Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake
(Germany, 86 min.)
Dir. Brigitte Kramer
They call Ulrike Ottinger the “grand dame of the German avant-garde,” but even die-hard North American cinephiles might not be familiar with her work. Thanks to the Goethe Institute’s new retrospective on the filmmaker, a trailblazer for women in film and queer directors, Toronto audiences can take in Ottinger’s unique blend of the strange and the familiar, the bold and beautiful, and the garish and the chic. Her singular style is impossible to pin down in the way that a David Lynch film is “Lynchian” or a Federico Fellini film is “Fellini-esque.” Maybe “Ottingerish” needs to be a wider part of film geek vernacular.
Ottinger’s world is one of contrasts and ideas colliding as drama blends with documentary. A pastiche of styles pays homage to classic movements and anticipates those to come. Scenes from Freak Orlando provide a great sense of her 1980s high art Euro-punk aesthetic as Virginia Woolf meets the lunatic fringe. Ottinger’s work is an acquired taste, but one definitely worth sampling.
Take a bite for starters with the profile documentary Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake, which screens at the fest following the Canadian premiere of the director’s Under Snow. This film by die-hard fan Brigitte Kramer doesn’t hide her esteem for Ottinger, and the passionate burst of cinephilia on display makes for easy viewing. Kramer openly admits that the Ottinger oeuvre inspired her own career and the pair has a relaxed camaraderie throughout interviews and tours through the veteran’s work and life.
Kramer blends biography with filmography as she extols Ottinger’s early works along with her formative years. A sequence on the tumultuous events of May 1968 and Ottinger’s early paintings and films illustrate the director’s uncanny ability to create countercultural art when winds of change were in the air. While the images of Ottinger’s early work display a voice-in-progress, the unique blend of surrealism and feminism—with some sharp lines that recall German Expressionism—evoke a politically engaged sensibility that carves a unique and personal space for alternative voices.
Nomad from the Lake avoids giving Ottinger the Film 101 treatment in its totality since Kramer changes things up between film clips and narration to offer dialogue between equally adoring fans. The doc frequently pairs two fans, friends, art critics, programmers, or filmmakers together as they discuss Ottinger’s style and legacy. These enjoyable conversations show the openness and malleability of Ottinger’s work—and her ability to defy categorization—as the admirers recall their experiences digging into the films or, in one case, standing on set in the buff in one of the director’s elaborate set pieces. These conversations illustrate the lucidity of Ottinger’s highbrow style.
Other dissections include a look at Ottinger’s love for travel and the elements of curiosity and exoticism that permeate her work. (The latter doesn’t age well in some clips, particularly in a hyper-PC culture.) Kramer admirably notes that Ottinger broke barriers by being the first woman to shoot a film solo in Mongolia, while the director’s love for faraway places is equally evident in her personal life: she draws inspiration from the foreign lands she visits, but they stay with her forever. This section is most relevant to the Goethe Institute’s retrospective of Ottinger’s Asian works, and the knowledge and passion with which she speaks of her travels illustrates a sensibility that goes beyond aesthetic pleasure. A cultured travel bug, she is.
Her mixture of drama and documentary is equally intriguing. Clips from Under Snow show some creative licence while blending nature documentary with Kabuki theatre. She thankfully avoids ethnography while drawing upon a land and its inhabitants. Kramer’s doc shows how Ottinger develops a unique language in her hybrid style by immersing herself deeply within a culture. Some examples, like a snippet of Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press with which one of the film aficionados critiques the setting of a theatrical scene on a beach as evidence of Ottinger’s blend of drama and documentary, don’t do justice to her body of work. Documentary elements need to be more than naturally rolling waves and there are better examples in her filmography.
Kramer doesn’t press anyone for a better answer and her admiration for her subject manifests itself in restraint. She shows so much of Ottinger’s work and highlights how her style reflects counter-cultural currents, but Nomad from the Lake is more timid than the filmmaker it celebrates. One wishes Kramer pushed Ottinger’s buttons and got her to open up more on her politics. The softball interviews make for respectful viewing, but when a dinner party in the rain gets more screen time than Ottinger’s political views and love life combined, the portrait feels incomplete.
Nomad from the Lake nevertheless captures a singular career of a filmmaker and introduces Ottinger to an audience that might be discovering her for the first time. If the picture sometimes feels lacking, Kramer ensures that one leaves the film with an appetite for the full buffet.
Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake screens at TIFF Lightbox on Thursday, Mar. 1.
Goethe Films’ Ulrike Ottinger in Asia runs March 1-8.