The Queen of Mongolia: Women and Films By Heike Hurst

in 57th Berlinale

by Heike Hurst

Many images of women in the competition of this 57th Berlinale suffer under their non-existence. Women-spies are liquidated in a jiffy; like Martina Gedeck in The Good Shepherd in only four minutes, even though everybody knows that women are the better spies and most of them succeeded in never getting caught. Mata Hari was the victim of a jealous man. Her execution was the result of extremely bad circumstances, not her superior capacities as a secret agent.

In other films, the faces of women distorted beyond recognition by repeated beauty surgeries, especially their lips, means its little wonder that they have nothing to say because they can’t open their lips anymore. Take the example of Angelina Jolie in The Good Shepherd or Emmanuelle Béart in The Witnesses (Les témoins), the latter a work set in the 80’s without the safe sex and directed by André Téchiné.

At this year’s Berlinale there were scarcely enough women to surprise or overwhelm us with their charm, at least not women from the western world. We were shown unbearably reduced models of femininity, and the latest contribution to this festival was by Jiri Menzel. I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále) is a really bad presentation of these kinds of caricatures. Menzel’s film — if we were in a cynical mood — finally gives us the ‘good German’ who was several times announced but remained hidden. This ‘good German’ is a woman. A figure degenerated to a caricature of a German. A person reduced to the cliché: white stockings up to the knees, chubby cheeks, devoted to the ´Führer’. Only the leather trousers are missing. Julia Jentsch, redeemed of her noble Sophie-Scholl-image, salutes for this stereotype. She is a Nazi-girl with braids, she sets her boyfriend on the right track, and she forces him to bring his ‘Aryan-Certificate’ so he can marry her. Later, cohabitating, she pushes her husband to one side, so she can look directly at her Führer-picture over her bed during sexual intercourse. This ‘good German’ works in a Lebensborn-institution but prefers to go to war. When she returns from war she brings back stamps she has taken from Jewish houses, taking them home to her private ‘Reich’. She transforms the little Schwejk-like waiter husband into a dumb fool, who, after the war, is imprisoned for fifteen years, because he sold these stamps for 15 million instead of giving them to the news socialist state. Menzel seems to be more interested in looking again at the German history than to develop his main character and give him an authenticity that carries him through the film.

There were no examples of strong western-world-women at this festival, except perhaps Irina Palm, performed miraculously well by Marianne Faithful, who becomes drawn into a “wanking widow” (quote) to be able to pay the medical treatment for her ill grandson. Unfortunately the film is written in a TV-compatible film style.

Completely different compared to Irina Palm is Yella by Christian Petzold: Here sophisticated images accompany Yella’s journey, without the need of explaining words. With Yella, Petzold shows a woman who wants to leave, to decamp, and to escape but is permanently prevented in taking these steps. Yella, the name of the woman, is near to the Arabic yalla (lets hit the road, lets go), says Petzold. The film reminds of a Märchen by the Brothers Grimm, one of their cruel fairy tales is called: One who leaves home to learn to be scared (to death). Yella’s husband is stalking her, and her new partner is a fraud. In spite of her intelligence she is not really challenged, she is only part of the game and then pushed away again. The seductive soundtrack (wind, the shrieking of crows, turbulences of a river) tells us more than the skinny words that are only placated. Yella falls into helplessness, because she can not be cold and sadistic, she is full of compassion. It’s a film that takes its time and needs too, to be developed in ourselves. In any case it is a portrait of a contemporary woman.

Do the women in Mongolia or other Asian countries have a better world? They live in such miserable circumstances that we are able to perceive their strength immediately. In Tuya’s Marriage (Tuya de hun shi, directed by Quanan Wang), the female main character carries everything on her back, not only heavy loads but also the responsibilities. Pragmatically she is looking for a new husband, without leaving her sick husband behind, who had a bad accident when he was digging a well from which he does not recover, and therefore is unable to support his family. But nobody accepts her attitude and faith, her children get mocked at and the new marriage-celebration is a sad festivity.

In Lu Zhang’s Desert Dream (Hyazgar), a Korean woman and her child enter a Yurte and ask for help. The woman and the child share the everyday life of the man who lives in this Yurte and his dreams to re-vegetate the steppe, to prevent the desert taking over. There is a breeze of utopia, because one person has to stay, has to plant trees, to encourage the pitiful plants to grow. There is a Wishing Tree, like in Abuladze’s film The Tree of Desire (Natvris khe, 1976), also with blue ribbons being attached.

A few memorable pictures remain: In Tuya’s Marriage a woman is riding a camel, bringing home her flock or searching for her son in a blizzard who wanted to protect the sheep. She carries him home, keeps him safe and warm… she is my Queen of Mongolia. In The Desert Dream the Korean woman brings precious water from far away to water the young plants. These are the real new pictures of women working like two men at once and lie down naked at night under the starry sky, dreaming of going away or maybe staying after all.

One might ask if the only connection with our feelings would be the love of the mothers who write letters. In Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima the young Japanese soldiers realize that the American soldiers get the same letters from their mothers as they receive from their own mothers. Angela Schanelec, in Afternoon (Nachmittag), shows in a long shot the happiness the mother feels when she carries her baby in a baby bag from one park to another. Remember how in Askoldov’s emblematic film The Commissar (Komissar, 1967) the heroine victoriously carries her newborn child and has to realize with horror that she has to go back to war.