Edda Chiemnyjewski is a freelance photographer and single mother in late 1970s West Berlin, struggling to make a living from small commissions to photograph public events. Alongside her professional work, she has her own artistic projects – both individual and as part of a women’s photography collective – which try to capture the reality of the city in less hackneyed ways. Winning a commission from the city government, the women experiment with site-specific installations, with mixed results. Edda and her collaborators continually come up against obstacles, including entrenched sexist attitudes, condescending and dismissive. But Berlin itself, although battered and divided, remains a space of social possibility and aesthetic inspiration.
In West Germany, the political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s gave new impetus to political cinema, and ushered in a new feminist film culture, vigorous and inventive, if always embattled. In both contexts, Helke Sander was a key figure, as filmmaker, writer, editor and organiser. Her films are not easily defined, perhaps most easily summed up with reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s distinction between making political films and making films politically: in other words ‘correct’ political content should align with a commitment to formal innovation and, where possible, to changing the circumstances and conditions of film production and reception.1 As a subtle and complex artwork, and a document and artefact of a broader movement, Sanders’ Redupers: The All-Round Reduced Personality has often been singled out in overviews of West German feminist filmmaking. There are risks in focusing on one film and one director in this way: the risk of elevating one figure among many to auteur status, abstracting a film away from its context, mummifying its political content by film-historical canonisation.
Bearing those caveats in mind, the film is well worth the attention it has sustained. Its knot of thematic preoccupations connects the politics of everyday life, the particular experience of women and mothers, the political life of images, the ideological formation of social life, and the inseparability of – the false distinction between – public and private spheres. Generically hybrid, Redupers essays new modes of narrative form and political expression, combining fiction and documentary elements, overlaying its action with commentary and interspersing it with self-reflexive moments and occasional avant-garde visual devices. Gaps and discontinuities are included, and commented on. However, the experiments are not in the service of obscurantism, aestheticism or cleverness. Rather, they are an attempt to find adequate expression for social form, and an invitation to the viewer to reflect on the circumstances of her own life. Finally, the film is one of few West German films that address the Cold War division of Berlin and of the country, a striking blind spot in cultural production.2 The many car-borne traveling shots, probably Redupers’ most memorable visual motif, document late 1970s West Berlin in stark black and white, preserving the streetscapes of that vanished urban exclave, simultaneously ‘capitalism’s shop window’ and home to a thriving counter-culture.
At its simplest, Redupers is an analytic portrait of a woman (Edda Chiemnyjewski, played by Sander herself) over a few days in the spring of 1977. Sketching the circumstances of her life, the film traces connections and reveals tensions between her work as a freelance press photographer, her life as a single mother, and her political activities in a women’s photography collective. In part through Sander’s voice-over – hovering between authorial voice and the character’s diary-like commentary on her life – we gain access to Edda’s thoughts, hopes, dreams and frustrations. But the private is not merely personal; it is inseparable from the structures and strictures of the society in which she lives. These determinants are concretised in the built environment, dominated by the Wall, whose political and military architecture demarcates Edda’s neighbourhood, literally at the end of the street. They are also carried in the flow of images and discourses which suffuse public and private space, heard in ubiquitous radio broadcasts from West and East, seen in street-level advertising billboards, sensed in the clichés and used-up images which Edda’s oppositional politics must both contest and avoid replicating.
From her earliest cinematic work, Sander had engaged with questions of mass media and the public sphere. One of just two female directors in the first cohort of the Berlin film school in 1967, her first film was typical of that highly politicised milieu, if perhaps unusual in its formal panache.3 Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure (Break the Power of the Manipulators, 1968) was a document of the campaign against the right-wing Springer press group, and an activist film within the movement. Inspired with the revolutionary hopes of the time, the film was experimental and insistently pedagogical, deploying Brechtian aesthetics – instructional sketches, intertitles and diagrams, juxtapositional montage, authorial reflections to camera – to bring audiences to think as well as feel, reflect as well as see, and ultimately to act.
Even at this point Sander’s radicalism was profoundly feminist. In a historic 1968 speech, she denounced the patriarchal culture of the student movement, demanding that women’s issues be recognised and addressed, not disingenuously postponed until after a notional revolutionary transformation.4 Her work in the following decade, the time between Brecht die Macht and Redupers, helped establish new spaces and ideas for feminist practice, both general and film-cultural: this included television documentaries on childcare and contraception, and the organisation of exhibitions of women’s films. Just as significantly, in 1974, she was a founding editor of the journal frauen und film [women and film], for which she also wrote, her interventions marked by a careful, sceptical materialism, insistent on the need for experiment and rigor (see, for instance, Sander 1988: 75–81).
Thus while Redupers – her first full-length film, containing autobiographical elements – reflects on the politics of images, the question of representation is not separate from the practical difficulties of working, of raising money, of finding time for other commitments (above all, the question of childcare). Going beyond cinema and beyond any narrow definition of ‘women’s issues’, the film offers a resolutely materialist analysis of media production, asking where images come from, how they are produced and what they might be used for. Through Edda’s struggle to earn a living as a freelance photographer, the audience sees the labour involved in producing images that circulate in the public sphere, learns the cost of materials and the monetary worth of a photograph. We become witnesses to the physical work of photo development, the time wasted, the theft of images, the dim hopes of a scoop. In short: refusing notions of the image as a transcendental glimpse of freedom and authenticity, the film highlights the work of production usually concealed in the frantic consumption of images.5
Edda does much of her work at home or from home, her professional and personal life coexisting uneasily in domestic space. Likewise, it is from ‘private’ spaces that the photography collective prepares its interventions in the public sphere – the progress of these efforts at alternative production and exhibition constitutes the film’s thin narrative thread. Eschewing the ‘women’s issues’ which their funders expect, the group focuses on the Wall, the world-historical object in the neighbourhood, which – aside from political graffiti – seems to have become almost invisible, the division of the city normalised. In a variety of projects, the women look to make the fact of division visible, while questioning its absolute nature. One intervention builds a viewing platform to look over the Wall to the East: using curtains to create a ‘window’ view, they simultaneously defamiliarize the scene and render it visible. Enlarging photos of the Wall, they make portable billboards to display in locations around the city.
None of these interventions are entirely successful; in situ, the blown-up images are less impressive than hoped, the audience on the viewing platform is more inclined to gawk than think. On one level, this relative failure constitutes a disappointing learning process. But the work is performed not only as a critical practice, but also as a social one, a way of being and working together, bringing with it frustration, but also moments of happiness and solidarity between the women. On another level, the Wall functions as a kind of meta-symbol – all the more abstract for its literally concrete reality – for divisions of all kinds including gender division. Thus, insisting on the permeability of supposedly impassable barriers, Edda photographs the mundane media connecting East and West: sewers and airborne pollution, the economy of garbage disposal, the old women who cross the border as tolerated traffickers of goods.
Of course, as well as thematising images, the film is itself made of images. Sander’s status as a modernist filmmaker, committed to undermining the deceptions and illusions of conventional stories and images, has sometimes led to an underestimation of her particular visual style. In Redupers, individual shots and sequences are frequently both beautiful and clearly legible. But visual pleasure is not an end in itself, and neither is legibility reducible to a single bullet point of meaning. Early in the film, for example, we see Edda in her apartment’s narrow hallway, leaving for an assignment. Her young daughter cries and clings desperately, hanging onto her mother’s long scarf. On one level, the image presents the contrary pull of motherhood and professional obligation, but it transcends the simple enactment of an intellectual point – the constricted space and the passion and grace of the figures’ movements lend the scene something pressing, urgent and laden with emotion. Immediately afterwards, an extreme long shot shows Edda’s white Volkswagen driving in front of the crumbling Reichstag, scene and site of so much twentieth-century history. A readable juxtaposition: History, in ruins, looms over the tiny vehicle bearing Edda, her business and her thoughts. But the wryness and delicacy of the image – the brute old building veiled in late winter mist, the Beetle very beetle-like – qualifies and shades schematic readings, haunting them with the ghost of the concrete.
The main factor uniting the film’s disparate elements is not visual but acoustic. The critic B. Ruby Rich, in an astute and influential reading, argued that Sander’s voice-over is key to her specifically feminist modernism, which used unconventional form not to establish authority (she suggests Alexander Kluge as counter-example), but to make an intricate connection between author, characters and spectators, a bond no less substantial for being complex and reflexive (Rich 1998: 238–52).6 Recalling the tradition of women’s letter writing, Rich reads the film as ‘cinema of correspondence’, fostering communication and solidarity without reneging on intellectual rigor. Sander’s vocal performance, her citation of women writers, and her ‘shifts between interior and exterior discourse’ thus contribute to the ‘collective enterprise of fashioning a feminist voice’ (Rich 1998: 251). This correspondence is highlighted in one much-cited image: in a generous gesture of inclusion, the screen divides into four quadrants, each showing another feminist film – including Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who (1974) and Valie Export’s Invisible Adversaries (1977) – while Sander’s voice reads from a letter from Edda’s elderly female relative.
The film’s early reception was dominated by affirmative readings, emphasising its feminist poetics. What went less emphasised were the film’s darker moods: the ‘reduction’ – as the title suggests – of the personality by the incessant demands of everyday life, its vulnerability in the face of economic and ideological forces. As well as a work of feminist seeing-anew, the film can also be read as a document of the waning hopes of the 1970s German left, bearing the traces of exhaustion and political disappointment. As European political cinema, the film is a product of an epoch of the hollowing out of historical ‘grand narratives’, with their sense of direction and of historical agency. Politics turns, if not inwards, then downwards, as mass organisation gives way to micro-political action, and utopian hopes survive mostly in small surpluses of interpersonal warmth. Even Edda, worn out by demands, grows dispirited at times with the meagreness of her and her friends’ activism. As if the Grand Dialectic – progress and reaction, labour and capital – is here replaced by a much smaller dialectic, the push and pull of exhaustion and hope.
Perhaps resolve is a better word than hope. In the film’s final sequence, a satellite view of the city gives way to a final street scene, with mother and daughter meeting outdoors, apparently by chance, the archetypal private relation restaged in a public place. A long shot shows a brief tender conversation, then they go their separate ways, Edda walking down the street, away from camera, into a vertiginously deep space that contrasts with the shallow planes dominant in most of the film. The voice-over quotes Christa Wolf, an East Berlin author – ‘and so we go on, piecemeal, in little steps … feet on the ground, head in the clouds’ – and recalls the limits and gaps of diary form, reminding us of all it leaves untold. An appropriately dense conclusion: a moment of grace in ordinary social life, a deconstruction of heroic-bombastic notions of Progress, and a reflexive nod – almost a smile – to the audience; as if to say ‘to be continued’, not in a sequel, but in the continuity of the film with the life that goes on beyond it.
1. Jean-Luc Godard, ‘What Is to Be Done?’ Afterimage, No. 1, April 1970, pp. 10–16.
2. Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976) and Wings of Desire (1986) are rare exceptions.
3. Other students in the group included the essay-filmmaker Harun Farocki, Wolfgang Petersen, director of Das Boot, and Holger Meins, later to join the Red Army Faction and die on prison hunger strike. On 1968 and film school culture, see Volker Pantenburg, ‘Die Rote Fahne. Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie, 1966–1968’ in Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth (eds), 1968. Handbuch zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Studentenbewegung, Stuttgart, Metzler, 2007, pp. 199–206.
4. Helke Sander, ‘Rede des Aktionsrates zur Befreiung der Frauen, gehalten bei der 23. Delegiertenkonferenz des SDS im September 1968 in Frankfurt’, in Ann Anders (ed.), Autonome Frauen. Schlüsseltexte der Neuen Frauenbewegung seit 1968, Frankfurt, Athenäum, 1988, pp. 39–47.
5. Compare, for example, the function of images in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974).
6. On voice-over, see also Kaja Silverman 1983. For Sander’s own criticism of Kluge, see Sander, 1974: 16–22.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: West Germany. Production Company: Basis-Film, ZDF. Director: Helke Sander. Producer: Clara Burckner. Screenwriter: Helke Sander. Cinematographer: Katia Forbert. Music: Ludwig van Beethoven, Walter Kollo, Lothar Elias. Editor: Ursula Höf. Cast: Helke Sander (Edda Chiemnyjewski), Joachim Baumann (Stern reporter), Andrea Malkowsky (Dorothea Chiemnyjewski), Ronny Tanner (Werner), Gesine Strempel (photographer), Gislind Nabakowski (photographer), Gisela Zies (photographer), Helga Storck (photographer).]
Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: a History, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Miriam Hansen, ‘Messages in a Bottle: ‘Frauen und Film’, Women’s Cinema and Feminist Film Theory in West Germany’, Screen, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1987, pp. 30–9.
Julia Knight, Women and the New German Cinema, London: Verso, 1992.
Judith Mayne, ‘Female Narration, Women’s Cinema: Helke Sander’s The All-Round Reduced Personality/Redupers’, New German Critique, Vol. 25, 1982, pp. 155–71.
Renate Möhrmann, Die Frau mit der Kamera: Filmemacherinnen in der Bundesrepublik, Deutschland, Munich, Hanser, 1980.
B. Ruby Rich, ‘She Says, He Says: The Power of the Narrator in Modernist Film Politics’ , in Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 238–52.
Helke Sander, ‘Feminism and Film’ , in Eric Rentschler (ed.), West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices, New York, NY, Holmes & Meier, 1988, pp. 75–81.
Helke Sander, ‘zu kluges gelegenheitsarbeit einer sklavin’, frauen und film, Vol. 3, 1974, pp. 16–22.
Kaja Silverman, ‘Helke Sander and the Will to Change’, Discourse, Vol. 6, 1983, pp. 10–30.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.