Ulrike OTTINGER [english] > Books/Texts > Texts > secondary literature > Roswitha Mueller, Telling Wonder Tales.


Roswitha Mueller

Long before the term "postmodern" began to haunt the vocabulary of literary and art critica, Ottinger made her first films in which names like Tristan Tzara und Josephine de Collage stood in strange contrast to characters called Betty Brillo or Flora Tannenbaum. Playing with the conventions of modernism and the classical avantgarde is one of the permanent features of Ottinger's work, which in its earlier manifestations is also marked by a lack of narrative content. But while her playfulness is "witty and sarcastic", as Patricia Highsmith aptly observed, it is also always "somehow romantic". It counters the increasing domestication of modern life with the desire and the invention of the strange.

If recent technological means of communication and transportation annuled space and time, if the media and tourism have turned the whole world into everybody's front yard, Ottinger's films are intent on reconstituting distance and difference. This position originates in the insight that the ideal of homogeneity is fundamentally related to the fear of otherness, in other words, amalgamating and making the same is the other side of the coin of casting out and excluding. What is so striking about Ottinger's work is an attitude that brings about the exact opposite effect: the insistence on difference based on inclusiveness.


Crucial to this attitude is the acceptance of the other in oneself, one's dreams, desires and fantasies. Reality in Ottinger's films pays equal attention to the everyday and the imaginative, to conscious actions and unsconscious motives, and to all forms of marginal expression, which has earned her the title of "queen of the Berlin underground." While this is undoubtedly justified, it also misses the point. Ottinger's project as a whole does not aim at being marginal but rather to bring the margin into the center, or de-centering the mainstream by introducing the margin on an equal basis.


Her more recent interest in documentary film has made this broader perception of herself as artist abundantly clear. The increase in narrarivity in her feature films can also be seen in this light as an attempt to achieve greater accessibility. At no time, however, has this dialogue with the audience turned into concessions to the market.


The narrativity of her films is essentially that of the fairy-tale in the sense that reality enters obliquely into a world of fantasy. However, the traditional fairy-tale's gendered role distribution is usually ignored if not reversed. This is not surprising given the fact that gender is one of the major criteria for exclusion. Perhaps it was prophetic, perhaps simply a confident forecast that Ottinger introduced her first film with the words:


"Fairy tales are coming

Fairy tales are here to stay

I am a picture

I am a fairy tale

And this is the sound of music

This is Laocoon and Sons

Laocoon and Sons is a story for all seasons.

One or two or three or hundred voices tell this story

For the pleasure of your eyes and ears.

These are womens's voices."


Another reason why the fairy-tale such an exellent vehicle to mediate Ottinger's films is that its thematic building blocks can easily accommodate and often reflect upon most of Ottiner's elements. This is certainly the case in the attempt to relate her grand themes of exclusion and inclusion to her earlier concern with transformation and metamorphosis. As in legends and myths, in fairy-tales the quest of the hero / ine quite frequently aims at a metamorphosis (from Cinderella to princess, from frog to prince etc.) that is followed by an act of integration into society.


Yet, integration in Ottinger's stories is never an act of conforming to social standards. It is more closely related to the magic that inheres in the transformations. This magic is a result precisely of Ottinger's equivocation, or, it might be better to say, purposeful equation of the products of imagination, dreams, fantasies, stories etc., and what is commonly called reality.


The style appropriate to this attitude is not a linear building up to a point of tension and then resolving it, but a leisurely episodic pace that lingers over details until they are as magnificent as the grand vistas. It traverses genre distinctions to such a degree that document very often vanishes into fiction and vice versa and it tntrudes on time and action by giving equal space to a reflecting meta-level of quotations and an endlessly receding hall of mirrors that constitutes not only the connection tissue of each separate film but the fabric of her entire production.


© Roswitha Mueller