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Jürgen Böttcher & Helke Misselwitz (2019)

Director Jürgen Böttcher, Helke Misselwitz, Country GDR,

Jürgen Böttcher: Martha + Helga Misselwitz: Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man?

This programmme juxtaposes two documentary portraits of strong women – Jürgen Böttcher’s Martha (1978) und Helke Misselwitz’s Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man? (1989). What distinguishes these two women and their circumstances? What do they have in common? How do both directors approach and stage their subjects in these films that were made just a little more than ten years apart.

A long tracking shot past new apartment blocks in an otherwise empty terrain, a bulldozer struggling up a hill of earth, wood and rubble. The constant noise of machines. And then we see her – wrapped in what looks like a soldier’s winter’s coat, woolly hat and gloves, she sticks out behind the conveyer belt on which rubble moves past her and from which she picks what’s still valuable. Martha Bieder, 68-years-old, has been a rubble woman since the end of the war. In Martha, Böttcher shows her dwarfed by the machines, but a giant in spirit and character. He also follows her into the warmth of the work barracks, where she eats with her colleagues, all of them men, all of them younger. We can hear Böttcher ask questions, which reveal his affectionate relation with Martha and that the situation is obviously staged. Though modest, Martha seems to enjoy talking about her life and work, sometimes over the footage Böttcher has shot of the rubble site or over historic images of the destroyed Berlin. We are also there to see Martha when her life-long work comes to an end. To celebrate her retirement she brings cake for her colleagues. Once more they sit around the table. Böttcher asks her to move a vase with bright flowers into the frame…

Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man? is a portrait of a private coal company in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district in 1988/89. The feisty woman boss runs the business with humour and understanding. Her seven male employees respect her. To the outside world, they are all tough guys, but as they describe their jobs and personal situations, above and beyond the hard manual labour, their vulnerability starts to come to light. Under gentle questioning, the subjects of this social survey by Helke Misselwitz willingly allow the audience a “look into their hearts”: “Can hands this rough be tender?” That approach makes it seem, at times, as if this were a utopia of solidarity at the margins of the Socialist workers’ state. Looking at these figures “from below”, the film touches on many taboos. The discussion subjects range from the building of the Berlin Wall and possible escape, to child abuse and suicide, as well as prison and alcoholism. Fiercely intent on authenticity, which is why it was shot in “outmoded” black-and-white, the film documents a trade that would soon itself become obsolete – turning it into a survey of social contradictions in East Germany, made just a few months before the country’s political collapse.

Martha (Jürgen Böttcher, 1978GDR, 56′)
Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man? (Helke Misselwitz, 1989, GDR, 52′)

Helke Misselwitz: Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulz + After Winter Comes Spring

Helke Misselwitz’s short Nude Photography – Gundula Schulze (1983), a film about the photographer and about the act of portraying women, is followed by her award winning documentary After Winter Comes Spring (1988) – a series of encounters with women from different backgrounds talking freely about their lives and revealing a society that wants change.

In Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze Misselwitz provides a stage for the photographer Gundula Schulze to critique the male gaze in the nude photography of women, to explain her idea of nude photography as portraiture and to illustrate this by showing her own pictures. It is Misselwitz’s portrait of Schulze, of her seriousness and unpretentious passion for finding different kinds of images. These sequences of her talking are repeatedly interrupted by Misselwitz’s own black and white footage of women working as cashiers in a supermarket – yet another form of portraiture that relies on observation and alternative ideas of beauty.

Shortly before GDR’s collapse, Helke Misselwitz traveled by train from one end of the country to the other interviewing East German women of different ages and backgrounds. In this documentary masterpiece, women reveal their personal and professional frustrations, hopes and aspirations—and, in doing so, paint a portrait of a changing society. The landscape and architecture of East Germany, filmed in B&W on 35mm by Thomas Plenert, form the background to the stories. Winter Adé caused a sensation when it was premiered at the 1988 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival. It undermined the official image of women in the GDR and challenged the East German claim to have achieved gender equality. At the same time, postulating a new independence, women talked about their lives more openly than had ever been filmed before. Ironically, the director was in the US touring with the film on the night when the Berlin Wall fell … exactly one year after its premiere.

Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze (Helke Misselwitz, 1983, GDR, 11′)
After Winter Comes Spring (Helke Misselwitz, 1988, GDR,  112′)

Image: © Defa-Stiftung, Thomas Plenert

Presented in partnership with Goethe-Institut London.

Find full details of their full Jürgen Böttcher retrospective here, running from October 27th to November 21st at venues across London, and for the ‘Women Directors of the DEFA’ series here.

“Following our screening of Jürgen Böttcher's The Wall in June, the Goethe-Institut present a larger retrospective of the filmmaker's work, titled 'Conjuring Up The Real'. We partner with them on a pair of events placing Böttcher's work besides that of Helke Misselwitz.”