MIFF 68½ – Paris Calligrammes (2020)

Having discovered the work of Ulrike Ottinger earlier this year thanks to the We Are One Global Festival, which aired her fourth feature Ticket of No Return [Bildnis einer Trinkerin] (1979), I was excited to have the opportunity of seeing more of her work. A number of major filmmakers seem to have produced career retrospective films of one form or another in the last few years. Ulrike Ottinger’s most recent film (completed in December) is a documentary looking back at her formative years as an artist before she became a filmmaker.

Paris Calligrammes begins playfully with a depiction of her journey from Germany to Paris, setting out in a delightful Isetta microcar accompanied by jaunty music which comes to a sudden stop as the car breaks down. Abandoning her car by the side of the road, she gets a lift to Paris with a trenchcoated group of men who make her think of gangsters, and the remainder of her journey is illustrated by clips from a B&W French crime movie.

Much of Ottinger’s artistic life in Paris stems from her discovery of Librairie Calligrammes, an antiquarian bookstore dedicated to German literature which was a significant cultural hub. Proprietor Fritz Picard’s guestbook was rediscovered shortly before completion of the documentary and is on prominent display, including the signatures of prominent Dadaists, Situationists, philosophers, authors, artists… even Carl Jung. Picard continues to be mentioned in various contexts throughout the film, and significant portions are devoted to acknowledging the work and influence of people Ottinger met either at the bookstore or through her association with it. It’s through these connections that came to learn the art of lithography with Johnny Friedlaender, develop her painting style in the mode of nouveau réalisme (the French equivalent to the American Pop Art movement), and incorporate 3-dimensional elements into her painting. Perhaps most significantly, it’s also through Picard that Ottinger encountered the Cinémathèque Française, which provided the basis of her education in film and started her on the path to making her first film in 1972. Short extracts from her films are peppered throughout the documentary as their influences are revealed.

As a left wing radical, Ottinger’s stay in Paris from 1962-1968 was bracketed by two significant events. The year before her arrival had been marked by the brutal police suppression of a peaceful protest against the Algerian War. The subsequent censorship of any journalistic coverage of this event (elements of which were finally officially acknowledged in 1998), and its taboo status as a conversational topic, inevitably resonated through the artistic underground. The French premiere of Jean Genet’s play The Screens [Les Paravents] in 1966, five years after its theatrical debut in Berlin, was an event of great political and artistic significance for Ottinger and her fellow artists. The May 1968 riots were a more complex experience. Although police brutality was once again in evidence, as time went on Ottinger felt that the protesters lost sight of their goals. Her personal tipping point came when the owners of the Théâtre de l’Odéon opened their doors to the protesters as a rallying point, only to have the building occupied and vandalised by those with whom they’d sympathised. Ottinger’s disillusionment with the protesters led to a split among her friends, leading to her return to West Germany in 1969.

For all the significance of art and politics to the director’s life, one of her first memories of Paris is watching the street cleaners at work first thing in the morning. Ottinger films three modern street cleaners at work near the beginning of her documentary, and draws it to a conclusion with the same three cleaners taking a bow. The credits roll to the accompaniment of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” before a caption informs us ironically that Piaf dedicated this song to the French Foreign Legion while the Algerian War was in progress (the year before the Paris Massacre on 1961). One final shot shows us the brightly coloured brooms of the cleaners. It’s an unconventional conclusion, feeling like a winking acknowledgement from the director – as if she couldn’t resist sneaking in one more political point, but wanted her audience to leave with a smile.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s