Christa Wolf, in The Quest for Christa T., evokes the cinema as a form of illusory presence, as fantasy control of the past. Here is how the female narrator of The Quest for Christa T. describes not only her search for Christa, but for the very possibility of memory: “. . . I even name her name, and now I’m quite certain of her. But all the time I know that it’s a film of shadows being run off the reel, a film that was once projected in the real light of cities, landscapes, living rooms.”1 Film is memory, to be sure, but reified memory. Film suggests, then, a past that has been categorized, hierarchized, and neatly tucked away.2 The narrator of The Quest for Christa T. searches for the connections between female identity and language, and film is a form of memory to be resisted. The issue is one of female narration: of a female narrator engaged, in Christa Wolf’s words, in a search for “. . . the secret of the third person, who is there without being tangible and who, when circumstances favor her, can bring down more reality upon herself than the first person: I.”3 The cinema concretizes what Wolf calls: “The difficulty of saying ‘I.’ ”4
For Christa Wolf, film and writing correspond to two different relations between the narrator and the past. In her essay, “The Reader and the Writer,” she says:
We seem to need the help and approval of the imagination in our lives; it means playing with the possibilities open to us. But something else goes on inside us at the same time, daily, hourly, a furtive process hard to avoid, a hardening, petrifying, habituating, that attacks the memory in particular.”5
Wolf speaks of “miniatures,” the easily-summoned bits and pieces of past experience which we have arranged in our minds as if on shelves, and film belongs to the realm of miniatures.6 Writing, however, is a “strenuous movement” requiring an active engagement with the past rather than simple observation of the miniatures.7 Wolf writes:
Prose should try to be unfilmable. It should give up the dangerous work of circulating miniatures and putting finished pieces together. It should be incorruptible in its insistence on the one and only experience and not violate the experiences of others; but it should give them the courage of their own experiences.8
But even though cinema is indicted by Wolf, one can also see in this formulation a vital encounter between the spectacle of cinema and the narration of a female protagonist.9 This is not necessarily to say that film, and miniatures, are therefore “male.” Wolf’s indictment of the cinema does echo, if from a different perspective, recent feminist analyses of the cinema. These analyses have shown us, for example, that the codes of institutional narrative cinema establish the spectator as a passive consumer of the film spectacle; or that narrative flow is governed by a male-defined system of gazes; and that woman exists in the cinema as the projection of male fears and fantasies.10
But women do make movies. If I refer, via Wolf, to equations of cinema with domination and control, it is not to suggest that cinema is a hopelessly monolithic patriarchal institution. It is to suggest, rather, that the encounter of cinema and a female narrator has a corollary in the way in which women filmmakers have examined the juncture of spectacle and narrative within film itself. And then one might add: if cinema is indeed this reified form of domination, then explorations into the possibilities of female cinematic narration have a kind of strategic importance.
Some of the difficulties of such an encounter are evidenced by the fact that, with only some exceptions, we hesitate to use “feminist” to describe any but the most explicit films, and those are usually documentaries. As B. Ruby Rich points out, this reflects “. . . a crisis in the ability of feminist film criticism thus far to come to terms with the work at hand, to apply a truly feminist criticism to the body of work already produced by women filmmakers.”11 But perhaps our hesitation about what constitutes feminist cinema has more to do with the nature of film—that is, those qualities underscored by writers like Wolf—than with the connections between feminism and aesthetics in general. Super-8 cameras and home movies notwithstanding, film represents a formidable domain of technological expertise. And unlike the novel which preceded it as emblematic art form of capitalist society, there are virtually none of those “pre-aesthetic” (to use Silvia Bovenschen’s words) realms, like diaries and letter-writing, to allow women access to film production.12
Yet the institution of cinema is narrative cinema. And in the writings of Christa Wolf, cinematic metaphors emerge in a specifically narrative context—that is, as part of the journey of a first-person female narrator attempting to distill and clarify experience. There are films which immediately come to mind as analogues to these literary examples: Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1978), for instance, in which a female narrator speaks, over home movies shown in slow motion, about dreams and fantasies; or Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), in which the Mimi of La Boheme conducts an investigation, of sorts, to discover who was responsible for her death. While such cross-media comparisons are always tenuous, the female voices articulated in these films play a role quite similar to that of the first-person narrator in The Quest for Christa T., for they resist the “miniatures” offered through moving pictures.
Helke Sander’s 1977 film The All-Round Reduced Personality (Redupers)13 is concerned with these questions of female narration and film form, a concern evidenced, at least in a preliminary way, by several references to Christa Wolf. Sander’s film raises narrative issues that are best considered in the context of women’s cinema, but in no way should this category be construed in essentialist terms. Rather, I would argue that consideration of Redupers as a “women’s film” permits a most active engagement with the different themes and contexts which the film evokes. It is tempting, of course, to immediately situate Redupers within the New German Cinema. Indeed, many aspects of the film echo works by better-known filmmakers like Kluge and Fassbinder. A distinctive feature of Redupers is its blend of documentary and fiction technique, recalling the narrative style of Alexander Kluge’s films Yesterday’s Girls (1966) or The Artists under the Big Top; Perplexed (1968). The city of Berlin figures prominently in Sander’s film, echoing Kluge again, for his portrayals of Frankfurt, or Fassbinder, for his characterizations of Munich (in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or Fox and his Friends). Indeed, explorations of narrative cityscapes have been a pervasive feature of recent German cinema, explorations which lead in their turn, as in Sander’s film, to inquiries into everyday life. This film surely is unique in its exploration of the particularities of the divided city of Berlin. Indeed, it is safe to say that Redupers is a first, of sorts, for its examination of the narrative ramifications of the Berlin cityscape (of West German films, only Johannes Schaaf’s 1967 film Tatooing problematizes the city of Berlin in any way similar to Redupers).
Documentary and fiction, everyday life, and the city: it is tempting to assume rather simply that Redupers presents a “female perspective” on these characteristic preoccupations of the New German Cinema. While New German filmmakers have not been particularly renowned for their feminism, Sander’s film cannot be so simply categorized as the “feminization” of New German Cinema. As a women’s film, Redupers is also part of a context, defined by a growing number of autobiographical films by women, on the one hand, and by a critical tradition of feminist film criticism centered around the journal frauen und film, of which Helke Sander is an editor.
Sander’s film is constructed around the strain between Christa Wolf’s polarities of “writing” and “miniatures,” and the film examines the cinematic ramifications of what Wolf calls the “secret of the third person.” Redupers tells the story of Edda Chiemnajewski (portrayed by Sander), a resident of West Berlin, mother of a young daughter, free-lance photographer, and member of a women’s photography group. As a free-lance photographer, Edda is expected to produce photo-journalism, that is, “objective” images. Early in the film we see Edda as she photographs a state-sponsored party for elderly citizens. She stands on a stage, and photographs a speaker who mouths platitudes about “one, big, happy family,” while spectators look on. So much for the kind of photographs Edda is paid to produce. Within her professional work, Edda looks for other possibilities. And so, in the next shot, we see Edda talking to the elderly women, conversing with them about the social rituals of parties. In her official capacity, Edda conveys official trivia, performing a rote gesture that matches passive audience response. But in the space which she manages to open up a bit, Edda comes down off the stage to have a chat with the women.
Edda’s group got money for a photographic project, a female narrator’s voice explains, because there was pressure on the government to prove its interest in women’s issues, but also—and primarily—because this group applied for less money than any other. The women’s group executes two major projects in the film. They take a huge mounted photograph of the Berlin wall to a variety of places in the city, including the site photographed (creating a bizarre mise-en-abyme effect). The women also set up a curtain on one of the platforms from which West Berliners can gaze onto the East. The opening of the curtain enhances the act of seeing, as if the sight of East Berlin were indeed a spectacle to be eagerly consumed by the West. The women want, eventually, to execute a billboard project on a much larger scale. We are shown the various channels through which they must pass: encounters with businessmen who tell the women they’ll “be in touch”; a visit to a gallery opening in order to make contacts. The women’s project does not correspond to what its supporters and funders perceive as a worthy women’s project. For Edda and her group are concerned with images of the city, images of the fragmentation and possible connections between East and West Berlin. Edda imagines the “all-round developed socialist personality” who watches Western television, and so the “all-round reduced personality” is that self divided between East and West. For these women, a “woman’s perspective” means a way of seeing, and not just the objects seen, and so their project evolves from their perception of the links between East and West, from their perception of “chinks” in the Berlin wall.
Feminist theorists have always stressed that the division of life between the realms of private and public existence is a false dichotomy.14 Traditionally and historically, women’s sphere has been the private, the realm of family, home, and personal relations. And men’s sphere has been the public sphere of official work and production. But women have always worked, and men have always had a private sphere, and “private” and “public” are the ideological divisions which mask profound links. Once we understand that the private and public spheres are not so easily separated, there remains a difference in how the relations of the two realms are perceived. Links: these are the symptoms, the eruptions which lay bare the falseness of the division of experience into two opposing realms. And then there are integrations: the conscious work of producing connections, of examining those links in relation to one another. The women in Redupers perceive the links between East and West Berlin, links that are like those between private and public life. Indeed, the city of Berlin is emblematic in this sense. And for these women, photography is a means of creating integrations.
Redupers begins with a lengthy tracking shot of the city of Berlin, showing us the wall, buildings, and passers-by. The movement slows down at some points, and rounds a corner, making clear that we are observing the city like tourists inside a moving car. We hear a variety of urban noises, like airplanes and cars, and we hear bits and pieces of radio programs in a variety of languages. This, then, is the public sphere of Berlin: detached voices speaking in different tongues, a wall that is as naturalized a part of the urban environment as office buildings and graffiti, and the constantly-moving perspective of a car in motion. For the moment, we are being transported by the camera; there is virtually no depth, only lateral and continuous movement. Similar tracking shots of the city reappear throughout the film like punctuation marks, removing us from the space of “fiction” and returning us to the anonymous public sphere. And this public sphere is also heard throughout the film via the radios which are a constant element of the sound track.
At a meeting of the women’s group, Edda shows a series of photographs that illustrate the similarities between East and West Berlin: an owner’s pride in his car, a subway, graffiti. As we look at these pairs of images, there is, indeed, nothing to distinguish the capitalist from the socialist public sphere. Although the question is asked in the film (somewhat ironically), whether the workers’ state changes much in the status of women, it would be mistaken to see Redupers as a film that seeks to underscore hopeless similarities between capitalism and socialism. The point, rather, is that the Berlin wall creates a false dichotomy between two entities united by their urban common denominator. Edda understands the wall as an ideological phenomenon—that is, as symptomatic of a mode of consciousness in which slashes and divisions are impenetrable, marking absolute and hierarchical differences. “Where does the wall have openings?” Edda asks, and she holds up a photograph of two apartment buildings on either side of the wall between which “full eye-contact is still possible.” Hence photography is, for Edda, a mode of discovery of the hidden connections between East and West Berlin.
The definition of the female photographer in Redupers might be understood as an attempt to define woman as subject of the cinema; that is, to identify woman as the active, looking subject rather than as the object of the male gaze. But the creation of such a female subject is not such a self-evident aim. For the cinematic “subject” is hardly a vacant spot ready to be occupied by women simply by the force of good will. We are familiar with the problems of a female positive hero, after all. Gertrud Koch points out that for too long, feminist criticism has ignored the question: why do women like movies? Feminist film critics, says Koch, “have analyzed female film myths, likewise the relations of these myths to male fantasies, as well as the male producers and consumers of these myths. There have been however very few methodical attempts to explain how female spectators might deal with these myths.”15 Koch calls for an understanding of female subjectivity rooted in the female aesthetic experience, shaped by “women’s work”—the production and reproduction of the rhythms of everyday existence. “Such an orientation in female labor leads to an aestheticization of women’s everyday existence.”16
If woman is subject in Redupers, then it is in terms of what Koch calls the “aestheticization of the everyday.” But this aestheticization is more appropriately understood as female narration. For the city of Berlin becomes, for the women, a huge apartment just waiting to be tastefully decorated. Billboards become picture frames containing the city’s equivalent of family photographs. Curtains transform the gaping space of a platform into a window, so that looking from west to east imitates the conditions of looking from inside to outside. The curtain project is another form of integration, in which conditions of perception of the private sphere are transported to the public sphere. There is a moment in the film where Edda pulls back the curtains in her apartment to look outside, a gesture that matches the pulling back of the curtains on the platform to reveal East Berlin. Thus, by producing certain conditions of perception, the women become storytellers.
Some of the implications, as well as the problems, of such female narration can be gauged by considering Redupers in relationship to another text that is concerned, in different ways, with women and the city, with the links of private and public, with image and subjectivity. This is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The most striking point of connection between these two films is not, however, their overall thematic and formal concerns, but rather the posters which “advertise” the films, as it were; or, better, which condense them.
In the image of Godard’s film, Marina Vlady’s face stares at me semipassively, a very slight smile beginning to turn up the corners of her mouth. Her face is framed by a collage of words and images: three different types of Ajax cleanser, women’s legs from an ad for one product or another; a brassiere, panties, and so on. The image of woman, Vlady, is flattened out and equated with the products of consumer society. All of these objects “summarize” the film in that their arrangement imitates the collage-like structure characteristic of Godard’s film. And these objects recall, as well, a specific scene in 2 or 3 Things . . . , the final image of the film in which a group of boxes and packages, all of consumer products, form a miniature city set against the grass. We also see in the poster images drawn directly from the film: Juliette Janson with her child, a woman emerging from her bath, and finally, the American man who films Juliette and another prostitute in his hotel room. This is the only man depicted in the poster. He bears a remarkable resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard, the director, whose voice whispers commentary throughout the film. The man also looks at me, his eyes partially concealed by dark glasses, and his look thus a return of the look of Marina Vlady.
Sander’s face is portrayed in close-up in the Redupers poster, and it too looks at me. But even though her head is at virtually the same angle as Marina Vlady’s, this look has a wry expression, as if Sander were about to shrug her shoulders. To the left of Sander’s face is the Berlin wall, on it written in graffiti-like script the same words which are the opening title of the film: “Berlin im Marz 1977.” Running the entire length of the wall is a curtain, like that of the women’s project. And on the right of Sander’s face is a building, perhaps one of those buildings from which eye contact with the East is possible. A small triangle of sky is visible, and the wall and the building meet at an invisible vanishing point obscured by Sander’s head.
Because of the striking resemblance between these two posters, the differences between them make it seem as though a positive image is being held up to a negative film strip. Marina Vlady, in the 2 or 3 Things . . . poster, is nothing but image, flattened out to the same surface as Ajax boxes and brassiere ads. But this is nonetheless an image that looks; that has a gaze. All of the faces surrounding Vlady draw attention, by virtue of their own eyeline direction, to her look. All the faces but one, that is: the lone man. This “bearer of the look” (to use Laura Mulvey’s phrase) suggests that if the image of woman looks, it looks through the mediation of the male.17
What then to make of the absence of any such return of the look in the Redupers poster? We surely cannot be so naive as to assume that the male gaze has simply vanished from this film (and even if such a utopian state of affairs were possible, we would still have to account for how films are received according to certain conventions). Nor can we permit ourselves the even more naive assumption that this is “woman as woman” and not “woman as image.”
Both posters signify an urban environment, 2 or 3 Things . . . by a proliferation of signifiers, Redupers by a sparseness of them; 2 or 3 Things . . . by the products of consumer society, Redupers by the space of the city. I know that Sander is not “really” standing in front of that vanishing point, just as I know that there is no curtain on top of the Berlin wall. But the “screen” against which this image of Sander is projected has depth. I look into this image, and Sander’s look returns my look to me. Whereas in the 2 or 3 Things . . . poster, there is no looking into; there is only the return of the look. If Godard’s Juliette bathes in a consumer society from which the only critical perspective possible is the return of the (male) look, Sander offers us another possibility: the identification of the female look as mediation between viewer and imaginary space of the screen; the identification of woman as narrator. No wonder that the officials in Redupers are perplexed that these women photographers do not produce photographs of other women, but rather of the cityscape. For what is at stake is the disengagement of the female look from simplistic and deterministic definitions of woman as object of the male gaze. And no wonder, too, perhaps, that when I first saw the Redupers poster I unthinkingly assumed that this was an image of a young man.
Hence this poster for Redupers suggests, in skeletal form, the possibilities of female narration. At the beginning of Redupers, with the tracking shot that moves us through the city, the movement of the camera assumes the function of narrator. This is a kind of anonymous narration, a tourist’s view. But in the course of the film, with the repetitions of tracking shots to signify the public sphere of the city, this narrative function is redefined. For the tracking shots are, most often, accompanied by the voice of the female narrator. The female narrator is a voice as unanchored in time and space as the numerous radio voices we hear throughout the film. Radio voices insinuate themselves into the spaces and cracks between everyday activities; radios allow you to go about your business and still be an informed citizen. The voice of the female narrator also insinuates itself into the cracks of everyday life. But radio voices are reducible to a single institutional voice; not so of the female narrator.
The female voice has several functions in Redupers. It personalizes the tracking shots of the city, describing the history of the women’s group and the strategies the women have to use to get their project funded. The voice also functions as a narrator in the strictest sense of the word, when it introduces and summarizes scenes: at an anti-rape demonstration, for example, the voice explains that Edda does not think that enough of her socially-conscious photographs are purchased. In this sense, the female voice is a third-person narrator, an authority that perceives events from without.
Yet one can hardly resist perceiving the female voice as a first person narrator as well, even though it is somewhat beside the point to ask whether this voice is inside or outside of Edda. For this is a voice which narrates from both inside and outside; a voice which is simultaneously “we” and “they.” In the same vein, the female voice gives “objective” information, but also slides off into other registers. Over a series of still photographs of a conference that Edda is photographing, for instance, the voice says: “For years Edda had been struck by the following: that the aesthetic imagination was the passion for things alien. The sorrows and fortunes of others, the fate of a leather ball. Passion for that without meaning. One should at least be able to choose freely those things alien.” Here the voice articulates fantasies and desires repressed within the single image. And the voice also articulates another kind of repressed: in the same sequence, it describes in detail Edda’s monthly income and expenses.
The female voice is also a quoting voice, referring to literary and cinematic sources. Surely the most striking quotation in Redupers occurs when three small screens appear, one after the other, over the image of a newspaper. In each screen we see a segment from a woman’s film: a close-up of a woman from Ursula Reuter-Christiansen’s The Executioner (Denmark, 1972); the beach scene from Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who . . . (U.S.A., 1974), in which man, woman, and child rearrange themselves as if for a series of snapshots; and a kitchen scene from Valie Export’s Invisible Adversaries (West Germany, 1976) in which a woman cuts up a fish and insects and opens a refrigerator to reveal a baby inside. These are films concerned, like Redupers, with the juncture between narrative and the everyday. The only sound heard during the segment is the female voice which announces: “Obsessed by daily life as other women see it.” The voice continues and quotes a “letter” from “Aunt Kate Chiemnajewski,” a letter which contains the kind of fragmented logic typical of such forms of correspondence, as well as of, one might say, dreams:
Dear Edda, Please don’t stop showing women and the problems they have with their tyrant men! Tyrants are even worse in old age! They drive everyone meshugge! Your father sent Hatschi a good book written by a doctor from Berlin. We are both reading it. And Karlemann sent us one of his poems. He wrote it during the war, in Russia. He was thinking of your mother, Erika. The sun is shining into my room, but it rains a lot. Makes me sad, somehow. You can always call us, also at night. Please write soon, or phone. Love and kisses. Yours, Aunt Katherine.
This sequence functions as a formalized analogue of sorts to the previous sequence, in which Edda works on photographs and listens to the radio. Here there is a similar juxtaposition of image and official news. The newspaper becomes an object read virtually between the lines. And the miniature movie screens recall the billboards which the women want to cover with their photographs of the city. The function of the narrator is both to name the link between the three film sequences, and to make a further connection between these images and the activity of letter-writing—a connection which again brings to mind letter-writing as a pre-aesthetic realm that gave women entries into literary production.18 Image-making and letter-writing: both activities are defined as the forms of reading central to female experience, forms of integration. And perhaps most important, the narrator becomes, at the same time, a reader: the female voice performs two functions at once, thus taking the consolidation of “first person” and “third person” to another level, condensing the narrator within the text with the reader outside of it.
Voice-over narration is quite common in the cinema, and is in particular associated with documentary film. But the female voice in Redupers is no authoritative commentator, aiding the image-track in the revelation of truth. Rather, the voice emphasizes the plurality of truths, the proliferation of perspectives that are possible. The female voice in Redupers exists as an ungrounded presence, emanating from a number of sources, none of them privileged as the center of the film.
So too is the overall narrative structure of Redupers characterized by a proliferation of possible centers, rather than by a hierarchy of concerns. The seeming open-ended nature of Sander’s narrative suggests connections with her compatriots of the New German Cinema. But can Sander really be adequately situated by evaluating the project of Redupers as an “application” of the lessons of the New German Cinema to “women’s issues”? Such an approach reads something like those analyses of social class which, in order to pay lip service to the women’s movement, add: and all of this applies, of course, to women, too.
Rather, the “open-ended,” fragmented narrative structure of Redupers follows from the position of the female voice. And the relevant context here is women’s writing. We might turn again to Christa Wolf. The final words spoken in the film, over an image of Edda walking into the distance, are from an essay by Wolf on diaries:
I don’t want to go any further. Anyone who asks about a person’s diary must accept the fact more is concealed than said. It was not possible to speak about plans, clearly set forth in the diary, that have arisen, been changed, dropped again, come to nothing, or were carried out, unexpectedly suddenly there, complete. And it wasn’t possible to bring into focus through strenuous thought the stuff of life that was very near in time. Or the mistakes made in trying to do this. And, of course, no mention of the names that appear once or more often in the diary.19
For Wolf and for Sander, the diary form is hesitant. It is informed by the asking of questions (rather than by “exclamation marks,” says Wolf). As a narrative structure, the diary-form collects hypotheses and creates fragments—paragraphs or scenes—in which ideas are tested. For Wolf, the diary is “training, a means to remain active, to resist the temptation to drift into mere consumption.”20 This is not quite the diary form of some avant-garde filmmakers, in which the authority of the narrator is assumed.21 Within the context of women’s filmmaking, the appropriation of the diary-form is a way of slowing down cinematic perception, a way of resisting the momentum of film as a panorama of “miniatures.” And through the diary-form, fundamental questions concerning women’s relation to aesthetic experience are formulated. Women’s cinema is inscribed within a tradition defined by letters and diaries. Indeed, B. Ruby Rich, in her analysis of the categories of women’s cinema, places Redupers in the category of a “cinema of correspondence”: “Looking to literary history, we find a concern with the role played by letters (‘personal’ discourse) as a sustaining mode for women’s writing during times of literary repression. . . . A cinema of ‘correspondence’ is a fitting homage to this tradition of introspective missives sent out into the world.”22 Redupers can be seen as a kind of notebook of work in progress. Wolf’s comments on the diary as a form of collection are relevant here: “The diary collects material, anecdotes, stories, conversations, observations of people, towns and landscapes, extracts from books, new commentaries, new words and expressions, names. But it is not obliged, on the contrary it takes care to avoid, coming to hasty conclusions.”23
If the narrative structure of Redupers imitates the diary-form, suggested as well is the importance of a narrative form close to the rituals of everyday life. Because diaries are “personal,” they might seem to have closer links to the everyday lives of women than other narrative forms. But the very term “everyday life” is no more self-evident than the term “subject.” And one of the projects of Redupers is, precisely, an examination of the narrative implications of the gestures and rituals of the everyday.
Particularly interesting in this respect is Edda’s visit to the aikido studio. The narrator says in voice-over that “at age 34, Edda decided to do something for her body. She is taken by the beauty of the movements and decides to learn aikido.” Edda seems a passive observer in the studio. First she watches an advanced student, and then other beginning students. The narrator explains: “But in three months she was able to participate only five times. Tonight she decides to give it up.” Edda’s lack of participation in her aikido class has less to do with those stereotypically-female responses of intimidation and passivity, than with a resistance to any form of physical activity which does not somehow connect with other threads in the fabric of everyday life. The movements of aikido are indeed beautiful, but they represent an aesthetics radically other than Edda’s own creative framework (and the narrator emphasizes that aikido is a fad brought to West Berlin via the USA). Shortly after this scene, Edda performs a different kind of physical activity. Having returned home from a middle-of-the-night assignment in the early morning, Edda drinks coffee and listens to an East Berlin radio broadcast. A song about West Berlin comes on the air, and Edda bounces up and does calesthenics in time. This is hardly the disciplined movement of aikido, but it is a kind of play that is yet another form of integration with the complex rhythms of Edda’s life.
The activities of everyday existence are, after all, those rituals and actions that hold things together. “Everyday life”: the phrase immediately evokes women’s work, like the preparation of meals, housework, child care—in short, work that produces links between the realms of private and public existence. If I say that the narrative structure of Redupers is informed by the rituals of everyday life, it is not because “experience” is more directly and more adequately represented than is usually the case through narrative conventions. Rather, Redupers is informed by a constant tension between narrative expectations and narrative possibilities, and the “links” of everyday patterns are transformed, in the process, into “integrations.” There is a basic displacement operative in Redupers, for some of the elements of traditional narrative, like character and plot, are suggested but elided. Hence Redupers raises questions, but never provides the answers to questions like: Will the group get its project underway? Will Edda and her lover, Werner (a shadowy figure in any case) stay together? Will Edda become a commercial success? Will East and West Berlin become one? Rather, the essence of narrative in Redupers is what is usually relegated to the margins of narrative: waiting, walking, figuring finances. Questions are posed, so that at least the conditions of conventional narrative are present; but the questions are suspended rather than answered.
The consequences of such an encounter, between narrative resolution and narrative suspension, are dramatized in a short story by Meridel LeSueur called “Fudge.”24 The narrator of the story is an adolescent girl who tries to put together the pieces of the shady past of an old woman named Nina Shelley. Nina Shelley lives alone in a small town and is the focus of people’s distrust and evil thoughts. In her youth, Nina had a romance with a young man, someone shot a gun, she was found in an abandoned shed, and the young man left town. The narrator recognizes, in these fragments of a story, elements that represent her own confusion about developing sexuality. “I could look right across the street and see her house that looked as if it did not enfold or enshrine, but carried a burden it could not name, written on all the low wooden gables, the glassy windows like a sneer and a grimace.”25 The narrator imagines that Nina Shelley is the keeper of a secret, a key which once turned will unlock treasures and give her a sense of who she is, and why. What the narrator expects from Nina Shelley represents, in dramatized form, what we expect from narrative: quite simply, answers to questions.26
I thought that when she had been a young girl that she might have stood in front of her mirror as I stood, letting down her hair, waiting for that fulfillment, as I waited too, and all the time walking amidst the malice that stood ready to ensnare her, and the defeat that was bred more deeply than she knew.27
When Nina Shelley invites the young woman to her house to make fudge, the narrator jumps at the chance, thinking that at last the secret of the old woman’s past will be divulged. But when, in the midst of making fudge, Nina begins to tell her story, it is a romanticized, sentimental, storybook romance. The narrator is left with no more clear idea of what really happened than when she entered the house. But she is left with something, and that is the sudden recognition that there are no simple truths to be unfolded, no single events which, once told, will suddenly illuminate and instruct. The adolescent girl who narrates the story is left with a different kind of story: not one structured by climaxes and secret pasts suddenly divulged, but rather one structured by the rhythms of making fudge. The mysterious past of Nina Shelley dissolves, but the gesture of making fudge remains, giving structure and resonance to the story. As the narrator begins to cry, “as if for my own lost life that had not yet begun and yet stood finished before me,” Nina Shelley makes an offering—not of truth or secrets, but just of fudge.28
Disappointment is articulated in “Fudge,” that narrative cannot reveal secrets and that this female narrator cannot assume a position of privileged knowledge. The story serves as an appropriate companion piece in this sense to William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” in which similar themes appear—an elderly woman, a small town, a mysterious past, a riddle to be solved. But in Faulkner’s story, the (male) narrator does acquire knowledge and an attendant position of authority by the conclusion of the tale. Not so in LeSueur’s short story, which thus stands as a reading against the grain of narrative authority. The narrator assumes that with just a few extra pieces, Nina Shelley’s past would be neatly constructed into an instructive story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This story is never told (“nothing happened” is what the narrator concludes). But this is no gaping hole between those old standbys, “art” and “life,” between fiction regulated by narrative conventions and “lived experience” that resists such neat boundaries. To be sure, the narrator learns that the fictions surrounding Nina’s past are lies. But another kind of narrative gesture takes their place, a different structure emerges: the rhythms of domestic work, of making fudge.
LeSueur’s story is an appropriate analogue to Redupers in this sense: “Fudge” unfolds the process at work in the film, a process whereby expectations of traditional narrative form are elided, and another kind of narrative takes its place. The narrative substance of Redupers is formed by events similar to Nina Shelley’s making fudge: makeshift calisthenics, a chat with elderly women at a state-sponsored party, a silent outing with a daughter; leaning against a print dryer to warm the back, ignoring a political tract because hands are too full. This is a narrative which, like Wolf’s diary, uses question marks rather than exclamation marks.
Female narration exists on a number of levels in Redupers: the female voice, sometimes intertwined with characters in the film, sometimes separate from them; the figure of Edda, who often assumes the position of narrator; and the work of photography itself understood as the creation of narrative perspective. Redupers explores the implications of female image-making as the working-through of possible connections between viewer and screen, between fragmented realms of experience.
I referred earlier to the poster for Redupers in which Sander’s face is depicted in close-up before a Berlin street that disappears in the distance. The concluding image of Redupers portrays Edda as she walks away from the camera towards such a vanishing point, while the female narrator reads Christa Wolf’s reflections on the diary. The narrator/Wolf’s words stress that in the diary, as in the film modelled on it, “more is concealed than said.” Redupers traces a process in which the possibilities of connection are revealed without the illusion of narrative self-containment. Redupers begins with a tracking shot of a cityscape accompanied by multiple voices. The film concludes with a long shot of a single figure walking into the distance, accompanied by a single female voice. There has been a distillation of elements, to be sure; and also a slowing-down of cinematic perception. The women in Redupers may question whether their billboard photographs of the city may ever be noticed amongst the publicity and advertising. But our perception of the public sphere of Berlin has been transformed, from the flat anonymity of a tracking shot to a still image representing depth; from the proliferation of voices to the single female voice that analyzes and reflects. The tracking shot and the proliferation of voices: these are the signs of a cinema of “miniatures.” But Redupers arrives at a point where image-track and sound-track query, along with Christa Wolf, the “secret of the third person.”
1. (1986; English translation, New York: Delta, 1970), trans. Christopher Middleton, p. 4.
2. In her study of the relation between feminism and the writings of Christa Wolf, Myra Love analyzes the status of film as an image “. . . used to evoke the connections among domination, manipulation and experimental impoverishment.” See “Christa Wolf and Feminism,” New German Critique 16 (Winter 1979), p. 36.
3. The Quest for Christa T., p. 170.
5. (1968): in The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories, New York: International (1977), trans. Joan Becker, p. 190.
6. Ibid., pp. 190-93.
7. Ibid., p. 192.
8. Ibid., p. 193.
9. I am borrowing a bit from Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the male gaze in narrative cinema, an analysis which proceeds from a definition of cinema as juncture of narrative and spectacle. See “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975).
10. The major contributions to these analyses have been in the English film journal Screen; see in particular Mulvey, ibid.
11. “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” Heresies 9 (1980), p. 74.
12. See “Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?” New German Critique 10 (Winter 1977), p. 133.
13. 91 min., black and white; directed and written by Helke Sander. U.S. distributor: Uni-Film.
14. See, for example, Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, New York: Penguin (1973).
15. “Female Sensuality and Its Love-Hatred of Cinema: Some Speculations on Past Joys and Future Hopes,” unpublished translation of “was ist und wozu wir eine feministische filmkritik?” frauen und film 11 (March 1977), pp. 3-9; p. 9.
16. Ibid., p. 15.
17. This brings to mind John Berger’s definition of the “surveyed male”: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision, a sight.” See Ways of Seeing, New York: Viking (1972), p. 47.
18. See Bovenschen, “Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?”
19. “The Diary: An Aid to Work and Memory,” in The Reader and the Writer, p. 75.
20. Ibid., p. 70.
21. B. Ruby Rich, in “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” says: “Of course, there is a tradition of ‘diary’ movies by men as well as women, but, significantly, the presence of Jones Mekas in most of his diary films—like that of Godard in Numero Deux—is of the filmmaker rather than the ‘man’ outside that professional role.” See p. 79.
23. “The Diary . . . ,” p. 70.
24. Originally published in Fantasy (Winter 1933); rpt. in Harvest, Cambridge, Mass.: West End Press (1977).
25. Ibid., p. 41.
26. One thinks, of course, of the hermeneutic code described by Roland Barthes in S/Z: “. . . the various (formal) terms by which an enigma can be distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense, and finally disclosed . . . “, New York: Hill and Wang (1974), trans. Richard Miller, p. 19.
27. “Fudge,” p. 42.
28. Ibid., p. 51.