Deliriously sumptuous and transgressive, Ulrike Ottinger’s world can hardly be confused with humdrum reality. Watching her films is like traveling through an undiscovered country of marvels, a journey alternately dazzling, infuriating, hilarious, and rewarding. Mongolian nomads, feral feminists, and Shanghai and Jewish culture rub elbows in this miniretrospective of a unique filmmaker who combines an outlaw’s spirit and an ethnographer’s eye with an artist’s sense of wonder.
Marked by a refusal of simple categorizations, Ottinger’s early films mix documentary and fiction, musical comedy, radical politics, and queer lust. Madame X (1977), her first feature, is an outrageously stylized, postmodern feminist pirate film in which an assortment of female types—a diva, a housewife, an outdoorswoman, etc.—drop everything to follow the leather-clad Madame X across the high seas in search of “gold, love, and adventure.” Short on plot, it meanders, but its unbelievable cheek is endearing.
More recent border scramblings include Exile Shanghai (1997), a four-and-a-half-hour documentary (screened in two parts) that chronicles successive waves of Jewish immigration to the legendary Chinese port city, from Sephardim arriving in the 19th century to the World War II refugees who flocked there; and Countdown (1991), about the final 10 days before German reunification in the director’s native city of Berlin.
If you can see only one Ottinger film, try Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989, also screening in BAM’s “Feminine Eye” series on January 31). The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press (1984) comes in a close second. Both star the incomparable Delphine Seyrig. In the former, she’s a cultivated lady anthropologist traveling on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where her companions include a renowned Yiddish tenor (Micky Katz), a German schoolteacher (Fassbinder regular Irm Herman), a campy all-girl klezmer trio, and a young girl in search of adventure. When, midsteppe, the train is halted by Mongolian tribeswomen on ponies who kidnap the female passengers, the journey assumes a new dimension. Visually splendid and emotionally resonant, with knock-out musical numbers, it’s both a lesbian epic and a love story between a filmmaker and her medium.