In the arid and infinite Mongolian desert, on the streets of the encircled, divided Berlin of the ‘70s or in a German lake that stands in for the Chinese Ocean, Ulrike Ottinger has always encountered the woman, the freak, the exiled and the outcast. In her unique body of cinematic work, lightened by an experimental and even humorous touch, she has endeavored to represent otherness, the deviation from the norm as avant-garde comedy redeemed by social consciousness.
Sometimes described as “a celebration of lesbian-punk anti-realism,” since 1974 she has produced films at the intersection between art-cinema fiction and post-modern documentary. For example, a scene from Ticket of No Return, shot in 1978, shows the silent encounter between two women strangers on opposite sides of a café window. From the inside, the drinker, fashionably dressed in bright yellow, raises a glass to the homeless woman who looks at her from the street. Glass separates them, liquid and the desire to drink it joins them together, suggesting that both opposing figures form two images for one and the same character.
Only a few years before in 1975, Screen had published Laura Mulvey’s now classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In the era of classical Hollywood cinema of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Mulvey argues that film “reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” Further, Mulvey posited that in cinema “woman” was to be looked at, and man was “bearer of the look.” Mulvey intended her psychoanalytic analysis to be used as political weapon and tool to “challenge this cinema of the past.” Ottinger seems to have taken up Mulvey’s essay as just such a tool.
As a visual artist who crossed over to cinema from the static images of photography and painting, Ottinger intended to address the viewer as a woman, regardless of his/her actual gender. Madame X, for example, defines all points of identification as female, feminine or feminist with its repetitive call for women in search of “gold, love and adventure,” the appropriation of the pirates genre, the unarticulated voice of authority and the use of fetish for a different kind of pleasure. It’s the second sex’s point of view that’s represented, that slows down the narrative until it loses relevance and leaves free space for non-synchronic visual and sound combinations. Ottinger’s work is determined by the principle of collage and in this regard connects with surrealism. She doesn’t present narrative cinema, but demands instead a special kind of associative watching and listening.
The depiction of “otherness” began in her early feminist films like Ticket of No Return and Madame X. In the latter, women who join X’s ship come from contexts and desires as diverse as that of a model, a psychologist, a Chinese cook, an exotic girl from Polynesia, etc. In Freak Orlando, the film revolves around groups of outcasts, excluded and deported people, united in the movie through the figure of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Orlando experiences different historical periods alternately as male and female.
The settings where characters move and live signify beyond the simple matter of place; rather, geography functions as a relevant part of the story. Whether Ottinger becomes the first Western filmmaker to shoot in Mongolia or if she goes to China or stays in Berlin, it’s never just a location. Vienna is the stage set for the return of the 17th Century Hungarian vampire in her version of the Blood Countess. Encountering Nina Hagen, Martin Kippenberger and three peeping-tom women that go by the names of “Social Question” (Magdalena Moctezuma), “Common Sense”(Monika von Cube) and “Accurate Statistics” (Orpha Termin), the Berlin of the ‘70s is the labyrinthian city in which to dissolve onself in alcohol. Desire seeps into these landscapes, takes its protagonists to strange territories, makes them foreigners. Laurence A. Rickels states that “Exclusion, as in a dream, can be read in reverse as outgoing adventure.”
Teatro San Martín’s retrospective of Ottinger’s movies — the first ever in Argentina — accompanied by a photo exhibit in the theater’s photo gallery, will include eleven films: Ticket of No Return, Freak Orlando, Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, Twelve Chairs, Superbia, and Prater among them. They ask us here, now to abandon the certainty and boredom of conventional cinema for “gold, love and adventure.”