There is a universe of roles, postures and demands expected from women everywhere. Even though the world has gone through so many evolutions and revolutions, there is so much to be discussed, rethought and worked on. Of course, there are cultural aspects and specificities that alter in each intersectionality and can lead the discussion to different paths, but I can only think about this subject in the place I occupy as a cisgender lesbian woman, who was born in Brazil. And that is what I intend to do in this text – to bring my perspective on a theme that most caught my attention in the 39th Filmfest München.
Thoughts regarding what is to be a woman occur to me all the time. Often they arrive with a sense of deep loneliness, as if I alone am occupied with so many doubts and questions about my role on Earth and who I am as a woman. Other times, I see that I am wrong and other women have almost the exact feeling. And that is what happened during my work as a jury member at the 39th Filmfest München. Among the 15 works of the “New German Cinema”, I found three films that felt very close to me. They seemed to converse with each other, in the way they dealt with how women will always be blamed – by society, by their themselves, by life – regardless of their choices or their behavior.
Rebellious, funny or serious, leaving or staying, losing or winning – judgment towards women persists and it takes courage, sensitivity and assertiveness to bring all these anxieties, feelings and perceptions into art. Especially when the characters are far from being the “ladies” of traditional cinema. In Kiss My Wounds (Wann kommst du meine Wunden küssen?) by Hanna Doose, All Russians Love Birch Trees (Der Russe ist einer) by Pola Beck and Wut auf Kuba by Naira Cavero Orihuel, the viewer is faced with women full of complexities, desires, inconsistencies, challenges, life, death and disturbances. They are full of particularities and yet I noticed this spark that connected them.
While watching these three films I was carried away by a sea of thoughts, tears and laughter, and my heart was racing. To explain what brought them together in my mind I’d like to start with introducing the characters. In Kiss My Wounds the audience doesn’t immediately know who those characters are. The script and the editing progressively reveal each layer of them as an individual and as a trio. The depth of their past and present, as well as the inclemency of their relationships, is digested gradually, but with bursting punches, which is when their deepest emotions are summoned.
Maria (Bibiana Beglau) is a typical cool film director living in Berlin. She returns to the farm where she grew up because she has a new project in mind and also because she is facing financial difficulties. Maria is perceived as unstable and selfish because she decided to follow her path, losing contact with Kathi (Katarina Schröter), her sister, and with her supposed best friend Laura, who ends up staying with her ex-boyfriend. Sensitive Kathi is the opposite of Maria. She took care of the family farm and spent years involved with projects to help save the Amazon.
Kathi is the typical “straightforward” sister. However, she discovers that she has terminal cancer and starts to reevaluate her decisions. Kathi isolates herself, doesn’t want to go to doctors, tries to be resilient, but has nowhere to run, because her destiny is already set. Still, even if convalescing, she keeps assuming the role of the strong woman who helps those who might need her; she can’t get rid of the obligation to be responsible. And finally, there is Laura. She is the most complex and layered character in the narrative. Laura is like a middle ground between Maria and Kathi, but that doesn’t mean she’s balanced.
Laura lives an intense internal battle, in which her wills and her obligations fight eternally. Laura can evoke empathy and repulsion at the same time, because the young woman has charisma and lightness, but also hypocrisy and a lack of sensitivity. When she finds herself pregnant by her lover she seems both happy and sad. Something like that can arouse mixed sensations in the viewer and it shows how she is lost in her own ideas of what is right. However, the important thing here is to see how women are always in the crosshairs.
They will be blamed for their actions – any of them – there is no way to get it right and not feel cornered. These practices coming from society, and reflected in the emotions and behavior of women, are lived in this trio and firmly deliver the answer that judgment, abandonment and anguish will be present in life (in the birth of a new child), in death. (with terminal cancer) and in between (in the simple act of trying to survive and pay the bills, for example).
Kiss my wounds sums up what I see and feel in the world, all my daily questions, sewn into a single story. Life and death, obligations and anxieties are also present in All Russians Love Birch Trees, in which we follow Mascha (Aylin Tezel) and all her contradictions. She is dedicated and loves her job, yet she is constantly late and confused about her professional path. Mascha is in love with her boyfriend Elias (Slavko Popadic), but cheats on him with her ex-boyfriend. Even though she runs away when things start to get sad or difficult, Mascha has an emerging fear of being abandoned.
This is an extremely complex character. Perhaps, one of the most labyrinthine I’ve seen in my 12 years of film criticism. Her pulsating desire is to be understood and loved, but she keeps hiding. A big question hovers during the viewing: why try to escape when she wants to be hugged? Why reject approaches, only to give herself over to them in such a risky and intense way that she is devastatingly hurt? And here is where I see the connection to the other films. Like Kathi and Laura, Mascha lives a fine line between indulging in her dreams and her relationships and protecting herself or fulfilling responsibilities.
There is also the shadow of a past that is not very palpable and explained in its entirety, but that haunts and torments them at every step they take. Every action, even the smallest and ordinary ones, is felt intensely and covered with guilt. In this sense, we can establish the similarities between the characters of Kiss My Wounds with the protagonist of All Russians Love Birch Trees, and even with myself. The lines between containment, surrender, love and despair can mix and break. Grief also turns into guilt or resignation, whether over Kathi’s impending death or Mascha’s recent loss. These are transformative situations, but they come to them in a form of imprisonment. Even when these conflicts are overcome or set aside later in the narratives’ endings, it is important to look at the paths that women end up choosing and how they are seen inside and outside fiction by these choices and strategies.
It is in this plural range of trajectories and choices that it is necessary to insert Marlene (Lena Schmidtke) from Wut auf Kuba. Among all the possible judgments that society can make towards women, none will be as big and universal as those aimed at mothers. The maternal figure inhabits the world’s imagination as an unshakable disease. It contains all the all the rules and, obviously, the biological concepts of the protective female. It is almost unthinkable, for most people, that mothers are individuals, human beings, full of characteristics, including negative ones. Marlene is one of those women: a mother, but above all, a woman. A relevant point to emphasize is that this writer is not able to contemplate the voice of a mother. I’m not a mother and I don’t know if I will be one.
Nor is it up to me to establish what this character did absurdly wrong or what is understandable in her acts. My focus is different – I focus on the judgments and the understandings. And here is where we see Marelene in a sea of anguish and trauma and her responsibility of facing adult life, a path that she doesn’t know how to follow, that she can’t enter. However, there is an intense love that Marlene has for her daughters. This love is clear, translucent and reinforced within the narrative. Nonetheless, at the same time, Marlene lacks the mental, financial or emotional stability to care for her offspring.
Confused between the two paths – of being free or to keep the pact of motherhood – the young woman is fickle. Her lack of confidence in her actions, her indecision and her fear of failure can never be accepted by society. Many may wonder how a mother can be that way, so childish, so inconsequential. They will hardly question where the children’s father is. Again, the connection between the characters is given by fear. Or also by the past, by failures and mistakes completely analyzed by humanity as serious failures. Maria has chosen her career and is seen as cold and self-centered. Marlene wants to leave, she doesn’t want to be a mother, but she can’t leave her daughters behind. Kathi fulfilled her responsibilities and dedicated her life to what was right.
Remaining, in doubt, walking away, it doesn’t matter, because when we talk about women, no decision will be taken as entirely appropriate, even the minimal ones. And it is in this convulsion of ideas that I left each of these screenings at Filmfest München, suffocated by thoughts, breathing new ideas and trying to find certainties. These discussions, however, are much deeper and would yield so many articles, theses and dissertations, that it would take years to address so many reflections like those. There is so much to talk about when women address other women, in art and beyond. And the most interesting thing is there was no intention to do feminist writing when I started this text. Perhaps, it is a support for feminism, yes, but it is the theme that captured me most strongly during my role as a juror for Fipresci at the festival.
This gathering of observations is also the result of the directions of each of these filmmakers – Doose, Beck and Orihuel. Together they summoned an intense dimension of depth of emotions and meaning of everyday and extra-daily actions. The specific stylistics of these filmmakers is another conversation, one that would create another extensive text.
Enoe Lopes Pontes
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2022