Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Phantoms of the Avant-Garde from The New German Cinema to the Cinema of Consensus: The Virgin Machine, 1988

The death of Rainer Werner Fassbinber in 1982 marks the end of one stage of German cinema's history, an independent, sexually subversive, politically radical cinema that was concerned with a crisis of identity for the individual as well as the collective nation. This cinema included other underground filmmakers, such as Warner Schroeter, Alexander Kluge, Ulrike Ottinger, Monika Treut, Wim Wenders, Rosa Von Praunheim and Warner Herzog. Although often having a unique style and preoccupations all their own, these directors all explored in different ways a shattering effect, involving the breaking apart of normalised sexualities, ideas of nationhood, the body and gender. It was, cinematically a time of breach and crisis, a breaking apart and and an examination of issues that the film makers viewed as needing to be reassessed and challenged. Memories of Germany history haunt the work of these film makers in one way or another. The Third Reich had held a preoccupation with the German-body-beautiful, a healthy strong German citizen that would no doubt be busy fighting for their nation and supporting its future by participating in a heterosexual relationship that would bear more strong German babies. This role was rejected by the next generation who questioned the actions of their parents, who were left to take up and deal with feelings of shame and a need to disavow the behaviours of their families and their nation as a whole.

This post will attempt an assessment of the underground cinema of the "New" (not to be confused with contemporary) German cinematic period, that went against the traits of much of contemporary German films' so called "cinema of consensus". Drawing parallels between the earlier period of politically radical and aesthetically challenging cinema of the 1970's, I hope to express that the ideas of German cinema's avant-garde did not disappear after Fassbinder's death despite the oppositional shift. Thinking about issues of gender and sexuality, place and belonging, comparing these representations in the underground and the mainstream. I hope to chart how far they go to subvert negative stereotypes of identity and nationhood (and, conversely, how far the films of this period in fact propagate the retrograde views of the society of Germany’s recent past).

It can be therefore said that, in part, the oppressive view of a normalised heterosexual family unit under the Third Reich, together with the shame attached to the collective German identity of the second generation after the second world war, found an aesthetic that expressed a need to distance itself from, and shake off the previous negative influence. Many of this period's directors were concerned with destabilising notions of masculinity and femininity that they found to be upholding negative gender binaries. A blurring takes place between the presentations of the sexes and sexualities that hadn't been seen in German film since the Weimar Era cinema. The camp and kitch aesthetic had a strong presence and heavily marked the work of Fassbinder and Ottinger. This was not to trash their sex or mock their sexuality but to challenge the normalised views of society, pointing out the performance involved in gender constructions.

Transgression was omnipresent in the work of the directors of this period. The work of some of the underground directors mentioned above became more acceptable to the mainstream and were exhibited widely outside of Germany. So this idea of transgression was also a moving of geographic boundaries and a blending of national identity with that of the (films) host country, more often than not, the new setting being America. Many of the underground avant-garde directors of this group carried on making interesting work after the watermark moment of Fassbinder's death that metaphorically ends one cinematic period and heralds the (new) contemporary German cinema of the late 1980's and 90's. After the death of Fassbinber in 1982 the stylistic gap between films of the New German Cinema and the those made by mainstream contemporary film-makers got wider. While directors like Herzog, Wenders, Truet and Ottinger were still interested in exploring oppression, transgression and subversion to challenge attitudes to place, time, space, identity and nationhood -the new crop of films being made for the mainstream, were a leap into the direction of conformity and bourgeois sensibilities: dramas dealing with the work, family and romantic lives of the young middle-classes.

German cinema's history has a tradition for the transgressive and sexually challenging, from the Weimar Era's queer subtexts and flirtations in films like Pandora's Box G. W. Pabst (1929) to a more explicit representation of young lesbian desire in Mädchen in Uniform (1931) right up to Fassbinder's queer melodrama's of the 1970's and Ottinger's subversive lesbian hero fantasy films. This tradition changes arguably taking a downward tern after the death of Fassbinder. The contemporary cinema was about getting into the mainstream, making money and finding success and distribution in America. Eric Rentschler does propose that during this period there existed some films and filmmakers that kept up the experimental traditions of the earlier period, that escaped the categorisation of films "for nothing, about" that typified much of the output by the "cinema of consensus" crowd. He comments: "there are numerous noteworthy exceptions to the rule...auteurs like Ulrike Ottinger...". It is here I will turn back to look at the themes of transgressive sexuality present in the body of work produced the 1970's by Ottinger, followed by these themes continuation in the contemporary films of Monika Truet.

Ulrike Ottinger's films have the common thread of transgression, be this pushing the limits to explore and escape figurative and literal borders, to the way in which genders, sexualities and desires are portrayed on screen. Her work is highly stylised and rich in symbolism and radical portrayals of sexuality. In The New German Cinema: Music, History and the Matter of Style Caryln Flinn points out this characteristic of Ottinger's work: "Ottinger is at pains to show what might be called de-idealisation behind idealisation and the dystopian side of female fantasies and desires''. There is also within her work the strong pull of escape fantasies. In Freak Orlando (1981) the main character goes though unnerving, strange worlds that are both sensual and violent. The film is divided into vignettes that express a particular myth or historical event, these are usually extreme moments of trauma in the German imagination. A scene of a competition of grotesques is reminiscent of famous displays of violence, of atrocity exhibitions and marching Nazi parades. But this restless movement from place to place, transcending time and space, has a cathartic quality: it is as if the traumas of the past are literally being moved through and away from, stripped of their power to shame and disturb, as at least they have been faced. Although on a tiny budget, Ottinger also produced some quite epic films that blended surrealism with the road movie. Madame X: Eine absolute Herrscherin (1978) is a story about pirates that allows for a dissection of power relations and fantasies in the dream space of a pirate ship. In an interview with Mark Silberman, Ulrike Ottinger states of her film practice of real and surreal spaces: "Although the film focuses primary on the moment of awaking, I try to make clear that the enthusiasm of waking up cannot last because reality itself offers a mixed bag of pleasant and unpleasant experiences". expressing the way cinema can act as a a way through and beyond the thresholds of reality and identity, by allowing the audience to transgress the limited imposed by the Realist cinema style of representation to instead imagine a world that seamlessly crosses boundaries separating genders, dreams and fantasies.

The work of Monika Truet in Virgin Machine is where the ideas of the national and geographic combine with the sexual and the social. In a sense it is this film is part of the cinema of consensus in the sense that it attempts to unify the spaces we reside in, i.e. the nationality of the country one is born in, with the spaces and landscapes of the mind. Caryln Flinn comments on the traits inherent in the cinema of Monika Truet, explaining how: 'The voyages of Monika Truet tend to be literal and geographic, as well abstract, trekking into realms of gender, sexuality and identity. The nomadism seems to mimic Truet's movements as a director". Like many of Germany's film-makers, Truet too spent a lot of time in America, although avoided Hollywood in favour of New York and San Francisco's more low-key, underground areas with existing subcultures, where she is said to have met some of the ''sexual outlaws'' that provided the inspiration for her films.

In Virgin Machine, the film's change of location from Hamburg to San Francisco allows for a change of outlook for protagonist Dorothee. As she explores the city, walking up and down San Francisco's streets looking for her mother, she comes across a whole world of activity she naively assumed not to have existed in her home town of Hamburg. This new city has an identity that differs massively from the place she has come from. Flinn states; 'Virgin Machine sets up two distinct diegetic spaces: Hamburg and San Francisco. Hamburg is gendered as a world of men and family relations, marked by ''serious'' research, traditional romantic quests and requirements, and grossly conventional sex roles. San Francisco, on the other hand, is a space filled with women, lesbian desire and gazes, sexual indeterminacy, playfulness, and erotic role-playing". Although perhaps an exaggeration of one city's prudishness with the other's supposed liberalness, the change of scenery does allow Dorothee to gain some notion of how the identity of a place came come to define ones own ideas of selfhood. Her meeting for the first time with, and enjoying the company of the gay women provides a connection with the people of a nationality that isn't her own, the connectivity comes in the form of sharing sexuality and common dissatisfaction with the heteronormative relationships society advocates. Flinn continues: "Although neither city is depicted ''naturally,” Hamburg represents a place where romance and sexuality are normalised through biological and other scientific explanations. San Francisco by contrast, denaturalises romance and sexuality by places them into material and materialist contexts".

Dorothee's pleasure at her presence and acceptance into a new national environment despite possessing attractive qualities from the surface (openly gay clubs etc), doesn't quite live up to her idealisation, as an other-ed place San Francisco does not alleviate her feelings that her desires and ideals clash with those of societal demands and expectations that she experienced in Hamburg. In the film Dorothee says she is looking for love but even though this new city offers her an expression of her self and her desire it is not quite what she is expecting. After watching Ramona's striptease in drag, Dorothee is impressed, aroused and intrigued by her and asks her to go out on a date. After they have both enjoyed each others company on the date, Ramona and Dorothee have sex in what is a highly stylised scene, although this is done intentionally with expressionist lighting and shadows, something about the held posing seems staged, this isn’t a real display of desire within the film's diegetic world. The next scene is "the morning after": the previous scene's atmosphere of artifice, of stageyness, is confirmed when Ramona gives Dorothee a bill for services rendered. In Dorothee's search for love she finds that even homosexual sexual exchange isn't the utopia she'd imagined, that it too in fact has a price. Another instance where the ideas of non-heterosexual standard relations and desires are proposed as liberatory is during the scene with Susie Sexpert: she tells Dorothee that sex doesn't have to be the standardised traditional man-woman figuration any more, showing her a couple of veiny-cock-shaped vibrators, Susie suggests that this is a new utopian sexuality. Despite the comic intentions of this provocative scene, the very fact of a lesbian using a penis-shaped sex-aid seems rather silly and heavily phallocentric and not in the least, the liberatory or utopian sex she is searching for.

Although Flinn hypothesises that film is not attempting to be subversive, commenting: "Virgin Machine does not try to locate resistance in lesbian or transgendered sexualities or in cross-dressing, nor does it construct male or heterosexual female bodies as intrinsically flawed or politically repugnant. Regarding the women campily performing womanhood in Virgin Machine, womanhood is not sent up or put down, but simply put on". Then in fact what the film does inadvertently express is the American way of life, that cash transactions replace gestures of genuine desire, that buying a vibrator can buy one sexual liberation and that desires are marketable commodities.

As an example of expressing notions of German cinema's history being concerned with shifting national, sexual and social boundaries, this film works quite well, yet I feel it does not go far enough in rejecting limiting ways of being and looking at the world. Perhaps it is the questions raised by the film and left unanswered that are of interest, the hope being that the viewer may have to think on what has been suggested by the film and whether or not they are satisfied and why. In The Queer German Cinema Alice A. Kuznair proposes: "Moreover, can the juxtaposition of sexual and national identity liberate one from the deterministic assumption that sexuality is cultural inheritance? In raising these questions, such films variously discover new ways of expressing how multi-centred realities can be. That they challenge static views of identity alignment". Although not wholly satisfactory due to an unease in its linking of capitalist commodification with sexual freedom, Virgin Machine does show that despite its associations with and move toward the Hollywood system, amongst the contemporary crop there is still evidence of attempts at artistic and subversive intent that reveal that Contemporary German cinema (now in past tense) still expressed some of the essence of the avant-garde.

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