The White Masai

Goethe Institut Festival of German Films Australia
April, 2006

Women were more powerfully represented in front of the camera than behind it at this year’s Festival of German film which was held in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra at the end of April. “Strong women” was a designated theme for the festival with tragi-comedies and love stories predominating. Two of the films screened were made by women, and unfortunately these were among the most problematic. The first, Die weisse Massai (The White Masai, Hermine Huntgeburth, 2005), is a curious generic hybrid that could be described as a socio-anthropological love story. The film details a romance that develops between Carola (Nina Hoss), a bourgeois Swiss woman who visits Kenya on holiday, where she meets Limalien (Jacky Ido), a Samburu warrior. He comes to her rescue when she and her husband-to-be are robbed. Carola is mesmerised by the warrior and haunted by his image. She decides, rather swiftly, to abandon her partner and treks through the desert to find the warrior and live with his tribe’s people.

The director’s background in documentary is conspicuous in this film. Even though much of the travelogue footage of the African desert is breathtaking, Huntgeburth has immense difficulty working within a narrative framework. Little insight is given to the psychological development, plausibility and motivation of the film’s protagonist. Carola gives no consideration of how she, as a Western entrepreneur, completely ignorant of tribal custom, will adjust to tribal life. She is a naïve character who brings Western values and expectations to tribal society and her marriage. Scenes of animal slaughter, the gendered division of labour, the virtual segregation of the sexes and the subordination of women to men are all cause for affront for Carola. And to make matters worse, she contracts malaria.

Carola’s move to Kenya and marriage to Limalien appear to provide protracted opportunity for showing fetishistic images of tribal bodies and rituals. Considerable attention is devoted to highlighting the socio-sexual mores and rituals of the tribe’s people. Their customs are for the most part presented in patronising terms, linking this culture to primitive savagery. Disturbingly, the film’s cinematography evokes the photographs that Leni Riefenstahl took of the Masai when she was living in Kenya, trying to re-establish herself after her career as a filmmaker during the Third Reich.

Two of the most embarrassing segments in The White Masai revolve around the marriage scene and others that show Carola’s efforts to profit from tribal society. In the first, Carola wears an ornate white wedding gown and veil to the marriage ceremony, where revelers engage in tribal dance and festive ritual. She watches the celebrations with glee: placed centre of frame and illuminated by the light of a campfire, she is the focus of the ceremony and is elevated above the tribal woman who sit at her feet. Here Carola’s demeanour and costuming align her ostentatiously with the Virgin Mary.

Later in the film another cumbersome segment sees Carola open a lucrative food and produce store for the benefit of the locals. Cultural difference registers in decidedly patronising terms: the once proud warrior husband is emasculated by his wife’s business venture, and she decides to return to Switzerland with their young daughter, leaving behind an ill-conceived marriage beleaguered by cultural difference.

The second feature directed by a woman and screened during the festival came from Doris Dörrie, a filmmaker whose profile has gone steadily down hill since the run-away success of her low-budget comedy, Männer (Men, 1985). After directing Men, Dörrie was lured to Hollywood where she accepted the challenge of making a film about a man with a talking penis, perhaps one of her less illustrious career moves.

Dörrie is certainly a prolific filmmaker: throughout her career she has maintained her interest in making ambiguous quasi-comical love stories. The calamitous Der Fischer und seine Frau – Warum Frauen nie genug bekommen (The Fisherman and His Wife – Why Women Never Get Enough, 2005) is her latest feature – an even more lamentable comedy than any of her previous flops. The film has a laboured narrative structure that revolves around a couple that enter into a marriage that becomes strained because of the ambition of the wife, Ida (Alexandra Maria Lara), and the resignation of the husband, Otto (Christian Ulmen).

The Fisherman and His Wife

Throughout the course of the film, upheavals in the couple’s relationship are mirrored by a pair of fish kept in a tank in the couple’s home. The parallels are emphatic, as the fish, one male, one female, are able to talk – they bicker just like the married couple. When Otto and Ida’s relationship starts to deteriorate, the fish also under go a separation, with one of the fish jumping out of the tank in frustration over his partner’s nagging.

Marital discord intensifies, as Ida becomes an internationally famous fashion designer who sells hideous clothing with Japanese motifs to a rapturous Japanese designer market. She becomes even more ambitious and increasingly materialistic with her newfound wealth. As underscored in the film’s title, Ida is the woman who “can never get enough”, and accordingly she prioritises her career over caring about her child and husband. Otto, by contrast, is accepting of his misfortune when his business – importing and exporting rare Japanese ornamental fish – falters. He is content to stay at home at home and look after the couple’s young son, a duty his wife neglects.

In her 20 odd year filmmaking career, Doris Dörrie appears to be fixated on depicting unhappy marriages on the brink of collapse (Men, Paradies [Paradise, 1986], Geld [Money, 1989], Keiner liebt mich [Nobody Loves Me, 1994], Bich ich schön? [Am I Beautiful, 1998]). Her films are populated with bored and usually affluent married couples, many of whom stray into adultery. The female characters in her films are usually superficial, flawed and selfish. They have little psychological depth and barely any redeeming features, so that one doesn’t greatly care about what happens to them. Their acquisitiveness and self-centredness usually jeopardise their marriages and alienate their husbands, who nevertheless pine for marital harmony.

Many of Dörrie’s films purport to be comedies of the sexes, yet their dubious investment in gender politics makes them anything but humorous. They verge on misogyny with their heavy-handed depictions of the destructive impact of female ambition and materialism on marriage. Too often, as with The Fisherman’s Wife, female protagonists only find salvation (and contentment) when they renounce materialism, ambition and any worldly aspirations to embrace a rigidly conservative definition of the role of mother/wife.

Other films shown in the festival show far greater empathy for and insight into women, their aspirations and tribulations. Andreas Dresen’s Sommer vorm Balkon (Summer in Berlin, 2005) is a modest chick-flick that is free of the clichés and gender polemics that plague Dörrie’s last film. Set in East Berlin during a heat wave, the film portrays the relationship between two women: Katrin (Inka Friedrich), a 37 year-old single mother and her neighbour, Nike (Nadja Uhl). At night, the women sit together eating and drinking wine on Katrin’s balcony, amusing one another with their reminiscences and asides about love and relationships. The performances of the two leads are dexterous, engrossing and memorable.

Katrin’s status as an unemployed West German, and East German Nike’s employment as an aged care worker, tending to isolated geriatrics in the national capital, marks an inversion of the harsh economic reality of life in the Federal Republic. Nike’s vocation nevertheless provides opportunity for the introduction of a series of striking cameo performances from elderly ensemble actors. These include a series of poignant, and finely rendered scenes that avoid stereotypical cinematic images of the aged that depict them as lunatics who are either a) eccentric in a harmlessly regressive and endearing way, or b) haunted by some dark secret that provides opportunity for heavily stylised flashbacks, oozing with ambience and menace. In Summer in Berlin the cast and cameos are treated with humane tenderness, respect and compassion, imbuing the film with a documentary veracity. The comedy and tragedy of every day life in a supposedly unified Germany are fore grounded with panache and a lucid eloquence.

Dresen shows his East German roots in this production, drawing on the tradition of Socialist Realism so favoured in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). That practice often entailed placing fiercely independent and resilient women at the centre of dramas, sometimes making them emblematic of the accomplishments, challenges and aspirations of the Socialist State.

Dresen, a young, accomplished filmmaker, directed the ebullient and critically acclaimed 2002 comedy, Halbe Treppe (Grillpoint). The script for his latest film was written by one of the former GDR’s most esteemed filmmakers, Wolfgang Kohlhasse, whose career was interrupted when he was blacklisted for making films too provocative for the old Socialist Party in the East. Kohlhasse has been involved in the film industry for some 50 years, yet as one critic remarks, his script for Summer in Berlin is “so fresh and complex, and above all, so true” one would actually expect it to have been written by a “thirty something” year-old woman. (1)

Barefoot

Commercially viable and critically acclaimed directors Till Schwieger and Helmut Deitl were represented at the festival with love stories this year, with Vom Suchen und Finden der Liebe (About The Looking For And Finding Of Love) and Barfuss (Barefoot) respectively. Dietl is renowned for his larger than life characters in opulent comedies like Rossini oder Die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schlief (Rossini or the Murderous Question of Who Sleeps with Whom, 1996) and his earlier scurrilous feature Schtonk! (1992). This farce, about the forging of the Hitler diaries and the scandal that surrounded their serialised publication in Germany in the early 1980s, was one of the most successful films of the decade at the German box-office.

Til Schweiger is an equally bankable filmmaker with a series of extremely popular features to his credit, such as the cult film, Männerpension (1996, as director), Knocking on Heaven’s Door (1997, as writer) and Der bewegte Mann (A Most Appealing Man, 1994, as actor). Schweiger resurfaces in the lead role in the festival favourite, Barefoot, an offbeat romantic comedy that he also directed and scripted. He plays the character of Nick, who is something of a disgrace to his affluent and status conscious family. When he takes a menial job in a psychiatric clinic, he encounters Leila (Johanna Wokalek), a fragile and impressionable patient. She develops a fixation on Nick, and when he is fired from the clinic, she follows him. The pair embarks on a journey that provides ample opportunity for Leila to engage in whimsical discovery of the outside world and to commit a comic barrage of staggering social gaffes. Her delightful oblivion to social custom and decorum endear her to Nick and the pair fall in love. Barefoot is a more upbeat love story than many others included in the festival. It nevertheless makes the ironic suggestion that the only place love can be found in Germany is in a mental asylum.

The most harrowing feature in the festival this year was Der freie Wille (The Free Will, Mathias Glasner, 2005), an unrelenting production about a rapist, Theo. Jürgen Vogel portrays this character as a superlative portrait of the torment Theo suffers and inflicts on others. Glasner spent years researching sex offenders and those that try to help them. Lead actors worked with the director on the script, and are often left to improvise scenes.

Scenes of graphic sexual violence are presented throughout this gritty realist film. When Theo leaves prison after serving a nine year sentence for committing a horrendously brutal rape, he struggles to curb his compulsion and come to terms with his fear of and violence towards women. Scenes are filled with menace, as Theo encounters isolated women in the street or alone in bars, all potential victims oblivious to the threat they face.

The Free Will

Theo manages to find some tenderness and love with Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), herself fearful of men after being sexually abused by her father. Vogel has previously worked, on occasion, as a comic actor, making his utterly chilling performance in The Free Will all the more impressive. But the director refrains from making any simplistic moral judgement about his protagonist’s dilemma and actions, suggesting that there is no easy solution or psychological rationale for the alarming psychopathology he represents.

Paradoxically, some of the strongest connections that emerge between the films in the 2006 festival occur when they are considered under the rubric of “strong women”. Two points deserve to be drawn, linking the constellations of female characters and their predicaments in this diverse range of films. Firstly, the women in the films screened are frail or impaired in some way. In Barefoot Leila is psychologically impaired and has been held in a psychiatric ward for some time. Summer in Berlin sees Katrin admitted to a psychiatric ward for acute alcoholism. The female protagonist in Appolonia – Margarete Steiff (Against All Odds, Xaver Schwarzenberger, 2005) is left a cripple after a childhood illness, and the lead character in Doris Dörrie’s film, Ida, is an emotional cripple. Carola on the other hand suffers a debilitating physical illness in The White Masai.

Secondly, the majority of these films are set elsewhere. Characters are displaced and/or are alienated from Germany. The Fisherman’s Wife sees protagonists meet in Japan: their respective businesses have their origins in, and are inspired by, another country. Almost Heaven (Ed Herzog, 2005) features a German country and western singer lost in Jamaica yet motivated to perform in Nashville. In The White Masai, Carola leaves her husband-to-be and decides to live a quasi-tribal life in Kenya.

What is it that these films are saying about German women and women in general? How can they be both impaired and simultaneously strong? The majority are displaced and they are presented as outsiders. They are commonly alienated people, and like the protagonist who joins a resistance group in protest over Nazism in Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, Mark Rothemund, 2005), they work from the periphery and from a position of social isolation. They are alienated from Germany or in Germany where they are loveless, or their love relations are threatened with disintegration. In so far as they are strong women, their strength comes from defiance and the adversity they face.

Endnotes

  1. “Neil Young’s Film Lounge. Cottbus Energie. Part 3”, 12 November 2005, accessed 7 September 2006.

About The Author

Leonie Naughton is a Fellow in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne and author of That Was the Wild East: Unification, Film and the “New” Germany, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002.