation is composed of film montages, photographs, ethnographic objects and sculptures that include a Samurai robe made of dollar bills and a shaman’s costume. The renowned filmmaker, photographer, and collector of images and texts from around the world displays various aspects of her creation in a huge collage. Water, the central motif of the exhibition, is considered by Ottinger as more than simply a representation of a theme. Rather, water embodies a principle of thought, of life and of work.’ — collaged
‘In Weltbilder, the various aspect of artist and film-maker Ulrike Ottinger’s œuvre — film, opera and theatre directing, stage design, photography and ritual objects inspired by her travels — all flow into a large-scale installation extending through several spaces. School wall charts covered with postcards and embroidery are the starting point for the installation, which meanders between reality and fiction, bringing alive different worlds through photographs from Mongolia, Eastern Europe and Mexico. Thematically linked objects, wall pieces and processed photographs are woven into a dense network of images and stories. The staging is supplemented by the presentation of an excerpt from Ottinger’s Taiga (1992) — a film which describes her journey to the yak and reindeer nomads of Northern Mongolia and tells the histories of these two peoples — and the expansive slide installation Bildarchive. The exhibition offers a fascinating encounter with Ottinger’s now sensitive, now strident, open and personal view of the world, history and culture.’ — Hans-Jürgen Köhler
p.s. Hey ** Jonathan, Hi, J-ster! Things and I are crazy busy here in Paris. As are you, it sounds. Ooh, a mix by you. Asap: I’ll soundtrack my home life. Everyone, Artist and general person-extraordinaire Jonathan Mayhew made a mix tape, and, as he has superb taste in recorded sound, you are guaranteed pleasure if you prepare your ears and click this then click again where indicated. Thanks about the film post, and, oh man, wait till you see what Kier has cooked up for our film. Holy moly. Rock everything that’s happening, man. ** Rajib rafi, Hi, rajib. Thank you a lot, and thank you for coming in here. We’ll do our best. Please come back and hang out anytime. Take care. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi, Dóra! Glad you liked it. Oh, wow, cool about your friend’s show! Is there any online evidence, by chance? Good way to spend your day, i.e. writing and sending out SCAB alerts. Was it the day you hoped? My day was incredibly intense and long. Zac and I showed up at the producer’s office to find a box full of Kier’s artworks that he made for our film, and everything was glorious, so we were excited and buzzing about that. Then things plummeted. First our first assistant, who basically is in charge of organizing everything to do with the film, quit because she got a higher paying gig, which is really, really fucked up of her to do, and that creates massive problems. Then our producer, who doesn’t think we have enough time to shoot the film the way we’re planning, tried to make us simplify and cut down the script, which we refused to do. That was very tense, but we won the fight for the moment. Then we had to spend hours with the quitting first assistant making a shot list for the film, which is basically identifying every camera shot in the entire film and indicating which are ‘must have’ shots and which are so-called ‘bonus’ shots. Then Zac and I spent a long time setting up the exact schedule for the actor rehearsals that start tomorrow. Then a moment of good news because we managed to hire the sound recordist that we’ve been wanting and fighting to work with for months, so that’s a relief. Then Zac spent hours meeting the new first assistant and bringing him up to speed while I went home and worked on other necessary stuff. The new first assistant also thinks we can’t shoot the film the way we want in two weeks, so he’s trying to see if we can change the schedule to give the crew more breaks so they won’t go insane, and Zac and I are going to try to see if there’s anything in the script that we can simplify, but I honestly can’t imagine what that would be since the script is very complex and very tight as it is. So it was very long, exhausting, kind of scary day. And today will probably follow suit. Aren’t you glad you asked, ha ha? How was your Tuesday, pal? ** New Juche, My great pleasure, Joe. Yeah, the actual title doesn’t hold a candle. Thank you about the post, and apologies for its demanding build. Everything good, man? ** David Ehrenstein, Thank you, sir, and by the way, your wonderful and so very fresh guest-post will appear here on this coming Friday. Thank you so much again! ** James Nulick, Oh, thanks. This film won’t have any of stuff that most people find so objectionable in my books, so I don’t think your bf will have that kind of problem with it? I did try quite hard to find that Life Magazine image somewhere, but it’s lost to history and to whatever archives have the actual issues in storage, it seems. I think that’s where the gif came from. I haven’t investigated it because I don’t really want to know the context. The next two weeks — we start shooting two weeks from yesterday — is going to be barely survivably intense, I think. I do know Carrie Mae Weems’ work, and she’s great, so using one of her images seems like an excellent idea. Enjoy the total heck out of Vancouver! That sounds very pleasurable. ** Steevee, Hi. The Wire is now available online, and if you subscribe you can both access the issues online and they send you the print version. It’s very easy and not overly costly to do, so, obviously, I recommend doing that. Good question about the difficulty of making prop explosives. Our prop guy is trying to do that as we speak, and I’ll find out very soon. I wouldn’t think it’s all that difficult based on those photos. The visual components seem pretty basic, and they just have to sit there and look menacing in some way or another, and we’ll have lighting to accentuate the eeriness. ** Kat, Kat! Hey, my dear, old pal! Wow, it’s really, really nice to see you! How are you? Any chance for at least a quick catch up on your world and you? Yeah, I hope so too about a few of those tracks. Awesome! Kat! Love, me. ** Bill, Hi. Thanks, man. We’re very excited and trying to survive all the problems threatening our excitement. You animating Kier’s drawings is obviously a very dreamy idea. Cool that you had such a good time with good old Omar. Is Galas still sitting at the piano when she performs these days? ** Tosh Berman, Thanks a lot, Tosh. I’m really glad there was something there that made some kind of sense or held some degree of intrigue. Not having a record player here, I do feel that I’m missing out on a lot off stuff. I do buy vinyl, but then it just stacks up. We have a ‘prop’ working record player in our film. Maybe I’ll see if I can steal it. I’ve been following your music blog as religiously as I can under my currently swamped conditions. It’s great! And may I just say that I think ‘Wizzard’s Brew’ may just be the greatest, most completely unknown/ ignored LP ever. Everyone, The great Tosh Berman has a blog where he talks about music he’s listening to and interested in, and it’s a fantastic, addictive place to be, so if you aren’t already aware of said blog and following it, may I very highly recommend that you do so starting with going straight there courtesy of this link. ** Jamie, Howdy-doody, Jamie! Thanks a lot about the post, man. Very happy to hear that, natch. A brown bass. That’s enough to get an image in my head. Sweet. Colin Herd, yeah, he’s great. He used to hang out here on the blog a lot. I know and like CA Conrad’s work, yes, and while the name Sophie Robinson sounds very familiar, I’m not sure if I know her poetry. I will find out. Thanks! No problems at all about the guest-post and your busyness, etc. I know busy, man. Hence all these restored posts of late. Whoa. My Monday, if you scroll up and read my report to Dora, was mostly quite shitty too. Today? We will see. I’m angling for at least a little less shitty, ha ha. But fuck Monday, how was your Tuesday? Barely above water love, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Thanks, man. Yes, I have seen ‘Christine’, and I really loved it, and Bresson having sprung to your mind makes utter sense to me, yes. ** Misanthrope, Well, I’ll take those two words, and thank you ever so kindly for typing them, George. Ha ha, the squirming maggots thing. You gotta love WWE cheese. I will look through that guy’s postings. I don’t know when exactly though. I am beset, my friend, beset. Bon Tuesday to you, G-man. ** Sypha, Thanks a lot, James. No, we won’t be anywhere near actual explosives unless fireworks count. We will be setting off a slew of them off for one scene. ** S., Hi, man. Thanks a bunch. Dance parties … that actually sounds really nice. And unexpected? Take care. ** Right. Your restored post for today concerns the very interesting filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger. Please find out what interest she and her work hold for you, thank you, and I will see you tomorrow.