When a Woman Searches for a Man and Finds Herself Instead

BERLIN — “Do you think being a man is a political problem?” That question runs like a refrain through Helke Sander’s documentary satire, The Germans and Their Men (1989). A restored copy plays in An Alternate Cinema, the Retrospective section of the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), which draws from the archives of the Deutsche Kinemathek.

The “alternate” nature of the presented films comes in many guises, sometimes in formal experimentation and genre-bending, but primarily, in their relative marginality when they were first released. A good number of these films are by women whose names are still little known in or beyond Germany. It was a thrill, then, to see so many sold-out screenings this year, even in suburban theaters far from the red-carpet glitz. Now may finally be the time for second-wave feminist cinema, and with it, its history of struggle and solidarity, to get its due.

Helke Sander is no stranger to the Berlinale — her witty, politically committed films played in the 2019 Retrospective program, Self-Determined: Perspectives of Women Filmmakers. She was a highlight again this year, shedding light on the feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. In The Germans and Their Men, Austrian actress Renée Felden plays a middle-aged woman who travels to Bonn to “look for a man.” Felden looks everywhere: she strikes up conversations with men at the airport about their ties, infiltrates press conferences, and picks out strangers to find from the book, Who’s Who in Germany (essentially, a German yellowpages). The tie, for Sander, is the mechanism through which she exposes the patriarchal system of power and dependency, while also, in her typical fashion, inserting humor into a serious discussion. As Felden reaches the upper echelons of government, for instance, the men she meets consistently fail to recognize the tie as part of an aesthetic uniform in social convention; one interviewee even says, comically, that the banality of menswear is meant to mask their radical thinking. The gift to think critically, however, abandons them when they are questioned about inequality. In the end, Felden finds that while men perceive Germany’s historical wrongs as a collective political problem, they’re capable of viewing issues pertaining to women — such as the lack of equal employment or pay, or domestic violence — solely through the lens of personal responsibility, undermining any sense of political urgency.

Helma Sanders-Brahms’s melodrama, Shirin’s Wedding (1976), starring Ayten Erten as the titular young woman who comes to Cologne in search of a man from her Anatolian village, depicts widespread sexism. Shirin’s experience in Germany, from factory work to massive layoffs and homelessness, to prostitution and murder, is predictable enough in its direness to blunt the film’s political edge. But its voiceover, in which Shirin and a German woman (possibly the filmmaker, or any of the women who’ve helped Shrin) converse, compensates for the film’s occasional bathos with the sincerity of its desire to sound the voices of the German Turkish diaspora, rarely represented onscreen. Shirin is, in this sense, a worthy counterpart to the working-class heroine in Korhan Yurtsever’s Kara Kafa (1979), which showed in the festival last year. Both films highlight immigrant women’s solidarity, consciousness-raising, and collectivization efforts. Both are unsparing in their portraits of widespread workplace harassment, all-too-prevalent domestic violence, and rape.

Equally devastating is Helke Misselwitz’s social drama, Herzsprung (1992), in which an idealistic young woman, Johanna (Claudia Geisler), romances a Black hitchhiker (Nino Sandow), infuriating the envious local skinheads. Misselwitz draws a somber portrait of a Germany not yet reconciled with its dark past, and already rife with new prejudices: After learning that Johanna’s father is a Holocaust survivor, the thuggish neo-Nazis apologize for mentioning concentration camps in their graffiti, only to redouble their threats against immigrants and Black people. Perhaps the quintessential social space in Herzsprung is the local bar, in which young women dance freely, in contrast to a playlist consisting of a mishmash of throwback Russian songs, army bands, and rock, underlining the sense of it being a transitional moment in history, with all its contradictions. Indeed, as in Shirin’s Wedding, Herzsprung suggests that the conflation of racism, xenophobia and chauvinism imprisons women in cruel cycles of violence.

The despondence of young women who feel themselves to be too reliant on men, while facing the real limitations of activism, is expressed most keenly in Ingemo Engström’s beguiling hybrid film, Dark Spring (1970). It portrays a young, freshly divorced woman who hits the road with her new sexual and work partner, capturing her frank thoughts on experimenting with non-monogamy and living in communes. With leisurely pacing, pointed stills that feel more like photography than cinema, and long stretches of repose and silence, Dark Spring is as much an exploration of female sexuality, fears, and aspirations as it is a road-trip movie: the search for lost pleasure, recovered through the senses. Brainy and occasionally erotic, the film perhaps best encapsulates what Germany’s feminist counter-culture might have been like then: high on yet also wary of freedom as defined by men, politically and existentially restless.

Counter-culture also informs Elfi Mikesch’s genre-fluid experimental film, Macumba (1982), starring Magdalena Montezuma — the German actress famous for her work in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter — and experimental filmmaker and Berlinale regular Heinz Emigholz. The fever-dream of a film moves fluidly between black-and-white and color, tracking a first-time writer (Montezuma) as she conjures up a colorful cast of characters living inside a dilapidated tenement building, in hellish opposition to the utopian, egalitarian commune envisioned by the young women in Dark Spring.  

Mikesch uses the tropes of crime fiction to introduce the character of an amateur detective, and to then spin strange tales of lust and murder.  The writer within the script plays meta games as well, planning the detective’s busy investigative work while simultaneously discarding motifs, leading to gaping plot holes. With dizzying camerawork, the film makes the most of Berlin’s dark, formerly grimy architecture, which by now is disappearing under the crush of gentrification and never-ending construction

As explained by Mikesch before the pre-screening, the film is an ode to making cinema collectively. She might’ve written the script, for instance, but all actors contributed dialogue. For this reason, Macumba, even with its dancy, fluid editing and narration, has some nonfictive dimension. And while it presents a female master-puppeteer guiding the action, it also shows pointed scenes of women facing casual misogyny, longing for unrealized intimacy, and subject to physical violence. Mikesch flips the trope of a female victim on its head, sacrificing instead the male lead. But the overall predatory ambiance, and the many twists and turns in which the female writer’s agency and control are being threatened, imbues Macumba with a sense of great unease that permeates these films writ large.

The Retrospective section of the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) is on view at various theaters around Berlin until February 25.

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