Three West German films on familial and economic violence in the Märkisches Viertel
The Bought Dream
(Der gekaufte Traum, 1977)
For Women - Chapter 1
(Für Frauen. 1. Kapitel, 1971)
Is This Fate?
(Der wegen Schicksal, 1979)
WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES – SOUS-TITRÉS EN FRANCAIS – SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL – LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUES – 한국어 자막 – 字幕
Programmed by Daniella Shreir, with the collaboration of
Kristofer Woods & the Deutsches Kinemathek
Texts edited / website design by Daniella Shreir
This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.
Housing, violence and the family in two films by Helga Reidemeister
I. At the Märkisches Viertel
In the sixties, the Märkisches Viertel was the largest housing estate in West Berlin. Construction began in 1963 as part of the city’s First Urban Renewal Programme, two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, which the estate abutted on its Eastern side. Located on the northern edges of the city and planned as a self-sufficient unit containing amenities for its inhabitants – shops, post offices, schools, playgrounds and youth clubs – the estate contained 17,000 apartments and was originally intended to house 50,000 people. Though initially hailed as a shining example of light-filled greenery-surrounded modernist urban design bestowed by the benevolent welfare state, in 1968, in the context of international insurrectionary fervour, it became the target of protests by student radicals who treated the site “as a case study to exemplify the myriad issues they saw within society”. Architecture students drawn to the estate initially focused on challenging the government’s urban planning policies but demands expanded and tenant-led struggles emerged against a range of issues facing residents. In 1969, an issue of the mainstream liberal news magazine Der Spiegel included interviews with tenants who complained of the monotony of their surroundings, comparing the estate to a prison camp and barracks. Soon, the estate was routinely characterised as a bleak grey monolith with rising rents and shoddy infrastructure whose inhabitants had been purposefully socially marginalised.
Helga Reidemeister became involved with residents of the estate at the time protests first erupted there in 1968. She participated in an exhibition that focused on the Märkisches Viertel with the group ‘Social Psychology and Politics’, then worked in the area as a social worker until 1973 at which time she began film school at the dffb (German Film and Television Academy Berlin). Inspired by the example of the Black Panther Party in the US, student activists were involved in ‘self-help’ initiatives on the estate, including a tenants’ rights group, that sought to address high rents, lack of social services, poor work prospects and housing insecurity. During this period the estate, as Alexander Vasudevan discusses, created an “alternative infrastructure” and became a kind of “laboratory” for experimental organising and direct action. In the early seventies, Reidemeister documented tenants’ frustrations with their living and working conditions, as well as suspicions and strained forms of solidarity that emerged between students and residents. Vasudevan analyses the transcript of a conversation that took place at a meeting organised by Reidemeister in April 1974 – one of many such discussions she recorded on tape over her years of involvement with the community – during which residents complained of feeling “used” by the student organisers.
Residents’ frustrations about being treated more like research material than political collaborators also arose in relation to films produced during the period. Various filmmakers attempted to document struggles happening on the estate in the years following 1968. Christian Ziewer and Max Willutzki, for example, made a series of militant films, which were later screened in the estate’s shopping centre, including a documentary about the occupation of a factory hall on May Day 1970 (Kinogramm I: Die Besetzung [The Occupation]) and another following a group of residents resisting the eviction of a family from the estate (Kinogramm II: Mietersolidarität [Tenant’s Solidarity], shot by Cristina Perincioli who went on to make documentaries focusing specifically on women involved in the renters’ council). Although Ziewer and Willutzki’s films focused on workers and tenants, the films’ subjects were not involved in their production processes, a decision which had implications for the narratives presented.
II. Thwarted dreams
In an interview with Jump Cut, Reidemeister recalled meeting members of the Bruder family, who expressed their dislike of films made by activists like Ziewer and Willutzki at the Märkisches Viertel, which they saw as having been made ‘about’ rather than ‘with’ the working class people they claimed to represent. Her 1977 documentary Der gekaufte Traum [The Bought Dream] grew out of an experimental collaboration with the Bruders and attempted to respond to these criticisms by handing film equipment to the family itself. Reidemeister’s approach to documentary filmmaking arose from a self-critical awareness of the limitations of the political priorities of her own milieu, limitations she saw reflected in the form, content and production processes of the films they had made:
I was suspicious about how we student leftists tried to learn about the proletariat theoretically. We read books, engaged in endless discussions and held meetings. Yet no one felt the need to go simply where workers live—the sphere of reproduction—and to develop an independent perspective about their daily misery. The only thing we did was go to factories. But even there we students made contact only where we already knew there'd be politically sympathetic skilled workers, a vanguard and visible struggle we could easily support. We completely neglected the whole sphere of reproduction both theoretically and practically.
Inspired by French documentary directors who had given film cameras to workers in car factories, Reidemeister shifted emphasis from factory to home, from the sphere of production to that of reproduction, and provided the Bruder family with a Super-8 camera. Initially, she conceived of a project involving multiple families who lived in the Märkisches Viertel, who would each record their home lives and determine how they were represented on screen. Due to limited resources, however, she was only able to work with the Bruder family who often had little time to devote to the project. Between 1969 and 1973 they shot just four hours of footage. She decided to shoot some additional material in collaboration with fellow film student Sofoklis Adamidis and completed the film in 1977. 
A wordless sequence in the middle of Der gekaufte Traum focuses on the domestic routines of the household. The mother of the family, Irene, makes coffee and smokes cigarettes in a pink quilted dressing gown. Her husband Günter hurriedly spreads margarine on slices of bread for their three youngest children, then washes up and sweeps the floor. Irene loads and unloads a washing machine, hoovers, dusts, makes beds. The family eat; the children climb into bed together. At one point a jaunty pop song begins to play, a jarringly upbeat counterpart to the activities being dispassionately performed on screen. The track is non-diegetic but seems like something family members might listen to on the radio to leaven the sense of drudgery. Such scenes documenting socially reproductive labour in the family’s apartment are interspersed with interviews with individual family members about their lives and tense discussions shot around the kitchen table, which are in turn punctuated by images of the estate’s exterior combined with factual intertitles: ‘83% of all inhabitants owe debt on payment plan purchases’, ‘62% of mothers work’.
These abrupt empirical interruptions could seem like a didactic, heavy-handed attempt to situate the family’s problems within a broader social context were it not for the fact that members of the Bruder family analyse their own experiences in similar terms. In addition to her chores at home, Irene is shown cleaning as part of her waged work, disconsolately polishing the floor of a shop selling TVs. In voiceover, she expresses her sense of frustration with being constantly exhausted, describes her frayed nerves and expresses her desire to find time and space to relax. She talks about jobs she had wanted to do but couldn’t pursue because she couldn’t afford to stay in education, linking this sense of thwarted ambition to her short temper at home: “That gets to me. It wears me out. And that’s why I often get so aggressive.”
Seventeen-year-old Michael, the eldest child of the family, who has grown up mostly in residential children’s homes because his parents found him too difficult to deal with, is central to the film while remaining peripheral to the family’s daily lives. Irene reflects on how difficult things were when he was born: their cramped housing, Günter’s stressful job at a printing press. Michael was often left alone because of their work schedules. “I don’t think I neglected him on purpose”, Irene says, but it’s clear that she and Günter dealt violently with young Michael’s bed-wetting and aggressive outbursts. Interviews with Michael frame the film and he expresses relief at having escaped the home. Although no violence is shown on screen, the family is depicted as a site of violence but the contextual intertitles and the parents’ own guilt-laden reflections on the stresses caused by their difficult economic circumstances serve to situate this violence in the context of a damaging society. The interfamilial brutalities and strains the film explores depict the sphere of reproduction in emotional and psychological terms, as much as it addresses political and economic concerns. Or rather, it shows how the latter realms shape the former, demonstrating that psychic life is never strictly individual but always interpersonal and social. Der gekaufte Traum is not just concerned with documenting the particular forms of activity traditionally performed by women under capitalism. It also interrogates how oppressive social relations are reproduced across generations.
III. Fascist fathers, fascist daughters
The question of how to raise non-violent people in a violent society is also central to Reidemeister’s documentary Von wegen 'Schicksal'? (Is This Fate?, 1979) which was shot over many years in collaboration with a different family in the Märkisches Viertel. The film opens with the blazingly charismatic Irene Rakowitz in an editing suite watching footage of her daughters talking about their family. Reidemeister, whose disembodied voice intervenes in conversations with family members throughout the film, tells her: “OK, you’re in control”. It doesn’t always seem as though she is. Like Irene Bruder, Irene Rakowitz, recently separated after twenty years of marriage to former miner Richard who now lives in another apartment in the same complex, is quick to claim that her family’s problems are social rather than individual, shared rather than unique. A voiceover briefly explains Irene’s financial situation – her rent, the amount she receives in disability benefits – but though an early scene shows her and her youngest child Bulli making dumplings together in the kitchen, the depiction of domestic labour is subordinate to the film’s main themes: violence and love.
The closing scene of Der gekaufte Traum shows some of the Bruder children playing in a car park with toy guns while Günter expresses regret at having given up on parenting because he had so little energy to devote to it. In Is this Fate? Irene is irritated with her ex-husband for encouraging their son to play with toy weapons. Bulli complains in turn that his mother is sometimes violent towards him while she insists she has tried to bring her children up in a non-violent household. She dismisses his accusations by making two contradictory claims: the incident he mentioned didn’t count as violence because she didn’t hit him hard and anyway it was justified because he wasn’t doing as he was told.
In the following scene, Irene’s youngest daughter Astrid is shown in her bedroom expressing her love of the stars of violent Westerns. Reidemeister asks why she is attracted to brutal male characters but Astrid insists their violence is always justified, which she claims is also true of her aggressive treatment of her younger brother. Washing up in the kitchen, Irene and Helga have a fraught exchange on the same subject. Irene exasperatedly insists that regardless of how she raises her children they nonetheless live in a violent world: “I can’t compete against the whole world. The whole world is stronger than me alone!…And violence is the key to our world, to our system.” After all, being non-violent, she points out, failed to protect her from her violent husband. She gets increasingly annoyed with Helga for failing to grasp that her family is not located on a desert island but in a society beyond her control. The deeply fatalistic Richard makes a similar point later in the film using a different metaphor: children are like blocks of wood, he says, parents might have some impact on their surface but the real carver is society.
Yet, as Reidemeister later reflected, despite making general statements about the realm of the social, the external social world in which the family lives, is absent from the film: Is This Fate? “is completely impoverished in terms of presenting relations between the inner and outer world. There is nothing left of the outer world.” The cameras rarely stray beyond the cramped rooms the family inhabits. Glimpses of the city and sky beyond are mostly framed by windows. The infrastructure of the estate, Irene’s engagement in political organising, Richard’s working life, the children’s schools all remain off-screen; the kinds of social statistics which contextualise the life of the Bruder family in Der gekaufte Traum remain undisclosed. In an interview in 1982, Reidemeister remarked that her film had been heavily criticised in Germany but received with more understanding in France: “The French understood [Is This Fate?] correctly, in its context of the damage and wounds a fascist past has inflicted upon the German family.” Arriving at this ‘correct’ understanding, however, requires supplementing the film with a context it refuses to provide.
Aged 48 at the time of filming, Irene Rakowitz was born around 1930. She would have been a toddler when Hitler came to power and a teenager at the end of the Second World War. Her father, whose photograph we see her nailing with care to a wall above his favourite pipe bag, as she extols his tenderness, presumably wore a Nazi uniform. Reidemeister’s generation of student radicals were obsessed with the question of how to escape reproducing the fascism of their parents, who often refused to talk about it. The relationship of the family to society was intimately connected to the question of how the present related to the past. As Irene Rakowitz also reflected after the film’s completion: “Family is the breeding ground of all social behavior, and I think that it must be revealed exactly where this behavior comes from.” Radical approaches to sex and attempts to reconfigure the nuclear family were central to the West German New Left movement that emerged around 1968. Sexual liberation, the abolition of the conventional family and children’s liberation were all explicitly framed, as Dagmar Herzog has shown, as a repudiation of an image of the Holocaust perpetrator as sexually repressed and family-oriented that emerged during the Auschwitz trials in the mid-1960s. Rebellion against parents was thus understood as a form of anti-fascist struggle. The origins of cruelty and aggression were located within the nuclear family. Rearing children in collectives was seen as a route to abolishing violence both in the home and in society more broadly to avoid the fascist violence of the past from repeating itself. The only fascism explicitly discussed in Is This Fate? , however, is not located in Nazi history but in the present, embodied in the figure of Irene’s teenage daughter, Carmen.
Irene remembers Carmen as a cuddly and affectionate child. Having been brought up by a cold mother, Irene hoped to raise children who would be capable of love. Reidemeister asks if she thinks it might be impossible to show love if one hasn’t been shown love oneself but Irene insists she must know how to love – otherwise, why would she feel so much pain at having raised a daughter she now views as a ‘monster’? Carmen, meanwhile, claims Irene was not really a loving mother to her, simply a ‘provider’. It is through one of Carmen’s furious tirades that we learn Irene is an active member of the tenants’ organisation, an involvement Carmen sees as evidence of her mother’s narcissism. Sitting with her boyfriend, Lutz – who Irene refers to as a ‘fascist pig’ – Carmen rants about criminals and taxes. Unlike her mother, who provides social explanations for the family’s problems, Carmen vehemently rejects these kinds of arguments: “Everyone makes their own mess, and what I can’t stand hearing, is that society is responsible.”
The figure of the fascist daughter could lend itself to a fatalistic reading of the film: the violence of the past repeating itself inevitably through time. Reidemeister’s work on the estate began in the euphoric heat of 1968 but Is This Fate? was released a decade later in a more despairing political moment. Without mentioning her involvement in Reidemeister’s documentary, Vasudevan cites a critical response Rakowitz wrote to a paper circulated in 1970 by activists at the Märkisches Viertel, including Ulrike Meinhof and other members of the Red Army Faction, which advocated taking a more militant approach to ongoing housing campaigns. Rakowitz chided the authors of the paper for lacking “revolutionary patience”, a quality she declared necessary in the “day-to-day struggles of the oppressed”. By the time Is This Fate? was released Meinhof had been found hanged in Stammheim prison and the state’s anti-terror campaign against the RAF had peaked. Revolutionary violence had been crushed by the strength of the ‘legitimate’ violence of the state. Yet despite the figure of Carmen and the broader defeatist context of the late 1970s, I would venture tentatively that Is This Fate? could be read as instantiating a kind of revolutionary patience.
Is This Fate? resists a fatalistic narrative by focusing not only on Irene’s relationship with her children but on her exit from her marriage – to a man obsessed with fate – into a life of political engagement and sexual exploration. She rebukes Richard for pursuing his hobbies without respecting hers while they were married but now she spends time at home painting flowers while listening to her favourite music, the soaring symphonic poem ‘The Moldau’ by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, that recurs throughout the film as a refrain that seems to transcend the monotony of the everyday. In a rare outdoors scene, Irene is shown on a daytrip to the lake with her lover, while her lively, sometimes combative, conversations with Helga depict a lateral bond of friendship and collaboration. At the lake, Helga asks Irene what she dreams of and Irene responds that she would love to have a small island where she wouldn’t need anything, a utopian counterpart to the desert island of which she bemoaned the absence in their kitchen conversation years earlier. “Oh God! My dreams!”, she exclaims dismissively but Helga earnestly insists that her dreams are important, recalling the opening voiceover of Der gekaufte Traum in which she states: “Dreams must not be replaced. It is reality that must be replaced.” As the credits roll, Irene is shown smiling on a fairground ride.
 Laura Bowie, ‘Protest and Marginalized Urban Space: 1968 in West Berlin’, Studies in History and Theory of Architecture (Marginalia, Architectures of Uncertain Margins), 4 (2016), pp. 225-240, p. 225.
 See, Florian Urban, ‘Large Housing Estates of Berlin, Germany’ in Daniel Baldwin Hess, Tiit Tammaru and Maarten van Ham eds., Housing Estates in Europe Poverty, Ethnic Segregation and Policy Challenges (Delft: Springer, 2018), pp. 99-120.
 See, Fabian Tietke, ‘A Laboratory for Political Film: The Formative Years of the German Film and Television Academy and Participatory Filmmaking from Workerism to Feminism’, Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel eds, Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019), pp. 105-121.
 Alexander Vasudevan, ‘Tenant Trouble: Resisting Precarity in Berlin’s Märkisches Viertel, 1968–1974’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2022), 1-16, p. 4, p. 1.
 He explains that the transcripts held in archives in Berlin total 1500 pages. Vasudevan, p. 2.
 See, Tietke, p. 113.
 Tieke, p. 115.
 Rakowitz cited in Tieke, p. 118.
 Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Prineton University Press, 2005), pp. 141-183. Though Herzog argues that discussions of sex and the Third Reich had became separate by the 1970s in the wake of the women’s liberation movement.
 He has written another article, however, devoted to a discussion of Reidemeister’s film: Alexander Vasudevan, ‘Celluloid Critique: Documentary filmmaking and the politics of housing in Berlin’s Märkisches Viertel’, Radical Housing Journal, 3, 2 (Dec 2021), 119-142.
 Vasudevan, p. 10.
Is This Fate?
(Von wegen 'Schicksal')
Helga Reidemeister, 1979
WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES BY PATRICK BAKER
SOUS-TITRÉS EN FRANÇAIS
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MATHEUS PESTANA
SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL PRÓXIMAMENTE
TÜRKÇE ALT YAZI ÇEVİRİSİ: ÖYKÜ SOFUOGLU
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
During the heady months of insurrection that marked 1968 across the globe, Helga Reidemeister (then a social worker) became part of a student-led struggle on behalf of the neglected residents of the Märkisches Viertel, the biggest housing estate in West Berlin at the time. Apprehensive about the way her fellow leftists were treating its inhabitants as theory and disappointed by militant (male) filmmakers’ exclusive focus on sites of production like the factory, Reidemeister began work on Der gekaufte Traum (completed 1977), giving one resident family a Super-8 camera with which they could film their own site of domestic reproduction.
Her second film, Von Wegen ‘Schicksal’, is an even more intense and unflinching document of the neighbouring Bruder family and one in which the filmmaker’s interventionism and will constitute an important metatextual layer. The film opens with the family’s determined but exhausted matriarch Irene watching rushes on an editing table, in which one of her four children denounces Reidemeister’s desire to film their familial conflicts. “[The children] just don’t see that our family’s problems are not unique to us,” Irene says, countering Tolstoy’s thesis that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Violence is the focus of Von Wegen ‘Schicksal’ and it is what the verbose and charismatic cast of six variously analyse, refute and justify. The film is a unique document of the second and third generation’s reckoning with their nation’s legacy – though despite the mother’s keenness to blame society, this geographically specific spectre is never named. But it is also an hyperbolic, noisy case study for ideas about nature vs nurture, the welfare state, and how to live together.
This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.
on 'Is This Fate?'
Translated by Daniella Shreir
In the preface to Outside, a collection of her essential writings published in newspapers and magazines from 1957 onwards, the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras says that journalistic writing, as a consequence of the tussle with reality that it entails, was her “first experience of cinema”. She also writes that a large part of her motivation for this body of work was the desire to defend a certain idea of cinema and the films that embody it – films that were often eclipsed by the mainstream press. Here she talks about Is This Fate by the Berlin filmmaker Helga Reidemeister, which received an award at the Festival du Réel last year, an event organised by the Centre Pompidou. Duras calls the film, which has just been released in cinemas, “essential”. It is, she says, emblematic of the power she expects from the cinematic form, through both its revelation of new forms of language and the unprecedented gaze it allows the viewer.
I saw Helga Reidemeister’s film at the Festival de Hyères in June 1980. Its subject is a woman who lives in the suburbs of West Berlin who talks about her life. Sometimes she is talking to Helga Reidemeister; at other times, her two eldest daughters talk for her, on her behalf, in her absence. She isn’t there to hear them talk; she listens to them at the film’s editing table. Sometimes, too, we see this woman, Irene, at fifty, with her young lover, at the edge of a lake or by the sea.
Everything that has happened to this woman is commonplace: four pregnancies, mistreatment by her husband, a divorce, a youth sacrificed wholly to her children, a desire to love, and a complete ineptitude when it comes to expressing that love. All of this buried in the dark of night, in almost total silence. All of this in the dense totality of the German nation, cast onto the unwanted post-war proletariat. What I am trying to say is that nothing happens in this film except for cinema: the fabulous shattering of a silence thanks to the camera; the translation, by this woman, Irene, of this silence into a language which is never affected, which is only discovered under the gaze of the camera. Just as you might say “under the influence of drugs”, here you’d say, under the influence of the camera lens, under the influence of the sound recorder.
I invite people to go and see this film. Suffice to say, I invite them to go and see a piece of cinema, to go and assess the incalculable distance which separates this cinema – and I am talking about Cinema – from the one they go and see in the theatres of shopping malls.
Two things are at play: first this phenomenal provocation to speech as brought about by the camera, a provocation which is the film; second, our no less phenomenal attention to this provocation. A kind of mechanical movement: the movement of the film and the movement of us, the viewers.
This woman tells the story of an everyday, her everyday, the story of a life, and we listen to it with our mouths open, like mad people. Through this everyday, this story, horror passes: the judgment of children on their mother, an almost Hitlerian regime of intrafamilial denunciation.
The film went so far that certain episodes were removed, cut from the film. It is a black-and-white film, shot in 16mm. It is a horror film but nothing in it has been invented. The film is outstanding. You leave the cinema exhausted, dazed, purified for weeks of all other cinemas. Suddenly you believe in an essential, determining function of cinema that has never been explored before.
Whatever it is that is happening here is connected to the fact that everyone in the film is speaking in front of a camera to no one. And through this act they join the great linguistic ecstasies of witches who, from the bottom of their solitude, were speaking to the whole world. By using reason and logic, by explaining the most minute of facts, these protagonists partake in the vainest, the most extravagant, the most terrifying deliriums of lunacy.
At one point in the film, this woman, Irene, says: I know something now: it is imperative to tell the story of one’s life, to tell the story of one’s life to others – if there’s one thing to be done, it’s that.
I won’t say anything else about the film. And it is by no means because the film was made by a woman that I am defending it. It is because this film highlights an essential difference between cinéma vérité and what I call the cinéma du réel. In Hyères I was almost struck down by it. Here, cinema turns its back on us, as if it were not made to be seen but only made to be made. Here, “the real” is an uncommunicable fact which contradictorily reaches us. It’s a cinema that we discover in its undomesticated state, its ungrateful state, unrevised, without prejudices, without preparation, unadjusted, raw, perhaps even brutal. I would posit that this brutality is the fundamental difference between vérité and réel.
the “good mother”:
a roundtable discussion
with uta berg-ganschow, beige heberle, claudia lenssen,
helke sander, gesine strempel, sigrid vagt, hildegard westbeld
translated by megan ewing
“is this fate?” brd 1979
production: literary colloquium berlin,
german film and television academy, channel 2 german television.
director: helga reidemeister.
script: h. reidemeister and irene rakowitz.
camera: axel brandt.
assistant director and sound: katharina geinitz.
editor: elisabeth forster.
with irene rakowitz and her family.
premiere: 25.2.1979 internationales forum des jungen films; television broadcast: 29.3.1979 zdf, short teleplay “zeugen der zeit “; screenings at the international women’s festival in sceaux/paris march 1979 and at the “initiative frauen im kino,” berlin. cinema release: june 1979, berlin.
helga reidemeister: born 1940 in halle/saale. 1961-65 studied painting at the university of fine arts, berlin. 1969 birth of a daughter. 1973-77 studied at the dffb. publications: conversations with workers in the märkisches quarter in kursbuch 25, 27 and 37. “if you live with others, you’re bothered,” rororo non-fiction 6912.
1977 “the bought dream,” p. fuf 13, october 1977
1979 “is this fate?”
irene rakowitz, dressmaker, housewife, mother. 1979: severely disabled, recipient of social welfare, 48 years old. richard rakowitz, trained as a miner. 1979: unskilled laborer at a construction company, 55 years old. irene and richard divorced after 22 years of marriage.
1979, their three daughters,: susanne, 19, has finished school, lives alone, gets engaged during filming; carmen, 18, has finished school with a diploma, apprenticed as a court clerk, lives with her boyfriend lutz; astrid, 14, goes to secondary school, lives in an apartment with irene. irene and richard’s son konstantin, nicknamed bulli, is eight years old and lives with irene and astrid.
since the divorce, richard has lived a few floors down in the same building in berlin’s märkisches viertel as irene and the two children. irene has a boyfriend, horst, who also appears briefly in the film, but she does not live with him.
since 1970, irene has been working with renters’ initiatives in the märkisches viertel. helga reidemeister’s publication in kursbuch 27, may 1972, “schöner wohnen,” (“better living”) compiles conversations she has had in the märkischen viertel in 1971/72 with irene rakowitz. her contribution to kursbuch 37, october 1974, “warum ist solidarität so schwierig” (“why is solidarity so difficult”), is a recording of a conversation with 3 workers, including irene rakowitz (summer 1971, foreword by irene rakowitz, august 1974 ). irene also collaborated on the rororo volume “wohnste sozial …”(“if you live with others …”), and in 1972, the rakowitz family took part in the documentary feature film “kinder für dieses system” (children for this system) by gardi deppe and ingrid oppermann (production:dffb). an excerpt from this film was used in a flashback in “von wegen ‘schicksal’”.
After many years of knowing each other and working together, “it was pretty clear that we would make a film together someday” (helga and irene). katharina geinitz, a student at the dffb, also got to know irene and her family and so worked on the project from 1977 onwards. this was communal film making. starting in june 1978, katharina did the sound. the cameraman axel brandt only got to know irene during the shoot.
a documentary that radically turns the psyche inside out
uta: i would like to begin by discussing two points: helga reidemeister’s documentary methods and the question of the film’s reception.
claudia: i’m interested in whether the ambitions helga reidemeister outlined in her article in frauen und film, nr. 13 were scaled back over the course of the film. i’m thinking of her explanation, which was convincing and used a lot of theory, that the forces that inform family problems, such as the pressures of the external world and its social conditions, cannot be portrayed through the methods of a documentary film. in this film, i think she gave up on the idea of depicting those relationships in their totality. the protagonists talk about current social conditions but these are no longer problematised through images...
gesine: i think it would be easiest to start by talking about the film, and not with what helga once did or wrote.
uta: there’s a review in courage (nr.4, 1979) in which reidemeister discusses her relationship to her subject, which in this case is a family. she describes how she deals with the people and reflects on her own approach and intervention. i think this is useful for an understanding of her method as i don’t think it comes across very clearly in the film. you never see the filmmaker in the film, only the family looking in the direction of the camera whenever they’re asked a question. i didn’t realise this until i watched the film a second time. i think it’s important that you don’t notice this. and then her questions are sometimes therapeutic, sometimes she angrily takes sides with the mother in conversations with her daughters, and sometimes they are pedagogical, for example when she’s trying to suggest that it might be better for the daughter to focus on her relationship with other family members rather than her schoolwork. sometimes the questions are designed to animate her project: you can tell she wants something, she exerts influence, but you can’t see her. i had hoped that she would be more open about her involvement, as well as what it means that this is a family with years of experience of being on film. i would have preferred more reflection and openness about that.
claudia: i’m thinking of the scene where the mother calls her daughter ‘the monster’ in an outburst. in that scene, she directly addresses helga as a mother, too. her outburst, her tears, her strong emotions are also a reaction to helga, who doesn’t dare appear in the frame. i find that pretty bad, that irene is brought to the point of tears and her interlocutor is not in the picture.
helke: i don’t think it’s bad but it’s unclear. i felt the same way about the scene with the boy where i was also really annoyed by helga’s questions.
but there is one important thing to note about that scene, which is the utterly false tone that underlies every interview question. i know that helga always approaches everything scrupulously and it’s for that reason i wondered how, when the boy is completely at the end of his tether, she came to pose questions like, “can’t you understand your mother, bulli?”. that is what she actually said, but she and katharina couldn’t cope with the situation at all. they were so horrified by what was going on that they were just mumbling. the resulting sound was so bad that the sound engineer refused to use it during the mix and because zdf [the german broadcaster] would never have accepted such a thing, the two of them were made to re-record what they had said in a studio. helga refused at first because she knew it would yield a false tone – they did it because they had already had trouble with television execs for similar issues. helga is still annoyed about it. she’s in negotiations about a new mix, which she probably won’t get.
hildegard: you’re saying the whole scene at the table is dubbed by the two interviewers?
helke: yes, the mumbled off-camera sound has been overdubbed. that’s where this pushiness in tone comes from. the helplessness of her reaction is reinforced and, as such, you have a completely false impression of the filmmaker’s behaviour.
hildegard: there’s definitely a difference in tone when irene bellows, “answer your mother when she’s talking to you!” and when, as the boy is sobbing, helga, trying to help them both out, says: “can’t you understand your mother a little?”. at another point, she speaks off camera in a tone that’s more reminiscent of therapy, and asks, “can’t you understand your mother?” again.
helke: she says exactly the same thing in the original footage but in the dubbed version it’s not at all clear that she’s been unsettled as a filmmaker. she has made a bad impression as a filmmaker and as an interviewer, without any command over the situation, but this has been lost.
helge: i wonder how far helga’s helplessness really goes. perhaps there was the permanent risk of having to suddenly stop filming, of being rejected by the family.
helke: i think this must have been the case because there’s never before been a documentary film that turns the psyche inside out in such a radical way. in any case, putting yourself in front of the camera is always difficult as a filmmaker, but going as far as she did breaks a taboo. helga’s helplessness determines her questions, but her ambivalent role is really lost in the way that the film is edited. i would also criticise her for not addressing this – it could have been done in the edit. on the other hand, this is her first attempt at such a radical portrait. perhaps they were not aware of the problem during the making of the film, perhaps it was discussed too little or with the wrong people.
uta: i can only judge the finished product.
helke: yes, i think the most important thing for me is that this film is an uncanny experience. i don’t feel at all moved to criticise what didn’t work about it. when dissecting it, i don’t want to overlook how good i think it is that this woman, Helga, is in the film.
hildegard: a few of us saw an early cut of the film and were asked to express our criticisms. this happened before the mix, but i was so levelled by it, sobbing at certain points, and others felt the same way. you know, i’ve always thought that mothers should get to say what they really feel, and suddenly here’s a mother saying what she thinks, and it turns out to be so annoying and unpleasant to watch.
it may be in vogue again to shed a tear while watching a melodrama, but they don’t summon real emotions, whereas this film really stirred me up.
but to go back to the relationship between subject and object – that is, the relationship of the filmmaker to the person portrayed and the issue at hand – this film is not a film by someone about someone, although i don’t like how the filmmakers have compromised themselves at points or the justifications they give for doing so either. although it says ‘a film by helga reidemeister’ and ‘with the collaboration of irene rakowitz’ it is a film made by both of them – and by katharina as well.
i also don’t understand how this film could be awarded for outstanding solo direction. i find that grotesque. i see this as a complete misinterpretation of this film – though of course they could use the award money. despite all the blurred details, you have to realise that this is a film that a few people made together about themselves. of course, you also must recognise that this is a family that has experience with filmmaking.
it’s a film featuring a woman who – although you don’t really give her credit for it – started doing public relations work very early on and got all the sympathy and antipathy that kind of work yields. this certainly plays a big role in the family’s decline. irene gets support from people like helga and us, and it extends all the way to helga drumming up the production funds to make the film with irene. irene gets recognition for it from us but in her family she gets knocked for it. they tell her: you’re a show off. nobody has talked about the fact that it is because irene puts these characteristics – her need to show off and her work for the renters’ council – above being nice to her children and keeping the family together that she is deemed unlikeable. if my mother had been such a hustler, i’d probably have something else to reproach her for today. most of the time we reproach our mothers for not doing the things that irene did. but she does them, and it’s not likeable. it gets on my nerves how shrill she is. and it gets on my nerves how hard it is for me to believe her when she tells me all the things she still wants to achieve at 50. she wants to start writing books and i’m deciding whether I should just hang it all up at 30. she claims to be working on being able to walk again, but all we ever hear about is how severely handicapped she is.
and one more thing: at first glance, i also found it a cheap move as a filmmaker to show a woman at the editing table listening to what her children have said about her and sobbing. it’s egregious to me…
uta: there’s another scene where helga gets very close to what i was talking about, where she is confronted with what is transpiring, with the very fact of the film being made. i think that’s quite good. she has to grapple with it again.
helke: what it means to allow something like this to unfold on camera! to permit such a circumstance through which helga shows what it means for a mother to hear her child says things like “that old bat” and “i have no mother” and “i don’t care about her”. if Helga really does know what it means to confront Irene with this footage, then I find the film very courageous. the shock that it imparts lies precisely in the fact that it breaks so many of the taboos, things we hardly even dare to say aloud. in particular i mean this whole ideology of motherliness, which is broken down into its constituent parts, and is simply unbearable when one is confronted with it. the scene on the bed has – i think – almost shakespearean dimensions.
hildegard: exactly, that scene! it bothered me that you can’t see who irene is talking to. but on the other hand, irene wanted it that way. she watched the scene afterwards and she agreed that it was should come through clearly. and helga agrees that this outburst was obviously only possible because irene was behaving in an impossible way. but i could understand her too and it’s not certainly not glossed over.
i think the review in courage made a big mistake of not engaging with what the film triggers inside the viewer and instead shrinking away from it.
helge: the film is so controversial that for the most part everyone only refers to their own reception of it. the comments I remember people making about the film are often reduced to criticising the situation it portrays.
the family as a theatre of war
helke: what are we reacting to so strongly, when the scene with the boy feels completely unbearable to us, when we, as spectators, want to jump in or shout, “make it stop!”?
helge: ...or want to comfort them. i wanted to take the boy in my arms. these are the imagined compensatory actions the spectator has the desire to take in response to what they are seeing.
helke: that’s why i think you can’t separate the film from its reception. it had such an effect on me that i suddenly thought, now i understand what it must have been like to have witnessed the invention of film, the sudden shock of seeing living, breathing images.
hildegard: (addressing gesine) for me, the film also triggers feelings of helplessness as well as the desire to help. the best thing would be to be there and say, “we don’t have to treat each other like this” or “don’t treat each other like that”. but the family continue to show that they do treat each other that way. which reminds me that i also deal with people like that. you said that the film didn’t have to be this way, because there was a situation where so many reasonable people were sitting around a table that it wasn’t necessary to provoke such a situation for demonstrative purposes...
gesine: but i did say that i thought it was a disgusting scene, because they all gang up on the little boy who is sinking into his cucumber salad. and then it starts all over again.
helke: but sometimes that’s the way it is...
gesine: i know that, that it happens in kitchens all over, but my problem is that it should have been possible for them to put a stop to it at a certain point. there are so many women together at one table, and none of them stopped the little boy from being beaten down like that. and then of course there’s the fact he knows it’s going to be shown on television. you see how he crumples up and starts crying, and that he knows his schoolmates will see it all on television. that they will make fun of him. how can he want to go on living? this is what bothers me: in the process of demonstrating how terrible the family is and cracking open this ideology of motherhood, you do not need to break a little boy. i find it quite inadmissible, it reminds me of those scenes of executions, where – if someone is going to be shot – the execution is delayed a little in order to raise dramatic tension. but here this terrible situation is brought about and provoked by helga with her questions.
helke: that’s not true ...
gesine: i think if the camera hadn’t been there, he would have got a smack ...
helke: yes, then it would have been worse ...
gesine: but that’s not the point, they were there ...
helke: but they couldn’t prevent it. that’s the point, this inability to prevent something like this. it’s about women who talk nonviolence and personally advocate for the idea of nonviolence, and then aren’t capable of stopping themselves from acting like this.
gesine: i think that’s too fuzzy. for me, this is a film that brings up a lot of emotions. that’s why it goes straight to the heart. on the other hand, it relies on the generation of these same emotions over and over again.
for instance, the questions at the end – “why did your family have to fail?” and so on – both show how relations of violence operate within the family and imply that they could all have been prevented. the film’s standpoint is not at all clear. mrs. rakowitz tells us so much about herself, is so present in the film, and it is because of this that a lot becomes clear, but this clarity is buried again and again by helga’s questions and by other almost denunciatory elements. i would almost like to say that this wouldn’t have happened to irene with someone other than helga. i find the story about the little boy awful, i find the scene where she questions astrid about her ambition awful – the fact that she asks things like “why do you want to be good at school?” – and i also find the way carmen is shown awful. i would say that if carmen had been a young assembly line worker, helga wouldn’t have treated her like that, wouldn’t have let her hang herself like that. she’s portrayed so badly that you can imagine her writhing in shame in 10 or 15 years...
uta: ... yes, [she’s] established as a monster ...
gesine: ... yes, i’m bothered by the film’s patterns: irene is portrayed as the wonderful one, she suffers beyond reason purely because she has so much love for her children, and her love always turns into violence for whatever reason. that’s one of her complexes. then there are the children, who on the one hand are victims and on the other hand become monsters and resist everything, they all suffer from that, then it starts all over again: one of them gets engaged, the other one is already married or something. although it also took my breath away, what was happening before my eyes, i felt some hatred for helga who asks these questions and exploits people like that. that’s probably how the review in courage came about. i think it’s wrong for you to claim that this film is so radical and taboo-breaking that you feel you can’t criticise individual things. i think the criticism is justified and i want to express it.
helke: i share this unwillingness too ...
gesine: ...in my opinion, the film isn’t for the weak, it’s for irene, but the weakest in it are carmen and the little boy, and the weak are trodden down brutally.
helge: but in the scene with the boy, he also says what he thinks is shitty about his mother. he expressed it well, in my opinion. in my experiences with the family living in gropiusstadt, i noted that the girl, who was the scapegoat for the whole family, always said she was afraid. nothing could be cleared up because that would have made it all explode. i thought it was good that in the film the conflict was taken up so clearly by the mother, the sister, and the boy. the conflicts are out in the open here. i hated my situation with the family back then so much because i had to permanently maintain the status quo so that they didn’t bash each other’s heads in – i find that much more brutal. i didn’t feel the need to prevent the situation at the table, for example – on the contrary.
gesine: it’s one thing to prevent it. i see a little boy being beaten down. i know how to beat [my son] david down. it happens everywhere, every day. you start the day happy, then something happens, and the day is suddenly miserable. others go off to work but you’ve had a fight with your child and you’re lucky you didn’t beat him to death. but in order to show that on film, you don’t have to let the child be beaten to death.
hildegard: so you’re blaming them because they kept filming. the conflict happened that way. should they have dropped the camera and intervened?
helke: that’s the question. should they have continued filming and intervened or not? it’s like in war reporting. you pick up on this conflict, on an inner conflict taking place within the person documenting the thing. it became clear to me as never before that this is the nature of the professional conflict in this scene.
gesine: for me, the conflict is not of a professional nature but one i have as a viewer. i just wonder how it can happen that a weaker person, the son, is beaten down like that. of course, the family is also a theater of war, you can’t find a much better representation of that than in helga’s film.
helke: it’s like in africa addio [editor's note: a racist italian mondo documentary made in 1966 by gualtiero jacopetti and franco prosperi] where they wanted to show a guy getting shot, and they moved him, as he was dying, in order to film it better. then he gets shot again, and that’s what you see.
i can’t get this boy out of my head either. you definitely want to see him consoled. our guilty conscience is placed front and center here. i’ve never hit [my son] silvo, but I’ve definitely enacted this whole thing, albeit more subtly. you see that, for all the kindness others have, they don’t intervene and then they feel ashamed. this shame comes through in the film.
gesine: i think that they beat up a weak person in order to be able to portray a conflict. i found that heartless, and that meant that i was pissed off from the outset of the film. and also the scenes with carmen were so tendentious: sitting there with her stupid husband, with a beer bottle in his hand and pictures of naked women on the wall – in my opinion, he’s also being denounced by helga.
uta: carmen is never in the picture without him, his arm is always around her.
helke: but he is so ...
uta: it shows a dependence ...
gesine: carmen is in a terrible state which can be explained by what she does all day, her stupid job – the fact that she is learning to be a court clerk – and what kind of life she has. i wonder if helga would have treated a young person doing a working class job in the same way. they would certainly have spouted the same nonsense.
helke: how would you have filmed carmen? how would you have behaved in such a situation, where she says her mother can stay away from her and you see that she is completely inseparable from lutz.
gesine: carmen also says what she imagines a real woman, a real mother to be: a mother who looks after the children. she says that everyone is to blame for their own unhappiness, she offers a real neoliberal opinion: whoever wants to succeed will, and whoever doesn’t want to will just draw unemployment benefits from taxpayers’ money. she decouples herself in all her stupidity. which also has its causes.
helke: some people who see the film may not think that carmen is so stupid.
hildegard: i don’t think our distribution of sympathy – you who say irene is the strong, wonderful one – is representative of the people who watched the film on tv.
gesine: i claim that helga doesn’t ask carmen any questions to try and make her think differently, she just films her ...
helge: that’s not true, she gets into a real controversy with her.
hildegard: carmen’s sentences start like this: helga, i want to tell you something ... etc. a meeting was arranged with the children for the purposes of the film. and what happened? carmen didn’t separate herself from lutz and this made it impossible for irene to be present.
helke: i think that the relationships between the people in the film are recognisable. and with carmen, this young girl who shows such a frightening lack of experience, helga was struck dumb and couldn’t respond to anything she said. for me it was clear that when you – and this could be us or helga – enter into this kind of situation with a lot of knowledge about oppression but when you find yourself sitting across from this oppressed subject, you don’t know what to say.
when a young girl tells you what a good mother is, you might think of your own child at that moment, you might think that you are not a good mother, either. besides, why should you be one? what is a good mother, anyway? it is the image of the “good mother” that carmen puts on helga at that moment, and helga is shocked and no doubt has a guilty conscience.
gesine: i also think that the film is interesting and good, but i wonder whether it would really have been impaired in its message if certain scenes like the one with the little boy, among others, had been missing. whereas you, helke, claim that this is a key scene.
uta: the scene with bulli shows how carmen, whom her mother calls a monster, ended up that way. when you spend years at a kitchen table enduring scenes like this then carmen’s hatred for her mother, even after their separation, becomes understandable. you can tell from the way all the girls speak that they’ve always had to defend themselves, just as bulli is desperately trying to do now. they’re still subject to this compulsion. the only thing left for them to do in reaction to their strong mother is to flee.
claudia: the individual family members have a strange command over speech, starting with the little boy, who can defend himself relatively well. during the kitchen table scene, i remembered similar things at home in my childhood. But, in my experience, at a certain point nothing was said at all, only crying. i would get up and leave, slamming the door and refusing to talk for a few days. whereas bulli continued to fight against his treatment.
helke: i think he was able to because the film crew was there.
he finally said what he felt. he told his mother: you don’t love me enough, it’s not only my father who doesn’t love me – as his mother always wants to make clear to him – but you don’t either.
claudia: he was also clear about it. he knew what was going on...
helke: he took the opportunity because irene wanted to show from the outset that she was a good mother and so she said that everyone should be allowed to say what they were really feeling. and it escalated from there. they [the children] showed an interest in this but it was mother who demonstrated it first for real.
uta: he was able respond to the threat: you can say whatever you’re feeling here.
claudia: except for the father, everyone in the family discusses and interprets everything immediately – there’s a real compulsion to interpret. they’re always explaining to each other and to the camera what the problem was and what bothers them about the others. i have never seen this shown to such an extent, not even in my personal life. the whole film was determined by the fact that they’re allowed to say anything, yet this doesn’t change anything – it is of no consequence.
sigrid: that’s the part in the film that bothered me the most. i think the work with helga set the family on the path of looking for solutions to their situation by verbalising it. even the little boy demonstrates that he is already able to do this, even if only in front of the camera. i find it totally hopeless, they are on the completely wrong track, they will never find a way out. i have the impression that the prospect of getting a grip on their problems through the medium of film, i.e. largely through language, is an additional degree of alienation. i fear that this has pushed them away from other possibilities for change.
especially in irene’s case, it becomes apparent that her issues with being cut off from her body and her sexuality only move further into her head by the compulsion to verbalise in a way that doesn’t help her. i don’t think it makes her any happier.
hildegard: but that’s one way to survive. by making public that which is violent or murderous. you can survive – not become happy, but survive. growing up, for example, I was also told, “here everyone can give their opinion.” there was no television crew but even so i gave my opinion, and was sometimes beaten for it. you get it. in this respect, the film helped prevent the usual escalation of violence.
helke: the fact the daughters are so capable of verbalisation doesn’t come from the film but from Irene. As awful as she may be, she passed this onto them. i have never dared to tell my mother what i think of her – this really dwelled on me while I was watching the film.
claudia: but the daughters in the film have also never dared to – they communicate via the editing table, as the footage of them is played to irene.
hildegard: but this is almost direct, too. i don’t know if i would be capable of saying such things about my mother in front of a film crew.
sigrid: what good does it do? what is the point?
what i see and hear in the film is all so terrible that i wonder how it is even possible that the mother and her daughters even have anything to do with each other. why do susanne and astrid remain faithful to their mother?
helke: i disliked irene more before the film than afterwards. i am impressed by how consistently she shows how her role as mother collides with her humanity. by the fact she dares to say this in front of her children. this does bring back the children’s love again. susanne and astrid respect her very much.
claudia: both daughters can still relate to their mother: the younger one still lives in the house, the older one has left, but no longer needs to work through her issues with her mother psychologically, unlike carmen, who has this enormous amount of energy to work through, which is also a kind of bond between mother and daughter. astrid recognises that her mother still cares for her and she, in turn, expresses her love by acknowledging her mother’s great capability. She tells her: you can do anything.
helke: but she also recognises how her mother has been acted on by external forces. these are of course the barebones of a love relationship.
gesine: for me this is the result of the filming process. the film was shot chronologically, and during the shoot astrid’s relationship to her mother improved. at first she says she would have preferred to move out, downstairs to her father’s apartment; at the end she says that her mother is capable of doing anything she wants.
uta: the institution of marriage is shaken, but “motherliness”, i.e. what the children demand and what the mother can and wants to give them, is not dealt with at all in the film. It’s left completely untouched.
the film makes it possible for me to blame irene again. because she is shown as so defenseless in her limitations, in her lovelessness, the fact of her family’s failure of not being able to talk to each other but only down to each other. one can watch the film in such a way that irene comes out of it a bad mother, meaning the ideology of family is untouched.
helke: then you have the ideology, not the film.
uta: the film makes me think that way. it only shakes the institution of marriage.
gesine: the fact that irene wants to give love but that it doesn’t work becomes clear and is nothing terrible in and of itself.
helke: but that’s precisely it – irene rakowitz suffers from the fact that she hasn’t managed to keep her daughter away from marriage and her son away from war toys. she hasn’t been able to pass on what she has learned, what she has understood. she almost goes crazy because of it – in the scene with the outburst, for example. the fact that she fails makes her so furious again. that’s a reaction. you can’t blame her. the way she gets all excited about her daughter’s engagement in the scene where she’s preparing for the celebration – that’s the highest satire.
uta: she is demonstrating her attempts at endurance.
helke: but you can see that the daughter is at the beginning of her experience. carmen speaks so brutally now, but let her have her first child, then she’ll see how her lutz’s behaviour changes. the scene of susanne’s engagement is unbearable. how attached to her man she is! but then you also see how irene, despite everything, enjoys giving the party and that’s also nice. susanne lays her head on the shoulder of her big man, and the mother thinks: well then, that’s that. and then she gets drunk, and she tells her daughter: well, take it easy. And she means this. the scene is very complex.
hildegard: the consequences of irene’s life stands against this engagement. the film would be screwed for me if irene were to marry next week to get a marriage loan.
gesine: i find that in the narrative feature maternale [giovanna gagliardo, 1978] the rottenness of motherhood comes through much more clearly, and is portrayed with far less hope. maternale deals with what actually is, like a documentary but narrativised. in helga’s film, on the other hand, there is always hope. there are still a few possibilities for escape. maybe susanne or carmen won’t have any children, maybe they’ll have only one, maybe everything will go well. the family has fought like crazy, but will continue to see each other for coffee.
helge: the film works its way through everyday clichés. when astrid is asked in the scene on the train why she enjoys looking at this celebrity’s photo and carries it with her, she answers that a real boyfriend would completely absorb her, would be so real that she would always have to adjust herself to him. i thought the scene was good because she explained the resistance she has to committing herself to one person. but the clichés only become clear once you’ve arrived at this idea and maybe that’s only possible by asking stupid questions.
helke: on the point about optimism, i think the film ends up being schmaltzy and i resent that. it is optimistic in relation to marriage and partnership, more so than in relation to motherhood, i think. irene does make compromises in relation to her boyfriend, horst, the new man – he simply refuses to go along with her openness, to say everything aloud. it’s typical that he’s never clearly visible in the scene at the wannsee. how things will continue with the two of them remains open and is better left unquestioned. and then this optimistic fairground closing scene, i found that embarrassing. but i justify it like this: everyone involved was so beaten down by all the bleakness that everyone thought, against their better judgment, that there must be something else.
sigrid: that is the logic of the whole film, that something positive must come at the end.
claudia: i find it to be perfidious and deeply cynical to say at the end: the production has had an upside – i have never ridden a carousel so much in my life!
i find the polarization of mothers and non-mothers so hopeless.
sigrid: in my opinion, irene questions marriage and housework, but not the mother-child relationship.
helke: that is what the whole film is about!
claudia: at the beginning she talks about the terror children exert on their mothers.
sigrid: they talk about outward behavior, but they never talk about what it really means to them to have children.
helke: she is constantly describing her failure!
sigrid: but why does she want a good relationship with her children in the first place?
helke: that’s obvious. besides, she explains the price women have to pay when they try to meet the needs of their children.
sigrid: irene thinks about a lot of basic things, but not about how women come to have children. i’m not reproaching her or to the film but if this keeps blindly reproducing itself, i don’t see any chance for it to stop.
hildegard: the film works on ideas of the maternal. what you are talking about would be a very different film.
gesine: i find sigrid’s question to be intellectual, but not in a positive sense.
sigrid: i say this against the background of ‘maternale’. i think it’s hopeless to try to change the conditions within the mother’s role without questioning the role of the mother in and of itself.
gesine: these are also reproaches that i myself have felt. i am a mother and i would like the way i mother to be different, but i can’t because i am inside it. i also feel reproached for the fact i have put myself in that role in the first place instead of rejecting it from the start.
there are many who cannot or will not resist having children, and once such a small child is there, you also develop a real primal love for them. but later things gets twisted. at that point, you can’t imagine the violence that happens when the child is still very small.
sigrid: i find the polarisation of mothers and non-mothers to be hopeless. as someone who doesn’t have children, but who lives together with children, i see that it one can have both possibilities next to each other. in irene’s case, the conflict is very strong, but she does not separate herself from her role in her consciousness.
claudia: but it is addressed in the film. irene’s children reproach her for leaving the family and doing political work in the renters’ initiative, work that ultimately has something to do with the children’s lives. now she gets to hear: you neglected us. the fact that she stepped out of her role is rubbed in her face ten years later, and she tries to come to terms with it, although she has not yet managed to get over it.
helke: you can never get over that.
claudia: she herself says in the film: carmen’s personality is fully formed. and irene has to live with it now.
gesine: what i like about the film is that it shows how impossible it is to be a mother as Irene has imagined it, how she wants to give and receive love but makes this impossible through her behaviour. the children can separate themselves from their mother, but the mother can’t separate herself from her children. she can’t just divorce her children. but then comes what patriarchy demands, that at some point she must withdraw from her child. her role has to disappear so that the children can live their own lives. that is what we have all accepted. there, perhaps, the positive influence that a mother can have is reversed. all of patriarchy’s hatred of the mother is perhaps due to this. on the other hand, the children have reason to hate the mother because, although the mother loves the children, only the disappointments register with them.
in maternale and in this film, i notice that the role of the mother is always seen in a very negative light. what the role of the mother could be is not developed, once the father is no longer the eminence in the background. adrienne rich describes, for example, that in earlier societies all people were sons and daughters of mothers, there was no such separation.
helke: in the film, irene tries to keep up her claim of being a human being in addition to being a mother. that’s the crazy thing.
gesine: during the conflicts here in my communal apartment, several people have made me understand that no one has moved out because of the child. but no one has stayed because of david, either. i would certainly have a completely different lifestyle if i didn’t have him in my life. this results in certain constellations.
sigrid: conversely, it would be unthinkable for you to move out and leave david here.
gesine: you all would never take him.
sigrid: you can’t know that at all.
gesine: i don’t believe it’s possible for a mother to distance herself from her role as mother. irene never had the opportunity to say, i’m getting out of here now. i suspect, for example, that statistics show that mothers who kill themselves only do so when they are old, or kill themselves together with their children.
helke: but as a mother you also have a lot of experiences where things go wrong when you try to create distance and cede some of the work of mothering to others. you end up building up such mistrust that you no longer even accept others’ attempts to help and refuse to believe that others would be capable of doing what you do for the child. when i lived in a shared flat ten years ago, i first had to pay twice as much – that is, for silvo as well – into the fund, even though i had the least amount of money. i broached the subject with tremendous anxiety. then everyone decided to join in and put money into the fund for him. that was a great relief. but then someone stopped working, someone moved out, and so on, and soon only one person was still putting money in for him. because the reasons the others gave were all reasonable, i didn’t then say: listen, you made a commitment. Instead, i paid it by myself again.
sigrid: that kind of relief is only possible if there is motivation on both sides to care for the child. it is not just about sharing certain types of work.
gesine: there is the immediate fear that your child will be used as a test object. i could say, i’m going away for four weeks and if it doesn’t work out with you and the child, then i’ll just come back. i would come back, but what will have happened to the child in the meantime and what does that mean for me? this gap between mothers and non-mothers must go much deeper. that gap is also in the film. we all said, wait and see, when carmen has children of her own, then she’ll talk about her mother in a completely different way.
sigrid: what I’m criticising is that many mothers see the problem only in the delegation of work and nothing else.
helke: the children’s demands on the mother are so high. you can never get out of them by saying, for example, i do a lot for you, but i don’t love you every day. irene rakowitz dared to say that to her children, i think that’s an achievement. she flips out and screams at the boy when she sees the future man in him. it’s about the war toys, about the fact she can’t make him understand what’s so bad about it.
gesine: i think that flipping out runs through the mechanism that – when you get angry – you don’t say: you just did something wrong, david. instead you say: you’re impossible. and that’s how – less as a result of thinking – i see it with irene, too, when she says: i’ve brought a monster into the world. all this bleakness becomes clear in the film, but with a tendency towards harmonisation.
claudia: should we just turn off the tape now?
all: just keep it running!
claudia: and what are we going to do with the tape? (uproarious laughter)
The Bought Dream
(Der gekaufte Traum)
Helga Reidemeister, 1977
WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES BY PATRICK BAKER
SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS BIENTOT !
‘bought dreams’ by gesine strempel from frauen und film, no. 13 (oktober 1977)
translated by james lattimer
the bruder family lives in märkisches viertel, a satellite town north of berlin laid out just 15 years ago, which is now home to around 50,000 inhabitants. the everyday lives of the family, consisting of seven people – two adults and five children – are the subject of this film. the oldest child is 17 and is in care; the parents, irene bruder (33) and günter bruder (38) are a cleaner and unemployed respectively; the children who still live at home are aged between 8 and 15 and two of them attend a special school.
the film documents several aspects of their daily existence from 1975 to ‘77. helga reidemeister is still studying film at the dffb berlin. she arrived as a student in 1973 and got to know the family from 1968 onward due to their joint involvement in political work to fight rent increases and forced evictions in the märkisches viertel. she shot the film on super 8 because the family had already started using 8mm cameras between 1968 and 1972 to tell their own story and document their lives. reidemeister wanted to incorporate the existing material into the film and, as a result, didn’t want to start using more advanced technology for the production. blown up to 16mm for cinema projection, the material doesn’t in any way comply with standard aesthetic expectations. the images are grainy and often out of focus, and the colours are frequently tinged with red or green, but this doesn’t matter at all. as far as i’m concerned, the film could have lasted more than 80 minutes.
the family were persistent in depicting their own situation, clarifying it for themselves and others and thereby revealing information about their everyday lives whose implications extend far beyond the singular family unit. an unspoken need to grapple with their situation in theoretical terms is what underpins their courage in representing themselves. the story of the film’s production and its content weren’t just determined by the family, but also by reidemeister’s dogged insistence on staying on track with the project. the shoot was interrupted on several occasions when different members of the family fell ill. during these periods, reidemeister turned to other projects at the dffb. these breaks in production mean, for example, that people sometimes wear different clothes within the same scene because the previous ones no longer fitted or were no longer at their disposal. instead of being a distraction, these discrepancies make it clear that while clothes can be replaced, the course of every day, the every day at the film’s heart, is immutable.
the filmmaker and the family’s long friendship and the many years spent working on the project together necessitated a relationship based on trust. these dynamics are clearly expressed in the film and are what, in the face of the aforementioned interruptions, made its completion possible. the way the family represents itself does away with ideas of the “perfect working class family”, established in other films (see, for example, the narrative feature, the wollands by lüdcke/kratisch) and repeatedly halts any attempts on the part of the viewer to judge the people in the film as “likeable” or “unlikeable”. the way people behave is often repulsive, yet the circumstances that have created such behaviours become etched in the viewer’s consciousness.
as reidemeister didn’t receive permission to shoot anywhere else, every day life and its points of friction are shown almost exclusively within the four walls of the family’s 98-square-metre apartment. we see the unemployed günter washing up, making sandwiches, helplessly supervising his children’s homework while tearing strips off them, bellowing at them to try and force them to understand that studying and finishing secondary school might give them better lives than those of their parents. repeated scenes show the parents treating their children like objects, while others show their desire for things to be different. when the table has been set and all members of the family are seated for the evening meal, their silence expresses the yearning for a family relationship based on communication. the gradual emotional deterioration of everyone involved is documented in the photos we see of the eldest son, michael: in one, baby michael is in the arms of a 17-year-old irene, who smiles like the madonna, expressing the fulfilment of female destiny in a heavily ritualised fashion; in a later photo, michael is playing, visibly more insular, against the barren concrete of the markisches viertel. in another, he is standing awkwardly next to his family.
“whoever has recognised his condition—how can anyone stop him?” brecht’s appealing turn of phase rings hollow in the face of this family’s reality, which is by no means a rare or unique example. while irene and günter are perfectly capable of recognising their situation and the fact they are already passing on the hardship they’ve suffered to the next generation, their total lack of ability to change anything within the society they live in is also clear. irene’s impoverishment – the feelings of inadequacy that constantly gnaw at her, her yearning for beauty and love that is constantly trampled on – is portrayed precisely in individual scenes. as she has processed her feelings alone and never made them public, she has never considered revolution but instead contemplated suicide.
the film puts questions back on the agenda that the women’s movement has grappled with in the past and must deal with more extensively. what use is the “wages for housework” campaign to irene, the idea that she cannot let this work define her when, as the film shows, it’s precisely this work that wears her down? in this context, we must discuss the abolition of housework, we must overcome the lack of political organising between housewives and we must revoke the serfdom of children.
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why i wanted
to make this film
by irene bruder
translated by james lattimer
from frauen und film, no. 13 (oktober 1977)
in 1967, we moved to the märkisches viertel. our income was around 900 marks net after all deductions and our rent was around 335 marks. we fell behind on rent and got into trouble with the gesobau [a state-owned housing organisation]. then we heard about a group called “mieten und wohnen” (renting and living), made up of tenants in a similar position, as well as students. the group’s goal was to prevent evictions and arouse political interest. over time, i became more and more frustrated with the group, as it seemed to me to be all talk and no action. some attendees spent the whole time expressing their “sympathy” with “our situation”, while others were only interested in launching their grand political careers. so i thought: what’s the point of just devoting yourself to big political problems? after each meeting, it became increasingly clear to me that i couldn’t go on like that. i began thinking, what do things look like when i return home? so much conflict about trivial things. once i realised this, i thought to myself, “you can’t talk the political talk, but you can’t cope with your family life either.”
we’d known helga since 1968, and she gave us the opportunity to express our problems as we saw them and as they are seen in the film. before we started working on it, i felt a sense of defiance towards the upper classes. it drove me crazy to see their arrogant, superior stance shown on television, by newspaper reports and leftist students. but i never assumed that filming could be such torture. it’s impossible to imagine how terrible it was to have to talk repeatedly about problems for which there are no solutions. filming had to be interrupted again and again, because christiane and i got ill on separate occassions, then we were in a car accident, and then helga had problems too. it was torment for günter to have all those cables, all that lighting equipment and sound cassettes lying around. he would often become livid and i constantly had to mediate between the two parties. i came very close to throwing in the towel but then i thought, in for a penny, in for a pound – wasn’t i just expressing dissatisfaction with myself? every day you consider doing this or that differently, and on top of that there are people around you telling you how to live . over the course of working on the film, it became all the clearer to me that we allow ourselves to be squeezed into a consumerist template that can only ever end up destroying us.
the film also shows that i often act like a despot and think that i’m the best. i can see that i wanted to exert pressure on my family. am i actually behaving in a way i expect from others? no. have i always shown understanding and love for others? i’m a strong person, which is precisely why i have to help others. my mistake was believing that helga reidemeister was flawless. i completely idolised her. i hoped and believed that if i couldn’t go on, she’d give me support. i relied on that, but i overlooked the fact that she is just as helpless as everyone else. i shouldn’t let my feelings of deference towards or admiration for helga obstruct my awareness of my own strengths.
i needed the film in order to recognise all of this. and i hope and believe that others will also recognise in this film what’s important in life so that we are able to live in society. anyone who recognises and masters the seeming banalities of everyday life can also assert themselves within society. based on our example, everyone should be able to see and recognise the fact that material things are no substitute for love, for belief and understanding in others, and that our quest for the material destroys people. the only question is how to go about changing this.
Für Frauen. 1. Kapitel
(For Women, Chapter 1)
Cristina Perincioli, 1971
WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES BY PATRICK BAKER
SOUS-TITRES FRANÇAIS BIENTOT !
In 1971, dffb student Cristina Perincioli shot the boisterous strike film Für Frauen. 1. Kapitel with four women from the Märkisches Viertel. Prior to this, Perincioli had collaborated on films including Kinogramm II / Mietersolidarität (1970) by Max Willutzki, who was also a student at the dffb. Perincioli, who shot the film, had also financed it out of her dffb budget and played various other roles on the production yet, to this day, she is not listed in the credits. "This division of labour led me to make other observations about gender relations,” Perincioli wrote in 2015.
Like Helga Reidemiester, Perincioli attended tenants’ meetings at the Märkisches Viertel and it was there that she got to know the women with whom she would develop Für Frauen. 1. Kapitel . In this film, several supermarket cashiers discover they are paid less than their male co-workers and decide to strike. Their fun and commitment, their "direct manner of address and their openly amateur acting" (Max Linz), "their desire to think and venture the unthinkable" (Perincioli) for a common cause, make the film a document of an “achievable utopia”. The film's success at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, its favourable review in the magazine "Filmkritik", and its broadcast on Swiss television and the ZDF, enabled the dffb to pay the protagonists several times more than the initial fee –Madeleine Bernstorff
“We all had the same experience. In the family, a woman is isolated: only girlfriends and neighbours can relieve her of her difficulties (like looking after children, going shopping…). But acting against the husband’s will is taboo; she is still at his mercy. A husband can do whatever he wants with his money, he doesn’t need to let his wife have a say in household matters, and if his wife wants to go to work, he can even forbid her from doing so: he can divorce her at any time for having neglected her household duties. These conditions are maintained by the planned underpayment of and discrimination against women in the workplace.
This is the basis for every other type of social oppression of women. In this film, we see the interpersonal problems women must resolve among themselves before they can act together against the boss. Following this realisation, we women wrote this film together and made it ourselves. That was a lot of fun. Our realisations in the process were: We don't need liberal filmmakers to take on the subject of emancipation. We demand that the means of production be in our hands!” –German Film and Television Academy (dffb): Cristina Perincioli. For women. 1. chapter , 1971. film information sheet no. 41. July 1971.)