SEE IT BIG: EXTRAVAGANZAS! (Part One)
Saturday, December 18, 2021, 1:00 p.m.
1981, 126 mins. 35mm. Directed by Ulrike Ottinger. Screenplay by Ulrike Otttinger. Produced by Sibylle Hubatschek-Rahn. Cinematography by Ulrike Ottinger. Edited by Dörte Völz. Production design by Ulrike Ottinger. Costumes by Jorge Jara. Music by Wilhelm Dieter Siebert. Cast: Delphine Seyrig (Helena Müller), Magdalena Montezuma (Orlando), Eddie Constantine (Säulenheiliger), Albert Heins (Herbert Zeus).
Essay by Michael Koresky, Film Comment, March 2020
“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” A meaty, provocative remark, and an idea that feels summative when uttered in the final movement of Freak Orlando, one of Ulrike Ottinger’s pleasurably disreputable bits of historical and narrative blasphemy. In her cinema, as well as her photography, Ottinger interrogated standard definitions of beauty and sexuality, and this 1981 epic of monumental irreverence climaxes with the public staging of an aesthetic role reversal. In the last of five incarnations, the constantly regenerating title character has become the chic “Madame Orlando,” the host of an outdoor contest in northern Italy crowning The Ugliest Person of the Year.
The competition, we learn, is organized by the Ugly People Society, founded in the 19th century to encourage the hopelessly unattractive to marry one another, and therefore maintain a highly subjective visual purity. Decked out in a black and red vinyl dress, and flanked onstage by the “Freak Orlando Bunnies,” Madame Orlando introduces a series of viable contenders—leather boys on crutches, dancing miscreants, working miners who have the gall to be in their late forties. There’s no emotional aspect to any of this, no identifiable frustration or response: as with so much of the film, the contest is mere pageantry, at once manic and highly structured. Is the sequence a celebration of Otherness, or a mockery of the celebration of Otherness, a representation of how difference itself is co-opted and commodified into faux-festivity?
Ottinger’s films are so dogged in their refusal to fit easy categories—even within cinematic subgenres that thrive on excess—that they’re unlikely to fully satisfy anyone looking for easy political directives. Though throughout her career Ottinger, a New German Cinema director who should be more of a legend of the movement, never hid her own lesbian identity, she often rejected queer labels for her own films, comparing such categorization as “being put in a little drawer.” As much of the work for which she is best known predates the creation of a communal queer cinema, this isn’t a surprising or unusual stance, one that would be shared by Chantal Akerman. The eternally heterodox Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have also bristled at seeing his films put in similar boxes had he lived long enough to see it: after all, he never had any interest in being a member of any group he didn’t himself found. Furthermore, Fassbinder’s aesthetic queerness seems as much a symptom or reaction to a national project of artistic and philosophical recuperation—a radical outgrowth of what he and so many other radical, sexually fluid filmmakers were trying to achieve in the New German Cinema: the decimation of longstanding boundaries between high and low, a confrontation with a recent history that their country seemed all too willing to ignore, and a reconstituting of the questions around gender and performance that were present in German art before being wiped out in the rise of Nazism.
Ottinger, the daughter of a Jewish mother who miraculously survived the war by being sheltered by Ottinger’s gentile paternal grandfather, made films that questioned all forced social standards and which only tangentially, symbolically dealt with the war. Her work has always unfairly existed in the shadows of the male filmmakers in the movement; rather than the confrontational melodrama of Fassbinder, the historical hysteria of Volker Schlöndorff, or the voluptuous kitsch of Werner Schroeter, Ottinger offered her own particular kind of excess, a tendency toward the baroque more focused on bodies and physical textures. In her book The New German Cinema, Caryl Flinn writes of Ottinger as an essential figure of the movement’s tendency toward camp, which she says has been traditionally and wrongly considered the purview of male filmmakers: “Constructing camp as only a gay male phenomenon . . . feeds on the clichéd belief that only gay male culture is visible, or ‘out.’ Lesbianism is somehow tucked away in hard-to-find interior spaces of all-female clubs or feline-occupied homes.” It’s provocative to think of her work in this way as a kind of “lesbian camp”—which is how her 1978 debut feature Madame X, a gay female pirate pageant, has often been spoken of. Her frames, which can contain pleasure and horror, beauty and grotesquerie in equal measure, seem to exist out of time, condensing and collapsing eras, even centuries, into a kind of free-floating operatic excess. This timelessness is a powerful tactic in a cinematic movement for which recent national history was impossible to reconcile with or quantify. In the light of what happened in Germany in the middle of the 20th century, how can history itself seem like anything other than backward? And how can one represent the forward progression of time without a jaundiced eye?
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is a fitting source of inspiration, then, for Ottinger; it’s a work in which time is fragmentary, bendable, and entirely theoretical. Its title character is a figure of radical physical and emotional bearing, able to shift genders over the course of history, from Elizabethan England to the postwar England of the ’20s, when the book was published. Any screen incarnation of the character would have to be necessarily distanced and metaphorically evoked, as in Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation with Tilda Swinton, a film both extravagant and tightly corseted at once; Potter’s movie, shuttling ahead breathlessly through epochs, maintained Woolf’s largely linear structure, at least up until Woolf’s remarkable, time-collapsing final chapter. For Freak Orlando, Ottinger takes the basic ideas of the character’s malleable gender and apparent time traveling—or perhaps immortality—as a literary anchor point, rather than as a literal narrative basis. This version of Orlando—wielded like the mythical figure of 20th-century queerness that Woolf’s character has become—is not concerned with the idea of progress or forward motion; Ottinger jumps around to different time periods, giving the sense of history all happening at once rather than in a straight line.
Freak Orlando is the second in what is often referred to as Ottinger’s “Berlin Trilogy,” after 1979’s Ticket of No Return, which uses a variety of distancing techniques, like clinical voiceover and stylized tableaux, to neutralize what might have seemed like an emotional, melodramatic story—a beautiful woman, played by Ottinger’s former lover, Tabea Blumenschein, who decides to drink herself to death. There followed the perhaps even more baroque Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, a 1984 sci-fi parable that references Oscar Wilde’s legendary narcissist to create a deliriously queered satire on celebrity culture and capitalism, featuring the androgynous model Veruschka von Lehndorff in the lead role. Perhaps the most excessive in form, the five-part Freak Orlando functions as a catalogue of impieties with a collage-like feel, flamboyantly juxtaposing mythology, historical spectacle, and contemporary consumerist critique.
Read the entire essay at Film Comment.
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