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July 16, 2008

Women and New German Cinema: The Institutional Marginalising of Women

Women and New German Cinema:

The Institutional Marginalisation of Women Film Makers

Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta: Perhaps the most internationally well known
woman director emerging from New German Cinema

Return to New German Cinema Directors


The history of women directors in Germany is not only interesting for its own sake but because for a time there many more women directors working than in other European countries they lead by example and many are still active in cinema today. This is a brief overview of their trials, tribulations and achievements. Individual entries will be developed in due course. It is important that this history does not become "hidden"  as Sheila Rowbotham a feminist historian pointed out in her social historiography of the exclusion and / or marginalisation of women from much history. As will be seen these women film makers still had severe difficulty accessing the funding to make full length feature films. Arguably this institutionalised sexism still exists today across all nations with women film directors still being very much in the minority of directors. This phenomenon needs continous study to examine the factors at work vitiating the success of women film directors. Only then can policies be developed which ensure that this institutionalised sexism ceases.

Much of what follows is based upon the seminal book on this subject by Julia Knight Women and the New German Cinema (1992) which is still in print. By 1979 the rebuilding of a national German cinema which amounted to what is described as New German Cinema had reached another turning point since the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962. This was expressed in the Hamburg Declaration a manifesto produced at the Hamburg Film Festival of that year. Knight comments that it was a s though the directors had wanted to declare a new National cinema existed finally which was a cinema marked by diversity in both style, form and content. Despite this assertion, Knight points out, German cinema had been largely forced down the path og traditional narrative structures in a feature film format.

Even more tellingly despite the assertions of solidarity amongst film makers there was a marked sexist split between a mainstream cinema that was predominantly male and a marginalised but very active feminist film culture. The names of directors evoked by the term New German Cinema mean for many of us in the UK at least Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge,Reitz, Schlöndorff and Wenders. Having produced several films each by the early 1970s they had become established both at home and on the art cinema circuit in the rest of Europe at least. Knight points out that under the Kuratorium funding system from its beginning to 1973 it funded 46 films, however of these only 8 were made by women and of these 8 only one was a full length feature film. This was despite the fact that many women were working in both the film and TV sectors at this time. women filmamkers didn't really start to come to the fore in feature film making until after 1976.

The Hamburg Declaration fudged over this marginalisation of women film makers. The feeling of dissatisfaction at this marginalisation lead to a group of women film makers establishing an Association of Women Filmworkers (Verband die filmarbeiterinnen) to promote the work of women film and TV makers.

Some Institutional difficulties Facing Women Film Makers

For women there was another difficulty to overcome which was that there were few role models of women film makers from the past in Germany. Many of these male directors such as Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau and Siodmak had made successful careers in both Germany and Hollywood. Although there were exceptions such as Lotte Reiniger who made animations in the silent period and of course Leni Riefenstahl of Mountain film and Nazi propaganda infamy. There was also Leontine Sagan who was Austrian and made only one highly controversial film Mädchen in Uniform / Maidens in Uniform (1931).

Film maker Helke Sander certainly argued that this was a significant disadvantage. Many women who became film makers at this time entered into it via acting or else originally having ambitions to act. This included Helmer-Sanders Brahms, Margarethe von Trotta, Doris Dörrie, Elfi Mikesch, May Spils, Dorothea Neunkirchen and Marianne Lüdcke.

Helke Sander in her film All round Reduced Personality

Helke Sander starring in her own film All Round Reduced Personality / Redupers 1977. Her films are available on DVD from her own website with English subtitles at : Helke Sander

At a more general cultural level it wasn't recognised that women wanted and had a right to proper full-time careers. As a parent Helke Sander also pointed out that childcare still remained largely the responsibility of women. for single parents this problem was of course exacerbated as Heidi Genée pointed out:

...but if the film does not turn out the way it should, I cannot apologise because I had my three children with me during the shoot. (cited Knight 1992 p 44)

Of course these were problems common to women filmmakers in all countries and many German women film makers felt an international solidarity with other women film makers rather than with their male German counterparts. This led to them promoting a new femist film culture rather than prioritising a new national cinema. Not only was the more informal working culture and set of associated work expectations male dominated in its thinking but the funding regimes were also patriarchal. women had an extra level of distrust to overcome.

The Insitutional Structures Restrictions Upon Women Film Makers

There was a reliance upon public money to be invested in New German Cinema and this restricted all the directors both male and female however, it acted in a disproportionate way by limiting the oppportunities for women film makers far more by 'virtually excluding women directors from feature film production during its first ten years'. (Knight 1992 p 45)

Women were always being confronted with their lack of technical abilities even though none of the original signatories to the Oberhausen manifesto all of whom were male had directed a full feature film. Yet the ability of these men to create a new cinema was accepted unquestioningly despite the fact that they had only ever directed short films. However when women who had a similar history of film making in shorts came to apply for feature film funding they were rejected on the self-fulfilling prophetic grounds that they needed to have experience first. Women film makers like Heidi Genée who had alreadyextablished themselves as editors and who found the transition to film making relatively straightforward always felt that they were being expected to prove themselves "with women of course we have to be twice as good. That's the way it is." (Genee cited Knight 1992 p 45).

Jutta Brückner was given a lot of criticism for choosing a woman cameraperson for her film Laufen Lernen / Learning to Run (1980). She was accused of making an ideological decision to employ a woman cameraperson rather than an artistic decision. This patriarchal structure acted like another level of censorship on women's film making throughout the 1970s.

Jutta Bruckner 1

Dr. Jutta Brückner film maker and lecturer at the Berlin Art Academy

This patriarchal approach had effects upon the types of films being made and a restriction upon artistic development. Sander for example has stated that she wanted to work in an essayistic form which would have blurred the boundaries between documentary and fiction film. But trying to workoutside of traditional formats and generic boundaries proved impossible to fund. This was partially due to a very defensive attitude from documentary traditionalists like Klaus Wildenhahn who also taught at the Berlin film school. Men like this were in a position to influence funders. Overall then women film makers of the 1970s were operating in a very hostile environment.

Women film makers at this time were more successful in persuading funders in the documantary field as well as shorts and TV work. Where there was much lower financial risk there was more equality. Funding for more ambitious feature film projects was a different matter. The Kuratorium when it first started was able to award up to 300,000 Deutsch Marks (The pre Euro currency in Germany). Many complained that this was a totally inadequate sum however when Ulrike Ottinger received an award to make her first feature it only amounted to DM 80,000 to make Madame X - eine absolut Herrsherin / Madam X an Absolute Ruler. This was ten years after the fund was started and therefore the figure was eroded by inflation. This continual underfunding lead to the creation of a DIY culture for women film makers who were forced to be very adaptive as Dagmar Beiesdorf director of die Wolfsbraut / The Wolf Girl (1985), recalls:

We were a small team of six people. No production manager, no extra people for make-up and costumes. So, one is, of course responsible for the bulk of the work oneself. For instance I needed a piano for three days but had no properties manager...when I eventually got something agreed, it was 'but you have to collect and load yourself'. So at five in the morning....I set off...collected two sleepy friends...When we unloaded the thing where we were filming shortly before nine o'clock we were of course completely worn out...If I hadn't had such a patient and helpful team several days filming would have fallen through. (Cited Knight 1992 p 47)

Other issues which emerged were problems of editorial interference as Jütta Brückner found after being commissioned to make a series of films on women in mid-life crisis:

The producer and TV editor - both men - had their own ideas about how a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman, should look. Their interference began with the script and became even worse. (Cited Knight 1992 p 48)

This kind of attitude lead to self-censorship in order for women to increase their opportunities for gaining work.

Going Commercial

Given the partriarchal structures of the film industry in general in Germany at the time male directors woring within New German Cinema had the opportunity to 'go commercial'. Some Oberhausen signatories like Peter Schamoni were able to make commercially oriented films in order to trigger state subsidies for projects they were personally interested in. some such as Schamoni headed production companies making sexploitation films to do this. (What is new about that you might ask!)

Women, Work & the Mass Media

The institutional sexism of the German mass media at the time meant that women often had long periods of unemployment. This was even more demoralising in an industry which was skewed against women furthermore this excluded them from developing their skills just as thier confidence in their existing ones was beginning to wane. The story of Ula Stöckl is a case in point. When the critic Renate Mörhmann was interviewing Stöckl about her work in the 1970s Mörhmann had assumed that Stöckl who had many productions under her belt had no difficulties in finding work. In fact Stöckl burst into tears of frustration at this point reporting that she had had no work for months and felt she was '...vegetating. I've simply been forgotten' (Knight , p 49).

Ula Stoeckl 1

Ula Stöckl now a film professor & film maker

When women film makers resorted to working in video and other cheaper mediums such as 16mm film the work didn't have such high production values and this was then turned against the women who were accused of making 'shabbier' products and not capable of making better products - yet another Catch 22. This catch 22 also translated into criticism and journalism and public perception. Despite their heroic efforts to participate in the new developments in German cinema women by the end of the decade of the 1970s largely considered as working in peripheral areas of moving image production and making little contribution to mainstream developments.


More work will be developed on New German Cinema and the relationship of women to this national rebirth of cinema and the gender issues arising from this. hopefully this will encourage and stimulate readers to do their own research as well.

Return to New German Cinema Directors


The German Sisters. Lisa DiCaprio. Jump Cut

Helke Sander. The All-Round Reduced Personality - Redupers. Review  Lisa Katzman

Helke Sander. Redupers: Contradictory reality. Review by Uta Berg-Ganschow translated by Ramona Curry

Sing Iris Sing. Review Gretchen Else-Sommer. Jump Cut

The Association of Women Film Workers. Jump Cut.

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