Johanna d‘Arc of Mongolia

Deutschland 1989, 35 mm, Farbe, 165 Minuten

The city comes closer. The bright and shiny white felt yurts with collar-shaped chimney openings are on wagons pulled by twenty-two oxen each in two rows of eleven oxen. The broad front of the city advances ever nearer. A rider separates from the wandering town and approaches the caravan at a fast trot. excerpt from the script

Cast & Crew
Lady Windermere Delphine Seyrig
Ms Müller-Vohwinkel Irm Hermann
Mickey Katz Peter Kern
Fanny Ziegfeld Gillian Scalici
Giovanna Inès Sastre
Ulun Iga,
Mongolische Prinzessin

Xu Re Huar

Alexander Boris Nikolaj
Nikolajewitsch Murawjew
Nougzar Sharia
Aljoscha Christoph Eichhorn
The Kalinka Sisters Else Nabu
Sevimbike Elibay
of the Mongolan Princess
Naren Mandola, Badema, Xu Ren Hu, Tu Hai,
Yi Tuo Ya, Yu Huar, Saren Goawa, Alata u.a.
Messanger Hurch Baatar
Epic Narrator

Ba Zah Er
and Lydia Billiet, The Jacob Sisters, Marek Szmelkin, Mark Reeder, Amadeus Flösser
und viele andere mehr
Set Design
Ulrike Ottinger
Assistant Director Anja S. Zähringer
2nd Assistant Director
Ulrike Koch
Assistant Cinematographer Bernd Balaschus
Lighting Siegfried Gierich
Props Peter Bausch
Set Painter Petra Olbrich, Tine Kindermann, Carolin Jahn
Costumes Gisela Storch
Costumes Assistent Anne Jud
Tailor Margitta Scholten
Wardrobe Tana, Mei Qi-Qi-Ge, Birgit Kniep
Make-up Berthold Sack
Make-up Assistent Peter Bour, Qin Gui-Mei
Set Decoration Christian Stocklöv, Ba-Tu
Editor Dörte Völz
Assistant Editor Andrea Winzler
Sound Margit Eschenbach
Sound Assistant Gerda Grossmann
Mixing Hans-Dieter Schwarz
Music Wilhelm Dieter Siebert
Percussion Albrecht Riermeier
Special Effects
Alexander Korn, Andreas Olshausen, Max Moormann
Catering Wei Ping, Ao Bao-Lin
Translation Lian Dong

Sylvia Lichtenberg, Donata Schmidt, Valerie Osterwalder, Ulrike Vetter, Fabian Scheidler
Executive Producer Renée Gundelach
Production Manager Harald Muchametow
coordination Hanna Rogge
Set Manager Erica Marcus
Chinese Productionteam Wang Ri, Xu Qi, Ren Da Hui, Weng Dao Cai, Lian Zhen Hua, Chen Zhon-Sheng, Kang Yan-Ling
Supported by China Central Television Corp., Beijing für die Produktion in China
Sponsored by Filmförderungsanstalt, Berlin

International Film Festival Berlin 1989, German contribution to the 1989 competition

Jerusalem, Toronto, Montreal Women's Film Festival, Films des Femmes (Créteil, France), New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals, etc.

German Film Award 1989 - Gold film tape for visual design
Audience Award, Festival International du nouveau Cinéma, Montreal 1989
“Outstanding Film of the Year”, London Film Festival


Frieda Grafe, Süddeutsche Zeitung, April, 3rd,1989
In this tri-lingual epic, seven western women travel in the Trans-Siberian Railroad and are kidnaped by a tribe of Mongolian female warriors. As fantastic as this tale sounds, it is as much substantiated by historical and ethnographical research as it is just another one of Ottinger's fictions of transformation, metamorphosis and the problem of dealing with otherness. In this film these strands are most benignly brought together and woven into a scintillating tapestry of cultural interrelation. Where railroad and caravan meet - both metaphors for trans-formation - the intitial clash, the fear of the uncertain other continent, turns into festivities as a result of receptive and accepting attitudes. Instead of combatting each other, customs and costumes reflect each other as in a mirror:
"The whole film is a twin structure, cut through by doubles, repetitions, similarities and endless reflections. The images have a crease, established by the stories [...] In this way the Mongolian world casts a reflecting light on western customs and habits and cinema recommends itself as the instrument of investigation and the agent of old and new myths."

Caryn James, The New York Times
The director is at her playful best in upsetting the clichés of strangers on a train[...] JOHANNA D'ARC turns into a travelogue. But few travelogues are this rich, ambitious and unusual.

Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle
JOHANNA represents the fanciful attempt of a unique German filmmaker to explore the way extremely different cultures migrate and influence each other. The theme of the wanderer/outsider, carrier of diverse ideas, runs through all of Ulrike Ottinger's strikingly original films.

Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times
Certainly, the (1989 Women in Film) Festival's most inventive work is the personal vision personified, it's JOAN OF ARC OF MONGOLIA, a wickedly delightful look at the headlong collision of two cultures by writer-director-producer Ulrike Ottinger [...] Sophisticated, mysterious and deliriously beautiful [...]

Gertrud Koch, Frankfurter Rundschau, February, 16th, 1989
Ulrike Ottinger hat sich in ihrem neuen Film [...] zu einer höchst interessanten Vermischung by Fiktion und dokumentarischer Exkursion in eine fremde Kultur entschlossen [...] Komische Aspekte inszeniert Ulrike Ottinger dabei ganz als Situationskomik im Aufprall der beiden Kulturen. Jeder Anflug by Exotismus wird gebrochen im einerseits dokumentarischen Gestus und andererseits durch die Herausarbeitung der ästhetisch-autonomen Aspekte des Fremden. Die Reise in die Vergangenheit verläßt so nie die Moderne, sondern rettet sie als Wahrnehmungsstruktur. Der Faszinismus des in der Ferne Gesehenen wird als neue Erfahrung mit auf die Rückreise genommen [...]
So schließt Ulrike Ottinger an die moderne Sicht auf die fremde Kultur an, ohne ihrem Mythos zu erliegen. Das gibt dem Film eine Fähigkeit zur Komik und auch Heiterkeit, die mitunter verblüfft, zumal sie der Aufbruchstimmung nachgibt, die Abenteuer möglich macht.

For further reading


July 13, 1988
Hohhote: Early morning look at the props. They offer me the cardboard props from a Ghengis Khan TV series. At the risk of not finding anything else, I refuse. Authentic old costumes and jewelry can only be had through personal contact to families way out in the grasslands. I hope for the cooperation of local people. The prayer banns are printed on horrible synthetics. I insist upon thin muslin-like material. The property master is a former Lamaist monk and understands immediately what I mean.

July 15, 1988 Arrival in Xi Wu Zhu Mu Qi. We have neither wood nor iron, nor the old carts, wheels or other wooden parts we ordered and were promised 4 months ago. The beautiful old yurts and felt mats I chose at the time have also disappeared. The heavy generator hasn't arrived. But there's worse to come. The local authorities have forbidden us to leave the village or even the guest house where we are staying.
We are waiting.

July 16, 1988 We have a car now, but no gasoline.

August 17, 1988 Film site Altangolo: the grass is not as high as expected, but everything is in bloom. Thousands of edelweiss flowers and the river is at low water. (In the Spring we broke through the ice while crossing with a horse-cart). Unless it rains very heavily we shouldn't have any problems crossing.
There are three large white yurts standing almost exactly on the spot I had chosen for the Princess's summer camp. We are welcomed in the yurts with great hospitality and served mare's milk liquor and fat mutton. The yurt is pleasantly cool because the felt walls are rolled up from about 40 cm above the ground, letting in a cool breeze.
Our Mongolian companion drinks numerous cups of mare's milk liquor. We have to leave him there and travel on with Xu Re Huar, our female lead, to visit neighbours in the widely-scattered yurts and enlist their cooperation. Once again I carefully pace out Altangolo and determine the camera positions.
I find the obo (sacrificial site of piled stones) again easily. It stands on a large round boulder, a natural altar at whose base a spring flows from the roots of an old tree. It is even lovelier in summer than it was in winter. I decide to shoot at this mythical place.
House arrest again. It is hard to tell what is going on. Official visitors are expected for dinner. Before that I give an introductory lecture about the project in the Party hall, standing in front of a red flag. The response is very friendly. I drink three times with everyone. We eat mutton which is cut from the bone with a sharp knife right before our mouths. The two Mongolian Banner chiefs sitting at my left and right cut off the best - that is, the fattiest - pieces for me. Many speeches to friendship and cooperation are made. A very jolly party, rounded off by a family photo.


Patricia Wiedenhöft

1. First of all, how did your new film come by its title?
Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia is the name of a legend which the film makes audible and visible in various ways. I like to begin with great, emotionally-charged names in order to bring the seemingly familiar into new and surprising contexts. Usually, it isn't the things that are completely and utterly foreign, bur rather those with which we seem to have some connection, that can unleash an incredible sense of strangeness when suddenly transported to another context. Hence also the name's mixture of lanuages, which hints at the multi-lingualism of cultures and resits easy appropriation. In the film, this is expressed by the different accents and idioms of the passengers on the Trans-Siberian, and it becomes abundantly clear in other respects that transliteration is a labyrinth in which the best intentions often go astray. Of course. Jeanne d'Arc is also the myth of the heroic maiden, and the Mongolian epics also contain celebrations of women as heroic maidens. This connection provided a potential starting point for a story. The story of Giovanna d'Arco in the film, for example, which begins in the Trans-Siberian, a train which also transports culture, and which is held up by Mongols who are a nomadic people, and that sets everything in motion. What interests me is the progress not only of this story, but also of all the other stories which arise in the course of this one, which is in the final analysis, about the encounter with the foreign, which intervenes in its own way, and often quite unpredictably, in the progress of the plot.

2. You were the first foreign filmmaker to be granted permission to shoot in Mongolia, a corner of the world we know little about. Even the preparations for the film sound most unusual. Could you say something about your experiences and adventures while shooting on location?
I have always felt particularly drawn to Mongolia, a place I have not only sought, but also researched a good deal. I have already treated Mongolia in an imaginative mode in my film Madame X, and in a documentary context in China. The Arts - The People. - When I finally got there, I found a landscape in the old tribal region of the Ordos Mongols which had been ransacked and exploited like the America of the Gold Rush. Wild claims had been staked, coal had simply been mined and coked on the spot. The earth was torn and wounded; it stank, smouldered and burned. I felt as though I were wandering though Dante's Inferno. The Mongols, whose boots point upwards so as not to harm the earth, and who never dig a hole because it would insult the earth spirits, left this region long ago. So it was in the northeast that I found my location. An area without infrastructure, but with green meadows and nomads still living in yurts. Although the site could only be reached by ox-cart, I was determined to shoot there.

3. Did these experiences bear any similarity to the experiences you had written into the scenario for your western protagonists? To what extent did thy lead to revisions of your original intentions?
As a way of illuminating the problem of western protagonists' preconceptions, I'd like to tell you about my own experiences choosing the performers. I wanted to find the Princess's 20 companions in the Altangol region. An invitation to a wedding seemed like a good oppurtunity. We arrived early in the morning at the bridegroom's parents' yurt. According to ritual, the bride, who had been eagerly awaited since dawn, kept sending little signs of her imminent arrival. First, messengers came with small gifts, then three ox-carts arrived bearing suitcases and chests, which were immediately unloaded, examined and carried into the couple's newly-constructed white felt yart. Finally, under the hot midday sun, the bride approached, accompanied by twenty to thirty red-clad horsewomen in a great cloud of dust. They raced towards us, weeping piteously, and circled the yurts three times. Gradually I realized - and this was confirmed later - that it would not be simple to engage these young women, but that the necessary negotiations would be as long and drawn out as a Mongolian courtship. In the end it became apparent that those not chosen wanted to participate too. They began secretly to smuggle themselves in scenes.

4. To what extent can one regard your last film, China. The Arts - The People, as a preliminary study to Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia? What effect did the confrontation with a foreign reality in both films have on your attitude towards the relationship between "documentarism" and "innovation / construction" - a tension at the heart of all your films?
China. The Arts - The People, a cinematic travel account which I shot in various Chinese provinces in 1985, is a preliminary study in the sense that it gave me experience filming in China, which was instructive in several respects. Not only was I able to experience and observe other cultural forms and another way of life, living there also helped me revise and enrich my own extensive theoretical preparation. Many personal experiences have affected the scenario for Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, which already stood in rough form before my trip. To be sure, one film is documentary and the other fictional, but for me, taking into account the different production methods, both genres underwent a farreaching transformation. Perhaps one could say that China ... is the encounter with the foreign, whereas Johanna ... is the performance of that encounter. But to the extent that both encounters actually take place, a "new realism" arises, which has not been arbitrarily invented, but rather rests on extensive groundwork - on research, experiences, preliminary studies, all those procedures which the preparation of such a project entails. What I mean is: the freeing of enough spaces so that the encounter really can take place.
For example, I laid the groundwork by studying Mongolian culture and literature, the orally transmitted epics and fairy tales, the old text on the "Secret History of the Mongols". The imitation of these epics in the screenplay, however, still required the participaion of the Mongolians to make the performance successful. So I announced a gread nadom, a Mongol Summer festival and families, monks, rhapsodists, horse-fiddlers and wrestlers came from far and wide to create this festival with me.

5. When you chose Veruschka von Lehndorff to play the male role of Dorian Gray, you said that you "enjoyed mixing up role-behavior". In these films, the "stumbling block that sometimes makes us think" consisted in the distortion, doubling and unmasking of roles - a very elaborate and complex process. In your new film, the provocation seems to arise chiefly from the confrontation between standardized roles and a foreign culture.
One can see parallels in your development at the level of representation: in your early films both elements - on the one hand the artificiality of the figures, of their charcteristics, of the decor, and on the other the semidocumentary, "unstudied" camera work - seem to clash in every image, only to merge at the end. Ticket of no return comes closest to a definite separation: the emphasis throughout is on the playful and the contrived. Now we have the clear juxtaposition of two aesthetic stances: fiction and documentation.
There have always been clear confrontations in my films. In Ticket of no return, fiction and reality carry on a dialogue which is commented upon by the ladies "Social Question", "Exact Statistics" and "Common Sense". All the while the urgent appeal for "Reality" sounds from the airport loudspeakers. Ferak Orlando is the attempt to present the totality of culture, power and politics as an historical tableau, in which "reality" appears as a bewildering trompe l'æil. In Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, the carriers of Western culture riding on the Trans-Siberian are confronted first with their own culture, travelling as they are in their own museum, which is then unexpectedly held up by a foreign culture.

6. In your films you construct worlds out of "everyday myths", out of "epistemes" and social roles in order to tade your characters (whether they are this way by choice or force of circumstances) to the margins of normality and beyound. The political aspect of your films is the dream or utopia of freedom which can arise in the viewer's mind - the freedom to be different.
In Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, however, it is the confrontation with a culture which, while not accepting our own norms, is far from being norm-free, and very strictly regulated indeed. How did you try to avoid the danger of exoicism?

It was not my intention to create exotic images. The film is concerned, rather, with the transport of culture. If exoticisms arise in the process. they are never identified with "the foreign" per se but rather with the unsuccessful encounter with the foreign. I don't mean that only negatively, because the results are sometimes interesting. My film is devoted not to exoticism bur rather to nomads. These can be Mongols, but also job-seekers, Jewish intellectuals and artists, refugees, those travelling for edification or adventure. I see the route of the Trans-Siberian and also the Silk Road as a sort of guest-book of cultures, in which the most various influences leave their mark. The theme of the film is the infectiousness of nomadic ideas.

7. You have worked with the same actresses time and time again, in particular Delphine Seyrig, and always seem to be striving for a mixture of "professionals" and "amateurs." These amateurs, however, are often people who give the impression of having already tried to gain control of their everyday reality by playing themselves. On what principles do you choose your actresses so that they can take your characters beyond their function as representations of abstract types, and make them into living subjects?
“Amateur” and “professional” are two different performance techniques which, once again, carry on the dialogue between documentary and fiction on another level. For me, it is not a matter of living or dead subjects, as long as they fully realize their performance technique.

8. In talking about your films, one can emphasize the aspect of the (cultural) journey, of movement through particular situations, which also always remain journeys through time - something reminiscent of the great era of the silents, with its episodic films. But one can also focus on your predilection for puzzles, for the playful jumbling of established patterns, and thus for artistic self-reflection. And thirdly, there is the particular tension in all your films between documentation and fiction - a relationship which today's cinema as a whole is perhaps in a position to carry the furthest. In what context would you place your work?
I play with many contexts and various narrative forms. The classic introduction of the four western protagonists, who, as it were, sing their arias on the stage, observes the unities of place, time and action. The well-organized interior makes of nature an artificial exterior. But whilst the tundra rolls past the windows in painted tableaux, the people inside hear its siren call. Unaccustomed stories penetrate the familiar surroundings, which in the end are invaded by an exterior oblivious to all this domestication. In the grasslands, under the open sky, epic singers introduce Mongolian time.

9. Godard once said, "Technique is the sister of Art." Would you agree with his attribution of gender?
Art has many Siamese twins.

Go back