Lesbian Traces in Film

The Eighties

Depart to ArriveBe Gentle, PenguinNovembermoonClaire BerolinaSeduciton: The Cruel WomanNichts ist wie es istJohanna D’Arc of MongoliaThe Virgin MachineMy Father is Coming

Perhaps Alexandra von Grote’s “Weggehen um anzukommen [Depart to Arrive]” (1981) could be regarded as the beginning of a new decade of lesbian films. In its content “Depart to Arrive” is similarly simple as its title. A woman cannot come over the separation from her lover and with a van she drives to the south of France, where she hope to find her self again. Woven into the pictures of the landscape are memories of their love, but also of their quarrels. With “Depart to Arrive” Alexandra von Grote created the first drama of a clearly lesbian relationship that was directed by a woman, that was shown all over the country and did not in any way question or explain the sexual orientation of its protagonist. After all there was lesbian sex it this film that did try not to expose itself to a male view. But those sex scenes turned out to be stiff and artificial that probably was due to the lack of acting talent and to the untrained directing.1 But it is still remarkable that here it was about getting over a split up whereas later films rather dealt with two women finding each other and by varying this in any thinkable way drew their apparently steady thrill.

In a German Austrian co-production of 1982 director Peter Hajek traces down the critically ironic emancipation aim of the women’s movement. A woman splits up with her man because she does not like the sex with him any more. Instead she discovers her lust with the freshly grown lesbian and friend Debbie. But certainly the heterosexual woman Nina wants to go back to Mick. Besides, he was thrown out of a feminist bookstore during her phase of finding, since he only wanted to find out more about the sexuality of his girlfriend... “Sei zärtlich, Pinguin [Be Gentle, Penguin]” mirrors the male lack of understanding for female needs (for room of their own), reduces them to absurdity and seems to let heterosexuality win over all differences, that were worked out during the film.

In 1984 von Grote made “Novembermond [Novembermoon]”, an anti war film, that takes place during the Nazi occupation in France and again topics the love between two women. The French Ferial gives home to the Jew November with whom she has a relationship. To be as inconspicuous as possible she collaborates with occupying forces and after the war is brutally called to account. This is a Nazi drama that, although thrilling from the start and sounds pioneering but loses its effect due to a miscast main part (as in “Depart to Arrive” Gabriele Osburg).2

In the DDR in 1985 with “Claire Berolina (Klaus Gendries) a memorial was left for the artistic life of Claire Waldoff. It is obvious that Waldoff was into a deep friendship with Oli von Roeder. Von Roeder lived with Waldoff or at least always was there when she was there. If it was about a heterosexual relationship theirs would be clear and there would be not need for further scenes. But probably there would not only be one faded out embrace that leads to a kiss. Waldoff’s relationship to a woman just runs with it, gives nuances to cabaret shows or comments on experiences with the national socialistic movement. Sadly the portrait only shows one scene of Claire Waldoff’s life,3 to which relationships to women belonged as well as her presence on stage and her “big mouth”.

In 1985 Monika Treut was at the peak of her creative powers with camerawoman and film maker Elfi Mikesch. Together they shot the “Verführung: Die grausame Frau [Seduction: The Cruel Woman]” inspired by Leopold Sacher-Masoch. But Wanda is not that cruel. In a gallery she presents her guests the incarnation of her most secret wishes and dreams. While in her job Wanda acts out the "domina", in her private life she has to come to terms with her sceptic and finally jealous lover, because her American lover turned up, too. Mikesch embeds the story, that partly consists of loose associative episodes, into stylish pictures with her usual brilliant camera work (slant perspective, shimmering light etc.). Matching the film Monika Treut published “Die grausame Frau. Zum Frauenbild bei de Sade und Sacher-Masoch”.4 Working on sadomasochistic topics fell on fertile ground in the mid eighties. Everywhere particularly (lesbian) sexuality was discussed and so called “cosy sex” was questioned. Krista Beinstein’s “Obszöne Frauen5 caused conflicts in German feminist bookstores, while with her PorNo debate Alice Schwarzer fought for regulative laws.6

Interestingly enough the Bayerische Rundfunk, that in 1977 turned off the joined program of the ARD because of “Konsequenz” by Wolfgang Petersen, in 1987 with the film “Nichts ist wie es ist” (Karl Heinz Kramberg, Maria Kramberg) produced a literature novel with an indisputable lesbian content. The photographer Ulla Gamiani travels to Lapland and on her way picks up a playmate. The story is told out of the view of the photographer, who domineering and egocentric does not care for the needs of her protégé. But when her lover falls for a lost survivalist the artificial idyll breaks apart. A play for a studio theatre between three people, among which the photographer plays the central role and leads the narrative. She loses her lover but not her identity.

In 1988 Ulrike Ottinger continued her style with a little less experimentally produced story: “Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia”. On the one hand she opened the stage for Mongolian people on their horses and on the other hand she told a relaxed bed story between two women that travel with the Trans-Siberian train and are abducted by Amazons.7

Again Monika Treut pressed ahead and in “Die Jungfrauenmaschine [The Virgin Machine]” (1988) made it clear even to last provincial lesbian, that not any woman that sleeps with you does this without paying for it. Treut lets naive Dorothee Müller from Hamburg – looking for romantic love – in progressive San Francisco pay highly for the time with her adored woman; much to her surprise the performance artist Ramona simply charges her for everything. “My Father is Coming (1990/91) was also shot in the USA. The story goes about an unsuccessful actress that all of a sudden is surprised by the sudden visit of her Bavarian (!) father leads him to believe in her successful career as well as a conformist heterosexual life. But she has an affair with a waitress and is interested in Joe, who tells that he is a transsexual. Although Treut shoots her films with funding from Germany, her films basically concentrate on an idealised America, where she can execute all her experiments with gender roles quite effortless.8

© Ingeborg Boxhammer (Bonn 2005)
Anke Sauerbrey (Translation, Bonn 2005)

Suggested citation:
Boxhammer, Ingeborg: Lesbian Traces in Film - The Eighties [online]. Bonn 2005 Available from: Online-Projekt Lesbengeschichte. Boxhammer, Ingeborg/Leidinger, Christiane. URL <https://www.lesbengeschichte.org/Englisch/film_die_80_e.html> [cited DATE].

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[1] Compare Hetze’s correct criticism: “Their sexuality is displayed in clean, harmonic pictures – two flawless bodies in sky-blue shadowed bedspreads – that dispassionately caress each other in defined and approved places with a soft underlying music and during this moan full of relish”, Stefanie Hetze, p. 118f. Or furiously Karola Gramann and Heide Schlüpmann: “In the obligatory bed scene eventually the film manages a family friendly blend of David Hamilton and Clementine”, Karola Gramann, Heide Schlüpmann, “Wärst du doch in Düsseldorf geblieben ...” to “Weggehen um anzukommen”, in: Frauen und Film 32/1982, p. 55f, p. 56.
[2] Concerning this compare Julia Knight: “The fact, that there is war, November’s race and the political tendencies of her father are minor. Altogether they just work for the enhancement of the dramatic thrill, in which the love story happens (...)For the little the film really says about lesbian sexuality – despite the sensitive depiction of the relationship – November and Ferial could easily be replaced by a heterosexual couple”, Knight, 1995, op.cit., p. 131.
[3] Also see the portrait “Claire Waldoff – Wer schmeißt denn da mit Lehm?” FRG 2000. Directed by Elisabeth Publig.
[4] Monika Treut, Die grausame Frau. Zum Frauenbild bei de Sade und Sacher-Masoch. Basel and Frankfurt/Main 1984.
[5] Krista Beinstein, Obszöne Frauen. Vienna 1986. The book of photographs among others shows women, that let themselves be humiliated by other women. The book gained a lot of attention, because the photographs would never have made their way into feminist bookstores if they were made by men.
[6] This biographic page concerning Alice Schwarzer lets her PorNo debate start in 1987: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/biografien/SchwarzerAlice/, 2005.
[7] For Ottinger this was her last (lesbian) film; after that she basically spent her time with productions for theatre and documentaries. https://www.ulrikeottinger.com, 2005. Concerning Ulrike Ottinger also go to Renate Fischetti, Das neue Kino. Ach Porträts von deutschen Regisseurinnen. Frankfurt/Main 1992.
[8] Therefore also compare Anat Pick, New Queer Cinema and lesbian films, in: New Queer Cinema. A Critical Reader. Edited by Michele Aaron. Edinburgh 2004, pp. 103-118, p. 113: “Her American Dream is a utopian one.”